Black art as activism 

Some people sitting up and crowding around an open top car in the street

New York-based writer, broadcaster and commentator Lola Adesioye explores the importance of Black artistic activism and traces key moments in history

By Lola Adesioye    Above image courtesy of Kwame Braithwaite

On the US presidential Inauguration Day in January, poet laureate Amanda Gorman roused the world’s soul with her powerful words. She stood on the shoulders of giants who have used art to awaken collective social and political consciousness, and spark the Black imagination.

For Black people long disenfranchised and deliberately locked out of established political processes – let’s not forget that Black Americans were only fully able to vote in 1965 after the passage of the Voting Rights Act – activism has never solely been the ‘hard power’ you might typically think of when you hear that word.

Protests, marches, sit-ins and other forms of direct political action are not to be underestimated; they have resulted in tangible changes, which have greatly advanced civil rights and American democracy. However, I would argue that Black art has just as an impactful and important role in driving social change as taking to the streets does.

There is a long tradition of the Black artist-activist using creativity as a catalyst to demand change, challenge stereotypes and reimagine Blackness, while simultaneously empowering and inspiring people not to give up in the face of oppression.

A group of people at a protest making a black power gesture

Young African-American activists attending the Revolutionary People’s Party Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, September 1970

Look at the lyrics of ‘This World Almost Done’, a Negro spiritual from the 1800s: ‘Brudder, keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’/ Keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’/ Keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’/ For dis world most done/ So keep your lamp, &c/Dis world most done.’

This was not a song written for the pure love of songwriting. This was a song of survival in the face of unspeakable oppression. It was a song made for and by enslaved people, exhorting them to keep going and believe in a better life, in a promised land. It was deliberate and purposeful. By virtue of participating in this song, the writer, the singer and anyone else who joined in became – wittingly or not – agents of change.

African men, women and children who were forcibly brought to America from the 1600s onwards were not allowed to speak their native languages. One can only imagine just how devastating this must have been: to have been kidnapped, taken to a faraway land by strangers, often separated from people you knew, and then not allowed to even speak your own tongue.

However, the universal language of song soon emerged as a way for enslaved Africans to pass messages to one another. They used their voices and songs to communicate with one another about what was going on, to provide instruction, inspiration, direction, support and empowerment, and to share stories. Black people still use music in the same way today. 

‘Call them from their houses and teach them to dream’ – Jean Toomer, Harlem Renaissance poet and novelist

From the mid 1910s into the early 1930s, America witnessed an explosion of Black intellectual, cultural and artistic output coming out of Harlem, New York.

During the Harlem Renaissance, Black Americans poured their thoughts, ideas, observations, and dissatisfaction with the White supremacist status quo into all sorts of artistic forms. This led to the creation of a rich, Black cultural canon that was often heavily leaned on by leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, and which continues to influence Black thinking, action and art forms today.

Those involved in the Harlem Renaissance and later in the Black Arts Movement – the artistic and aesthetic sibling to the Black Power Movement that came after the assassination of Malcolm X – were very clear that their artistic output was much more than just art. They knew that each piece of poetry, prose, dance, photography and painting was a tool at the least and a cultural weapon at best.

Black art was a way of disrupting anti-Black Eurocentric ideas, narratives, ideologies and systems; they were ways of rewriting, reauthoring and representing an authentic portrayal of Black culture and showcasing Black pride. And those artist-activists were successful at doing so; these movements fundamentally shifted how Black people saw themselves.

In 1958, when Alvin Ailey founded his dance company – which continues to be one of the premier dance companies in the country – he used Afro-centric dance forms to challenge Eurocentric American norms. Ailey artistically reclaimed the Black body, centering it in African consciousness, styles, rhythms, and movement. 

People dancing in a TV studio

‘The Black artist is dangerous. Black art controls the “Negro’s” reality, negates negative influences, and creates positive images’ – Sonia Sanchez, poet

With his awareness of the attacks on the Black body throughout American history, he (and other dancers) used dance as a counter-attack to that kind of physical oppression. Today, we have young people of all colours on TikTok and Instagram doing the Whip, the Nae Nae, the Mop, twerking, and various other Black dances. And although on the surface they might seem funny or even random, they actually reflect a historical need not only to express but to reclaim and self-define Blackness.

Black visual artists and photographers have also over time understood the importance of being able to shape our own narratives, on our own terms, given how much this has been historically denied to us. Think about Kehinde Wiley’s majestic depictions of young Black men in Renaissance poses. Or look at Faith Ringgold’s glorious quilts which are, among other things, throwbacks to the fact that such quilts were used to pass messages between enslaved Africans when they were trying to escape through the Underground Railroad. And how about Kwame Brathwaite using his photography to push the idea that ‘Black is Beautiful’?

In a time when Black art forms are more popular than ever, it’s easy to take their presence for granted. However, at one time or another, all of the various types of creative output I’ve referred to here have been considered both radical and revolutionary. In the Black world, art has most definitely been integral in creating social and political change in Black America, and for Black people globally. Long may it continue. 

Interested in becoming a member?