February is known as the month of celebrating and honoring Black history in America. However, what you may not know is that each Black History Month actually has a specified theme. This has been the case since the beginning of its observance when it was still known as “Negro History Week.” The theme is decided by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) each year, and this year’s theme is African Americans and the Arts.

Art is a huge part of Black culture and important to acknowledge when celebrating Black history. Throughout US history, Black art has been stolen and appropriated while Black artists were simultaneously discredited and denied the impact of their work. ASALH wrote, “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.”

Here are some Black History Month facts that touch on the influence Black artists in art forms varying from film, music, visual art, culinary art, performance art, fashion, literature and more. All of these artists, even those that are no longer living, continue to make lasting impacts on our culture through their legacy.

  • Oscar Micheaux was one of the earliest and most prolific African American filmmakers. He produced over 40 films between 1919 and 1948, often financing and distributing them independently.
  • Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award in 1940 for her supporting role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. However, it’s important to note that during that time, racial segregation was prevalent, and McDaniel sat at a segregated table at the Oscar ceremony.
  • Sidney Poitier, a Bahamian-American actor, and filmmaker, broke racial barriers in the film industry during the 1950s and 1960s. He became the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field in 1963.
  • Diahann Carroll broke barriers as the first Black woman to star in a non-stereotypical role in a television series when she played the lead in Julia (1968-1971).
  • The “Black New Wave”: The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the emergence of a period known as the “Black New Wave” in American cinema, with filmmakers like Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Mario Van Peebles creating films that explored the complexities of Black identity and culture.
  • Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) was the first feature film directed by an African American woman to receive a wide theatrical release in the United States.
  • Halle Berry became the first (and so far only) Black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Monster’s Ball (2001).
  • Ava DuVernay became the first Black woman to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar for her work on the 2014 film Selma.
  • Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, making it the first film with an all-Black cast and the first LGBTQ film to win the top prize.
  • In 2018, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther became the first superhero film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.

Black History Month Facts About Music

  • Scott Joplin was a pioneering composer and pianist known as the King of Ragtime. His 1899 composition The Maple Leaf Rag was the first instrumental ragtime piece to achieve widespread popularity.
  • Bessie Smith, known as the Empress of the Blues, was one of the most influential singers of the 1920s and helped pave the way for female blues singers.
  • Marian Anderson was a renowned opera singer who became an important figure in the civil rights movement after being barred from singing in Constitution Hall in 1939 due to her race. She later performed at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 for a crowd of over 75,000 people.
  • Louis Armstrong was a virtuoso trumpeter, singer, and bandleader who became one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz music in the early 20th century.
  • Ray Charles, known as “The Genius,” was a pioneering pianist and singer who blended genres like soul, rhythm and blues, and country. He is credited with helping to create the soul music genre.
  • Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” was a highly influential singer and songwriter known for hits like Respect and Chain of Fools. She had a powerful voice and was a major force in the development of the soul genre.
  • Donna Summer was the “Queen of Disco” and helped bring the disco genre to mainstream success with hits like MacArthur Park and Hot Stuff. She was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach number one on the Billboard charts.
  • Michael Jackson was a singer, songwriter, and dancer who is often referred to as the “King of Pop.” His album Thriller (1982) is the best-selling album of all time.
  • Stevie Wonder is a legendary singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who has won 25 Grammy Awards, the most ever awarded to a male solo artist.
  • Marvin Gaye was a highly influential singer-songwriter who blended soul, R&B, and funk. His 1971 album What’s Going On is considered a classic and a pioneering work of socially conscious music.
  • Whitney Houston was a phenomenally successful singer known for her powerful vocals and hits like “I Will Always Love You” and “How Will I Know.” She is one of the best-selling music artists of all time.

Writing and Literature Black History Month Facts

  • Phillis Wheatley was the first African American author of a published book of poetry. Her book “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” was published in 1773 when she was around 20 years old.
  • Frederick Douglass was a former enslaved person who became a renowned orator, social reformer, and statesman. His autobiographical works like “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” helped expose the realities of slavery.
  • W.E.B. Du Bois was a sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, and author. He penned seminal works on race like “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903) and was a co-founder of the NAACP.
  • Langston Hughes was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. His works like “The Weary Blues” helped capture the culture, humor, and music of urban Black America.
  • Zora Neale Hurston was an influential author and anthropologist whose novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) has become an enduring classic of African American literature.
  • Toni Morrison was the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Her novels like “Beloved,” “Song of Solomon,” and “The Bluest Eye” explored the Black experience in a profound, poetic way.
  • Alex Haley’s novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” (1976) was a groundbreaking work that traced his family’s lineage back to an ancestor in Africa. It became a hugely popular TV miniseries that sparked interest in genealogy and family history.
  • Alice Walker is a celebrated novelist, short story writer, poet, and activist. Her novel “The Color Purple” (1982) won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
  • Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man” (1952) is considered one of the most important and influential novels of the 20th century. It explores themes of Black identity, racism, and the search for individuality.
  • Octavia E. Butler was a pioneering science fiction writer whose novels like “Kindred” and “Parable of the Sower” imaginatively explored issues of race, gender, and power through speculative fiction. She was the first science fiction writer to win the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
  • Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for both “The Underground Railroad” (2016) and “The Nickel Boys” (2019), novels that creatively explored Black history and racism.
  • Jacqueline Woodson is an acclaimed contemporary author of books for children, teens, and adults. Some of her notable works include “Brown Girl Dreaming,” “Another Brooklyn,” and “Red at the Bone.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates is a modern writer, journalist and memoirist who has authored books like “The Beautiful Struggle,” “Between the World and Me,” and “We Were Eight Years in Power.” He has brought incisive analysis to conversations about race, culture, and politics.

Black American Impact on Culinary Arts

  • Black Americans have had a profound impact on Southern cuisine, contributing to the development of dishes such as gumbo, collard greens, cornbread, and barbecue, which have become integral parts of American culinary traditions.
  • Soul food, a cuisine deeply rooted in African American culture, includes dishes like fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and sweet potato pie. It reflects the creativity and resourcefulness of Black cooks who transformed humble ingredients into flavorful and hearty meals.
  • Black pitmasters and chefs have played a crucial role in the evolution of barbecue. Their techniques, flavor profiles, and unique approaches to smoking and grilling have significantly influenced regional barbecue styles across the United States.
  • Black chefs have gained recognition on the national and international culinary stage. Chef Edna Lewis, known as the “Grand Dame of Southern Cooking,” and Chef Patrick Clark, a pioneer in contemporary American cuisine, have made lasting contributions to the culinary world.
  • Black Americans have played a crucial role in shaping the vibrant Creole and Cajun cuisines of Louisiana. Dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and étouffée reflect the diverse influences and cultural fusion present in these culinary traditions.
  • The Gullah-Geechee people, descendants of enslaved Africans in the coastal areas of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, have preserved unique culinary traditions. Their cuisine includes dishes like red rice, okra soup, and benne wafers.
  • Black activists and chefs, such as Bryant Terry and Leah Penniman, have been at the forefront of the food justice movement, advocating for sustainable and equitable food systems, as well as promoting access to healthy and culturally relevant foods in Black communities.
  • Black chefs and culinary professionals actively engage in mentorship and education, passing on their knowledge and skills to the next generation. Organizations like the Black Culinarian Alliance work to support and uplift Black chefs in the culinary industry.

Notable Black American Achievements in Visual and Performing Arts

  • Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was a pioneering sculptor and painter in the early 20th century. Her sculptures celebrating Black identity and dignity were significant in the development of African American art.
  • Augusta Savage was a prominent sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Her sculptural works portrayed African American figures in a dignified, realistic style.
  • Jacob Lawrence was a painter known for his expressive paintings depicting scenes of African American life and historical narratives like The Migration Series.
  • Romare Bearden was a renowned collagist and painter who drew from African American folk traditions. His collages fused abstract modernism with representational imagery depicting Black life.
  • Alvin Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, which became one of the most renowned modern dance companies and helped popularize African American dance styles.
  • Katherine Dunham was a pioneering dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist who helped introduce Caribbean and African styles of dance to broader audiences.
  • Geoffrey Holder was a multitalented artist who found success as a dancer, choreographer, actor, costume designer, painter and singer. He was a principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera and designed eye-catching costumes for shows like The Wiz.
  • Basquiat emerged in the 1980s as a pioneering figure in the Neo-Expressionist art movement. His raw, primitivist style and engaging of issues like racism, capitalism and Black identity made him one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.
  • Kara Walker is a contemporary artist whose provocative silhouette artworks confront the disturbing legacy of slavery, racism, and violence against Black people.
  • Bill T. Jones is an acclaimed modern dancer and choreographer known for powerful and provocative works exploring issues like identity and social justice.

Fashion and Modeling Black History Month Facts

  • Zelda Wynn Valdes opened the first Black-owned modeling agency, Zelda Wynn Models, in New York City in 1948. It helped launch the careers of many Black models.
  • Donyale Luna was the first Black model to appear on the cover of British Vogue in 1966. She was also the first Black model to appear on the cover of Vogue Paris.
  • Naomi Sims was the first Black model to appear on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1968. She paved the way for more diversity in the modeling industry.
  • Beverly Johnson was the first Black model to appear on the cover of American Vogue in 1974, gracing the August issue.
  • Pat Cleveland was a trailblazing model who walked the runways for designers like Halston and Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970s and became a muse for photographers.
  • Ann Lowe was an esteemed fashion designer who created gowns for high society clients and designed Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress for her wedding to John F. Kennedy.
  • Tracy Reese is a contemporary fashion designer celebrated for her chic, feminine ready-to-wear pieces sold at stores like Anthropologie.
  • Prabal Gurung is a Nepalese-American fashion designer known for his elegant gowns worn by celebrities like Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
  • Edward Wilkerson was a pioneering costume designer for theater and dance who designed costumes for famed choreographers like Katherine Dunham.
  • Dapper Dan became renowned in the 1980s for his luxurious custom streetwear creations worn by hip hop legends like LL Cool J and Eric B. & Rakim.