Black artists have always been an essential part of American culture

Through Noelani Kirschner

Black women in the arts have long formed the backbone of the American cultural landscape.

As Americans were reminded during President Biden’s inauguration, young black artists like the poet Amanda Gorman emerge and share their vision of the future with the world.

For black history month, we examine past and present defining figures in music, literature and the visual arts.

These five pioneers transformed and elevated American culture, leaving their mark on the national and international stage.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald (© AP Images)

Ella Fitzgerald is synonymous with American jazz. The “Queen of Jazz” not only made her debut at the age of 17 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, but became a worldwide legend for her slippery vocal range and prolific recording output. Fitzgerald was also the first black woman to win a Grammy Award and has won 13 others.

Toni Morisson

Portrait of Toni Morrison (© Michel Euler/AP Images)
Toni Morrison (© Michel Euler/AP Images)

Toni Morisson revolutionized the way the inner lives of black women are portrayed in fiction and non-fiction. Before becoming a professor at Princeton University, she was the first black woman editor of the fiction department at Random House. Among his dozens of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 for his novel Beloved. The book was also named the New York Times’ best book of the last 25 years in 2006.

Dove Rita

Photo of smiling Rita Dove wearing a varsity gown and cap (© Michael Dwyer/AP Images)
Rita Dove (© Michael Dwyer/AP Images)

“Poetry is language at its most distilled and powerful. It’s like a stock cube: you carry it around and it feeds you when you need it,” said American poet Rita Dove in 1993. While Dove was a renaissance woman in the literary world – writing novels, plays, short stories and literary criticism – his poetry has attracted international attention. She was Poet Laureate Consultant Poetry at the Library of Congress from 1993 to 1995.

Simone Leigh

Portrait of smiling Simone Leigh with dreadlocks and pearls (© Andrew Toth/Getty Images)
Simone Leigh (© Andrew Toth/Getty Images)

Sculptor Simone Leigh creates bold and majestic works that celebrate black women, illustrated in her magnum opus, A brick house. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, she has exhibited her sculptures in the United States and around the world, from Kansas City, Missouri, to Cape Town, South Africa. She will represent the United States at the 59th Venice Biennale – the famous international art exhibition – in April 2022, becoming the first black American woman to do so.

Amy Sherald

Head shot of Amy Sherald wearing white glasses (© Andrew Harnik/AP Images)
Amy Sherald (© Andrew Harnik/AP Images)

Painter Amy Sherald is known for her portraits of everyday black Americans doing everyday things, set against monochrome backgrounds. But it’s his portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, which earned him international recognition. As for what inspired her to start painting, Sherald says it was the power of seeing herself – and other black Americans – represented in a historical canon traditionally of white art. “Self-storytelling is something that we, as black people, didn’t have the opportunity to do,” she told the National Foundation for the Arts in 2016. “Filling that cultural space for me has become really important.”

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