It’s wise advice that’s often stated in social-justice circles: “Listen to Black women.”
Black women have consistently been at the forefront of fights for racial and gender equality – be it organizing movements, blazing trails or combating social ills in nuanced, impactful ways. The motivational quotes listed below, offered by some of the world’s most influential Black women, give us insight into the breadth of intelligence and experience these leaders have to offer.
This Black History Month, take a few minutes to consider their sentiments on embracing failure, living your values, and honoring your inherent worth.
"If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's the power of using your voice.” – Michelle Obama
Obama achieved national prominence as the former First Lady to President Barack Obama. But it’s more than safe to say she’s established herself independently from her husband’s work and achievements. She’s also an attorney, an advocate, an author – these words on the importance of speaking up and out come from her book, “Becoming” – and a role model for girls and women around the world.
“You deserve safety. You deserve protection. You deserve love. You deserve peace.” – Tarana Burke
She’s the woman who started the “Me, Too” movement to help women who suffered and survived experiences with sexual harassment and assault realize that they’re not alone. The phrase took off in 2017 when it became a rallying cry amid revelations about misconduct by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. She and other activists shared the title of Time magazine’s Person of the Year that same year. These statements of affirmation were first written in her co-authored book, “You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience.”
"I don't like to lose – at anything – yet I've grown most not from victories, but setbacks." – Serena Williams
We’re not sure any one person has been described as the GOAT (greatest of all time) more than Williams — and deservedly so. Before her retirement announcement, Williams had won more Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles combined than any other active player in the world. Off the court, Williams is a mother, an activist for women in sports, and a supporter of women entrepreneurs. But as she noted here to nonprofit Guideposts, she learned most from the times she stumbled along the way to her myriad wins.
“I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.” – Simone Biles
Biles is her own person, as she pointed out to reporters at the 2016 Summer Olympics. She won us over as one of the “Final Five” — the team of U.S. gymnasts that brought home the gold at the Rio Games. Then again, that’s what Biles does: win. So far in her career, she has won dozens of Olympic and World Championship medals, solidifying her status as one of the most decorated gymnasts in the world. She has also been a fierce advocate for mental health following a stressful Olympic Games in 2021.
“I don’t want to force myself into an institution that doesn’t seem to appreciate what I bring.” – Nikole Hannah Jones
She’s the Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist who sparked a years-long societal conversation about slavery and racism through her opus: The New York Times’ celebrated 1619 Project, now also a published book. Before working at the Times, she wrote for ProPublica and The Oregonian, often covering governmental matters and systemic injustices. In addition, Hannah Jones is the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at Howard University. And as she told CNN, she will not be bringing her work or presence into spaces that don’t value her.
"Power is not given to you. You have to take it." – Beyoncé
This singer, songwriter and producer — whose full name is Beyoncé Knowles-Carter — is practically synonymous with the word “iconic.” Her thoughtful, empowering music and artistically stunning videos have garnered her a large international fanbase that buys her music and attends her concerts at record rates. In fact, she’s one of the best-selling artists in the world. Knowles-Carter has often used that platform to advocate for causes she believes in – or, as she did in this widely-cited quote of hers, to encourage others to fight for and seize what they want in life.
“Admitting mistakes is a fundamental skill too few of us learn. In part, this is because we’ve been taught it’s wrong to be wrong.” – Stacey Abrams
Abrams, a former state senator and gubernatorial candidate from Georgia, has become a widely respected voting rights advocate. She and her nonprofit, Fair Fight Action, have received much of the credit for influencing Georgia’s decisions in the 2020 presidential election and the 2022 Senate special election, although she herself lost the governor’s race. Her work to combat voter suppression earned her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2021. Abrams points to her ability to embrace and learn from mistakes as a key component of her triumphs.
“Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.” – Oprah Winfrey
The media mogul, producer, author and philanthropist’s good deeds are well-documented – but as she rightly notes here, it’s what we do when unseen that truly defines us. Her wealth, which she has given away by the millions (largely to educational causes), made her one of North America’s first Black multi-billionaires. She’s won awards ranging from the Presidential Medal of Freedom to an Oscar nomination — not to mention her 18 Daytime Emmy Awards, the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, a Tony Award and a Peabody Award.
"When someone shows you who they are, believe them – the first time." – Maya Angelou
This lesson, which speaks to assessing others through what they show us, is perhaps one of the most famous and most profound. But then again, Angelou’s work was, quite literally, doling out words of wisdom. The poet and activist’s impactful career spanned half a century, and in that time she authored widely read autobiographical works – including the famous “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” – and garnered tons of awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Barack Obama. She died in 2014, but her words will live on for generations to come.
“I think it would be a far greater world if people were kinder and more respectful to each other.” – Aretha Franklin
Yes, it’s something of a nod to one of this legendary singer-songwriter’s biggest hits. But the Queen of Soul makes a critical point here about the need for us to be better to one another. Beyond “Respect,” Detroit-born Franklin is the voice and mind behind tunes like “Chain of Fools” and “Think” – a body of work that resulted in her becoming the first woman ever inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, among numerous other distinctions. (And, like Angelou, she is also a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.)
(This article, originally published Feb. 1, 2023, has been updated for 2024.)