Black History Month: Art and Literature Spotlight

By Gabrielle London

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, black artists and writers rose in popularity. Their influences helped shape modern times and major turning points in history, such as the Harlem Renaissance and Black Lives Matter movements. Langston Hughes, a famous poet in the mid 1900s, expanded the narrative for black writers in America. Jacob Lawrence’s artwork shed light on the struggles of black people during the 20th century. And Zora Neale Hurston’s novels inspired black communities and women around the globe. Without the presence of these revolutionaries, the art and writing landscape in the United States would look vastly different and much less diverse. These artists deserve credit and recognition, and to be known for inspiring generations of Black Americans. 

One of the most influential and important contributors to the development of black art and literature was poet Langston Hughes. One of Hughes’ first works, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, was published in The Crisis Magazine during his youth. He received high praise, and a foundation was formed for his career which jump started several years later. For a time, he worked various odd jobs in the United States, until on a fateful day he ran into American poet Vachel Lindsay. He was impressed by Hughes’ works and used his connections within the field to spread the writings. Hughes began to gain more popularity and, in 1929, published his first novel. Many of Langston Hughes’ novels and poems focused on the struggles of black Americans in modern times. These works brought attention to the issues faced by these communities, educating the masses who tended to turn a blind eye. By promoting these difficulties through his writing, Langston Hughes helped to change the narrative. He instilled confidence and fearlessness with his pen, and because of him the foundation for black literature was expanded and strengthened.

Where Langston Hughes defined the literature landscape, Jacob Lawrence did it with art. Lawrence began taking art classes at 13 and continued with painting for his entire life. He dropped out of school at 16, and even then, continued with art workshops and programs in Harlem. By 24, he was the first black artist with a collection displayed at the Edith Halpert Downtown Gallery, The Migration Series. Anywhere he was, at any time in his life, Lawrence was likely painting. He was drafted into the Coast Guard during WWII, and even then he was creating art about the war experience. His colorful style was self defined as “dynamic cubism,” drawing influence from his own experiences in Harlem. Lawrence’s collections mimicked his own life, while also representing a population too often disregarded. He was clearly gifted, and his praised art brought recognition to Black people in America. Jacob Lawrence was a well-rounded man—his worldly experiences helped him break down the barriers set by racism in and his works spread knowledge of the black struggle. Along with others, he ushered in a new era, a second modern renaissance for Black artists in the United States. 

Gwendolyn Brooks’ works were also crucial to the development of black art and literature. Despite the adversity of racism and sexism, Brooks was an acclaimed poet and writer and dedicated her life to literature. Her first poem was published when she was just 13, and in the three years afterward she wrote 75 more. She worked as a secretary to support herself but took poetry workshops when she could, helping her make great strides in her writing career. Following the release of her second book, Annie Allen, in 1950, Brooks accomplished something many writers dreamt of—winning the Pulitzer Prize. She was the first African American ever to win, making history and paving a path for future black writers and poets. Many of her works explored various social issues and mindful concepts. She increased awareness of different struggles through confident and thoughtful writing and words that spoke to the soul. Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry withstood the difficulties of racism and sexism and proved that black people are not to be ignored or underestimated. Rather, they must be acknowledged and their creations given deserved recognition. 

Black artists and writers are an important part of literary history. Their achievements are too often brushed aside, their influences ignored. But in reality, they are a core pillar of American literature and still inspire generations of youth–myself included. Langston Hughes’ poetry beautifully acknowledges the struggles faced by black people. He represents the Harlem Renaissance and his works have impacted the rise of Black Lives Matter movements. Jacob Lawrence’s modern cubism paintings literally paint a vivid image of life and difficulties, and his influence reaches through history impacting representation today. Gwendolyn Brooks was a revolutionary. She broke down barriers through her writing and obliterated stereotypes about black people and women. Her winning the Pulitzer Prize was a turning point in recent history and changed the narrative for Black writers. Without the influences of these greats, as well as others, the landscape of art and writing would look very different. 

It is evident that recognizing black artists and writers is extremely important. To encourage future generations and to expand the landscape to be more inclusive, we must come together to appreciate black innovators. It is necessary for today and the future that society no longer excludes minorities but appreciates their efforts and works.

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