As culture influences art, art can also influence culture. The creative community enriches our lives in so many ways and helps us see the world from many different perspectives. Creative outlets can bridge the gaps between communities. Creativity can bring people together, shed light on personal experiences, and educate the world around us. Today, we recognize a few creators from the Black community who have played a part of enhancing our lives and bringing light to social change.
Gordon Parks was a lifelong promoter of change for Black community. His work as a photographer documented what life was like for Black Americans during the 1940s-1950s, which significantly defined his work. He knew the power of a single photo, and what it could do to promote change.
In these days of political protest and unrest, Devin Allen finds himself on the front lines. The Baltimore photographer has been featured on the cover of Time Magazine twice, both pictures from the protests in Baltimore after the killings of Freddie Grey and George Floyd. He credited works from Gordon Parks to inspire him to promote social change.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was a graffiti artist turned successful painter who began his work in the late 1970s. He may have been young, but his work left a prominent mark on the culture of the time. He had a Haitian and Puerto Rican heritage but was born in Brooklyn, New York. It was in New York City that he held his debut solo gallery exhibition.
Alvin Ailey was a dancer and choreographer who helped shape the way our country views dance. He was born in Rodgers, Texas and started competing in dance in Lester Horton’s classes, one of the first integrated dance schools in the America. Throughout his life, Ailey’s goal was to honor Black culture by embracing its uniqueness in dance. Whether he was on Broadway, opening the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, or helping to jumpstart so many other programs, he always found a way to preserve Black culture through his work. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom following his death, honoring his work on civil rights and dance in the United States, which is the highest award given to a civilian.
Kehinde Wiley is an artist who was born in 1977. He is most known for his collection of portraits in which he depicts Black men in what is perceived as “hip-hop” attire in “Old Master” paintings. His works are known all over the world. In 2015, President Barack Obama asked Wiley to paint him for his official portrait. As the first Black U.S. president, Barack Obama’s portrait was the first painting of a Black president to be included in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery collection, and it was also the first official portrait to be painted by a Black artist.
Amy Sherald is a painter from Columbus, Georgia. She has traveled all over the world to study and show her works. Sherald has a number of degrees in the arts including an MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art. While living in Baltimore, she often reflected on her childhood as being one of a few Black students in her private school. Then her works shifted from somewhat autobiographical to portray what life was like for Black people in the United States. She later painted the official portrait of Michelle Obama.
Berry Gordy is the founder of Motown Records. The “Motown Sound” dominated the music charts throughout the 1960s and into the 70s, and Gordy’s Motown continues to be highly regarded for its influence on popular music and culture many decades later. Gordy was also a successful songwriter for Etta James, the Jackson 5, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and many other legendary artists. He used his success to guide more acts into stardom. He wanted to represent the best in the music business, so he made his clients the best performers they could be. If it wasn’t for Gordy, the music business would be very different than what we know today.
Ava DuVernay is a director, producer and writer based in Los Angles, California. Her work stretches across a number of different genres. She has directed, written, and produced (sometimes all three at once) many films and TV series that have become household names, including Netflix’s When They See Us, which sheds light on the wrongful convictions of five Black and Latinx teenage boys known as “the Central Park Five,” the documentary 13th and Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time. The honors that she has accumulated include an Emmy, an Academy nomination, and BAFTA and Peabody Awards. She is also the “highest grossing Black female director in American box office history.”
Jacqueline Woodson has changed children’s literature for the better. She has taken experiences from her life and created works that have resonated across genres. Having experienced racism in her life, Woodson’s memoir Brown Girl Dreaming is a recount of her life experiences. Her memoir won the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and she has won many more awards for her 21 other novels. It is safe to say that without Jacqueline Woodson, children’s literature would not be nearly as rich or insightful.
Kendrick Lamar is a contemporary rap artist who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2018. He is the first artist to win the award that was not from the jazz or non-classical genre. He won the award because the academy believed that Lamar “captured the complexity of modern African American life.” Lamar continues to use his gifts as a talented artist to promote social change within his work.
If there is anyone who leads the charge for social change and acceptance, it is Tee Franklin. Tee Franklin is a Queer, Black graphic novelist who was in a car accident in 2014 that left her disabled and dependent on a scooter. She only began writing comics in 2016, but since then has been awarded many honors. In 2017, Franklin was given the Queer Press Grant for her graphic novella Bingo Love, which then raised $60,000. Her work Love is Love was also named as a New York Times Best Seller. Franklin is continuing her work in graphic novels, but also continues to be an advocate for many other causes she believes in.
Roxane Gay is an author who has written a wide variety of essay, books and memoirs. Her work Bad Feminist is considered one of the most defining works on the subject. She aims to include everyone, even when the topic has been known to previously exclude certain groups. For Bad Feminist, she was awarded the PEN USA’s Freedom to Write Award for her “demonstrated exceptional courage in the defense of free expression.” Gay’s memoir Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is an attempt to share parts of her life, but also incorporate things that many other women deal with, such as confidence issues. In 2016, she also was the first Black woman to write for Marvel Comics for a spinoff of Black Panther about a “female revolutionary.”
By its ability to showcase different racial and cultural art forms, we celebrate diversity. This is especially important during times of complex and emotional political climates, as they create opportunities to break down barriers by highlighting vibrant arrays of cultural art and expression. The outstanding artists and works highlighted in this post are only a small piece of the amazing creative works that the world has yet to see from current and future Black creators. We will continue to support Black creators and look forward to many more creative works from them that the public can enjoy.