Black History Month: Celebrating the Arts

Every year, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the organization established in 1915 by “the Founder of Black History” Dr. Carter G. Woodson, designates a theme for the observance of Black History Month, and the 2024 theme is African Americans and the Arts. As ASALH says: “In the fields of visual and performing arts, literature, fashion, folklore, language, film, music, architecture, culinary and other forms of cultural expression, the African American influence has been paramount. African American artists have used art to preserve history and community memory as well as for empowerment. Artistic and cultural movements such as the New Negro, Black Arts, Black Renaissance, hip-hop, and Afrofuturism, have been led by people of African descent and set the standard for popular trends around the world . . . 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. 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 . . . In celebrating the entire history of African Americans and the arts, ASALH puts into the national spotlight the richness of the past and present with an eye towards what the rest of the twenty-first century will bring.” 

Museums and cultural institutions across the country are celebrating this theme in many ways. For example, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. is highlighting art as a platform for social justice: “African American artists—poets, writers, visual artists, and dancers—have historically served as change agents through their crafts. Drawn from their ancestors’ ancient rites of passage and the shared hopes of liberty, Black artists continue to fuse the rhythmic cadence of creative expressions with the pulsating beats of progress. Our museum celebrates Black History Month 2024 by highlighting the ‘art of resistance’ and the artists who used their crafts to uplift the race, speak truth to power and inspire a nation.” At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a new exhibit opening this weekend, “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism,” is bringing together 160 extraordinary paintings, sculptures, photographs, and more—including pieces on loan from the collections of Fisk University, Howard University, Clark Atlanta University, and Hampton University. As curators involved in selecting and sharing the pieces have explained, historically Black colleges and universities have long been key collectors and repositories for all forms of African American art—understanding from the beginning the critical need to celebrate, support, and preserve these means of Black self-expression.

You can’t be what you can’t see—and for Black children and all children, the ability to see and hear their own experiences reflected in visual art, music, books, and more is an important source of pride and joy. This year’s Black History Month theme reinforces how central African Americans’ cultural contributions have been not just for Black Americans, but for all Americans. Once again, this year’s Black History Month observance is starkly juxtaposed against the ongoing movement to ban accurate representations of Black history and other forms of Black expression in some parts of our nation. But we are reminded again that Black history is American history and that despite any past or present efforts to hide them, Black stories, songs, creativity, and imagination have been threaded through our national fabric since the beginning—and are a cause for celebration!