Before Us, Among Us: Celebrating Black Artists Who Lifted Up Movements, Shaped Our Culture, and Changed History
As part of our efforts to celebrate Black genius during Black History Month and every month, New Profit has asked Dr. Gayle Pemberton, a leading scholar on African American literature and history, to help us highlight Black artists who have shaped American history and culture in the deepest and most profound ways.February 22, 2022
As part of our efforts to celebrate Black genius during Black History Month and every month, New Profit has asked Dr. Gayle Pemberton, a leading scholar on African America literature and history, to help us highlight Black artists who have shaped American history and culture in the deepest and most profound ways. Their words, notes, brush strokes, and images can give us all hope and inspiration for coming out of this period of trauma a better nation. Below, Dr. Pemberton helps answer the question, “Why should we care about artists from all those years ago?”
The 20th century is ancient history to the quarter of the U.S. population under 25 years old. Current political, social, and technological moments do not come with highly visible strings, linking the now with the then, for the young to see. But all history is interconnected with our present, whether we are conscious of it or not. For many Blacks in the United States, the past, beginning with enslavement and continuing with the struggle for true freedom and equality, intersects with the present in nearly all aspects of life. It is logical that many contemporary references to the 20th century are limited to its later decades, where a significant portion of the general population still has active memory. But, for Blacks, the years from roughly 1900 to 1950 are indispensable history if we are to make sense of today.
The early 1900s witnessed the beginnings of the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the North. Political and social theorists, writers and activists from Booker T. Washington to W. E. B. Du Bois, from Ida B. Wells to Marcus Garvey, from James Weldon Johnson to Hubert Harrison, all had visions of the future and solutions to what White America thought of as “the Negro Problem.” These early 20th century thinkers and activists left an active legacy for the post-World War II human and civil rights movements here and around the globe, many of which continue today.
Much of art created now by so many Black and other artists exists because of the work created then. Direct lineages exist between the fiction and anthropology of Zora Neale Hurston (whom I’ll write about in another piece coming here soon) to late 20th and early 21st Century artists. Gospel music that emanates from the largest Black congregations to the smallest storefront churches almost any day of the week derives from the compositions of Thomas Dorsey. Louis Armstrong, with his cornet and trumpet, was paramount to the creation not only of jazz but also of jazz singing that we can hear today in musical and verbal improvisation. Romare Bearden’s collages, cartoons, and paintings were a colorful, imaginative palette of many forms of Black life to which any number of visual artists today owe their inspiration.
These artists and their contemporaries sought to express the profundity of Black lives, or as W. E. B. Du Bois famously called them, “the Souls of Black Folk.” They created ways to make the unspeakable horrors of slavery useful by studying and imagining the ways enslaved people preserved their humanity despite their dehumanization. Instead of seeking to bury the slave past, or be embarrassed by it, as many Black Americans preferred to do, they mined the past to enrich the
In recent years, the political, social, educational, and economic gains Blacks have made are more fragile than ever. The souls of black folk, grown “deep” in the words of Langston Hughes, face familiar barriers and burdens. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the unequal social divide, killing and hospitalizing a disproportionate number of Black Americans compared to other populations. In such times, we must remember that our ancestors left us with art meant to buoy us
in troubled times, and we have to both share that magic and create on our own for current and future generations. A recognition of how our past is also our present reminds us that former trials also gave birth to great art, and with it, great hope and determination.
Langston Hughes, the great versatile writer who started his career during the Harlem Renaissance, recognized just how serious the role of the Black artist is when he wrote, “Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret beauty to people—the beauty within themselves.”*
*Langston Hughes, Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, with Christa Fratantoro. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
Dr. Gayle Pemberton is Professor Emerita of English and African American Studies at Wesleyan University, the author of The Hottest Water in Chicago, and an advisor to New Profit. She is a former Guggenheim Foundation, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute and Ford Foundation fellow.
Interested in more resources on Black Artists in America? Here’s a few:
- The National Gallery of Art’s Harlem Renaissance resources
- Grantmakers in the Art’s Black Arts & Cultural Funding and Justice Resource Hub
- The Block’s list of 10 Resources You Need to Know for Black Creatives
- Black Art in America, an online portal and foundation documenting, preserving and promoting the contributions of the African American arts community
- Artists for Humanity, a Boston-based program where teen artists and designers collaborate on innovative projects commissioned by clients.