A Black History Tribute: ‘Thank You for Leading the Way’

This Black History Month, we chose to celebrate figures—both current & historical—who have inspired us and shaped our world through thank-you letters.

Black History Month 2021
Image via Complex Original
Black History Month 2021

Black History Month has to be more than a running list of “Did you know?” fun facts. It has to be more than regurgitated Instagram posts with red, black, and green borders or an opportunity for advertisers and TV stations to break out their dashiki-print art treatments. 

Black history is everyone’s history. Just as there has never been humanity without Black people, there is no human history without Black history. This fact should fuel our desire to create space for a true celebration of Black history, one that goes beyond nostalgic remembrances of events from 50, 100, or 400 years ago through rose-colored glasses. The history of man cannot be told though pop quizzes about who invented the stop light or the pacemaker, and Black history has no right being told in this fashion, either. 

It’s also important to remember that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t live his life in black and white. His life was lived in color, at a time when the vast majority of Americans looked upon him with distaste while questioning the peacefulness of his rallies, and the American government itself worked to cut down his character. It’s often easier to remember these figures as one-dimensional beings eternally suspended in the amber of their moment, but that can only happen if we fail to understand their full story, particularly if we’re fortunate enough to be around as their story is still being told. 

Black history was made last century, last summer, last night. Right now, Black history is being made, always, perpetually fluid, influencing itself and creating new iterations upon itself. Black people being inspired by Black people constitutes Black history. Any person inspired by Black people constitutes Black history. 

Complex has covered Black history for almost two full decades, and has done so by organically celebrating Black art in real time. For example, one day Young Thug may be viewed by many through the same black-and-white lens some use when remembering a titan like James Brown, with only those acutely familiar with his work or having lived through his career as it unfolded left to fully comprehend his impact. In some ways, an icon like Jay-Z is already viewed by some in this fashion. I personally consider it a privilege to work at a company dedicated to covering Black history, live, as it’s being made. 

To that end, this Black History Month, we chose to celebrate figures—both current and historical—who have inspired us in some significant way. Each day in February, we will feature a “Thank You” letter to a Black person who has made history, penned by a Complex employee or by an artist, influencer, or other individual whom you may recognize. It’s our small way of shining a light on those who made us who we are, and paying homage to both the widely known and smaller-profile giants of Black history. —Maurice Peebles


Angela Davis

Angela Davis

Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

Sheila Johnson

Sheila Johnson

D’Wayne Edwards

D'Wayne Edwards

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta Nehisi Coates

Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson

Nipsey Hussle

Nipsey Hussle

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Ruth E. Carter

Ruth E. Carter

William Dorsey Swann

William Dorsey Swann, Queer Liberation

Wilson Smith

Wilson Smith

Alice Allison Dunnigan

Alice Dunningham

Cord Jefferson

Cord Jefferson



Melvin Van Peebles

Melvin Van Peebles

Assata Shakur

Assata Shakur

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer

Malcolm X

Malcolm X

When I Found Malcolm X

By Kevin Powell

I shed tears the way a dam

bursts wide open when exposed

by an awful hurricane

that moment at age 18

after the first time I

hungrily ate the words of

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

because I did not

know a Black man

like him could even exist

I cried—hard—because they had

bowed and arrowed

bullet after bullet

into Malcolm the way

hunters murder

a defenseless lion or deer:

he was both a lion and a deer

a lion undaunted by

America’s naked jungles

a deer forever thirsty

about what is

underneath the there

they bamboozled

us into believing was freedom

I howled like an unwanted ghetto baby

dumped into the trash bag of history

because in his book

I was able to hold

and hug my own face

for the very first time:

a Black boy ruthlessly damaged

by abuse hate self-hate

mental illness racism

and that violence

we call poverty

I wailed as we had

wailed at those

bluer than blue

church revivals

as the preacher-man

like Malcolm’s daddy the preacher-man

made us believe

there was a heaven

for the holes of Black folks—

I went to school like Malcolm

was the Negro mascot like Malcolm

made un-safe love to the streets like Malcolm

was the prison waiting for myself

like Malcolm

I was there when he

was re-born, once more and once more—

I set that book

down and rolled and smoked

his speeches

the way I have been

smoking this joint called life

since my father told my mother

“he ain’t my son”

when I was eight years old

I puked fresh buckets

of Ivory soap and muddy waters

because in this dead

Black man

I had found

God-the holy ghost-and the father

I knew

would never forsake me


gave me what

I was missing

he instructed

me to posterize myself

to be nothing but a man

with a stainless-steel backbone

and legs locked into place

like Jesus’

on that march

to that cross

Monday, February 1, 2021


Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, and the author of 14 books, including When We Free the World, a new collection of essays plus one poem. His 15th book will be a biography of Tupac Shakur.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey

Betty Chapman

Betty Chapman

Elaine Welteroth

Elaine Welteroth

bell hooks

bell hooks

Huey P. Newton

Huey P. newton

Norman Lewis

Norman Lewis

James Hardaway

James Hardaway

Allen Brown

Allen Brown

Carter G. Woodson

Carter G Woodson

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