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Posted under: Culture

These 11 Black British Trailblazers Lit The Way For Other Black Folks In The UK

They did it for the culture, too.

Blackness in its many forms is often overlooked. For that reason, Black folks are open to a celebration of ourselves for whatever reason whenever the wind blows. We celebrate #BlackGirlMagic, #BlackBoyJoy, #BlackPresident, #BlackHistoryMonth and #BlackHollywood. Blackness is forever lit. 

The noticeable thing about many of the Black hashtags is Americaness reigns supreme. Rarely do we turn up in the name of our distant cousins of the diaspora. When we do, we tend to include the usual suspects, but it's equally important to celebrate the #BlackExcellence that is represented at every corner of the world. In honor of Black Brits who have been celebrating their Black history across the pond, Blavity big ups a few brethren and sistren who led the path in their hemisphere. Here are 11 Black Brits who have paved the way. 

1. Olaudah Equiano 

Born in 1745, Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped from Nigeria, at the age of 11 and sold into slavery to a Virginia sea captain. Equiano purchased his freedom in 1766. He would go on to become an avid abolitionist and pen The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, which is considered to be the first renowned slave narrative. The creation of this text opened the doors for other Black people to tell the stories of their captivity. These stories, which include The Life of Fredrick Douglas written by Douglas and Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, helped galvanize and spearhead abolitionist movements across the young U.S.

2. Mary Seacole  

Born to a Jamaican mother and Scottish father, Mary Seacole grew up in Jamaica learning the trade of nursing from her mother. Seacole was an avid traveler, visiting many countries including Cuba, Central America and Britain to help those in need of her medical skills. She presented herself to England’s War Office in 1854 and asked to join the effort in Crimea. Aware of the lack of medical care in the war-torn area, Seacole wanted to serve humanity by caring for soldiers. However, the war office turned her down. As a result, Seacole traveled to Crimea with her own money and establish the British Hotel, a nursing facility to help wounded soldiers. The trailblazing nurse would go on to write a biography entitled Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. Seacole’s pioneering efforts laid the foundation for Black people in the medical field.

3. Joan Armatrading 

Born in St. Kitts but raised in Britain, this British singer and songwriter has been active since the 1970s and is the first Black British, female artist to receive international success. Joan Armatrading was the first British woman to be nominated in the blues category for three Grammy awards. She was also nominated for two Brit Awards. Her most famous song “Love and Affection” has solidified her in Black Brit music royalty. Joan Armatrading paved the way for every British chanteuse that followed in her footsteps.

4. Wiley (aka Richard Kylea Cowie)  

Wiley is the creator of grime, a music genre originated in the UK. The genre is the child of hip-hop, jungle and garage. Though Wiley had his public problems, that doesn't take away from the legacy he continues to create. He paved the way for other grime artists such as Stormzy who recently won a Brit Award for best album “Gang Signs and Prayers,” a first for a grime artist.

5. Diane Abbot

Dianne Abbot was one of three Black politicians to kick down the doors for Black people in Parliament. She is the first Black woman to serve in the House of Commons, representing the Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency. Initially elected in 1987, Abbot was last reelected to her seat in 2017 and serves till this day.

6. Paul Boateng

Paul Boateng is another Black British politician whose presence broke down barriers. Along with Abbot, he became one of the first Black Brits to enter the House of Commons in '87. As Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in 2002 Boateng went on to become the first Black Brit to serve in the Cabinet of the United Kingdom. Since 2005, he's retired from politics, but remains a trailblazer.

7. Arthur Wharton 

Arthur Wharton was not the first Black Brit to play football, but he was the first Black pro-footballer. Originally from Ghana, Wharton joined the Football League in 1889, signing with Rotherham Town. In 1895, he became the first Black footballer to play Division One Football for Sheffield United. For many years, Wharton’s story was lost to time. Still, his impact is felt; because of Wharton, a football legend such as Pelé can exist.

8. Shirley Bassey 

Shirley Bassey was the first Black British woman to win a Brit Award. Titled by some as the original diva, Bassey sang three of the James Bond themes, including the Kanye sampled “Diamonds Are Forever,” over a 50-year period. As the Brit Awards is known for its lack of color, Bassey’s win paved the way for the handful of women who received the honor in the years following.

9. Zadie Smith 

Born Sadie Smith, this dynamic British woman wrote and shopped her first manuscript at the age of 21. The publication of White Teeth set the Black British literature scene on fire. Zadie has become an international author who is active to this day. Smith has created multiple works since her debut, including On Beauty and Swing Time. Smith's stories are exemplary for their craft, and their exploration of race, class and culture.

10. Idris Elba

Idris Elba is a jack of all trades mainly known for his acting prowess in television and film both here and abroad. The BBC’s Luther, HBO’s The Wire and Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation are hailed for their cinematic brilliance. He has also appeared in blockbuster movies such as Hobs and Shaw and Marvel’s Thor and Avengers. Beyond the screen, Elba is international DJ Dris, and a trained MMA fighter who triumphed in his first bout by knockout.

11. Thandie Newton

Thandie Newton, much like Elba, is a woman of many talents, and her presence in Hollywood has made way for other Black Brits, such as Naomie Harris. Newton captivated us with performances in both TV and film: Beloved, based on the novel by Toni Morrison, Crash and HBO’s Westworld are a few of note. The British actor has also taken her talent to the stage, starring in Death and the Maiden.

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Ida Harris is a current News Editor for Blavity. She is a native New Yorker, sowing seeds in Atlanta. She is savvy with standard English, but poetic with Black Vernacular. She's been known to f*ck up some Oxford commas. When she is not reciting Trap music quotables, she’s writing for The Root, Elle, USA TODAY, DAME magazine and MyBrownBaby. Follow her Twitter, Instagram, and Word2MUVA column.