America is a great place!
By understanding that a great amount of American history from different ethnicities, racial and cultural groups have been overlooked, we created special months to ensure these great people and movements in our shared history get the attention and respect they deserve — how cool is that?
I am fortunate to be a support team member for a theater arts class at Northwest Technical and Career Academy in Littleton, and I would like to share a project we have been working on via Zoom. Since February is Black History Month, we are exploring influential African American or African born artists through history.
The class was supplied a list of 32 entertainers, visual artists, playwrights, poets, singers, actors and dancers, then tasked with picking one artist, and creating a presentation about their life and contributions to the arts. For this article, I am going to list just a few of the artists. Bear in mind that some of these artists lived under Jim Crow restrictions and strict segregation. They were not allowed to eat in the clubs where they performed.
Here are some artists that I love:
• Visual artist Kehinde Wiley (1977-still alive and producing art): As a child, he noticed a lack of people of color in Renaissance paintings, so his focus his to insert everyday African Americans in to large-scale Renaissance paintings — the scale and color are breathtaking!
• Actress Hattie McDaniel (1893-1952): Appeared in around 300 films, yet only credited for around 80. As the first African American to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind,” Hattie had to sit in another room, as the dining room was “Whites Only.” Famously deciding to stay out of politics, she said, “Why should I turn down $700 to play a maid on film, then get paid $7 to be one in real life?”
• Torch song singer Eartha Kitt (1927-2008): Most famous for “Santa Baby,” Eartha rose from extreme poverty to become a celebrated singer and performer. Multi-lingual, and an outspoken civil rights activist, Eartha helped alter the way black performers were treated in nightclubs and theaters.
• Playwright August Wilson (1945-2005): Author of “Fences” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” August wrote the Century Cycle — a monumental task of showing a slice of life in Black America from each decade of the 20th Century. Powerful, illuminating and honest, these plays have quickly become a national treasure.
• Performer Josephine Baker (1906-1975): Primarily a dancer, Josephine refused to perform to segregated audiences, and eventually repatriated to Paris to escape American civil rights restrictions. The first person of color to star in a major motion picture “Siren of the Tropics,” 1927, she also became a member of the French Resistance in World War II.
• Amanda Gorman (1998-still living and producing art): New to the public eye, Amanda is a 22-year-old poet who is our National Youth Poet Laureate. She read her poem “The Hill we Climb” at the inauguration of President Joe Biden, and was commissioned to write the poem she recited at this year’s Super Bowl. Both poems are powerful and full of hope.
These are but a few of the amazing and talented African American artists who give us music, art and culture, and are a part of our American history. I invite you to spend some time online, learning more about these exceptional people, and the thousands of other artists who have dedicated their life to producing art.
Have an artful day!
John DuVall is the Managing Artistic Director for Lakeland Cultural Arts Center in Littleton.