10 Black Artists From Stage, Screen, And Everything In Between
Artists are instrumental in shaping the way we view our world, and these 10 Black artists have all created something that will be influential for generations to come.
Sarah Burns · 5 months ago
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1. Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is best known for being the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was drawn to the power of storytelling at an early age, and her childhood was rich with African American folklore, music, and stories passed down from previous generations. Once Morrison learned how to read, it became her favorite pastime, and she was rarely ever without a book.
Morrison’s captivating narratives focus on the struggles and experiences of Black women. Her most celebrated work, Beloved, was inspired by the true story of Marguerite Garner, who escaped slavery in the South, and struggled to build a better life for herself and her family. The heart-wrenching tale even won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
As an artist interested in exploring new genres, Toni Morrison wrote essays, operas, plays and even teamed up with her son Slade to write children's books.
You can celebrate Toni Morrison Day on February 18th every year, like the residents of her hometown of Larian, Ohio. But honoring Toni Morrison’s memory is even easier than that — just pick up any of her books and share in her life-long love of reading and storytelling.
2. Shonda Rhimes
Writer, showrunner, and executive producer of her namesake company, Shondaland, Shonda Rhimes has a knack for crafting thrilling narratives, relatable characters, and ultimately ripping out the hearts of her adoring fans.
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As a teenager, Rhimes served as a hospital volunteer, an experience that would shape her powerhouse drama, Grey’s Anatomy, and its spin-off series, Private Practice. Before her time writing about life in the ER, Rhimes wrote the box-office success Crossroads for Britney Spears and several sequels for Disney, including the Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. Rhimes’ critically acclaimed work has won her two Golden Globes, three Emmy nominations, and two Writers Guild Of America Awards.
Most recently, Rhimes has been developing titles for Netflix. Her show Bridgerton quickly became the most-watched show on Netflix last December and was renewed for a second season.
For more Shondaland content, check out the Shondaland Audio Podcasts, featuring fiercely funny women, thought-provoking discussions, and real-talk about the foibles of parenting.
3. Spike Lee
After three decades of breaking the film-making mold, “Spike Lee Joints” are renowned for their style, confrontational tone, and sweeping camera angles that make the viewer feel like part of the action. Lee uses his lens to focus on the Black experience, and topics like urban crime, poverty, and racial division are common themes in his work.
Born in Atlanta in 1957, Lee is the son of a Black literature and art professor and a jazz musician. Shortly after his birth, his family settled in Brooklyn, New York — a setting that would become a background character for Lee’s early film career.
Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, has produced over 35 films since 1983. His accomplishments have garnered him two Emmys, two Peabody Awards, and four of his movies — including Malcolm X, his revered collaboration with Denzel Washington — have been selected by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
While his films are only for grown-ups, everyone can appreciate the Funko POP figure immortalizing Spike Lee, fully decked out in a purple suit and a set of gold “love/hate” knuckle rings. Ya dig?
4. Maya Angelou
Autobiographical writer, performer, and professor Maya Angelou’s dynamic body of work included poetry, novels, choreography, and music. Her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is one of the first autobiographical novels written by a Black woman to go mainstream.
Marguerite Johnson was born on April 4, 1928, in Saint Louis, Missouri; Maya was given to her as a nickname by her older brother. During the 1950s, she moved to New York City to be a dancer, adopting Maya Angelou as a stage name.
Through the sixties and seventies, she wrote autobiographies, poetry, screenplays, protest songs and became active in the civil rights movement. After reading her inaugural poem, On The Pulse Of Morning, at President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, Maya Angelou had a newfound celebrity and released two new memoirs and several children's books. President Barack Obama later awarded her with America's highest non-military distinction, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
A brilliant tribute to two world-changing artists, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me is a beautiful read for all ages. The book features Maya Angelou’s poem about bravery and the ability to overcome the odds, with vivid, daring imagery by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
5. Langston Hughes
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s was an era of booming creativity for African American artists, and Langston Hughes was at the forefront of an age of visionaries.
Growing up in Mexico and Illinois, Hughes started writing poetry in high school and came to New York City in the 1920s to study at Columbia University and explore Harlem, a predominantly African American neighborhood. Here he first met others interested in writing about Black experiences and everyday celebrations of their culture.
Langston Hughes succumbed to cancer in 1967 but left behind an extensive library of work, including 11 plays, a series of hugely popular satires, and an anthology of prose and poems. For an introduction to Hughes’ work, The Sweet and Sour Animal Book is a whimsically illustrated easy-reader filled with witty lines the whole family will love.
6. Chadwick Boseman
Few actors have impacted our culture like Chadwick Boseman, perhaps best known for his powerful portrayal of King T’Challa in Black Panther. Born in 1976 in South Carolina, Boseman studied acting at Howard University before continuing his education at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, England.
His stage credits included leading roles in Breathe, Romeo and Juliet, Bootleg Blues, and he won an AUDELCO Award for his role in the 2002 film Urban Transitions: Loose Blossoms. Boseman’s early success on the stage led to television success as well, landing a series of regular gigs before his breakout role as the legendary, barrier-breaking baseball player Jackie Robinson in the film 42.
Boseman had a knack for crafting larger-than-life, deeply compelling characters, and King T'Challa, who becomes the mighty Black Panther, is one of his finest. The film obliterated box office records and went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. More importantly, the film inspired a generation of young Black filmmakers, actors, and artists to use their art to tell their story.
Boseman passed away from colon cancer on August 28, 2020, having just completed what would be his final works, Da 5 Bloods, directed by Spike Lee and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which was released on Netflix after the actor’s death. Critics hail these performances as Boseman’s finest, his final parting gift to the world, though he’ll always be king. Wakanda forever!
7. James Baldwin
Novelist, playwright, poet, and prolific essayist James Baldwin dedicated his life to educating others about the struggles of the Black and gay communities.
A Harlem native, Baldwin was born in 1924, early in the era of the Harlem Renaissance. Setting his sights on writing, he moved downtown to the historically artistic neighborhood Greenwich Village. Racism permeated his daily life, and he eventually moved to Europe to seek an escape. While overseas, Baldwin landed a grant that would allow him to write full-time, enabling him to pen his famous autobiography, Go Tell It on the Mountain.
He moved back to the states in 1957 and became a prominent figure in the civil rights movement, befriending Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Baldwin wrote consistently through the ‘60s and ‘70s and delivered thought-provoking lectures about marginalization, queer identity, and racism.
Baldwin eventually returned to France to continue his writing. In 1986, he was awarded the Legion of Honor for his efforts. He passed away a year later in the city of Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
His one and only children’s book, Little Man, Little Man, tells the story of his childhood. This sweet celebration of youth is told from a four-year-old boy’s perspective and takes place in 1970s Harlem.
8. Jean-Michel Basquiat
With a raw style that married high art with graffiti, Jean-Michel Basquiat blazed onto the 1970s and ‘80s art scene in New York. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Basquiat was the son of Puerto Rican and Haitian immigrants and fluent in English, French, and Spanish.
Despite having no formal training, Basquiat painted at a furious pace. With the city streets as his canvas, his unmistakable expressionistic style graced subways, walls, and underpasses — mostly near art galleries and museums in a bold attempt to make a name for himself.
Basquiat’s visceral works spoke for themselves, and by the late 1970s, his paintings made the leap from subway walls to world-renowned art galleries. He was offered his first formal public exhibition in “The Times Square Show” in 1980, which launched Basquiat to celebrity status, introducing him to artists like Andy Warhol and Madonna.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s creative light burned like a flash — blindingly brilliant and gone too soon. He was lost to a drug overdose at only 27 years old.
While sometimes jarring, Basquiat’s work channeled emotion, improvisation, and free association, often in the form of a self-portrait. Do some expressionist painting of your own, and try a self-portrait in Basquiat’s unique style.
9. Misty Copeland
Dazzling audiences with her impeccable performances in Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty, Misty Copeland is the first African American woman to grace the American Ballet Theater’s stage as a principal dancer in the organization’s 75-year history.
Copeland got her start at a local Boys and Girls Club, where she took free weekly lessons. Her instructor recognized Copeland’s talent early and invited her to dance at her studio. Soon, she was training almost full-time while going to school and had landed a position with the renowned ballet company before she even graduated.
Dance helped Misty Copeland thrive, and recently she’s been using dance to help others succeed through the Swans for Relief campaign, helping to raise Covid-19 relief funds for artists.
10. Amanda Gorman
Award-winning writer, poet, and activist Amanda Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. She focuses on topics of oppression, feminism, and the African diaspora. Gorman’s stirring poem, The Hill We Climb, calls on us to stare down the errors of our past, so we can correct them and build towards a better future. Her message is one of reflection, hope, and call-to-arms to change our country for the better.
Early in her childhood, she was diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder and a hypersensitivity to sound, resulting in a speech impediment. Ever undeterred, Amanda Gorman credits these challenges for helping her become a better writer and reader.
Read her poignant and inspirational inaugural poem and more in her bestselling book, The Hill We Climb and Other Poems.