You are here: American University News Celebrating Black Creators


Celebrating Black Creators

In honor of Black History Month 2024—the theme of which is African Americans and the Arts—AU faculty experts share a few of their favorite creative works.

By  | 

From folklore to fashion to film, African Americans have used art to preserve history, chronicle the present, and shape the future.

In honor of the 98th annual Black History Month—the theme of which is African Americans and the arts—AU Now asked four faculty experts in literature, visual art, music, and performing arts to share a few of their favorite creative works by Black artists.

Gwendolyn Brooks sits at her desk in Chicago.

Poetry: Keith Leonard, professor in the Department of Literature

  • “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden: This is the first poem I ever memorized. I cannot think of another poem that captured the kind of quiet, abashed awe I felt for my own father, having seen his chafed knuckles and split nails from working overtime making tires for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and knowing his surprising tenderness. As a parent, I now know more about those “austere and lonely offices,” yet I mourn still the fact that I did not know then and, despite my awed respect, did not fully appreciate all that my father did.

  • Defending My Tongue” by Lucille Clifton: This poem was the first one I had ever read that engaged with how ordinary language could have competing meanings for African Americans and that insisted that vernacular usage was not only valid but necessary. Thanks to Clifton, I came to understand that it was OK for me to acknowledge to myself that the poetic beauty of trees was weighted by lynched bodies ever unmentioned. And that, as a would-be poet, educator, and scholar, I could and should speak the way that I speak.

  • “Kitchenette Building” by Gwendolyn Brooks: This signaled to the literary world a distinctive new approach to representing African Americans in verse, from the first African American poet to win a Pulitzer Prize. Poems like this one imagined ordinary people confronting the social limitations of too-small apartments, red-lined neighborhoods, exorbitant rents, and urgent daily obligations with resilience and imagination. The hope and the dream in this poem, however circumscribed and doubted, are real. 

Visual Art: Nika Elder, professor in the Department of Art

  • Ethiopia by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller: Simone Leigh, whose must-see, mid-career retrospective is on view at DC’s Hirshhorn Museum through March 3, is one of the most well-known sculptors in America today. But her work and the work of so many other artists would be unthinkable without the precedent of artists like Meta Warrick Fuller. Fuller created this small but powerful representation of Ethiopia during the Harlem Renaissance, and it perfectly encapsulates the period’s investment in Africa as a spiritual home, an artistic resource, and a Black future.

  • Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers by Alma Thomas: Portraiture has been an incredibly important tool for Black artists in the fight for social justice. But it’s important to remember that throughout American history Black artists have also created art about topics beyond the struggle. Thomas based this abstract painting and many others on the garden that she tended at her DC home near Logan Circle. Working during the Civil Rights Movement, she used painting to focus on the beauty, transcendence, and sensorial experiences afforded by the natural world. 
  • Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass by Isaac Julien: This film weaves a historical reimagining of Douglass’s life—including his time in DC—and speeches with contemporary footage of Baltimore after the murder of Freddie Gray in 2015. Although it’s haunting how disturbingly relevant Douglass’s words and ideas remain today, the work is especially enthralling for its ability to bring this historical figure to life and humanize him. It also suggests that the potential to be extraordinary resides in us all.

Rapper Flavor Flav, director Spike Lee, and Chuck D of Public Enemy film a video for their song,

Music: Omékongo Dibinga, senior professorial lecturer, School of International Service, and rapper

  • “Earth Song” by Michael Jackson: I listen to this song before most of my speeches and performances. It grounds me in who I am and reminds me of the vision I have for the world. I also admire MJ for his ability to make so many social justice songs into number one hits.
  • “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy: I use this as my intro song when I speak. It’s the quintessential “conscious hip-hop” track of the 1990s, which is the era of hip-hop that I appreciate the most. It’s a constant reminder to speak truth to power.
  • “U.N.I.T.Y.” by Queen Latifah: I still play this song regularly as I reflect on what hip-hop would be like if it respected and protected Black women. Queen Latifah is one of the best to ever do it, and I have so much respect for what she has done to empower Black people and encourage women to love themselves and demand it from others.

Sign for Joe Turner's Come and Gone

Theatre: Caleen Sinnette Jennings, professor emerita, Department of Performing Arts

  • Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by August Wilson: One of Wilson’s earliest and most searing plays about the migration of Black people from the agrarian South to the industrialized North, this play explores how to reclaim what has been lost to history and how love, economic stability, and spirituality can flourish despite overwhelming hardship and injustice.
  • Fences by August Wilson: This study of father/son alienation has resonated with so many of AU’s international students. The tension created between a child’s aspirations and their parent’s dreams for them undermines the love a family needs to thrive.

  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry: This iconic play is as relevant now as it was when it opened on Broadway in 1959. Members of a Black family in Chicago struggle to keep their dreams alive despite the smothering frustrations and injustices of poverty.

  • Sweat by Lynn Nottage: This examination of the sweat and toil required for Americans at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder to survive features characters who are frustrating, endearing, delusional, and ultimately as human as the rest of us.