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Arts & Culture

5 African American Works of Art Everyone Should Know

From Pulitzer Prize-winning Poetry to Renowned Modern Dance, Faculty Experts Share Their Picks

By Karen Shih ’09

collage of Malcolm X, David C. Driskell, dancers performing, Gwendolyn Brooks and R. Nathaniel Dett

Clockwise from top left: Dancers from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform “Revelations”; activist Malcolm X on the cover of his autobiography; poet Gwendolyn Brooks with her typewriter after winning the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for “Annie Allen”; composer R. Nathaniel Dett; a young David C. Driskell paints a self portrait in 1953.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater photo by Doug Gifford/Getty Images; Malcolm X image courtesy of Ballantine Books; Gwendolyn Brooks photo from Getty Images; R. Nathaniel Dett photo courtesy of the Library of Congress; David C. Driskell photo from the Driskell Papers in UMD’s University Archives

“Black art is a leading force, not something tacked onto a mainstream history.”

Black History Month is an opportunity to understand what late pioneering artist and Distinguished University Professor David C. Driskell meant when he shared this perspective with Jordana Moore Saggese, now director of the University of Maryland center named for him, and colleagues nearly 25 years ago.

“Driskell’s main goal was thinking through Black art as the center of all art and showcasing its diversity and innovation,” she said.

For art historians like Saggese, as well as choreographers, writers, singers and more, this fact is obvious. But for anyone less familiar with Black artists’ contributions to American culture—and around the world—Maryland Today turned to UMD faculty experts to honor this year’s theme, “African Americans and the Arts.” They offer recommendations on essential works that every Terp should experience.

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, associate professor of English; director, MFA in creative writing
Recommendation: The poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks

“She was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. So many of today's Black poets, including Pulitzer Prize winners like Rita Dove or Natasha Trethewey, count her as a literary ancestor, including myself. In her work she wanted to elevate the lives and experiences of those not traditionally deemed as appropriate for subjects of literature: Black women and the Black communities. Her work is beautiful and challenging—a must read for any lover of poetry and literature.”

Read a selection of Brooks’ work from the Poetry Foundation.

Alvin Mayes, principal lecturer, dance performance and scholarship
Recommendation: Alvin Ailey's “Revelations

“The first time I saw the performance, as a freshman at the University of Michigan in 1965, I felt like it was speaking directly to me and unearthing things about myself—it made me think I, too, could be a choreographer. The Ailey company was one of the first American modern dance companies in the 1960s that featured Black artists, Asian artists, South American artists, men and women. “Revelations” has a classical form, easily understood by most people across lines of generations, genders and races. Without being a narrative, it demonstrates a cross-section of the American Black experience in the U.S.; the music comes from the canon of spirituals and gospel and Black church music. One of my favorite things in the last 10 years of going to see it at the Kennedy Center is seeing multigenerational families there, grandmothers with their grandchildren having conversations about it in the lobby.”

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater will present a variety of its classics, including “Revelations” as well as new works, at the Kennedy Center Feb. 6-11.

Jordana Moore Saggese, professor of modern and contemporary art of the U.S.; Director, The Driskell Center
Recommendation: “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” a 2021 documentary featuring artist and UMD Distinguished University Professor David C. Driskell, who died in 2020

“The film is an important testament not just to African Americans in the arts and the work they’ve produced but to who is writing those histories and making those works visible. Professor Driskell was very instrumental in that. The documentary follows his establishment of the field of African American art history, starting with his groundbreaking exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” which opened in Los Angeles in 1976. The documentary is accessible for a general audience and juxtaposes beautiful artworks with archival footage and interviews that were sourced from our archives here at the Driskell Center. Professor Driskell was a national and international figure, but he was also deeply connected to the University of Maryland. It’s an extremely rare opportunity that we have here to carry out his legacy.”

“Black Art: In the Absence of Light” is streaming on Max.

Jason Max Ferdinand, associate professor of music; director of choral activities
Recommendation: “The Chariot Jubilee” and “The Ordering of Moses” by composer R. Nathaniel Dett

“For people of color in America, Dett is a beacon of light to show how we can merge more traditional music with formal, academic musical forms. What he did, with these two early works from 1919 and 1932, is take a germ from the American spiritual and dress it up in classical garb. He was very attuned to social justice issues and always wanted to bring people of all backgrounds together. Dett did this even as he faced pushback from those he worked closely within the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) circle. Dett was an integral part of the music fiber of this country, inspiring up-and-coming composers.”

“The Chariot Jubilee,” sung by the Aeolians of Oakwood University (where Ferdinand previously taught), is available on YouTube.

Ashley Newby, lecturer; director of undergraduate studies, African American and Africana Studies
Recommendation: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley”

“This autobiography of one of the most prolific figures of the 20th century doubles as a culturally rich and transnational progression through some of the most critical periods of Black history. X begins the story of his life in the 1920s Midwest, set against the backdrop of poverty, and his father's involvement in the United Negro Improvement Association. It blossoms in the epicenter of Harlem's Black culture, and crisscrosses the globe before going to Mecca. Along its journey, it recounts Black culture from the life of a man who lived it in several versions of himself, and provides an education on both the Nation of Islam and Islam as religions. It is not just a story of redemption and commitment to something higher than one's self, but also a testament to the power of education and the danger of speaking truth to power. It is a story that is quintessentially American, down to Malcolm's assassination at age 39.”

“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” is available through University Libraries.

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