Amazon employees standing together and  discussing historic characters for Black History Month

Meet the African historical figures inspiring us this Black History Month

Members of Amazon’s Black Employee Network in the UK are celebrating Black History Month with the help of artist and illustrator Onyinye Iwu.
on October 30, 2019
More than 60 schools around the country will receive free posters portraying legendary African figures as part of our celebrations for Black History Month.

Led by Aisha Suleiman, Executive Board Director of the Black Employee Network (BEN) in the UK, unique and inspiring illustrations of historical African figures were commissioned from artist and illustrator Onyinye Iwu. BEN members selected the historical figures who inspire them – including warrior queens, abolitionists, early practitioners of medicine and music composers.

Amazon employee, Aisha Suleiman, holding artwork with artist Onyinye Iwu

This Black History Month, Alexa users can also find out more about these historical figures by using a few simple utterances:
  • “What is Black History Month?”
  • “Tell me about Black History Month.”
  • “Tell me about Queen Amina.”
  • “Tell me about Ignatius Sancho.”
Amelia Dickens, a Machine Learning Data Analyst in Amazon’s Alexa team, worked with BEN members to share these iconic stories through Alexa. Amelia said: “Each person was so unique and fascinating. I loved getting to learn their stories myself in the process, and now Alexa will be able to share this with a huge audience.”

To celebrate the launch, we invited Onyinye to Amazon’s London office to discuss her artistic process and what Black History Month means to her. Onyinye was joined by BEN members who explained why these historical figures can shape the way we think about black achievement and identity.

Onyinye Iwu, artist and illustrator

Artist Onyinye Iwu discussing Black History Month in front of her artwork

Onyinye is an artist, illustrator and teacher based in East London. Her most recent work has focused on ‘Queens of Africa’ and she is passionate about redefining how we think about black identity in Britain.

“When we talk about black history and achievement, there are certain people who come up repeatedly, often African-Americans. But it’s important for those of us living in Britain with African and Caribbean heritage to be represented as well. I believe that we all need to be represented, and sometimes that means thinking differently and diving deeper.”

Onyinye’s work is inspired and informed by her own historical research and she uses a range of resources to recreate the likeness of her subjects. “There are no photographs of these figures, so I piece together their appearance by referring to historical resources. For example, I would look at the facial features and clothing of indigenous people in Africa at the time to recreate their appearance.”This passion for creativity is rooted in her childhood: “I was an only child at the time and we lived in Italy, so I was the only black kid in school. That meant I had lots of spare time at home to draw, think and write.”“When I got older, I realised that my illustrations were never of people who looked like me – subconsciously I was portraying the people I saw around me in Italy. That was an important realisation about the nature of identity and representation.”

Now, Onyinye wants to change the narrative around black identity so young people feel represented and more in touch with black history. “You know, there was black history and achievement before and after slavery. If we don’t expose children to their heritage, they may struggle to relate to the world around them. Films like Black Panther are a brilliant way to change minds, but ultimately those are fictional characters – while these are real historical figures.”

“When I studied the poetry of Chinua Achebe in school I was like, ‘Mum he’s Nigerian, he’s Igbo, he looks like us!’ It was mind-blowing. So my message is that black people have achieved a huge amount throughout history and we should celebrate that.”
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    Aisha Suleiman, Executive Board Director of BEN and Program Manager, AWS Educate
    Aisha Suleiman, Executive Board Director of Black Employee Network, holding artwork of Queen Amina
    Queen Amina, Warrior Queen (Zaria, Nigeria, circa 1610)
    Onyinye’s work inspired Aisha to get in touch about commissioning original illustrations for Black History Month. In fact, Aisha has Onyinye’s work hanging at home.“I saw Onyinye’s ‘Queens of Africa’ illustrations and loved her work, so I bought one for myself! I also realised that working with Onyinye would be a great way to celebrate these stories and bring them to a wider audience through Amazon and BEN.”

    “My family comes from northern Nigeria, a place of rich culture and great food, but historically it’s a male-dominated society.” With that history in mind, Aisha chose Queen Amina as somebody who bucked the trend.

    “Queen Amina is really cool – in the 1600s, she was not only training to be a soldier but also leading men into battle. You can imagine the societal expectations she had to overcome. She’s now a legend in Nigeria for her strength, spirit of womanhood and courage. Her courage inspires me to push through problems and do my own thing.”
  • 2
    Ramat Tejani, Diversity & Inclusion Marketing Manager
    Ramat Tejani, Diversity & Inclusion Marketing Manager, holding artwork of Queen Nanny
    Queen Nanny, Maroon Leader (Ashanti Empire, Ghana, circa 1680)
    Ramat selected Queen Nanny due to her own Ghanaian roots and her fearless, community-minded leadership. “I love Queen Nanny! She was captured in Ghana and taken to Jamaica, but she managed to escape slavery and became a fearless warrior who cared for her community and brought them together when she became the leader of a maroon settlement called Nanny town in 1720.”

    “Queen Nanny wanted people to be self-sufficient and she was a herbalist, so she was always sharing ways for the community to tackle health problems. I really respect the way she was community-minded and fighting for the rights of her people.”

    That inspires Ramat’s work with AWS Get IT, which empowers young people, especially girls, to engage with tech, innovation and engineering careers. “Tomorrow I’ve got nearly 500 students coming into the office, which is an incredibly opportunity to get more young people thinking about their careers and communities.”
  • 3
    Frederic Houinato, Finance Manager
    Frederic Houinato, Finance Manager, holding artwork of Toussaint L'Ouverture
    Toussaint L‘Ouverture, General and Leader of the Haitian Revolution (Saint-Domingue, circa 1743)
    Frederic is a long-standing BEN member who has been thinking about how the employee affinity group can communicate and celebrate the history of black identity and achievement in new ways. He feels Onyinye’s illustrations are a brilliant way to tell these stories and to share them with young people.

    “I was born in France, so as a French-speaker Toussaint is easy to relate to. He was a character who my father could speak about non-stop. You could almost make a movie about his life because he captures the complexity of that time.”

    “Toussaint was born a slave and bought his freedom in his mid-thirties, going on to lead the world’s largest slave revolt in the French colony of St Domingue. His actions helped Haiti gain its independence. His story reminds me that we always have hard decisions to make, especially when you want to maximise your impact on the world.”
  • 4
    Lucinda Opoku-Ababio, Internal IT Recruiter, EU Operations Team
    Lucinda Opoku-Ababio, Internal IT Recruiter, holding an artwork of Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa
    Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa, Warrior Queen (Ashanti Empire, Ghana circa 1840)
    For Lucinda, working with BEN and Black History Month is not just about looking at the dark side of history – it’s also about celebrating the good times. “As Africans and as black British people, we bring the noise, we’re vibrant, we love food, we get the party going!”

    “My family’s Ghanaian and I’m proud to identify as both British and Ghanaian. That’s why I picked Yaa Asantewaa, she’s from a similar area in Ghana to my father. She fought colonialism as a top warrior and won against the British army at the time. She was determined and forceful – and those traits shimmer through us today.”

    For young people today, Lucinda wants to send a positive message about representation: “Sometimes you need to dig deeper, go further and think differently to find your inspiration.”
  • 5
    Rebecca Wijeyesinghe, Executive Assistant in Amazon Transportation Services
    Rebecca Wijeyesinghe, Executive Assistant in Amazon Transportation Services, holding artwork of Olaudah Equiano
    Olaudah Equiano, writer and abolitionist (Anambra state, Nigeria, circa 1745)
    Becky leads communications for BEN and she’s excited to get started. “As somebody who’s mixed race – of Guyanese and Sri Lankan descent – I understand why it’s important that we build an inclusive and diverse environment. But we also know that it takes willpower and innovative thinking to ensure we always communicate the huge value of inclusivity.”

    With Asian and Caribbean heritage, but born and raised in London, Becky has a broad perspective on how we identify and relate to the past. “Those cultures have defined my viewpoint on life, especially the importance of being accepting and tolerant of others.”

    “I chose Olaudah Equiano because he has such an incredible story – he was an enslaved man who bought his freedom and became a campaigner to abolish the slave trade. As a free man, he worked for the Royal Navy and wrote a bestselling autobiography on the horrors of slavery which influenced the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.”
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