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Black History Month 2024: African Americans and the Arts

By Dr. Quinton Smith, VP of DEI
  | Feb 01, 2024

Self-Help VP of DEI Quinton SmithThe theme for Black History Month this year is “African Americans and the Arts.” In honor of this theme, we're kicking off Black History Month with a guest post by Self-Help's VP of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Dr. Quinton Smith. In his post, Dr. Smith (or "Dr. Q" as he prefers to be called) explores the history of Black art in America and beyond, underscoring just how important the contributions of Black artists have been to our culture.

Artistic expression serves many purposes: from telling stories for entertainment to passing down history, from letting our imaginations play to letting out the rawest outpouring of our human experience, from provoking philosophical thought to just passing time with the barest of doodles. The world of Black art encompasses all that and more.

Early African Art: Rich with History and Creativity

Art has been a mainstay of humanity’s various cultures since before the start of recorded history, and many of the earliest evidence can be found throughout modern-day Africa.

From the use of pigments approximately 320,000 years ago, to the making of paints 100,000 years ago, to the crafting of beads from the shells of sea snails 72,000 years ago, lands rich with people we would today call Black have been similarly rich with art.

Some of the most well-known works of African art include:

  • The Benin Bronzes, which were created in what would currently be Nigeria
  • The fine jewelry and craftworks made throughout the land of Nubia and the Kingdom of Kush
  • The Kente cloth and mudcloth patterns seen throughout Ghana and Mali
  • The architecture and hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt.

Oral literature and poetry were integral to pre-colonial cultures throughout the continent, with storytellers, singers, bards, and “griots” working to preserve history, proverbs, lessons, and beliefs across generations.

African Art Today

The colonization of Africa significantly impacted the arts and expressions of many cultures across the continent, as people found their histories and traditions stolen from them, and their practices labeled as inferior. Nevertheless, creativity has continued throughout modern African cultures and traditions, with authors like Chief Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Wole Soyinka and artists like Thandiwe Muriu and Enfant Précoce keeping the flame of African art burning brightly.

African musicians like Angélique Kidjo, Burna Boy, Davido, and Ayra Starr have also been garnering international attention, with the subgenre “Afro-Beats” becoming particularly popular in America in recent years.

Early Black Art in the United States

Here in the United States, the development and expression of Black art was deeply colored by the horrors of chattel slavery, as many of the linkages to Africans' rich history were purposefully severed. Enslaved Africans were often put into spaces with others from different cultures and communities as a way of preventing organization and reinforcing control.

Thus, linguistic creoles would often develop across regions to allow people to communicate with one another, as well as with their captors. As they were forbidden from learning how to write or read, oral literature was essential for enslaved Africans as they strived to maintain vestiges of their histories and cultures, share stories, recount the tales of the middle passage, and pass on information and lessons.

These oral literatures came about in the form of folk tales, folk songs, and spirituals that would be sung to give hope and strength. The fashioning of homemade instruments to create music also became critical during this time and served as a method of preserving pieces of ancestral culture and bringing joy to one another during dark times.

The earliest examples of Black visual art can be seen in the ironwork, portrait paintings, carpentry, masonry, engraving, and ceramic work done by enslaved African artists in the mid-Atlantic and northern colonies. Most of this art was done for public work, or when artisans were hired out to individuals or companies by their enslavers, but some can be seen in what was created for personal use and in rarer cases of entrepreneurial efforts.

One method of artistic expression particularly well-explored in the south was quilting, where tapestries were created from scraps of cloth not only for functional warmth, but also to record legends, tell stores, preserve history, and even provide instructions or maps to those seeking safe passages to freedom.

A Foundational Pillar of American Cultural Identity

While the seed of artistic culture in Black America was planted within soil wrought with tragedy and dehumanization, it has grown and adapted over time to not just thrive in this country, but become a foundational pillar of America’s cultural identity.

After the Civil War and Reconstruction, the contributions that Black Americans continued to make to the arts began to garner recognition, eventually becoming hugely influential to popular culture. Some of the most American forms of music, like jazz, blues, and rock and roll, trace their origins to the boom of creativity during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, while the works of authors like Zora Neale Hurston and poets like Langston Hughes have influenced generations of wordsmiths.

The Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s inspired a twinning “Black Arts Movement” that redefined the Black identity and underscored the importance of pride in our history and our culture. This emboldened an aesthetic anchored by authenticity that redefined “coolness” at the time and cemented Blackness as a cultural vanguard.

Styles of dance and movement created by Black artists have taken the nation by storm for generations now, from the Charleston and Lindy Hop of nearly a century ago, to the Jubi Slding and Swag Surfin’ that dominate the social media trends of today.

Hip hop—not only as a style of music but as an entire subculture that can include DJing, turntablism, beatboxing, breakdancing, and visual arts like graffiti—has its origins as a method of expression for the disenfranchised Black youth of the 1970s and 80s, but has become a globe spanning cultural juggernaut that influences everything from music to fashion to popular expressions and phrases. Today, much of what may colloquially be known as “Gen Z” culture or “internet slang” has been sourced from the linguistic and cultural expressions found throughout Black artistic expressions.

Black Art Matters

Black people across the world are inherently diverse and complex, comprised of many different cultures, ethnicities, practices, beliefs, and histories. These differences helped give rise to a body of art that is as multifaceted and beautiful as its creators, despite the attempts at erasure that were enacted by the history of colonization and enslavement.

Art that has told stories of joy and of pain, of heart break and of hope. Art that has inspired generations, given voice to the silenced, and influenced cultures the world over. Art that has been transformed by tragedy, but still has managed to hold on the vestiges of its origins in spite of efforts to deny it.

image of a magnet that says Black Art Matters in green, yellow and red scriptBlack art has become a critical part of the human experience, worthy of admiration and respect in all its forms, from Ghana to Georgia, Nigeria to New York, Wangechi Mutu to Toni Morrison, Yaa Gyasi to Lil Nas X.

No matter who, no matter where, and no matter when, Black Art Matters.

A Few Black Artists in the Self-Help Family

Talented Black artists abound among Self-Help's membership, but here are just a few of the artists we've been lucky to connect with.

Last Juneteenth, some of our branches sponsored a "What Juneteenth Means to Me" art contest, and our branches were full of inspiring art from members and community artists alike!

Robin and  Tarish Pipkins are among the many artists Self-Help has had the pleasure to serve. Tarish's puppetry and innovative art are  well-known throughout the nation , and Robin is a dedicated art teacher. In 2021, the Pipkins bought their first home with a Self-Help loan. Their new place, located in Efland, NC, includes studio space for the adults and a large yard for their kids. 

We've also been fortunate to connect with incredible artists in many of our real estate projects. For example, our Willard Street Apartments in Durham, NC features art from local artists like Candy Carver and Darius Quarles.

Celebrate With Us All Month Long

Each of our branches will be celebrating in a variety of ways this month, from displaying art from local Black artists to connecting with local partners to serving food and other goodies in the branch. Stop by your local branch this month to join in on the celebrations!  

Plus, we have a limited number of "Black Art Matters" magnets available for members! Come by your local branch and pick yours up.

Happy Black History Month!

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