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Top 20 Moments that Defined Black Culture this Decade

December 28, 2019

 A look back at Black America's most influential, infamous, and inspiring events of the 2010s.



Invariably, as each year draws to an end we look back at the events that shaped our lives in the previous months. As we inch closer to the conclusion of 2019, we find ourselves on the cusp of not only a new year, but also a new decade. This moment calls for an even greater sense of reflection, particularly for Black-Americans who find themselves at a critical juncture, both culturally and socially.  From 2010 to 2019, I surveyed the most influential, infamous, pivotal, and inspiring occurrences that have, for better (and sometimes worse), defined the myriad ways that exist to be Black in America. Selecting only twenty moments to represent a ten-year period is no easy task. Certain judgements were made to include some moments and exclude others. I examined a wide range of events across several categories including: art, politics, sports, music, film, television, and popular culture to bring clarity to the moment in which we live. This list also takes stock of (and celebrates) the progress we've made in continuing the traditions we call, Black excellence, on our long march toward freedom.


20. D’Angelo Returns

On December 15, 2014, the notoriously reclusive singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, D’Angelo, created a tidal wave of shock in the music industry with the surprise release of his third studio album, The Black Messiah. It was fourteen years since the release of his last critically and commercially successful album, Voodoo in 2000, a thirteen-song masterpiece that solidified D’Angelo among the pantheon of legendary Black music artists. His first album Brown Sugar (1995) helped create the neo-soul genre that provided the sultry soundtrack to the 1990s Black New Wave culture.  The Black Messiah immediately received critical acclaim and was widely recognized as one of the best records of the year. On the album, D’Angelo crafted a moody analog sound reminiscent of 1970s soul artists like Sly and the Family Stone and the Ohio Players. What made D’Angelo’s return so special was not only the end of his musical hiatus, but the timing of the record’s release. Originally planned to drop in 2015, D’Angelo pushed the album’s release up as an artistic gesture intended to speak to the weight and importance of the cultural moment— a moment that was being shaped by widespread Black Lives Matter marches across the country, protesting the murders of unarmed Black citizens at the hands of white police officers. Featuring poignant tracks like “1000 Deaths” and “The Charade,” The Black Messiah was a socially conscious protest album and a political reckoning that spoke to the gravity of its time. The record debuted at number two on the Billboard music charts and went on to win the Grammy for Best R&B Album of the Year, proving that D’Angelo was still an important voice in Black music, even after a fourteen-year absence.


19. Russell Wilson Wins the Super Bowl                                                                    Photo: NFL

In 1987, Doug Williams became the first Black quarterback to win the Super Bowl. In February 2014, Seattle Seahawks quarterback, Russell Wilson led his team to a dominating win in Super Bowl XLVIII, making him the second Black quarterback to stand atop of the NFL’s Mount Everest. This is significant given the league’s complicated history of racial discrimination against Black quarterbacks. Fallacious logic on the part of NFL owners and general managers continues to suggest Black quarterbacks lack the mental aptitude to succeed at football’s most important and challenging position. Black NFL quarterbacks are often relegated to second-class citizenry or are seen merely as “good athletes” or good runners. In Super Bowl XLVIII, Russell Wilson, put doubters to rest (at least for one night) throwing for 206 yards and two touchdowns to outduel the iconic Peyton Manning. Wilson continues to challenge perceptions of Black quarterbacks and has become one of the best signal callers in the NFL, racking up Hall of Fame caliber statistics.


18. Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer                                                                                   Photo:Youtube

The Compton, California-born hip-hop artist, Kendrick Lamar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2018 for his album, DAMN, becoming the first non-classical or non-jazz album to win the prestigious prize, which began awarding its music honor in 1943. Lamar burst onto the music scene in 2012 with his major label debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and took his talents to another level with his critically acclaimed sophomore effort, To Pimp a Butterfly, which debuted atop of the Billboard charts and won a Grammy for Best Rap Album. However, Lamar’s fourth album, DAMN, saw the emcee reach even greater heights of critical and commercial success with crossover hits like “Humble” and “DNA.” Lamar’s piercing voice, vivid lyricism, and intricate storytelling led the administers of the Pulitzer Prize to laud the album for creating “affecting vignettes that captur[ed] the complexity of modern African American life.” While members of the classical music community pushed back against Lamar’s win, others supported the committee’s decision wholeheartedly. The album went on to sell over three million copies.


17. The Fall and Redemption of Tiger Woods                                                           Photo: ESPN

Before 2010, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods, for all intents and purposes, appeared to have it all. He was the number one ranked golfer in the world and playing better than ever. The son of a Black military man and a Thai woman, Woods was, arguably, the most recognizable athlete on the planet. Until it all came tumbling down when Woods was publicly exposed for his numerous extramarital affairs. Then came the voicemails, the drinking and drugs, the SUV crash, the arrest, and the subsequent divorce from his Swedish wife, Elin Nordegren. Throughout the decade, Woods’ physical body betrayed him as well. He suffered a series of injuries and endured countless surgeries leading to abysmal play on the golf course. Woods competed in only one tournament between 2015 and 2018, and was no longer ranked in a list of the top 1,000 golfers in the world. His career seemed all but over. And in April 2019, at age 43, Tiger did the improbable. He won the 2019 Masters Tournament, his first major in 11 years. Woods’ Masters victory received front page media coverage around the world. Many dubbed the win one of the greatest comebacks ever. Today, on the golf course, Woods seems to have reclaimed his form. A step slower, but perhaps savvier and, undoubtedly, back atop of the list of the world’s best golfers.


16. The Rise of Ta-Nehisi Coates                                                                       Photo: Annie Leibovitz

The meteoric rise of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates coincided with the publication of his feature cover story, “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic magazine in 2014. Coates spent two years researching and writing the article, which detailed the history of exclusion of Black citizens from home-ownership in America through practices of institutional racism and discriminatory housing policies like “redlining.” Coates did not frame the article as a case for the reparations for American enslavement of Blacks, but rather as a case for restitution for the continual and systemic truncation of possibilities of Black-Americans at the hands of the establishment through clandestine practices. The article was widely praised and elevated his profile in the national media. In 2015, Coates published his second book, Between the World and Me, which became a national best seller and won the National Book Award. This work of non-fiction was written as a letter to his teenaged son. The book explores the complexities and harsh realities of living while Black in America, a nation where “racist violence has been woven” into the culture. Later that year, Coates was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Grant for “interpreting complex and challenging issues around race and racism through the lens of personal experience and nuanced historical analysis.” In 2019, his first novel,The Water Dancer, debuted number one on the New York Times Best Seller’s list.


15. Beychella                                                                                                  Photo: Homecoming/Netflix

In April of 2018, singer/songwriter Beyoncè’s pair of two-hour performances at the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival broke the internet with its unabashed celebration of Black expressive culture. Her spectacular set pieces and dance routines paid tribute to the rich traditions of historically Black colleges and universities across America. Beychella also honored Black feminism, Black authors, and showcased the heritage of Black “step shows” made famous on HBCU campuses. These historic performances also marked the first time a Black woman headlined the predominately white festival located in the Sonoran Desert of Indio, California. The Beychella extravaganza featured large marching bands, majorettes, elaborate Afrofuturist costuming, and surprise appearances by members of Destiny’s Child and Solange Knowles. The performances highlighted the many beauties that compose Black culture, while sampling the writings of feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, representing the solidarity of Black sisterhood. Beyoncè’s performance was not simply visually grand, it was politically-charged, stridently Black, and was quickly recognized as a watershed moment that further cemented her status as the leading performer of the era. Beyoncè’s Coachella appearances are the festival’s most watched shows ever, and the internet’s most live streamed performance, garnering over 41 million views worldwide. In a savvy business move, Beyoncè took less money upfront from Coachella to retain copyrights for her performance, which she video documented from creative conception, to rehearsal, and presentation, ultimately packaging the footage into a concert film, dubbed Homecoming, which she sold to Netflix for a whopping $20 million.


14. The Comeback of Dave Chappelle                                                                      Photo:Netflix

From 2003 to 2006, Dave Chappelle was the hottest comedian on earth, largely the result of his wildly popular sketch comedy series, Chappelle’s Show. Known for his outrageous humor and daring perspective, Dave famously turned down a $50 million pay day, went into a self-imposed exile, left his successful television series, and shocked the entertainment industry. For nearly ten years, he remained out of the public eye.  Until 2015 when he appeared onstage for several stand-up performances that sold out in minutes. A year later, he re-emerged again as host of Saturday Night Live, garnering the program’s best ratings in three years and winning Dave an Emmy Award for Best Guest Actor in a Comedy Series. By 2017, Chappelle was back with full gusto, signing a $60 million deal with Netflix for the rights to four stand-up comedy specials: Deep in the Heart of Texas, The Age of Spin, Equanimity, and The Bird Revelation. Chappelle won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album for each special. In 2019, Dave was awarded the esteemed Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and released a fifth Netflix stand-up, Sticks and Stones, which sparked intense public debate over his comedic audacity and biting satire.


13. The New Tyler Perry Studios                                                                     Photo: Tyler Perry/Twitter

Multi-hyphenate media mogul, Tyler Perry managed to checkmate the Hollywood industry in 2019 when he opened his new film production facilities, Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta. The sprawling 330-acre property is the biggest studio in Georgia and larger than any of the major studios in Los Angeles. The facilities include 12 sound stages and replicas of: the White House, a diner, a hospital, a prison yard, a trailer park, an airport terminal, a jumbo jet, and even a suburban subdivision, with a six-lane highway in the works— just about anything a movie producer could possibly need. Not to mention, each sound stage is named after Black film stars like Cicely Tyson, Sidney Poitier, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, and Spike Lee. Perry is now the first Black person to fully own a movie studio since 1997 when Tim Reid and Daphne Maxwell-Reid opened the 57-acre New Millennium Studios in Virginia, which was later sold. With the opening of Tyler Perry Studios, Perry has managed to beat Hollywood at its own game, securing production contracts for high-profile projects like AMC’s The Walking Dead and Marvel’s Black Panther.


12. Spike Lee’s Oscar

For nearly forty years film director Spike Lee has created some of the most memorable and thought-provoking movies of all time. Lee’s films are widely recognized for their exploration of issues of race and class in America. And yet, the relationship between Spike and the Oscars has been contentious at best. This tension stemmed from the Academy’s snub of Lee’s masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, which was not nominated for Best Picture. Since then, Spike has been outspoken about the Academy’s lack of inclusivity and its bias against Black creative image-makers. In 2019, after 30 years, Spike was nominated for three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. This marked the first time Lee received a nod for Best Director, making him only the sixth Black director ever nominated. However, Spike didn’t win the Oscar for Best Director, in fact, no Black director has ever won in that category. Lee took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on the Jordan Peele produced film, BlacKkKlansman, which depicted the real-life story of Ron Stallworth a Black police officer who infiltrated a white terrorist organization. Indeed, for Spike, it was a proud moment, and an honor that was long overdue.


11. Ava’s Ascension                                                                                                 Photo: LA Times

Film director Ava DuVernay’s spirit of self-determination has forced the Hollywood industry to deal with her on her own terms. After directing her first film, I Will Follow in 2011, DuVernay garnered critical acclaim for her second feature, Middle of Nowhere. The film won her the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. Both of these films were test cases for DuVernay’s work in the area of independent film distribution. She founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) in 2010. She later rebranded the company as ARRAY in 2015, focusing on the distribution of films by women and Black directors. Ava is also the director of films like Selma and A Wrinkle in Time (the first $100 million movie with a Black woman at the helm). DuVernay’s impact has also reached into television. She has produced and directed series like For Justice and Queen Sugar, which features only women directors for each episode. Her work with Netflix has also been successful, directing the eye-opening mass incarceration documentary, 13th (which was nominated for an Oscar) and the critically-acclaimed narrative mini-series, When They See Us, which depicts the true story of the so-called Central Park Five.


10. The Transformations of Kanye West

Kanye started the decade off with a bang, releasing his masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010, a multi-platinum album that was critically acclaimed for its maximalist aesthetic. The record was released months after his infamous Taylor Swift stage-crashing fiasco at the MTV Music Awards. Some proclaimed his career was over. They were wrong. MBDTF, by some estimations was not only the album of the year, but perhaps the decade. In 2011, he released a successful collaboration album, Watch the Throne, with rapper Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. And over the next several years, West lessened his musical output as he explored a career in fashion. But his efforts were met with resistance. His next album Yeezus, in 2013, was a complete departure from his previous musical styles featuring harsh soundscapes and stark minimalism as an expression of his frustrations with being denied entry into the upper echelon of the fashion world. In 2013, he conducted a series of controversial radio interviews with British DJ, Zane and the NYC-based morning show host, Sway. In both interviews, Kanye exhibited erratic behavior. The release and subsequent tour of his 2016 album, The Life of Pablo, saw the rapper reach his lowest point, after a series of on-stage rants, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was checked into a mental hospital. He was later diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Since, Kanye has released more albums including, Ye, Kids See Ghosts, and his latest work, Jesus is King. His infamous meltdown on TMZ and his controversial allegiance to the 45th President has caused support for the rapper to dwindle. This decade has seen West undergo multiple transformations from music’s top artist, to caricature, to Christian music artist. Who knows what’s next.


9. Oprah’s Final Show & New Network

On May 25, 2011, The Oprah Winfrey Show aired its final episode, signaling the end of an era. For twenty-five years, from 1986 to 2011, The Oprah Winfrey Show was the highest rated daytime talk show in history. The series was incredibly influential and popular for its celebrity interviews, its book club, addressing various topics in popular culture, as well as for serving as an educational platform with its essential self-improvement themes. The show made Oprah the first Black woman billionaire in the United States, and won 47 Daytime Emmy Awards, before she decided to stop submitting the program for award consideration. The final episode received the series’ highest ratings in seventeen years. Earlier in 2011, Oprah launched a joint venture with the Discovery Channel to create the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). The network features lifestyle programming and original content for Black-American audiences. Although Oprah is not the majority owner of OWN, she does retain a minority ownership stake in the company. After struggling with low ratings for several years, Winfrey entered into an exclusive deal with Tyler Perry that helped stabilize the network with an influx of his seemingly endless stream of original content. Now OWN boasts several popular shows like, The Haves and Have NotsGreenleaf, and Queen Sugar, and is now featured in nearly 82 million homes.


8. The Loss of Bill Cosby

When cellphone video footage of comedian Hannibal Burress’ “Bill Cosby routine” went viral in 2014, it set off a firestorm of controversy around the elderly actor, once considered “America’s Dad.” For sixty years, Bill Cosby delighted audiences on-stage, on television, and in movies. In the 1960s, he was the country’s top stand-up comic before transitioning to become the first Black actor to star in a television drama, I Spy, for which he was the first Black actor to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor. In the 1970s, he starred in several films and created the hit animated series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. But it was his 1980s classic sitcom The Cosby Show that introduced the world to the beloved Huxtable family, which catapulted Cosby to the pinnacle of success. Yet for years he somehow managed to elude public scrutiny in the face of numerous sexual assault allegations. By the mid 2010s, his time ran out. Some sixty women spoke out, accusing Cosby of drug-induced rape and/or sexual assault. With dozens of accusers coming forward, deposition transcripts once sealed, were now opened— all leading to the most devastating coupe de grâce of the decade. In 2018, after a lengthy public trial, Cosby was found guilty of aggravated indecent assault and sentenced to three to ten years in prison. He was 81-years old at the time of his conviction.


7. Kaepernick Takes a Knee                                                                             Photo: Nike commercial 

In 2012, Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was on the verge of NFL superstardom when his team fell short in Super Bowl XLVII. Two years later, his head coach was fired and the team was no longer a contender. By 2016, Kaepernick was the back-up quarterback with a coaching staff that didn’t properly utilize his skillset. That season he sat quietly on the bench during the national anthem, which drew widespread media attention. After consulting with a military veteran, Kaepernick decided he would kneel during the anthem rather than remain seated. When asked about his actions during a post-game interview, he replied, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.” Colin Kaepernick’s subtle act of resistance sparked a wave of similar actions by NFL players (both Black and white) across the league. His actions stood out as one of the most important protests of the decade. His decision to kneel, ultimately, led to his removal from the National Football League, highlighting the very issues of race he attempted to address. Since then, he has been unable to find employment as a pro quarterback, despite his talents. And yet, he committed no crime: in a league filled with drug-offenders, rapists, sex offenders, child abusers, bullies, racists, felons, and even murderers, the only person not given a second chance was the one who spoke up for social justice and for the rights of Black-Americans. In 2018, Kaepernick sued the NFL for colluding to ban him from the league— he was awarded a handsome settlement. But he still remains unemployed. Perhaps, another lawsuit is imminent. 


6. In Memoriam

This decade saw the transition of several key figures in Black culture. Too many to list, but here are a few luminaries we lost in the past ten years. Whitney Houston (2012) the iconic singer and actress was the most acclaimed female artist and one of the best-selling vocalists of all time with over 200 million records sold. Nelson Mandela (2013) the humanitarian leader, South African revolutionary, and political prisoner who became the first Black President of South Africa in 1994. Prince Rogers Nelson (2016) the legendary singer, songwriter, and musician known for his flamboyant stage appearances and genre-blending artistry is widely regarded as one of the greatest musicians of all time. Aretha Franklin (2018) the “Queen of Soul” singer/songwriter and civil rights activist, changed the face and sound of American music during the Motown-era with her iconic voice and classic songs. John Singleton (2019) the director of the film Boyz n the Hood was the first Black director (and youngest person) ever nominated for the Best Director Oscar. Diahann Carroll (2019) the legendary actress, singer, model, and civil rights activist was the first Black woman to star in a television series, Julia in 1968.


5. The Obama Portraits & Presidential Exit

The official portraits of President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley and First Lady Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald challenged the perspective of power and privilege in America. The Obama’s commissioned two Black painters to create their Smithsonian National Gallery portraits, a historic first for Black artists. President Obama’s portrait features him in a black suit with no tie, seated in a chair, leaning forward, elbows on his knees and arms crossed, amidst a verdant backdrop of foliage and flowers symbolizing distinct periods from his past. His face is contemplative and his eyes piercing. Michelle’s portrait features her also seated, hand underneath her chin, wearing a flowing dress covered in geometric patterns. The portraits depict a Black perspective that subtly breaks from the canon of traditional presidential portraiture in a manner that is both pensive and iconoclastic. The unveiling of the Obama portraits coincided with their subsequent exit from the White House, the residence they called home for eight years. These portraits crystalized the historic gravity of the first Black President and First Family, and the powerful symbolism their presence signified to the nation.


4. Opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

In 2012, construction began on the first Smithsonian museum designated to preserving and presenting the many important contributions of Black-Americans to the history and development of the United States. The National Museum of African History and Culture in Washington D.C. was completed in 2016 and a grand opening ceremony was held, led by President Obama. The awe-inspiring 350,000-square-foot, 10-story building houses more than 40,000 objects in its collection, with approximately 3,500 items available on public display. The museum is a must visit for all Americans. Each exhibition grapples with the complex histories and narratives of genius, tragedy, and triumph that constitute Black-American experiences. The galleries range from Black entrepreneurship, fashion, sports, enslavement, social movements, music, and more. In many ways, the museum must forever be a work-in-progress, as the story of Black-Americans is ever-evolving with many histories that remain unwritten.


3. The Murder of Trayvon Martin

On February 26, 2012, a 17-year old Black boy was fatally shot by a white man in Sanford, Florida. The man who shot him was not a cop. He was not a federal agent. He belonged to no law enforcement office. He was simply a white man in America who saw a young Black boy wearing a hooded sweatshirt and perceived him as a threat. Trayvon left his home during half-time of the NBA All Star game and headed to the convenience store for candy and soda. When he returned to his apartment complex, the white man saw him and dialed 9-1-1. The man was told by police to leave the boy alone. The man did not listen, he accosted the young boy. 17-year old Trayvon Martin, walking alone, was confronted by an armed adult stranger who approached him in a threatening and antagonistic manner. An altercation ensued and within minutes the man pulled out a gun and shot the young boy in the chest. The man was not arrested. After media scrutiny, an investigation was launched into the boy’s killing. The man was subsequently charged with second-degree murder—two months after the shooting occurred. At trial, he was found not guilty. The aftermath of these events, ignited public outrage, protests, and set the stage for the bubbling over of Black angst in America, which soon spilled out into the streets. Trayvon Martin and his hooded sweatshirt became potent symbols of social protest and racial injustice in America. 


2. Tarana Burke & Me Too 

The Me Too Movement was founded by a Black woman, Tarana Burke, a feminist leader and social justice activist. She first used the phrase on social media in 2006 to help raise awareness regarding the unspoken prevalence of sexual violence against women in the United States. In 2017, the hashtag #MeToo went viral after countless women began using it to speak out against disgraced movie producer, Harvey Weinstein, who was entangled in multiple sexual abuse allegations. The phrase Me Too and its viral hashtag soon developed into a broad-based feminist movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault in all of its forms. The Me Too Movement has empowered women internationally to break the chains of silence surrounding sexual misconduct. Me Too has brought down what were once thought to be “giants” across various industries, and has signaled a new day for women’s liberation—forcing the nation to come to terms with its violent patriarchal history and toxic masculinity. The phrase “Me Too” has spread to many languages and cultures around the world, and Tarana Burke continues to be an outspoken voice in the movement, calling for the support of marginalized peoples around the world. 


1. The Emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement                                             Photo: AP

Shortly after the miscarriage of justice surrounding the murder of unarmed Black teenager, Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in 2013. Black Lives Matter quickly became a global social justice movement designed to: bring forth positive solutions and radical change regarding the state-sanctioned killing of unarmed Black citizens at the hands of police officers, bring an end to systemic and institutional racism against Blacks, mass incarceration, police brutality, and racial profiling. The movement was originated by three Black women: Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi who began using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media as a call to action against the constant stream of racial injustice against Black-Americans. The movement gained momentum and national attention for its continental organization of street protests and demonstrations following the video documented police killings of unarmed Black people like Eric Garner in New York City, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Sandra Bland in Texas, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, among many others. Black Lives Matter protests coincided with uprisings in cities across the U.S. as a response to the outrage and lack of accountability for the unchallenged destruction of Black life. The phrase Black Lives Matter, remains a powerful rallying cry across the nation for people engaged in the continual struggle for racial equality and social justice for Black citizens in America.




Dr. Artel Great is a historian of Black culture, an Independent Spirit Award-nominated filmmaker, cultural critic, and film professor who has taught at UCLA, NYU, UNC, and Spelman College. His work has been featured in the New York Times, CNN, and USA Today.



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