A Black Captain America Is Nothing New

As Americans watch events unfold on their television screens, stereotypical understandings of African Americans too easily shape our understandings of current events

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

If you’ve been paying any attention to comics recently, you probably know that Captain America is now black. (Even if you are not an avid reader, the new Cap has certainly drawn a good deal of attention in the wider media, too.) While the monetary motives behind Marvel’s decision to make such a dramatic change are not hard to guess—gin up some publicity, increase sales, set up the inevitable and lucrative return of the original Cap Steve Rogers down the road—the transition to a black Cap also reflects the continuing struggle with race in America today.

Such race swapping is hardly new to comics. The 1970s and 1980s saw this approach adopted at Marvel, where black versions of Iron Man, Goliath, and Captain Marvel appeared, while rival DC introduced a black Green Lantern. Comics have deployed this tactic with increased regularity since the 1990s as part of an effort to diversify their stable of heroes. In addition to (often temporarily) black versions of Superman, Captain America, Firestorm, and Mr. Terrific, the end of the twentieth century saw a Latino Blue Beetle and a Chinese Atom. More recently, DC re-introduced Wally West, the Silver Age Flash’s white kid sidekick, as an African American and Marvel debuted a new teenage version of Ms. Marvel: the Muslim American Kamala Khan. The new Captain America—Sam Wilson, previously The Falcon—is but the latest iteration of a decades-long pattern of diversity through race-swapping, an approach to multiculturalism that has often foundered, as Wilson’s history and current story arc suggest.

While Sam Wilson’s creators undoubtedly hoped that their new hero would challenge negative stereotypes of African Americans when he debuted in 1969, their presentation of the black hero struggled to escape other tropes of blackness in America. Grounded in Harlem—as so many black heroes have been ever since—Sam Wilson was raised by a minister and a social worker, positive role models to be sure, but still little more than stock black characters. And their positive influence was limited, too, as Wilson lapsed, again stereotypically, for a while into gang life after their untimely deaths. While he ultimately chose a more heroic path as The Falcon, Wilson has historically struggled to present something really “new” for blacks in American popular culture: a truly human and fully recognized character not defined by stereotypes, either positive or negative.

Also not new in the “new” Captain America is the ethnic replacement’s struggle to measure up to the original. Such a conflict is not new to Falcon: in the 1970s, when the original Cap briefly gained super strength, Falcon’s feelings of inferiority prompted him to get his by-now characteristic wings, the black man’s first effort to “measure up” to his partner. The new Captain America’s first appearances have already established how much he remains not equal to the original. In the current crossover series Axis, the new Captain America, like several other heroes, has been “inverted” into a darker version of himself: selfish, tyrannical, and violent to the point of echoing more Marvel’s anti-hero The Punisher than the patriotic hero whose shield he bears (and now uses to break the bones and faces of his opponents)! Even in the first issue of his own title—All-New Captain America—the new Cap falls short. His white sidekick Nomad handles the iconic shield with greater dexterity, and the issue’s foe, perennial punching bag Batroc the Leaper, chafes at fighting a hero he still sees as an “errand boy” and “sidekick.” This replacement’s inferiority will only be reinforced by the inevitable return of original Cap Steve Rogers to the role, an inferiority that only complicates if not frustrates the putative aims of putting a black character in this costume.

​The inability of Sam Wilson’s creators—and readers—to imagine him unconstrained by long-held stereotypes and tropes echoes a too familiar problem in the United States today as rioting erupts in places like Ferguson, Missouri. As Americans watch events unfold on their television screens, stereotypical understandings of African Americans—long projected by the news media and reinforced by comic book characters—too easily shape our understandings of current events. While it is convenient to divide the world into progressive, peaceful, and well-intentioned blacks on one side and violence-prone looters on the other, the world is more complicated than our media and popular culture portrays. Until Americans can transcend these over-simplified understandings of our racially vexed history and society, these struggles will likely continue and our superheroes will be unlikely to save us from ourselves.

Patrick Hamilton, Associate Professor of English, and Allan Austin, Professor of History & Government at Misericordia University are currently finishing a book on race and superheroes since World War II


Let’s Get Back to Black Power in 2015

From the set of Selma. James Nachtwey—Paramount Pictures

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

To cry racism immediately over Selma and other perceived slights is not Black Power, it’s Black Cower

There is a great deal of Black Power on view in Selma. There is little of it in the response to its Oscar nominations. Historians date the beginning of the Great Migration to 1915. That was some serious Black Power. Might we observe the centennial by getting re-acquainted with the proactive spirit that drove it?

It isn’t, for example, that Selma got no nominations: It was nominated for Best Picture. But because no actors in the film were nominated, nor was its director Ava DuVernay, racism is ever with us? But for the past 16 years, a person of color has always been nominated for an acting award. Plus, just last year, 12 Years a Slave, produced and directed by a black man, won Best Picture. In recent years, the Academy has granted Oscars to Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Halle Berry, Lou Gossett, Cuba Gooding, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer and Lupita Nyong’o. Try explaining to a child how that body of voters qualifies as “racist.”

If progress has been really happening with the Academy and race, then by sheer logic, the year had to come when acknowledging black achievement became so ordinary and accepted that even a black film ended up being sidelined by matters of glitz and chance. That is, one day black films would start occasionally getting ordinary – and thus imperfect – treatment: think Forrest Gump beating out Pulp Fiction. “Occasionally” had to start with a first time: this seems to have been it.

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper has a screwy glamor about it for assorted reasons. Some say Selma requires “acknowledgment,” but with 12 Years a Slave so recent, perhaps there was a sense that acknowledgment was less urgent so soon afterward? One may argue, but “racism”? Then also, the Oscar voters were sent the Selma screening copies late.

In 1915, the NAACP was protesting the savagery depicted in Birth of a Nation. A hundred years later, one black film isn’t being feted sufficiently by a notoriously shallow, silly awards ceremony, while still being warmly and urgently celebrated as a signature piece of art in media organs nationwide, and Al Sharpton convenes an “emergency meeting?”

I’m sorry, but this is not what people 50 years ago meant by keeping up the Struggle. The Struggle would mean raising a fuss if we saw a new pattern over time. To cry racism immediately over Selma is not Black Power, it’s Black Tantrum.

And that tantrum is a variation on a theme. For example, the NAACP filed a Civil Rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in 2012, which continued getting news coverage through last year. New York City bases admission to its most competitive three public schools on a test. Seeing that only 33 out of 3281 of these schools’ students were black in the 2013-4 school year, the NAACP has declared the tests “racist.”

So, Civil Rights, 21st century-style: If black kids don’t do well on a test, the solution is not to see how we can teach them to do better on it, as can be done. Rather, the higher wisdom is to call for the authorities to get rid of it, make it easier, make it optional, or at least make it count for much less.

But just imagine the whites who founded the NAACP in 1909 sagely declaring that black schoolchildren shall not be expected to pass tests. They would be gleefully held up as grand old racists today. How is this new vision of black intelligence any different? Try to pass the test or try to get rid of it? Black Power or Black Cower? People are watching, and no one respects weakness.

If someone says black people don’t work hard, Black Power does not assert that to even broach the issue is morally unforgivable: one presents counterevidence. Kanye West says we fight the Confederate flag by wearing one ourselves and saying “It’s my flag. What are you gonna do about it?” He’s right for a change: Black Power. Certainly some whites will say some shady little things about our President this year with racial undertones. But what’s more important, some movie executive supposing that Obama likes Kevin Hart (heavens what a slur!), or that as Obama said in his State of the Union, he won two elections? That — Black In Power, as it were — is more important than anything any right-wing talking head can come up with.

I think Dr. King would be perplexed that so often today, via a kind of ideological mission creep, black people have been taught to think of assertions of weakness as strength. He would be even more perplexed to see people who point this out labelled “conservative.” Black Power plows ahead, not backwards.

In 2015, can we please get back to it?

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 22

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Want to improve your bottom line? Diversify your workplace.

By Joann S. Lublin in the Wall Street Journal

2. Journalism shouldn’t be a transaction for communities. A local news lab can make it transformational.

By Josh Stearns in Medium

3. The spike of hysteria about artificial intelligence could threaten valuable research.

By Erik Sofge in Popular Science

4. A new vision for securing work and protecting jobs can ensure stability in the face of rising automation.

By Guy Ryder at the World Economic Forum

5. Purchasing carbon offsets is easy. With carbon ‘insetting,’ a business folds sustainable decisions into the supply chain.

By Tim Smedley in the Guardian

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 20

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Is America willing to do the hard work to mend its racial divide?

By Eric Liu in CNN

2. The first new antibiotic developed in 30 years could turn the tide against the rising resistance of many diseases.

By Brian Handwerk in Smithsonian Magazine

3. Adapting to climate change will buy time, but rising sea levels are a major threat to low-lying cities.

By Laura Parker in National Geographic

4. Is four years too much? More college students are jumpstarting careers by graduating early.

By Rachel Rosenbaum in USA Today College

5. The cargo ship of the future will have a hull that acts as a giant sail, slashing fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

By Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics in Phys.org

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Civil Rights

Selma Cast Marches in Alabama Ahead of MLK Day

Oprah Winfrey, director Ava DuVernay, actor David Oyelowo, and the rapper Common all attended

Oprah Winfrey and fellow actors from the movie Selma marched with hundreds Sunday ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, recalling one of the bloodiest chapters of the civil rights struggle. Their steps in tribute to King in Alabama came as key black members of Congress elsewhere invoked recent police shootings of young black men as evidence that reforms are needed to ensure equal justice for all.

Winfrey, a producer of Selma who also had a part in the film, joined in marching along with director Ava DuVernay, actor David Oyelowo, who portrayed King in the movie, and the rapper Common, who also had an acting role. They and others marched from Selma City Hall to the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where civil rights protesters were beaten and tear-gassed by officers in 1965.

“Every single person who was on that bridge is a hero,” Winfrey told the marchers before they walked up the bridge as the sun went down over the Alabama River. Common and John Legend performed their Oscar-nominated song “Glory” from the film as marchers crested the top of the bridge amid the setting sun.

Winfrey said the marchers remember “Martin Luther King as an idea, Selma as an idea and what can happen with strategy, with discipline and with love.” Winfrey played the civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper in the movie, which was nominated for two Oscars, in categories of best picture and best original song.

Selma chronicled the campaign leading up to the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and the subsequent passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Law enforcement officers used clubs and tear gas on March 7, 1965 — “Bloody Sunday” — to rout marchers intent on walking some 50 miles to Montgomery, the Alabama capital, to seek the right for blacks to register to vote. A new march, led by King, started on March 21 of that year and arrived in Montgomery days later with the crowd swelling to about 25,000.

Today, the Selma bridge and adjoining downtown business district look much as they did in 1965, though many storefronts are empty and government buildings are occupied largely by African-American officials who are beneficiaries of the Voting Rights Act.

Lisa Stevens brought her two children, ages 6 and 10, so they could walk the bridge that King walked. “I wanted to bring my children here so they can know their history and for them to participate in this walk,” said Stevens, who moved recently from New York to Greensboro, Alabama.

“It’s a part of their history and I think that they should know. Being that we’re in the South now I want them to understand everything that is going on around them,” she said.

McLinda Gilchrist, 63, said the movie should help a younger generation understand what life was like for those in the 1960s who sought to oppose discrimination. “They treated us worse than animals,” Gilchrist said of the treatment of the original marchers at the hands of white officers.

“It was terrifying,” recalled Lynda Blackmon Lowery, who still lives in Selma and was the youngest person to march there in 1965 as a teenager. Now a 64-year–old mother and grandmother, she spoke Sunday in New York of a harrowing experience of unarmed marchers going up against rifles, billy clubs and fierce dogs. She has since written a memoir, “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom.”

For Monday’s federal holiday, some were recalling King’s leadership in light of fatal police shootings that have recently shaken the U.S., including the death of an unarmed black teen last year in Ferguson, Missouri.

Eight members of the Congressional Black Caucus joined U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay at Wellspring United Methodist Church in Ferguson on Sunday as they invoked King’s legacy. They vowed to seek criminal justice reform.

“We need to be outraged when local law enforcement and the justice system repeatedly allow young, unarmed black men to encounter police and then wind up dead with no consequences,” the St. Louis Democrat said. “Not just in Ferguson, but over and over again across this country.”

Other King events planned Monday include a wreath-laying in Maryland, a tribute breakfast in Boston, Massachusetts, and volunteer service activities by churches and community groups in Illinois. In South Carolina, civil rights leaders readied for their biggest rally of the year.

King’s legacy also was being celebrated at the church he pastored in Atlanta. The current pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, said the annual King holiday is a time when “all of God’s children are busy spreading the message of freedom and justice.”

In the Sunday sermon, Professor James Cone of New York’s Union Theological Seminary urged Ebenezer’s congregation to celebrate the slain civil rights leader “by making a political and a religious commitment to complete his work of justice.”

Warnock closed the service by leading singing of the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Why I Have Mixed Feelings About MLK Day

Martin Luther King Jr.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking. Julian Wasser—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is also a celebrated author, filmmaker and education ambassador.

His legacy may be most in danger from those who admire him

I have mixed emotions about Martin Luther King Jr. Day. For me, it’s a time of hopeful celebration — but also of cautionary vigilance. I celebrate an extraordinary man of courage and conviction and his remarkable achievements and hope that I can behave in a manner that honors his sacrifices. And while Dr. King still has his delusional detractors who have a dream of dismissing his impact on history, it’s not them I worry about.

His legacy may be in more danger from those who admire him.

Why? Because it’s tempting to use this day as a cultural canonization of the man through well-meaning speeches rather than as a call to practice his teachings through direct action.

For some, the fact that we have Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a confirmation that the war has been won, that racism has been eliminated. That we have overcome. But we have to look at the civil rights movement the way we look at antibiotics: just because some of the symptoms of racism are clearing up, you don’t stop taking the medicine or else the malady returns even stronger than before. Recent events make clear that the disease of racism is still infecting our culture and that Martin Luther King Jr. Day needs to be a rallying cry to continue fighting the disease rather than just a pat on the back for what’s been accomplished.

History has a tendency to commemorate the very thing it wishes to obfuscate. When you convince people that they’ve won, they lose some of their fire over injustice, their passion to challenge the status quo. In Alan Bennett’s brilliant play, The History Boys, one of the teachers explains to his students why a World War I monument to the dead soldiers isn’t really honoring them but rather keeping people from demanding answers as to how Britain unnecessarily contributed to the cause of the war and is therefore responsible for their deaths. By appealing to our emotional sense of loss, the government’s monument distracts people from holding the hidden villains responsible. The teacher says, “And all the mourning has veiled the truth. It’s not lest we forget, but lest we remember. That’s what this [war memorial] is about … Because there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”

Kareem Abdul Jabbar Martin Luther King Jr Memorial
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington. Courtesy Iconomy, LLC

One of the major debates this year has been whether or not racism exists anymore in America. Not surprisingly, polls indicate that most African Americans say, Yes, it does exist, while most white Americans say it doesn’t. Blacks point to disproportionate prosecution and persecution of blacks by authorities, and whites point to President Obama and dozens of laws protecting and promoting minorities.

They are both right. There are plenty of laws and government agencies dedicated to eradicating racism. The U.S. has made it a priority. Affirmative-action programs have created more opportunities for minorities, sometimes at the expense of whites seeking those same opportunities. That should be acknowledged and appreciated.

But suppressing racism is like pressing on a balloon: you flatten one end and it bulges somewhere else. Racism has gone covert. For example, the Republican effort to pass laws demanding IDs to combat voter fraud is itself fraudulent and racist. It is a form of poll tax, which was outlawed by the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The poll tax was designed to keep blacks from voting, as is the voter ID. It costs money and time away from work, which is too great a burden for the poor, many of whom are minorites. The justification given is to stop voter fraud. However, a recent study concluded that out of 1 billion votes cast, there have been only 31 incidents of voter fraud.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington. Courtesy Iconomy, LLC

The reason whites don’t agree that racism is rampant is because most of them aren’t personally racist and they resent the blanket accusation. In fact, they see themselves as victims of reverse racism. They, too, are right. Dr. King would have acknowledged their pain and fought to alleviate it by reminding us not to confuse institutional racism with the good hearts of our neighbors. The civil rights movement would not have achieved as much as it has without the support and sacrifice of white America.

Dr. King would have been proud to see so many people across America — white and black — joining together to demand accountability in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. He would have praised the millions who marched in France in support of freedom of speech. As he once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

He would have also been disturbed by the violence and rioting that has occurred during these protests. We must remember that Dr. King’s cause was not just equality for all people but achieving that equality through nonviolence. The ends do not justify the means; the means and the ends are the same. Violence insults his legacy. To him, anything won through force is not won at all — it is loss. He wanted equality achieved through love because he wanted to win over his enemies, not defeat them. As he said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” His goal was to cleanse the community, not to cleave it.

Martin Luther King Jr. was only 39 years old at the time of his assassination nearly 47 years ago. When he died, those whom he had inspired were there to pick up the banner of the cause and continue marching. “I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land!” he told us. “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

Forty-seven years later, we must continue stepping lively, not in his name but for his cause.

Read next: The Return of the Protest Song

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Television

MTV to Air in Black and White on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

To provoke discussion about race

MTV will air in black and white for twelve hours on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in an attempt to spark conversation about racial disparities in the U.S.

The first-of-its-kind monochrome broadcast for MTV will include personal reflections on race by several stars, such as Ava DuVernay, director of the Oscar-nominated film Selma, and the film’s lead actor, David Oyelowo, People reported Sunday.

Also slated to appear on Monday are musicians Kendrick Lamar and Jordin Sparks and Senators Rand Paul and Cory Booker, among others.

“The device of turning us black and white is going to be really — visually — a jolt to say, you know what, there are differences and if we are going to ever get to a freer, more equal society the best thing we can begin to do is talk about them,” MTV President Stephen Friedman told the Associated Press.

The broadcast event is the latest initiative to come out of MTV’s Look Different anti-bias campaign, which promotes dialogue about race, gender and sexuality. The campaign partnered with NAACP and other civil rights groups last summer to create commercials after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

The project also aired a special segment called Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, in which the Orange Is the New Black actress took viewers inside the lives of transgender youth.



275,000+ Free Tickets to Selma Available for Students

SELMA, from left: Colman Domingo, David Oyelowo, as Martin Luther King Jr., Andre Holland, Stephan James, 2014.
From left: Colman Domingo, David Oyelowo (as Martin Luther King, Jr.), Andre Holland and Stephan James in a scene from Selma. Atsushi Nishijima—Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

A "Selma for Students" campaign has raised enough money to allow hundreds of thousands of American middle and high school students to see the Martin Luther King, Jr., biopic Selma for free.

The critically acclaimed civil rights drama Selma may not have gotten quite the recognition some feel it deserved by the Academy of Motion Pictures, but a nationwide movement called “Selma for Students” is ensuring that the movie isn’t overlooked at theaters.

The program allows 7th, 8th, and 9th graders to receive free tickets to Selma at participating theaters around the country, including four apiece in cities like Baltimore, Nashville, and New Orleans, and at 11 movie houses in the San Francisco Bay area. The requirements differ slightly from city to city—some give free admission for high school students no matter what the grade—but in general, all you need to do to get a complimentary ticket is to show a student ID, report card, or some other proof of being a student at a participating theater’s box office.

As the Washington Post reported, the idea for “Selma for Students” was born in New York City, where African-American business leaders joined together in early January to create a fund allowing some 27,000 students in the city to view Selma for free. Roughly two dozen other cities have since joined the cause.

In St. Louis, for instance, local efforts are making it possible for some 6,250 teenagers to see the film for free. “It is important that St. Louis students are informed about this moment in history and its connections to the challenges they face today,” Reverend Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation, a partner in the “Selma for Students” campaign in the city, said via press release. “We believe this experience will nurture civic engagement among young people and give them hope that systemic change is possible through cooperative, intentional, and well-planned efforts.”

Altogether, it’s being estimated that more than 275,000 American students around the country will be able to get free admission to the movie, with most attending over the long Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday weekend.

A limited number of tickets are being given away for each theater, and as of Friday afternoon several locations were already “sold out,” including all of New York City and Philadelphia, and all but a few of the participating Regal Cinemas around the country. All who watch the movie are encouraged to share images and responses on social media using the hashtag #SelmaforStudents.

TIME Crime

Florida Cops Used Mugshots of Black Men for Target Practice

Someone recognized her brother among the bullet-riddled mugshots

A Florida woman discovered North Miami Beach Police had been using images of black men for target practice after recognizing her brother’s mug shot at a shooting range.

Sgt. Valerie Deant, a musician with the Florida Army National Guard’s 13th Army Band, arrived at a shooting range with her fellow soldiers just after police snipers had been practicing on the same range last month. Deant was shocked to see her brother’s photograph among the mug shots of black men apparently used as target practice by the police. Woody Deant was arrested in 2000 in connection with a deadly drag race when he was just 18 years old.

“I was like why is my brother being used for target practice?” Deant told NBC Miami on Friday. “There were like gunshots there.”

“Nobody expects to come across their family member as a target at a shooting range,” Andell Brown, an attorney for the Deant family, told TIME. “She was concerned about why he was there, and what that meant for his safety.”

Captain Jack Young, who oversees the shooting range, confirmed that the targets are selected by whoever is renting the range. Police chief J. Scott Dennis told NBC that the decision to use mugshots of black men was ill-considered, but that no rules had been broken. He said his department includes minority police officers, and said the use of actual photographs for target practice is very common. Requests for further comment from Dennis were not immediately returned.

“These young men are literally being used for target practice,” Brown said. “And if those in the leadership don’t see anything wrong with that practice, then we have a very serious issue.” Brown said that the family is weighing their legal options.

Woody Deant, who spent four years in prison after his arrest, told NBC he was disturbed at his sister’s discovery. “Now I’m being used as a target?” he said. “I’m not even living that life according to how they portrayed me as. I’m a father. I’m a husband. I’m a career man. I work 9-to-5.”

“The picture actually has like bullet holes,” he said.

TIME People

12 New Faces of Black Leadership

From the startups of Silicon Valley to the streets of Ferguson, a new generation of black Americans is making a difference

  • Jessica Williams

    Arrivals at the HBO post 66th Primetime Emmys party held at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, California
    Splash News/Corbis

    Comedian and Daily Show Correspondent

    It would go against the code of all 20-somethings if a 25-year-old Daily Show correspondent, Wired magazine cover star and all-around badass funny person were to say she considers herself a leader.

    So when we asked Jessica Williams that question, she of course declined the honor. “I consider myself a student,” she responded. “I’m really into the idea of always learning and just always taking things in.”

    When the Los Angeles native joined the Daily Show cast three years ago as the show’s first black female correspondent, she was 22 and had just finished college at California State, Long Beach. Suddenly, she was working alongside Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Samantha Bee on the most distinctive comedy show of its era.

    Now, few days go by without the Internet buzzing about one of her sketches. When the Pentagon announced changes to its grooming guidelines that would have limited the hairstyles black women could wear while in uniform, Williams took a white guy who just didn’t get it to spend the day in a black hair salon. To call out the catcalling she endures while walking a single city block, Williams found a new, 55-minute-long scenic route to work—one that lets her avoid the stares and jeers of “teenagers at the bodega, creepy guys playing dominoes, white guys, Latino guys, black guys and Middle Eastern guys”—and convened a panel of women to talk about their experiences of street harassment.

    The attention and success have their pressures. “Being black and a woman, sometimes it feels like you have to be representative of your race,” says Williams. “But now that I’ve started to get to do things that are really new and different, it makes me really excited to be that. I love that I’m black and a woman more than ever.”

    —Maya Rhodan

  • Jessica Byrd

    Joel Kimmel For TIME

    A 27-year-old Ohio native and Obama for America vet, Byrd is an operative for Emily’s List, for which she seeks volunteers to recruit and train women who otherwise wouldn’t consider running for public office. So far, over 150 activists have been trained in persuading notable, local women to think of themselves as candidates.

  • Ramogi Huma

    Ramogi Huma (left), founder and president of the National College Players Association, arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 2, 2014.
    Ramogi Huma (left). Lauren Victoria Burke—AP

    Co-founder and President, College Athletes Players Association

    During the 15 years that former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma has fought for the rights of college athletes, he’s listened to every type of sad tale: the kid who gets hurt, loses his athletic scholarship, fails to graduate and is stuck with the medical bills; the athlete facing NCAA persecution for taking some spare cash while his coach makes millions. “It’s hard, hearing how powerless these players are,” says Huma, 37. “But it feeds my motivation. Because it doesn’t have to be this way.”

    An athletic scholarship is still a very sweet deal. But for many college athletes, it’s no longer a just one. With colleges, coaches and TV networks making more and more money on the backs of football and basketball players, something close to a consensus has emerged: athletes deserve a little more to get by, at the very least.

    Huma has played a key role in building public support and achieving historic gains for college athletes. He helped recruit plaintiffs to a class action originally filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, who argued that men’s college basketball and football players should be compensated for the use of their likenesses. The result: in August, a federal judge said schools could set up trusts for athletes. (The NCAA is appealing the decision.) In early 2014, Huma led the effort to unionize Northwestern University football players. A regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that players indeed function as school employees and deserve a seat at the bargaining table. (As of Jan. 14, the main NLRB office hadn’t ruled on Northwestern’s appeal.) A few months later, the NCAA board gave major conferences autonomy to offer players stipends. “None of this happens without Ramogi,” says Tim Waters, national political director of the United Steelworkers union, which has helped fund Huma’s efforts. “Plain and simple.”

    Huma, who grew up outside Los Angeles, never set out to become the Norma Rae of college jocks. But after the NCAA suspended a hungry teammate for a game because he accepted $150 worth of groceries—even as the school sold his jersey in the bookstore—the hypocrisy of college sports consumed him. His steady, nonconfrontational style has consistently won over opponents. “I can just feel we’re on the right side of the argument,” Huma says. “The right side of history.”

    —Sean Gregory

  • Jon Gosier

    Joel Kimmel For TIME

    A venture capitalist and serial entrepreneur based in Philadelphia, Gosier, 33, starts and seeds companies with a focus on untapped markets. Much of his work has been in Africa, where he launched an open-source app that helps activists in repressive countries evade government censorship by swapping SIM cards.

  • Azarias Reda

    Joel Kimmel For TIME

    Reda, 29, was born in Ethiopia and moved to the U.S. to attend college. In 2012 he earned a Ph.D. in computer science engineering from the University of Michigan. Now he is a potentially pivotal player in U.S. politics, charged with improving the Republican National Committee’s database of American voters.

  • Janet Mock

    Writer Janet Mock attends Marie Claire's Second-Annual New Guard Lunch at Hearst Tower on Oct. 30, 2014 in New York City.
    Robin Marchant—Getty Images

    Author and Journalist

    In 2014, Janet Mock published Redefining Realness, a raw account of her life as a young black transgender woman. “The best thing I can do is tell my story,” says the 31-year-old New Yorker. “I wrote this story because I had no examples.” Her memoir became a best seller and made Mock an icon in the LGBT community.

    In her book, Mock recounts growing up poor and confused, with a father battling drug addiction and a body that betrayed how she felt. She spares few details about her transition or her dangerous forays into the sex trade. These stories are mixed with arguments about health care, school policy and acceptance. “Janet has been so crucial in changing the narrative,” says actor and activist Laverne Cox.

    Mock’s latest creation is her own MSNBC web show, So Popular!, which focuses on pop culture. “When you see a trans person on TV, they’re usually on TV talking about being trans,” she says. A former editor at People, Mock is also working to educate the black community about LGBT issues. When she spoke recently at Spelman College, the historically black women’s school in Atlanta, she says, she was the first openly transgender person ever to set foot on the campus. Often her audiences “might not understand anything about what it means to be a trans person,” Mock says. “Black is not a monolith. We are a varied people.”

    —Katy Steinmetz

  • Neichelle Guidry Jones

    Joel Kimmel For TIME

    Founder of Shepreaches, an online magazine that aims to support and inspire black millennial women in ministry, Guidry Jones, 30, is also an associate pastor at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ.

  • Mia Love

    Republican Mia Love celebrates with her supporters after winning the race for Utah's 4th Congressional District during the Utah State GOP election night watch party on Nov. 4, 2014, in Salt Lake City.
    Rick Bowmer—AP

    U.S. Representative From Utah

    The 114th U.S. Congress is the most diverse on record, which is less impressive than it may sound. Of its 535 lawmakers, just 19% are women, 8% are black and 3% are Mormon. Mia Love is all three—and a conservative to boot. When she was sworn in on Jan. 6, the new Representative from Utah’s Fourth Congressional District became the first black Republican female in the history of the House.

    This barrier-busting biography is a big reason why Love, 39, is considered one of the conservative movement’s rising stars. At the Republican nominating convention in 2012, party leaders tapped the little-known mayor of a small Salt Lake City suburb to deliver a coveted prime-time speech. Love, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, has been warmly embraced by a party eager to shed its image as a refuge for aging white men. A Paul Ryan acolyte, she wants to rein in spending, balance the budget and stop passing big bills marbled with pork.

    Love’s election may be a milestone, but she sidesteps the role of race in politics. She won’t comment on the Ferguson protests and says she wants to serve in a way that unites the country rather than divides it. “People aren’t interested in electing someone based on their race or their gender,” she says. “We’re more interested in the principles.”

    —Alex Altman

  • Shani Hilton

    Joel Kimmel For TIME

    As an executive editor at Buzzfeed, Hilton, 29, guides a growing news report that complements the social site’s lists and click bait. A former editor at NBC’s Washington affiliate, she’s devising a code of journalistic standards for the media upstart and has emerged as one of the industry’s leading voices on the issue of newsroom diversity.

  • Brittany Packnett

    Joel Kimmel For TIME

    Every revolution needs leaders—even those determined to remain leaderless. Packnett, a 30-year-old St. Louis native, has been on the front lines in Ferguson, Mo., since the beginning, emerging as a vital link between protesters and politicians in the effort to translate tragedy into change. A member of the commission studying the forces that led to the shooting, she was appointed by the White House to serve on a national task force for police reform. “This is not a fly-by-night movement,” the Teach for America executive says. “It isn’t going to go away.”

  • Tristan Walker

    Joel Kimmel For TIME

    Walker, 30, is a rare find in Silicon Valley, but he’s working hard to fix that. Walker and Co., the health-and-beauty-products company he heads up, is changing the way people of color find and consume personal-care products. His ultimate goal: to bring more diversity to Silicon Valley through Code2040, a nonprofit he helped launch to connect firms with black and Latino engineers.

  • Phillip Agnew

    Joel Kimmel For TIME

    Agnew, 29, has been at the forefront of many of the major political and social movements of the past decade, from immigration reform to voting-rights protection to ending police brutality. His activism in Ferguson landed him at a table with President Obama in late 2014, where—as he wrote in the Guardian—he and many others felt “empowered and powerless at the same time.”

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