Honoring Strong Black Female Leaders and Mothers for Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, I have compiled a list of strong Black female leaders and mothers that inspire me in my line of work in childcare. I recall those luminous intellects with dependable spirits and courageous natures who impacted history and many lives. I recognize here the achievements of those who came before me and desire not to overlook their humanity.

Many forget that these women were mothers and wives who had (or have) to endure sacrifices that affected (or affect) their loved ones as well as themselves. These women broke color boundaries and drove history, all while accomplishing natural-yet-demanding motherhood.

Nina Simone

Activist and singer Nina Simone began singing at the age of three. From modest beginnings, performing at her local church, Nina went on to record over 40 albums, combining diverse styles, from gospel and blues to jazz and folk. She sang with a haunting vulnerability, her performances equally unpredictable as they were impactful.

She was a devoted civil rights activist who moved audiences as much with her music as with her words. Her seminal hit, Mississippi Goddam, now considered a classic, caused a backlash when released, which affected Simone’s ability to continue releasing music. But nothing could extinguish the flame of chilling humanity in her music.

Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, is a masterful musician. She is active on and off-Broadway as a singer, songwriter, actress, and composer.

Michelle Obama

It would be hard to discuss inspiring black female leaders without mentioning Michelle Obama. From her career as a lawyer to her public-sector and nonprofit work, Michelle was already an inspirational figure before her husband, Barack Obama, began his primary campaign.

Initially wary of her husband’s presidential bid and the potential ramifications it could have for her daughters, Obama struck a bargain with the president-to-be. In exchange for her blessing, he was to give up smoking.

From the start, she was a star in her role as First-Lady, employing her legal background to launch several important initiatives. These helped combat childhood obesity, expand and promote access to higher education, and empower young women through education.

Her daughters, Malia and Sasha, have always come first for Obama—when making important professional decisions, they have always been her first concern.

Toni Morrison

It would be impossible to discuss twentieth-century American literature without mentioning—without focusing on, even—Toni Morrison. Widely regarded as one of the most significant literary figures in history, Toni Morrison confronted the most challenging topics with pure poetry.

From Song of Solomon to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved, Morrison’s work reinvented Southern Gothic as Black Gothic. She used violence, horror, and the supernatural to frame slavery and the legacy of racism in America within the traditions of horror literature.

Just as her writing examined the nature of motherhood, Morrison was the mother of two sons, Slade and Ford, whom she raised on her own after her marriage ended in 1963. She was always very close with her children.

She later worked on children’s books with Slade, a painter, and musician who tragically passed away at 45 from pancreatic cancer. Her unflinching portrayal of slavery and racism and the poetry with which she depicts such subject matter set her apart as one of literature’s most unique and impactful contributors.

Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill has never been one to shy away from barriers. Through her rousing blend of soul and hip-hop, she paved the way for female musicians, rising as an influential, memorable rapper.

From her tenure with hip-hop group Fugees to her groundbreaking solo career, Hill established a sound that transcends genres. From Doo Wop (That Thing) to the heart-rending-yet-uplifting To Zion, Hill’s debut album swept the Grammy’s and took the music world by storm.

Despite the demands of a high-profile career as a solo performer, Hill put her role as a mother front and center. She has six children: Zion, Selah, Joshua, John, Sara, and Micah. As is evident in her lyrics, motherhood is a significant theme in her work, just as in her life.

Kathleen Collins

Poet, playwright, author, filmmaker, and civil rights activist Kathleen Collins achieved only modest recognition during her lifetime. Her stunning 1982 film, Losing Ground, never received a theatrical release and remained largely unseen until only recently.

Her daughter, Nina Collins, worked to restore the film, and in 2015, arranged for its reissue. Losing Ground, the first feature-length drama directed by an African American woman since the 20s has seen a resurgence of interest. It would have made film history if released during its time.

Revolutionary and personal, Losing Ground is the rare film that redefines what we think is possible within an artistic medium. Now, thanks to the work of her daughter, Nina, the world can finally see the solo cinematic work from a true visionary.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Njideka Akunyili Crosby is an artist who was born and raised in Enugu, Nigeria. At 16, she and her sister, Ijeoma, moved together to the US. In Philadelphia, she took a community college class in oil painting—and the rest is history.

She was initially torn between studying art and pursuing a career in medicine (like her parents). Eventually picking art, her breathtaking works employ distinct, almost superimposed materials and media to create an impression of two separate worlds merging.

Combining old photographs and magazine clippings from Nigeria with acrylics, charcoal, color pencil, and fabrics, Akunyili Crosby illustrates the dual-experience of being both Nigerian and American, nor the other entirely. Her art is a way of reconciling the two worlds she knows as home: her birth home in Nigeria, and the US, where she now lives with her husband, Justin, and their son, Jideora. 

These are just a few black women who inspire me. Everywhere throughout history, there have black women pushing boundaries, yet at the same time, being pushed into the background of historical understanding. What better time than Black History Month, then, to take a moment out to appreciate some of their tremendous accomplishments.

About Joy Maxwell

Joy Maxwell is an inspirational childcare consultant and former professor with over 20 years of experience in the education field and dual master’s degrees in Child Psychology and Multicultural Education. She founded Joy Maxwell & Co. and numerous childcare coaching courses dedicated to serving child care professionals and helping them achieve their dreams. Find out more on her website: https://www.joymaxwellandco.com/ or email: info@thejoyofchildcare.com

LA Weekly