African American Artists
The definition of an artist is wide-ranging and covers a broad spectrum of activities to do with creating art, practicing the arts and/or demonstrating an art. In deciding which African American artists we would highlight on our websites, we wanted to recognize persons, living or deceased, who have made significant contributions to the arts in America either as performing or practicing black artist in individual disciplines.
Think American arts and think African American: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo," Jacob Lawrence's "Migration of the Negro." Artistic works by African Americans have revolutionized the American arts scene and given the cultural face America shows the outside world its verve and vigor.
Being a artist requires talent, but, for the African-American artists, talent is not always enough. In nineteenth century America, race often determined who could be trained in the arts. There were no special schools or places where African-Americans could freely exhibit their talents. These talented artists were excluded from the academies, associations, and teaching institutions available to white artists. In rare cases, beneficent white families broke the rules and provided knowledge, direction, and resources to budding African-American talents in the arts. Many of these white patrons were among the abolitionists of this period in American history.
In the early 1920's there was a movement was called the "Negro" or "Harlem Renaissance". This resurgence of literature, knowledge, and the arts coming out of New York was powerful. A fertile and acceptable door had been opened to African-American musicians, writers, poets, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and visual artists. The opportunity was now available to grow and show off their best talents. From 1919 to about 1929, Harlem, New York became the capitol of cultural activity for African-Americans. This period in American history was extremely uplifting to African-Americans as a people. Personalities and individuals connected their expressions in writings, music, and visual artworks as they related to the political, social, and economic conditions of being black in America.
With the conclusion of WWI came an end to wartime frugality and conservation. In an era of peace, Americans experienced an economic boom, as well as a change in social morays. Nicknamed “The Roaring 20s” for its dynamic changes, the decade became known for its celebration of excess and its rejection of wartime ideologies. Americans also began investing more time and money in leisure activities and artistic endeavors.
Around this same time, Congress ratified the Prohibition Act. While the amendment did not ban the actual consumption of alcohol, it made obtaining it legally difficult. Liquor-serving nightclubs, called “speakeasies” developed during this time as a way to allow Americans to socialize, indulge in alcohol consumption, and rebel against the traditional culture.
One of the best speakeasies in Harlem was the Cotton Club, a place that intended to have the look and feel of a luxurious Southern plantation. To complete the theme, only African-American entertainers could perform there, while only white clientele (with few exceptions) were allowed to patronize the establishment. This attracted high-powered celebrity visitors such as Cole Porter, Bing Crosby and Doris Duke to see the most talented black entertainers of the day. Some of the most famous jazz performers of the time - including singer Lena Horne, composer and musician Duke Ellington, and singer Cab Calloway - graced the Cotton Club stage.
Attending clubs in Harlem allowed whites from New York and its surrounding areas to indulge in two taboos simultaneously: to drink, as well as mingle with blacks. Jazz musicians often performed in these clubs, exposing white clientele to what was typically an African-American form of musical entertainment. As jazz hit the mainstream, many members of older generations began associating the raucous behavior of young people of the decade with jazz music. They started referring to the 20s, along with its new dance styles and racy fashions, as “The Jazz Age.”
By 1926, another stage in the developmental history of African-American visual artists came about. It was the establishment of the Harmon Foundation. The Harmon Foundation became an anchor for promoting the works of African-American artists. William E. Harmon, a real estate magnate, became the chief philanthropist and patron in the support of African-American artists and culture. Harmon's interest in African-American artists reflected "his interest in promoting justice and social commitment." The "deprivation of black Americans, he reasoned, was a national problem, not simply a burden on blacks alone." The Harmon Foundation existed from 1922 to the end of 1967.
The 1940's and 1950's were not easy times for the African-American artists. Only the acceptable, critically acclaimed few were able to work and produce lucrative pieces of art. Patrons of the arts were still mostly white and wealthy. Artists like the Florida "Highwaymen" found an unique way to sell and display their art, by producing in mass quantities and selling their artwork on the side of the road. Thornton Dial's art functions like folk tales, combining African and American traditions to tell stories that are at once personal, political, and spiritual.
Click on the names below for a complete biography and photos of each of the African American Artists listed.
Actors & Directors
Diahann Carroll Don Cheadle Bill Cosby Dorothy Dandridge Ruby Dee Laurence Fishburne Morgan Freeman Gregory Hines Samuel Jackson Spike Lee Hattie McDaniel Tyler Perry Sidney Poitier Cicily Tyson Ben Vereen Denzel Washington Oprah Winfrey
Singers and Musicians
Louis Armstrong Marian Anderson Count Basie Harry Belafonte Chuck Berry Bobby "Blue" Bland James Brown Cab Calloway Benny Carter Ray Charles Nat King Cole John Coltrane Sam Cooke Miles Davis Sammy Davis Jr. Duke Ellington Ella Fitzgerald Aretha Franklin Marvin Gaye Dizzy Gillespie W.C. Handy Jimi Hendrix Lauryn Hill Billie Holiday Lena Horne Mahalia Jackson Michael Jackson Quincy Jones B.B. King Eartha Kitt LL Cool J Jelly Roll Morton Charlie Parker Prince Bessie Smith Fats Waller
Maya Angelou James Baldwin Imamu Amiri Baraka Gwendolyn Bennett Ed Bradley Gwendolyn Brooks William Wells Brown Octavia Butler Charles W. Chesnutt Countee Cullen Rita Dove W.E.B. Du Bois Paul Laurence Dunbar Ralph Ellison Olaudah Equiano Jessie Fauset Ernest Gaines Nikki Giovanni Alex Haley Lorraine Hansberry Robert Hayden Bell Hooks Langston Hughes Zora Hurston James Weldon Johnson Robert Maynard Claude McKay Terry McMillian Toni Morrison Walter Mosley Lucy Terry Wallace Henry Thurman Jean Toomer Alice Walker Dorothy West Phillis Wheatley August Wilson Harriet Wilson Richard Wright
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