The hardship of the Depression and the coming of World War II refocused African-American literature and art towards social criticism, as evidenced by the work of such novelists as Ann Petry, whose 1946 novel “The Street” chronicled the struggles of a working class black woman in Harlem. In 1949, Chicago native Gwendolyn Brooks, whose work dealt with everyday life in black urban communities, became the first African-American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize. In the realm of drama, Lorraine Hansberry (also from Chicago) scored tremendous critical and popular success with “A Raisin in the Sun,” which opened on Broadway in 1959.
During the 1950s and 1960s, few black artists–and even fewer black women–were accepted into the mainstream of American art. Elizabeth Catlett, a sculptor and printmaker, spent much of her career as an expatriate in Mexico City in the 1940s; the activism of her life and work led in the 1950s to her investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Catlett was known for sculptures such as “Homage to My Young Black Sisters” (1968). In 1972, at the age of 80, the abstract painter Alma Woodsey Thomas became the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibit of her paintings at the Whitney Museum.
Artists and writers would play an active role in the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. Gwendolyn Brooks, for example, composed “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till” for a black youth murdered in Mississippi in 1955; she included more explicit social criticism in her volume “The Bean Eaters” (1960). Poetry was also a central form of expression for the Black Arts movement, the artistic branch of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Important female poets in this movement, which emphasized the solidarity of the African-American community, included Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Carolyn M. Rodgers and Nikki Giovanni. The autobiography of the murdered black activist Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley and published in 1965, influenced similar memoirs by black female activists like Anne Moody and Angela Davis, who published her own autobiography in 1974.