Amid the harsh repression of slavery, Americans of African descent, and particularly black women, managed–sometimes at their own peril–to preserve the culture of their ancestry and articulate both their struggles and hopes in their own words and images. A growing number of black female artists and writers emerged throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction eras before finally bursting into the mainstream of American culture in the 1920s, with the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance. After playing a significant role in both the civil rights movement and the women’s movement of the 1960s, the rich body of creative work produced by black women has found even wider audiences in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The Slavery Era
Some of the most famous examples of African-American folk art are the quilts depicting scenes from the Bible and historic events made by Harriet Powers, born into slavery in Georgia in 1837 and freed after the Civil War; they have been preserved in the Smithsonian and Boston’s Museum of Fine Art. Other notable quilts were made by generations of women in the town of Gee’s Bend, Alabama and have been shown across America at such prestigious institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
The first examples of literature written by African-American women appeared around 1859, as part of a general renaissance of black literature in the 1850s. They included short stories by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, as well as Harriet E. Wilson’s autobiographical novel “Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black.” In 1861, Harriet Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” became the first autobiography published by a female former slave. The book described the sexual exploitation that all too often added to the oppression of slavery for black women; it also provided an early example of black female strength in the face of adversity.
Civil War and Reconstruction
The New York-born artist Edmonia Lewis, of African-American and Native-American descent, studied at Oberlin College in the early 1860s and later gained fame as a sculptor. Her work included busts of Robert Gould Shaw (the Boston army colonel killed while leading black Union Army troops in the Civil War), John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, as well as sculptures inspired by the Emancipation Proclamation and the narrative poem “The Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The Civil War era spawned some memorable autobiographical works by African-American women, such as the diaries of Charlotte Forten, the daughter of a Philadelphia civil rights activist. The former slave Elizabeth Keckley, who became a confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, published “Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House” in 1868, while Frances Ellen Watkins Harper wrote “Sketches of Southern Life” (1872), a volume of poetry based on her travels among freed people in the Reconstruction-era South.
Early 20th Century and the Harlem Renaissance
In the years following World War I, black visual artists produced an increasing amount of work influenced by the aesthetic traditions of Africa. One of the earliest artists to do so was Meta Warrick Fuller, who became the first black woman to receive a federal commission for her art. Fuller’s works including the sculpture “Ethiopia Awakening” (1914), anticipated the resurgence of African themes in the art of the Harlem Renaissance. Prominent artists of this era included the sculptor Augusta Savage–renowned for her busts of black leaders W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, as well as a piece for the 1939 New York World’s Fair inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing”–and the painter Lois Mailou Jones, whose 1938 painting “Les Fetiches” depicted several different types of African-style masks.
Over the first two decades of the 20th century, continuing racial injustice and widespread reports of lynchings and other violence inspired a literature of protest, including the short stories, novels and commentary of Pauline E. Hopkins, editor of the Colored American’s Magazine. The 1920s, of course, saw a flowering of African-American literature based in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. Among the most eloquent voices of the Harlem Renaissance was that of Nella Larsen, author of the novels “Quicksand” (1928) and “Passing” (1929). Zora Neale Hurston, who studied at Barnard and Columbia in New York, published early short stories during the Harlem Renaissance but would become most famous for her 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
The Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements
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.
The Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries
In more recent years, many African-American female artists have proved themselves unafraid of provoking controversy. In the 1970s, the artist Betye Saar played on the theme of “Aunt Jemima,” an age-old stereotype of the domestic black woman in her work. More recently, the California-born artist Kara Walker was the subject of similar controversy over her use of intricate full-size cut-paper silhouettes depicting disturbing scenes of life in the antebellum South. In 2006, Walker’s exhibition “After the Deluge,” inspired in part by the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina the previous year, was displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Walker has earned widespread acclaim, but has also drawn criticism from some other African-American artists (including Saar), who claim that her work depicts sexist and racist stereotypes (albeit in the form of parody). The photographer Lorna Simpson also explores race and gender stereotypes–particularly those having to do with black women–in her work. In 1990, Simpson became the first African-American woman to exhibit at the prestigious Venice Biennale, and she was the subject of a 20-year retrospective at the Whitney in 2007.
The growth of the woman’s movement, and its impact on the consciousness of African-American women in particular, helped fuel a “black women’s literary renaissance” of the 1970s, beginning in earnest with the publication of “The Bluest Eye” (1970), by Toni Morrison. Morrison went on to publish “Sula” (1973) and “Song of Solomon” (1977); her fifth novel, the slave narrative “Beloved” (1987) became arguably the most influential work of African-American literature of the late 20th century (rivaled only by Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”). The success of writers like Morrison, Maya Angelou (poet and author of the 1970 memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”) and Alice Walker (winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for “The Color Purple”) helped inspire a generation of younger black female novelists, including Toni Cade Bambara and Gloria Naylor. Later African-American writers include the novelists Paule Marshall, Octavia E. Butler, Gayl Jones, Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat; the poets Audre Lord and Rita Dove (who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1987); and the playwrights Ntozake Shange and Suzan-Lori Parks.