Black women have long been operating behind the scenes, even shaping the English language, with breakout stars at times seizing everyone’s attention. You typically know them by one name: Beyoncé, Oprah, Michelle. But OZY is all about spotlighting the new and the next, and if you take a look at the dynamic women on the cover of today’s Sunday Magazine, you’ll see the emerging faces who have helped put Black women firmly in control of the culture in this wild summer of 2020. Whether it’s Kamala Harris’ selection as the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee, or the searing HBO show I May Destroy You, or eventhe “W.A.P.” music video, the influence of Black women is inescapable. In this spirit — and with a nod to OZY’s Emmy-nominated Black Women OWN the Conversation — today’s magazine takes a deep dive into the women defining our current moment.
Say it with us: Comma-la. Was that so hard? She’s the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee, the first woman of color on a national ticket, and a wellspring of enthusiasm — and cash — for a Joe Biden campaign that will need every ounce of her star power in an election that’s getting tighter by the day. Her laceration of Donald Trump on Thursday ahead of the president accepting the GOP nomination is a sign of what’s to come from a prosecutor whose skills are perfectly suited to make the case. Harris, 55, comes from Jamaican and Indian heritage, and before she rose through the San Francisco legal and political ranks, her identity was shaped at Howard University.
The show of the year in America is HBO’s I May Destroy You, a deep exploration of sexuality and race from the mind of Coel, 32, a British-Ghanaian rising talent who turned down $1 million from Netflix to keep a percentage of the show’s rights. Coel is the writer, co-director and star of the show, which follows the communal trauma of three best friends who have all experienced assorted forms of assault and sexual fraudulence. A college dropout plucked from performances in London cafés into drama school, her explorations of awkward reality are sure to fill your screens in the years to come.
A 14-year Centers for Disease Control veteran, this epidemiologist and family doctor ran a 2016 campaign to call out racism as a public health threat while she was president of the American Public Health Association. The warning has never been more urgent than right now, as the coronavirus disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities. Jones argues that these communities are more exposed and less protected. “Race doesn’t put you at higher risk,” she told Scientific American. “Racism puts you at higher risk.”
4. Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B
The summer song you can’t escape, from TikTok challenges to outraged hot takes, is the joyously vulgar “W.A.P.” by rappers Cardi B. and Megan Thee Stallion. Megan, a Houston native, has been rising on the hip-hop scene — even as she works toward a degree in health administration — but became a cultural flashpoint when she unflinchingly told the world she had been shot in the feet July 12 by rapper Tory Lanez, whom she was reportedly dating. South Bronx product Cardi, a former stripper and always provocateur, has become not only one of the dominant forces in hip-hop but a political and current affairs influencer with her massive social media platform.
5. Naomi Osaka
At 22, Osaka is the highest-paid female athlete ever for a single year, after pulling in $37 million in prize winnings and endorsements in 2019, many of them from brands in her native Japan. The tennis smash was born to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father before moving to the U.S. as a kid and going on to take the tennis world by storm, with her breakout U.S. Open title triumph over her idol, Serena Williams, in 2018. Osaka has been outspoken on race and social justice, including a surprise trip to Minneapolis to join the George Floyd protests. When she said she would sit out her match on Thursday in light of the unrest in Wisconsin, the WTA postponed all matches for the Western & Southern Open by a day — and Osaka agreed to take the court Friday, though an injury cost her a shot at the trophy.
The transgender Tobago native came to New York so she could be herself — but still fell on hard times. She was homeless and made ends meet with sex work, until she battled her way to success. Now Jackson, 45, is better known as Elektra Abundance on the hit show Pose and is breaking boundaries for Black trans women. Watch her on Defining Moments, brought to you by OZY and Hulu.
She told the British monarchy: Thanks but no thanks. Markle, 39, an African-American actress, married into the royal family in 2018 — but was continually skewered by the tabloid press and frozen out within the staid family. So she and husband Prince Harry ditched their titles, and with the “Megxit,” regained control of their lives. Now in California, the pair are pitching a top-secret Hollywood project and living a little less lavishly with son Archie.
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Megan Thee Stallion’s shooting sparked a rally of support within the music and entertainment industry, built around a phrase that — while not new — is now gaining unparalleled traction. You might have heard it when the bright young Nigerian-American activist Oluwatoyin Salau, who would have turned 20 on Thursday, was raped and killed in Florida in June. Or when activists were trying to bring national attention to their efforts to get justice for Breonna Taylor, shot dead by police officers in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky, earlier this year. Alongside #BlackLivesMatter and #AbolishThePolice, #ProtectBlackWomen is a fast-growing demand.
The urgency is new, with Black men in particular getting called out, but the sentiment is not. Check out this 1962 speech from Malcolm X: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
3. Take the S off the Chest
Part of the problem comes from Black women being cast in pop culture as pillars of strength. It’s a compliment, for sure, but being painted as superheroes can be draining for any mere mortal. As Jenn M. Jackson writes in Teen Vogue: “Over time, these dangerous stereotypes have contributed to reduced sympathy for Black people, called the ‘racial empathy gap,’ which assumes that Black people are able to withstand more pain than other racial groups.”
The data is clear: Black people are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, and are often the least able to take precautionary measures to stay away from it. That leaves Black women bearing the heaviest burden, as they grapple with both the pandemic and racial injustice. “We’ve taught our society that the oppression they can experience can kill them,” Mikki Kendall, an activist and author of Hood Feminism says on a special episode of OZY’s Black Women OWN the Conversation on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Tony McDade, a transgender man in Tallahassee, Florida, was shot dead by police two days after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis — making his case a part of the national dialogue. The violence that marked his final hours (McDade was viciously attacked by a group of men, then stabbed the son of his next-door neighbor to death, then was shot by police) was indicative of a larger trend. The Human Rights Campaign has tracked at least 26 trans or gender nonconforming people violently killed this year, most of whom are people of color. A toxic mix of racism, sexism, transphobia and access to guns can have deadly consequences.
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“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” That’s how the norm-shattering Chisholm went about her time in Congress, as the first Black woman elected to the House, before her historic 1972 bid for the White House. A founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, Chisholm leaves an extensive legacy and has been cited by Harris herself as an inspiration.
Lyrics about sex with married men, an album cover depicting her sitting on the toilet ... Jackson was the raw, tell-it-like-it-is forerunner to W.A.P.’s creators. An R&B singer who found success in the 1970s, she also was an early rapper, having started speaking between songs as a way to overcome stage fright. Her second life has come from being sampled by rap greats such as the Wu-Tang Clan.
The Black woman who has reached the highest summit in the U.S. government so far, Rice was a barrier-breaking Secretary of State and National Security Adviser under President George W. Bush. The Alabama native was talented, poised and humble on the global stage — so humble that she has not yet taken the plunge to run for high office, despite ample interest. Plus, she broke the ultimate barrier: donning the green jacket as one of Augusta National Golf Club’s first two female members.
So dominant in the culture they only need one name, these women are a persistent force, even as they’re now surrounded by emerging leaders such as those we’ve featured on today’s cover. Beyoncé’s remarkable visual album Black Is King dropped like a thunderclap last month; Michelle Obama delivered the most compelling speech of the Democratic National Convention; Oprah’s media empire is as strong and her voice as sharp as ever; and Serena Williams’ quest for a record-tying 24th grand slam title begins Monday at the U.S. Open as she continues to redefine her sport — and what powerful motherhood looks like.
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emerging from behind the scenes
1. Language Innovators
Mocking teenage girls for how they speak is, like, so last century, y’know? That's because reams of scholarship has emerged in the last few years documenting how young female linguists are actually leading language trends, not destroying them, with everything from the use of vocal fry to “uptalk” — the act of uttering declarative statements with an inflection at the end, as if they were a question. And once you consider the way Black culture mainstreams over time — from hip-hop’s introduction of the “hustle” referring to a side gig to “bougie,” as in an elitist — it's clear that Black women can be credited for much of our linguistic evolution over the decades. It’s no wonder that some of history’s greatest lyricists and writers are Black women, from Ella Fitzgerald to Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. And the cultural power of “W.A.P.” tells you all your need to know about the “browning” of American English by Black women.
Chadwick Boseman, whose shocking death from colon cancer at age 43 shook the world on Friday, may have been the on-screen king, but he frequently built up female co-stars in interviews promoting his landmark film Black Panther. And the hit 2018 movie catapulted Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright into Marvel universe stalwarts, while further boosting Lupita Nyong’o, who already had an Oscar under her belt.
For decades, Black women made Democratic Party politics run … but typically from behind the scenes. Donna Brazile managed Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. Minyon Moore was a close adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 and 2016 bids. Together with party stalwarts Yolanda Caraway and Leah Daughtry, they form a close-knit group whose regular D.C. dinners have shaped the paths of rising leaders like Barack Obama — they set him straight about the racial hurdles he’d face — and who helped pull the strings to get Kamala Harris onto the national ticket. “We know how to lead, we’ve been doing it for years and it’s time for us to get the credit,” Daughtry says on a recent episode of The Carlos Watson Show.
Coel famously turned down Netflix’s $1 million offer for I May Destroy You because the deal didn’t allow her to retain a cut of the copyright. But she’s hardly the only Black woman in Hollywood who’s making it big by staying in control. Insecure creator and star Issa Rae runs her own production company, Lena Waithe has transitioned from sidekick to creator on The Chi, Ava DuVernay directs blockbusters as well as searing miniseries on race. And, of course, Oprah. Osaka is getting in on the act with her endorsements too: She’s part owner as well as pitchwoman for BodyArmor, a sports beverage company.
As Black women are making more of a name for themselves in front of the camera, so too are they starting to — belatedly — populate Hollywood’s C suites. Nigerian-born Pearlena Igbokwe is president of Universal Television, the first African-American woman to head a major TV studio. “A lot of Black people in Hollywood still don’t have a huge network, but it’s growing,” says Igbokwe, one of a growing number of Nigerian-American heavyweights in Tinseltown.
But there’s a more troubling side to that influence. Because of their cultural force, Black women’s creativity is constantly being appropriated online by others. From simply dropping “yas queen” into a conversation or a post, to white TikTokers going viral on the backs of audio or music by Black women, it’s a phenomenon known as digital blackface. And it’s a reflection of a power structure — even in the supposedly democratic algorithms of TikTok and the woke era of 2020 — that remains seriously skewed against Black women, with roots in the minstrelsy of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The 28-year-old poet-turned-rapper from Chicago is making waves not only for her bars but for her books. Noname’s Book Club — tagline: “reading material for the homies” — is dedicated to lifting up the voices of the marginalized. Aside from rising hip-hop success, and a beef with superstar J. Cole, Noname is backing Black-owned bookstores and sending reading material to the incarcerated.
You've probably heard Savage, 40, arguably the biggest African female pop star at the moment, on the Beyonce album, Black is King. It’s her biggest collaboration to date, but Savage has teamed up with everyone from Whitney Houston to Mary J. Blige to Fantasia (earning her a Grammy nomination for songwriting). This week, she released her fourth album, Celia — a project with strong Afrobeats and R&B influences. And she’s become a fierce activist against Nigeria’s rape culture.
3. Ayanna Pressley
The only U.S.-born Black member of “The Squad” of progressive congresswomen, Pressley, 46, is also its best insider politician, scrapping her way up the ranks in Boston city politics before springing a congressional primary challenge on a longtime white male Democratic incumbent in 2018. She’s a compelling speaker who boldly bears her bald head to speak about her alopecia, and the sky’s the limit for her political future.
4. Danielle Geathers
MIT’s first Black female student body president in the school’s 159-year history is an aspiring mechanical engineer from Miami. But she might be able to teach today’s politicos a thing or two: Teaming up with running mate Yu Jing Chen, who had been organizing campus around immigration rights and census participation, Geathers ran a Zoom- and Instagram-led campaign during the pandemic, squeaking out a victory by 28 votes.