Black Icons: Obama, Chisholm, Jemison, Simone

Image of Barack Obama, Shirley Chisholm, Mae Jemison, and Nine Simone


Barack Obama is the 44th president of the United States, serving from Barack Obama2009 to 2017. He was born August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii. Obama attended Harvard Law School and was the first Black President of the Harvard Law Review. Obama entered politics as an Illinois state senator in 1997, then was elected as a U.S. senator from Illinois, then was elected president of the United States, becoming the first Black president in the history of our nation.

Obama signed many bills into law, including stimulus bills that helped the nation recover from the Great Recession and his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.” Two of his nominations for the Supreme Court were confirmed by the Senate, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, and Elena Kagan.

Obama’s post-presidential life has focused on the development of the Obama Foundation and writing and publishing his presidential memoirs, of which the first volume, A Promised Land, was published in November 2020. He has also, with wife Michelle, formed Higher Ground Productions, which produced the acclaimed documentaries, Crip Camp and American Factory.

A Promised LandA Promised Land. In the stirring, highly anticipated first volume of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from young man searching for his identity to leader of the free world, describing in strikingly personal detail both his political education and the landmark moments of the first term of his historic presidency--a time of dramatic transformation and turmoil.



Dreams From My FatherDreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. When Barack Obama was elected the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review, he was offered a publishing contract, resulting in this memoir. As the son of a black African father and white American mother, he discusses his divided ancestry and his place in America's racial society, analyzing the demands of racial identity and culture, multiculturalism, and the quest for his own racial identity. If you are eager to read more from Obama before he was President Obama, check out The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.



 The Life and Rise of Barack ObamaThe Bridge: The Life & Rise of Barack Obama. While Obama’s presidency is too recent to have produced a definitive account, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick is a good candidate for best biography of his early life. Drawing on extensive on-the-record interviews with friends and teachers, mentors and disparagers, family members and Obama himself, the author fully investigates the circumstances and experiences of President Barack Obama’s life and explores the ambition behind his rise. David Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story is another great biography of Obama’s rise to the presidency.


 A Letter to my DaughtersOf Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters. In this tender, beautiful letter to his daughters, President Barack Obama has written a moving tribute to thirteen groundbreaking Americans and the ideals that have shaped our nation. From the artistry of Georgia O'Keeffe, to the courage of Jackie Robinson, to the patriotism of George Washington, President Obama sees the traits of these heroes within his own children, and within all of America's children. Illustrated by Loren Long.



 The Speeches of Barack Obama We Are the Change We Seek is a collection of Barack Obama's 27 greatest addresses: beginning with his 2002 speech opposing the Iraq War and closing with his emotional farewell address in Chicago in January 2017. Obama’s eloquence, both written and spoken, propelled him to national prominence and ultimately made it possible for the son of a Kenyan man and a white woman from Kansas to become the first black president of the United States.



 Our 44th PresidentBarack Obama: Our 44th President. There are no shortage of great biographies of Barack Obama written for a younger audience. Barack Obama: Our 44th President by Catherine Nichols, published in 2020, is an excellent overview of his early life and presidency for elementary-aged children. For tweens and teens, check out the similarly-titled Barack Obama: Our Forty-Fourth President by Beatrice Gormley. If you would like a picture book to share with young children, look for Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope by Nikki Grimes.


 An Intimate PortraitObama: An Intimate Portrait. A visual biography of Barack Obama's historic presidency, captured in unprecedented detail by his White House photographer, Pete Souza, Obama: An Intimate Portrait includes images documenting the most consequential hours of the Obama administration as well as the 44th President's encounters with world leaders, cultural figures and family members. Younger readers may like to check out another of Pete Souza’s books of photographs, Dream Big Dreams: Photograph’s from Barack Obama’s Inspiring and Historic Presidency.


Shirley Chisholm was born Shirley Anita St. Hill in Brooklyn in 1924.  DueShirley Chisholm to her parents’ financial struggles, she and her two sisters were sent for a time to live with their grandmother on the Caribbean island of Barbados, rejoining her parents in the US during the Great Depression.

She attended Brooklyn College, pursuing a career in teaching. In the 1950s, she became involved in political campaigning and helped to elect Black lawyer Lewis F. Flagg, Jr. to a New York district court judgeship. In the 1960s, she helped form the Unity Democratic Club, which worked to elect candidates for the 17th Assembly District. She won the 17th District representative seat in 1964. In 1972, she became the first Black American and the first black woman to run for the office of the president of the United States.

Her commitment to equality and understanding of her own significance is best captured in her own words:

“That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman proves that our society is not yet either just or free.”

Image of Unbought  & UnbossedUnbought & Unbossed. This autobiography is Shirley Chisholm’s account of her rise to be both the first Black congresswoman and a candidate to be the president of the United States.





Image of Chisholm '72 Unbought and UnbossedChisholm ’72 Unbought & Unbossed. This documentary chronicles the life and careers of Shirley Chisholm, from teaching in Harlem to running for the office of president of the United States in 1972.




Image of She was the First! The Trailblazing Life of Shirley ChisholmShe Was the First! The Trailblazing Life of Shirley Chisholm. This picture book written by Katheryn Russell-Brown and illustrated by Eric Velasquez, introduces  children and families to Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for and become a member of Congress and become a candidate for United States president.



Image of You Should Meet Sirley ChisholmYou Should Meet Shirley Chisholm. This Ready-to-Read book written by Laurie Calkhoven and illustrated by Kaitlyn Shea O'Connor explains who Shirley Chisholm was, why she was important to American politics, and serves as an introduction to the basic functioning of the federal government.




Image of Brave. Black. First.Brave. Black. First. 50+ African American Women Who Changed the World. Shirley Chisholm is one of those profiled in Cheryl Wills Hudson's collection of brave Black women in American history. Illustrated by Erin K. Robinson.





Mae Jemison Mae Jemisonwas born in 1956 to a carpenter and elementary school teacher.  She enrolled in Stanford University on a National Achievement Scholarship, and ultimately earned two undergraduate degrees, a medical degree, and served as a Peace Corps medical officer in West Africa.

Jemison was selected for NASA’s astronaut training program before her thirtieth birthday.  In 1992, she flew into space aboard the Endeavor on mission STS-47, during which she conducted experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness.  Mae Jemison is the first Black woman to fly in space, and even now is only one of three.

Her post-NASA career includes writing science books for young people, and establishing the Dorothy Jemison Foundation For Excellence.

book cover of follow where the wind goes by mae jemisonFind Where The Wind Goes. This breezy autobiography introducing astronaut Mae Jemison's early life and subsequent brilliant career is a treat. Jemison's vitality, intelligence, and humor shine through the book, and she has a fascinating and inspiring life story to tell.



book cover of exploring our sun by mae jemisonbook cover for Journey through our solar systembook cover for the 100 year starshipbook_cover_for_discovering_new_planets_dr._mae_jemison_and_100_year_starship.jpgTrue Book series. These four non-fiction books, Exploring Our Sun, Journey Through Our Solar System, The 100 Year Starship, and Discovering New Planets are authored by Mae Jemison as part of the True Book series. They are aimed for an all-ages demographic, and include handsome packaging, helpful time lines, closing "True Statistics" summaries, resource lists with online extensions, and other helpful tools to help you learn beyond the book.

book jacket for blast off into space by mae jemisonBlast Off Into Space Like Mae Jemison. Written by Caroline Moss and imaginatively illustrated by Sinem Erkas, this entry in the Work It, Girl series shows how Mae Jemison became the first Black woman in space. Moss identifies 10 key lessons from Mae Jemison that you can apply to your own life. For another great picture book biography, check out Mae C. Jemison by Meeg Pincus and Elena Bia.


book cover Dr. Mae Jemison brave rocketeerDr. Mae Jemison: Brave Rocketeer. Soar to the stars with Dr. Me Jemison in this exciting middle grade nonfiction biography written by Heather Alexander with illustrations by Jen Bricking. Perfect for fans of the Who Was and Little Leaders series. Short and engaging chapters are interspersed with special lists and other information sure to engage kids, whether they're already biography fans or "have to" write a report for school. This 2021 publication is the most up-to-date of our Jemison biographies. Younger learners may wish to check out Robert Kraske's Mae Jemison: Space Pioneer for an introduction to Jemison's NASA career.

book cover of Women In Space by Karen GibsonWomen In Space: 23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, and Gravity Breaking Adventures. This collection, written by Karen Bush Gibson, profiles 23 women from 10 different countries whose careers span half a century of human spaceflight. It includes coverage of such heroines as Sally Ride, Peggy Whitson, the women of Mercury 13, and of course, Mae Jemison. This broader anthology will show the trends and accomplishments of the space program from a unique perspective.


DVD cover of Makers. Volume 2Makers. (Volume 2):  Women in War, Space, Comedy, Business, Hollywood, Politics. This documentary profiles women leaders in the fields of politics, business, military, space, motion pictures, and comedy. Includes segments on Mae Jemison, Gwen Ifill, Shonda Rhimes, Geena Davis, and many others.  The Women in Comedy episode contains some mature subject matter, so viewer discretion is advised for that portion.

book cover for In search of our roots / how 19 extraordinary African Americans reclaimed their past / Henry Louis Gates, JrIn Search Of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past. Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. argues that family history has a special place in African American culture, in part because the American institution of slavery allowed for the creation of precious few records of African Americans' lives. By detailing individuals' stories, he writes, we may tell an important part of the larger American story. In these genealogies, Gates uses the search for the family history of 19 notable African Americans, including Mae Jemison, to form a narrative that goes beyond family lore. He illuminates the technical challenges of tracing African Americans' roots, but he also shares his famous subjects' memories and reflections about their families' reticence in discussing slavery or telling ancestors' stories about it. These elements combine in an intelligent narrative that will be accessible even to those who aren't genealogists. A closing chapter introduces some of the tools and methods for African American genealogical research, with bibliographic sources. This book is an able companion to the PBS series Gates hosted, but it stands on its own as well.


Pianist, singer, and civil rights activist, Nina Simone, was born in Tryon, Nina SimoneNorth Carolina in 1933 as Eustice Kathleen Waymon. She studied to become a classical pianist at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Juilliard School. When an application for scholarship at the Curtis Institute was rejected, she began playing in bars and supper clubs, adopting the name, Nina Simone, in part to keep her religious mother from finding out how she was making her living.

In 1957, she contracted with Bethlehem Records and recorded her first album which contained her first hit song, a cover of the Gershwin Brothers’ “I Loves You, Porgy.” She rose to fame playing Black classical music (she hated to be referred to as a jazz singer, believing it to be a racial insult.) As she rose to fame in the fifties and sixties, her music became increasingly concerned with Black Americans’ civil rights struggle. Her songs, “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” (among others) became anthems of the movement.

In 1970, disillusioned with the Civil Rights movement after the assassinations and deaths of leaders and frustrated with the behavior of her audiences, she left the U.S., eventually settling in France. Simone would occasionally record throughout the1970s and ‘80s and made her last album in 1993. She continued to perform until her death in 2003.

What Happened, Miss Simone?What happened, Miss Simone? This Oscar-nominated documentary chronicles Nina Simone's journey from child piano prodigy to iconic musician and passionate activist to her difficult final years, told in her own words through archival material.





 Live at Montreux 1976Nina Simone: Live at Montreux 1976. This program captures the High Priestess of Soul in three of her four appearances at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, with the commanding 1976 performance presented in its entirety along with two tracks from 1987 and four from 1990, for electrifying renditions of classics like "My Baby Just Cares for Me," "I Loves You, Porgy," "Four Women" and "Mississippi Goddam."



 The Nina Simone StoryTo Be Free: The Nina Simone Story. Nina Simone recorded for many record labels, including Bethlehem, Colpix, Philips, and RCA Victor. The difficulties of licensing of songs from multiple labels has made it so that there is no "definitive" compilation that includes all of her most acclaimed work. However, RCA’s 3-disc To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story does an admirable job, containing essential songs from each period and label (though it does skew towards her RCA recordings.) The Definitive Collection is an excellent single-disc overview over Simone’s career (though it is weighted towards her Philips recordings and doesn’t contain any of the early Bethlehem sides.) The Best of Nina Simone doesn’t contain anything recorded after her tenure at Philips, but it is a good distillation of her Civil Rights-era songs.

 The Complete Bethlehem SinglesMood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles. This collection contains Simone’s earliest recordings presented in the order they were released, including her first hit, “Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy.)” Eleven of these fourteen songs were released as her first album, Little Girl Blue.


Nina Simone Sings the BluesNina Simone Sings the Blues. Her first record for RCA finds Simone fronting a relatively pared-down group featuring guitars, bass, organ, drums, harmonica, saxophone, and her piano. It includes the classic “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” Compare this to her previous record, the (also excellent) High Priestess of Soul, which has some poppier material and large band arrangements.


What Happened, Miss Simone?: A BiographyWhat Happened Miss Simone?: A Biography. Inspired by the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, this companion biography also draws on archival footage, audio recordings, interviews, and Simone’s private diaries to present a fuller picture of one of the most influential, provocative, and least understood artists of our time. For more, check out Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone by Nadine Cohodas.



 Jazz Legend and Civil-rights Activist Nina SimoneNina: Jazz Legend and Civil Rights Activist Nina Simone. Written by Alice Brière-Haquet with evocative black-and-white illustrations by Bruno Liance, this introduction to jazz music legend and civil rights activist Nina Simone, is presented in the style of a lullaby to her daughter. It soulfully recounts her career, the trials she faced, and her achievements as an advocate for social justice.