African Americans and the Arts

Dr. Lavern Terrell wrote about African Americans and the Arts to kickoff February’s Black History Month recognition for the Journal Record.

By Dr. Lavern Terrell
Courtesy to the JR
“For centuries, Western intellectuals denied or minimized the contributions of people of African descent to the arts as well as history, even as their artistry in many genres was mimicked and/or stolen,” according to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, 2024.  
“However, we can still see the unbroken chain of Black art production from antiquity to the present, from Egypt across Africa, from Europe to the New World.
“Prior to the American Revolution, enslaved Africans of the Lowcountry began their more than 300-year tradition of making sweetgrass baskets, revealing their visual artistry via craft.”
It is for this reason that in 2024, Black History Month focuses on African Americans and the arts.
Acknowledged or not, there have always been African American artists among us.
From Phyllis Wheatley, who was the first African American to have published a book of poetry in America and who in 1775 wrote a poem to “His Excellency, George Washington (sent to Washington at his military headquarters),  to Amanda Gorman and her 2021 Biden Inauguration poem titled, “The Hill We Climb.” And from George W. Johnson, who was the first African American recording artist in 1890, according to NPR, to Samara Joy, the Grammy Winner for Best New Artist in 2023.
Needless to say, there have been and are African American painters, sculptors and other artisans, writers, musicians, actors, designers; the list of African American artists could go on for pages and pages.
Like all artists, these creators do so for the beauty of a thing. As a musician, I know that stirring of the soul and the joy which comes from creating and performing music. An artist creates because they have to create and by doing so, they express a part of themselves. We as consumers of this art are able to vicariously experience the emotions that are expressed and evoked by the art.
But there is also what Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher calls, the “Anointed Artistry:” artistry that moves beyond mere self-expression to “truth telling.”
Expressing the truth of a situation, whether it be about lynching  and Jim Crow (Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”), income inequality and workers’ rights (“I Am A Man” signs in the 1968 Sanitation Workers strike in Memphis, Tenn.), voting rights and women’s rights (songs by Fannie Lou Hamer, Bernice Johnson Reago and Sweet Honey in the Rock), Black Lives Matter (the murals in various U. S. cities); the list of social justice art would almost be as long as the one for African American artists.
Throughout American history, there have been African American artists whose creative expressions have been both joyful and “anointed.”
For 2024 (not just Black History Month), it is my hope that we all explore African American artists  and embrace the privilege (and some might say responsibility) as consumers of this art to be both entertained, informed and inspired to bring about change for a more just world.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Terrell grew up in Hamilton and was a 1977 graduate of Hamilton High School. She studied music in undergrad school and obtained her doctorate in educational leadership. She is currently an associate professor at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn.



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