This year has earned itself quite the reputation. It may not be the worst year ever, but it’s making a case for the Top 5 (or Bottom 5, as it were) in recent memory. Depending on who you talk to, it’s the year we played ourselves, the year the Republic began its dizzying decline, or the year we woke up to all the work left to be done. But, it wasn’t all bad in 2016: It was a watershed year for diversity and weed, for one. We also got introduced to a new slate of game-changers, people who inspired us and showed us our collective potential. Here’s a look back at a few of the year’s highlights and heroes.
1. 2016 may have begun with #OscarsSoWhite, but it sure came a long way in redeeming itself on the arts front.
There was the cultural juggernaut that was “Hamilton,” a musical that has stomped so strong an impression on pop culture that we might take for granted that a Puerto Rican from Washington Heights played a founding father.
There was the surprising and delightful Atlanta, with its sharp, witty writing (from an all black writers room, nonetheless), and endearing performances. And of course, who can forget Issa Rae in Insecure, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None, Ava Duvernay’s The 13th, the entire cast of Rogue One, and Ali Wong’s Baby Cobra, among so many others.
And the treasures weren’t limited to the big and silver screens. If you cracked open a book this year, you were likely to find provocative, timely works written by an array of writers. From Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad to poet Ocean Vuoung’s stellar Night Sky With Exit Wounds, readers saw themselves reflected—and challenged—in new, important ways.
2. We lost Muhammad Ali this summer, but the spirit of protest was alive and well in 2016 (‘cus let’s face it, it’s not like we had a shortage of shit to rail against).
Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest police brutality—and athletes across the country (from fellow pros to students) followed suit. The WNBA, long vocal about justice issues, proudly wore Black Lives Matter shirts after Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed within a day of each other.
It wasn’t just athletes. After Trump’s election, Americans across the country took to the streets, many urging their cities and schools to become sanctuaries. Protest also took on new forms: #OscarsSoWhite (and its equally problematic step-cousin, #JournalismSoWhite) brought renewed attention and vigor to minority representation in pop culture and media—and even brought about significant changes to the Academy. BLM, which started in 2013 as a hashtag created by three black women, went global this year. And #NoDAPL showed how the internet could mobilize allies (and confuse authorities). In what may be the great silver lining to an otherwise depressing year, the water protectors at Standing Rock showed us that protest can and does work.
3. If we could forget the white-hot privileged mess that was Ryan Lochte for a moment, the Rio Olympics actually had some of the most heartwarming and uplifting moments of the year.
The world saw a queer Afro-Brazilian woman from one of Rio’s most infamous favelas take home Brazil’s first gold medal, as well as the first Olympic refugee team. These summer games also featured the most LGBTQ athletes ever. And who could forget this extremely relatable Chinese athlete and lowkey period hero? Black women were the talk of Rio (more on that later), but let’s not forget the Fiji rugby team (who brought home their country’s first gold medal, and showcased the drop-dead fineness of Pacific men). Speaking of which, can we please all pause and light a candle for the Tongan flag bearer one more time?
4. The list of wonder women is so long that we’re bound to miss someone (or 12), so suffice it to say: black women and girls brought it in 2016.
Simone Biles was the face of the Olympics, while Simone Manuel defied expectations (and years of racist history) to win gold in the pool. Elaine Welteroth, editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, filled the magazine with the most diverse, and some of the most provocative, content it’s ever had. On the political front, three black congresswomen started the first caucus on black women and girls, and Kamala Harris became the second black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. CRWN launched and gave black girls the lush hair mag they deserved. Black women didn’t just make pop music, they redefined it. The Knowles sisters gave us the soundtracks to our year (and some of 2016’s most memorable imagery), and Rihanna personified carefree black girl goals. On the film front, Ava Duvernay continued to bring black narratives to the fore, and you could find black women at the forefront of the year’s most important social movements—both on and offline. The most marvelous thing? That’s only the tip of the iceberg.
5. We already pretty much knew it, but this was the year Michelle Obama proved she was in a league all her own.
Setting aside the amount of face (and life!) she gave us on the cover of Vogue, T Magazine, and Essence, and her influence on pop culture (see: these kids rapping about actual broccoli shouting her out), our FLOTUS provided us guidance, comfort, and inspiration during the moments we needed it most. She managed to call Trump out on his shit without ever mentioning him by name, and delivered the two best speeches from a very long, very wearing campaign season (well, three if you count Melania’s). Lest we forget, Michelle even called out how the White House (and by proxy, this country) was built on black labor at the Democratic National Convention.
6. Reefer also had a remarkable 2016: Eight U.S. states have now legalized recreational marijuana, making those epic pilgrimages to Colorado dispensaries a thing of the past.
When it comes to medicinal herb, more than half of U.S. states have medical marijuana laws on their books. Weed is such a hot ticket that investors and marketers are getting behind the cannabis industry, hoping their profits get as high as their customers.
7. We also saw welcome diversity in our representations of beauty.
CoverGirl made history—twice—with their ambassadors. James Charles was their first Cover Boy, and Nura Afia became the company’s first model featured wearing a hijab. NatGeo featured a trans activist on its cover in another historic first. This Japanese Instagram star was a body positivity hero, as was the impossibly gorgeous Ashley Graham—who’s going to slay covers regardless of whether you have clothes her size or not.
8. While 2016 was a great year for music, it’s worth separating out Chance the Rapper.
He was the first artist to have a Billboard Top 200 album based on streams alone (prompting The Guardian to name him “the world’s first truly independent artist”). But he broke the mold in other ways too. Coloring Book was a dazzling display of black boy joy, but also black boy vulnerability (listen to “Summer Friends” again and marvel at the way he weaves nostalgia, mortality, regret, and love together). This is also the 23-year-old who attended the Obamas’ last state dinner—and challenged Barack to a dancing contest—led hundreds of voters to polls, and threw the South Side of Chicago’s first music festival. Like Chance himself told it, “The people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be.”
9. Hillary Clinton’s loss this election was heartbreaking, but let’s not forget: A woman who had dedicated 40 years to public service was just one glass ceiling away from being President of the United States.
Over a month since Election Day, it’s still hard to talk about Clinton and what she meant—harder still to view her achievements with less of the bitter and more of the sweetness. But this was a historic campaign: the first one ever to see a woman as a major party’s nominee. And on November 8, women of all ages turned up at the polls (many making it a point to bring their daughters) to cast their vote for the first time for a “Madame President.” We may not be able to make sense of what happened that day for a long time yet, but the movement happened, and it mattered, and may it still have life yet.