The Art of African Americans

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The Art of African Americans


Despite the troubling legacy of slavery and the violent attempt on the part of slaveholders to erase the culture and identity of Africans brought to the Americas, it is clear that African Americans have added to the foundation of every element of American culture, from the highbrow to the low.

African Americans suffered behind the Western contention that art and refinement were best represented in the European model, especially in painting, sculpture, and ceramics. Traditionally, African Americans have excelled in whatever style of art they have attempted. Many art historians and the public are coming to new perceptions of "what good art is," and perhaps most importantly, realizing that the roots of great American art run deep. We are coming to a new appreciation of the hybrid history of American artistic traditions. Much like in the case of rock-and-roll or rhythm and bluesmusical traditions that grew out of African rhythmic sensibilitiespainters and artisans considered to be American masters today have had to deal with European traditions, but at their best have struck out toward the frontiers of an unexplored artistic world.

Unlike others who came to America, the Africans arriving through the slave trade arrived with no material possessions. These men, women, and children, sold into slavery dressed only in odd bits of clothing, shackles, and chains, were survivors of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. Luck, good health, and mental tenacity had brought them this far, and they would need all this and more to adjust to life in the colonies. As they learned a new language and adapted to another culture with a value system different from what they had known, the precious memories of their former lives and of their African homelands, families, and friends would sustain them and nourish their art for generations to come.


Africans brought to America in the slave trade came from large cities as well as small towns. They had been kings, priests, lawmakers, warriors, doctors, and farmers. Some had also been highly skilled artisans: sculptors expert at carving wood, ivory, and stone; metalworkers who knew how to work gold, brass, and copper; potters and basketmakers; textile workers who wove cloth and painted designs on fabric.

From such materials, they made objects for religious purposes, but also the practical items needed for daily life. Transported to America, they continued to exercise their skills. In the objects they fashioned for their own and others' use, the slave artists and artisans would give lasting form to their memories and knowledge.

The majority of Africans sold into servitude in the early years became field hands on farms and plantations throughout the South and in some parts of the North. As the colonials became more self-sufficient, however, and began to make more of the things they needed rather than importing them from England, the need for skilled artisans and craftspeople grew. Before long, whites realized that among the slave population were highly skilled artisans whom they could put to work constructing buildings, fabricating tools, weaving, making furniture, and performing many other tasks requiring a degree of expertise.

However, it was the diversification of agriculture and industry after the American Revolution that propelled increasing numbers of blacks out of the fields and into the workshop. By the early nineteenth century, black artisans were represented in every known trade and craft in America. Because most slave owners kept detailed records of their human property, the documentation regarding early slave artisans is extensive. Although it was not widely acknowledged until the twentieth century, such documentation confirms that not all slaves were confined to the unskilled labor of field work. Some held skilled and semiskilled jobs.

By the end of the eighteenth century, many whites, and even some free blacks, owned slave artisans. These artisans were a source of income, for the master owned not only the slave, but also the slave's skill, as well as the product he or she madeand like other commodities, slaves could be rented or their services sold.

When Isaiah Thomas published A History of Printing in America in the early nineteenth century, he included mention of a slave who, as early as 1724, had established a reputation as an artist and printer. The slave belonged to Thomas Fleet, the owner of a successful printing business in Boston, who readily affirmed the slave's importance as the one "who cut on wooden blocks, all the pictures which decorated the ballads and small books of his master. "This same slave artisan and printer, whose name remains unknown to this day, had two sons, Caesar and Pompey, also mentioned in Thomas's History as excellent artisans and printers.

It was not unusual for slaves to negotiate with their masters for freedom. As free men with marketable skills, they could open their own businesses. Thomas Day (c. 1801-1861), a cabinetmaker and wood finisher from the Charleston area, may have been such a person. Day ran a flourishing business between 1820 and 1840, and the original designs of his beautifully crafted furniture are highly prized today.


Art historians now know that African Americans excelled as visual artists, successfully mastering the skills of drawing, printing, painting, and sculpting just as white artists did in the early years of America's history. But this was not always known. Paintings and other objects of art change hands through time and are often unsigned. They cannot tell us by themselves the names or racial identities of the artists who made them. It has taken years of painstaking research to discover the names of many of the early African American artists. At every turn in the research, there have been problems to overcome as well as unexpected surprises. In the early 2000s, while the names of most early slave artisans and folk artists remain unknown, art historians have discovered the names of some of the slaves and free blacks who worked in the fine arts as long ago as the late eighteenth century.

Some of them were "limners," as the early portrait painters were called. As a rule, limners had little if any formal artistic education. More often than not, they were itinerant sign painters who traveled from place to place, finding work wherever they could. Whatever their race, limners rarely signed their pictures. In order to identify them, art historians have had to rely on journals, diaries, payment receipts, and similar records preserved by the families they painted. Such documents rarely identify the race of the artist, however, and because the achievements of black limners received little mention in other sorts of documents, it has been even more difficult to determine their identities.

The lack of family documents for African American artists has also made the work of art historians more difficult. Such documentsbirth and marriage certificates, family letters, diary entries, art dealers' and museum recordshelp to identify who made a particular work of art and to keep track of its location through time. But most eighteenth-and nineteenth-century African American artists have left no such paper trail. Their birth and death dates are unknown, their family histories fragmented and unreliable. Since most were never exhibited in museums or private galleries until well into the twentieth century, institutional records are also lacking.

Finally, the recovery of late eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century black artists has been hampered by the scarcity of their works. Though we know his name, we know of no surviving works by Robert Douglas, for example, and only a few by Eugene Warburg, John G. Chaplin, and Annie E. Walker. All of these problems come together in the case of the limner Joshua Johnston (1765-1830), the probable maker of a series of splendid portraits from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For a long time, the maker of these portraits was known only as the "brass tacks" artist, because his paintings often contained furniture decorated with rows of brass upholstery tacks. Some of the paintings had remained in the Baltimore families for whom they were made, preserved into the twentieth century along with persistent family rumors that the painter had been an African Americana "slave who painted," "a very bright black young man. "In one such family, the painter was said to have been a "William Johnson," the slave of another limner whose name had been forgotten. As was so often the case with early portraits, the works of this painter were unsigned, though one of them, entitled Mrs. Everette and Her Children, was identified in a family will as the work of a "J Johnson."

In 1942, a descendant of one of the Baltimore families set about verifying the family legend of the African American painter. In the 1817 Baltimore city directory, he discovered, listed among the "Free Householders of Color," a "Joshua Johnston, portrait painter. "This proved to beand has remained to this daythe sole piece of written evidence pointing to Joshua Johnston's race. His name appears in other Baltimore recordschurch documents, numerous city directories, petitions, and the likebut he is never again identified by race. Nevertheless, Joshua Johnston is regarded as an African American artist and one of the finest of the early portrait painters.

Occasionally, one or two well-placed clues have led art historians to the recovery of one of these elusive early artists. Scipio Moorhead, a slave from Massachusetts, engraved the two known portraits of the slave poet Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), who left two clues about his identity in her work. The first is her poem entitled, "To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works. "The second is a copy of the 1773 edition of Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral bearing an inscription in Wheatley's hand. It reads, "Scipio Moorhead, Negro servant to the Rev. John Moorhead of Boston whose genius inclined him that way. "Thanks to these clues, art historians have been able to determine that Moorhead executed the Wheatley portraits, that he was a slave in the Moorhead family, and that he was instructed in drawing and painting by Sarah Moorhead, the Reverend Mr. Moorhead's wife and herself an amateur artist.

Why is it important to know for certain whether an early artist was African American? For many reasons. It allows us to understand the ways in which early black artists responded to the world around them. What did it look like to them? What did they choose to represent? What were the secret "signatures," like Joshua Johnston's "brass tacks," which they used to identify their art? It also gives us a better idea of the working lives of early black artistswhere they lived, how they went about finding customers, how much they were paid, how others responded to their work. Perhaps most importantly, however, the recovery of these early artists provides inspiration to present-day African American artists, assuring them that they are part of a tradition stretching back in time to the nation's beginnings.


Historically, African American artists have had to overcome the same basic obstacles as white artists, but their efforts have been complicated by racism and prejudice. From the early to mid-nineteenth century, African Americans were denied entry to art schools, where a formal study of art could be undertaken, and only rarely were they able to study with practicing white artists. Robert Douglas and Eugene Warburg, who wanted to study with practicing artistsand could afford to pay for lessonshad to go to Europe to find people willing to teach them. Apprenticeships to engravers and lithographers were a surrogate form of art school for both Grafton T. Brown (1841-1918) and Patrick Reason (1817-?), who learned the rudiments of drawing while working as printers.

Lacking access to formal training, some aspiring artists taught themselves how to draw, copying from the prints of works by academically trained European artists. But some forms of art, like sculpture, require a knowledge of materials and methods that is hard to master on one's own. The sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis (1848-1909), for example, had trouble finding artists willing to work with her. Fortunately, she had the financial support of her older brother, the encouragement of African American artists like Edward Bannister (1828-1901), and the friendship of women like Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880), who provided Lewis with introductions to friends who commissioned works from her.

African Canadian painter Robert Duncanson was an exception in this respect. Born in upstate New York in 1823, he was raised in Canada, where he received in Canadian public schools the education that would have been denied him in the United States. In 1841, he settled in Cincinnati in order to pursue his artistic training, and soon came to the attention of Cincinnati's thriving art community. One of the best of the nineteenth-century American landscape painters, Duncanson achieved recognition and respect in his lifetime, especially in Canada, where he relocated during the Civil War.


After the Civil War, a number of black artists took advantage of opportunities to travel to Europe, where they continued their study of art by visiting the great museums and taking courses at the British and French academies. These experiences in the Western art traditions made it even more difficult to distinguish the work of black artists from that of their white counterparts. Even when the subject matter of their work contained references to race or racial issues, it was virtually impossible to identify the race of the artist. Moreover, blacks were popular subjects for white artists like Eastman Johnson (1824-1906), William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), and Winslow Homer (1836-1910), while black artists routinely painted pictures without any clear reference to black subject matter.

While it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the work of black artists from that of other artists, their experience was unique in one important way. Whatever the nature of their work, people simply did not acknowledge them as artists. Edward Mitchell Bannister's Under the Oaks won the gold medal at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, but when he went to accept his prize, he was refused entry. Those making the awards refused to believe the winner was an African American.

Some African Americans who traveled abroad to study never returned to America, where overt racism made it impossible for them to live as they wished. This was the case with Mary Edmonia Lewis, who endured racial attacks, both overt and subtle, while a student at Oberlin College and later as a Boston resident. Eventually, she settled in Rome among a group of expatriate female artists that included the sculptors Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908) and Anne Whitney (1821-1915), finding in Italy a more congenial atmosphere for her artistic temperament and alternative lifestyle.

Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937), perhaps the best-known late nineteenth-century African American artist, also expatriated and settled in Paris. He studied briefly with Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) at the Pennsylvania Academy, until a malicious racist prank on the part of his white schoolmates caused him to leave the academy, never to return. During the formative phase of what came to be known as the New Negro Movement, Tanner (1859-1937) was selected by Alain Locke (1886-1954) to head a new school of African American art. He refused the honor, however, preferring to stay in Europe, where he was less conscious of the racism that had so frustrated him in America. Tanner became an influential role model for young African American artists studying abroad. His studio was always open to them, and he gave generously of his time, encouraging them in whatever way he could. Although Tanner never left Paris to participate in the New Negro Movement, he contributed to it in his own way.


During the first decades of the twentieth century, the Great Migration brought African American artists and aspiring artists together in cities across the North. The result was the birth of the New Negro Movement, or the Harlem Renaissance, which sought to encourage racial pride, solidarity, self-help, and education among black city dwellers.

Among its leaders was Alain Locke, a Harvard-educated philosopher, the first black Rhodes scholar, and one of the foremost African American intellectuals of the twentieth century. A contemporary of W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), and James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), Locke was a major force behind the New Negro Movement. It was Locke who urged African American artists to look across the Atlantic to their African ancestral homeland, where they would discover not one but many artistic legacies.

Locke's championing of the African arts was part of a philosophy known as "Negritude," a forerunner of "Afrocentricity."According to this philosophy, if blacks learned the truth about their African ancestry, if they studied the ancient civilizations, history, and art of their forebears, they would come to understand the contributions Africans had made to the world. Such knowledge would in turn become a source of collective pride, a building block for future generations. African art, in particular sculpture, was already an important influence in the work of modern European artists, who discovered in it "a mine of fresh motifs a lesson in simplicity and originality of expression. "Locke felt that black art would exert an even greater influence on the work of black artists,"the blood descendants, bound to it by a sense of direct cultural kinship."

Artists within the New Negro Movement generally responded with enthusiasm to the call "to look back to their African heritage. "Some gained a new inspiration and self-understanding through an appreciation of the land of their black ancestors. They took Locke's exhortation to heart, and using African crafts, folklore, and traditional culture as their spiritual models, they produced fine art, literature, and music, proving conclusively that they were capable of achievements in the high arts. They remained largely unaware, however, of the centuries-old legacy of African and African American artists and artisans in the United States, whose achievements were still unrecognized in the 1920s and 1930s.

Aaron Douglas Jr. (1899-1979) is the artist most closely associated with the New Negro Movement. The stylized designs and African themes of his paintings gave the movement a "look" that continues to identify it to this day. The painters Palmer Hayden (1890-1973) and Archibald Motley (1891-1928) also came to artistic maturity at this time, vividly recording the life of the burgeoning black urban centers.

Other artists, though not formally affiliated with the New Negro Movement, came to be associated with it through their work. Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), whose parents came north in the Great Migration, was still a boy when the New Negro Movement began, but as an adult he would chronicle the time in a series of paintings called The Great Migration. Horace Pippin (1888-1946), in his small paintings of interior scenes, depicted the lives of people who were part of the age. By comparison to the sophisticated and urbane work associated with the New Negro Movement, Pippin's paintings seem more in the folk art tradition, but he achieved a large measure of success in the 1930s and 1940s, and his paintings, like those of Jacob Lawrence, are highly valued in the early twenty-first century.


In 1928, the first all-African American exhibition of art, sponsored by the Harmon Foundation, was held at International House in New York City. It included work by Archibald Motley (1891-1928), Aaron Douglas Jr. (1899-1979), Augusta Savage (1892-1962), Sargent Johnson (1887-1967), James Porter (1905-1970), James Latimer Allen, and Hale Woodruff (1900-1980). For many years afterward, the foundation held annual exhibitions of black art, but the depression years of 1928 to 1933 were critical ones. Many black artists who are well known today might not have survived as artists without the keen interest and financial support of William Harmon (1862-1928) and the foundation during this time.

The Harmon Foundation exhibitions traveled around the country from city to city, making the art of black Americans more visible and accessible to the nation as a whole. The foundation established community art centers where children and adults could receive instruction and artists could have the use of expensive equipment such as printing presses. The foundation also offered cash prizes to the winners of its annual competitions, and in one form or another continued its support of Negro artists until it ceased operations in 1976.

When the U.S. Treasury Department established the Works Project Administration (WPA) in 1933, American artists of all colors received support from the federal government for the first time. Commissioned to create works of public art, they painted murals in post offices, airports, schools, libraries, and hospitals in communities across the nation. In this massive artistic outreach by the Roosevelt Administration, the WPA brought art to people who would not ordinarily have had access to it.

Many African Americans matured as artists during the WPA years, and with federal support they were able to achieve distinction in their fields. Hale Woodruff, John Biggers (1924-2001), Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998), and others went on to head art departments in black colleges around the country. The print-maker Robert Blackburn (b. 1920), today the holder of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, founded his own printmaking studio with WPA support. James Porter (1905-1970), Charles White (1918-1979), Elizabeth Catlett (b. 1919), Romare Bearden (1911-1988), William H. Johnson (1901-1970), Malvin Gray Johnson (1896-1934), Richmond Barthe (1901-1989), Dox Thrash (1892-1965), and the abstract expressionist Norman Lewis (1909-1979), among others, established their reputations as artists during these years.


In traditional African societies, the visual arts were closely associated with religious practices and rituals. Sculpture, carving, and weaving served to teach people religious concepts and remind them of the importance of certain rituals. When African religious practices were outlawed in America, however, the visual component that accompanied these practices fell into disuse. Seeking to protect the limited freedom that Christianity gave them, Africans adopted the Protestant ban on religious imagery.

Early on in colonial America, the skills and craft traditions of Africans became combined with those of Europeans, but the African impulse did not entirely disappear. Without the religion and ritual that had been the basis of their art, Africans tended to focus on the secular, using their skills to fashion utilitarian and folk art. The African connection was expressed in objects with specific uses, such as walking sticks, or in objects imbued with special significance, such as face jugs, although the meaning such objects held for slaves remains unclear. Carved wooden bowls, furniture, iron work, and numerous decorative items made use of the designs and motifs found in traditional African artifacts.

The techniques and methods of fabrication used by Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982), James Hampton (1909-1964), William Edmondson (1882-1951), and other modern black folk artists are similar to those used by Africans. African American folk art combines a variety of media, with artists using assemblage and collage techniques to literally build their art. Graphic artists such as Bill Traylor (1854-1947), Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980), and Mary A. Bell used paint, graphite, and crayon and frequently combined words and text with overlapping images to create a multilayered space on a flat, two-dimensional surface.

African American folk sculpture is carved with simple tools or constructed from wood, stone, aluminum foil, or iron. Africans believed that reflective materialsbits of shiny stone, copper, brass, and glasswould enhance the spiritual nature of an object. By incorporating bottle caps, aluminum, tin, and other reflective materials in their art, African American folk artists have maintained, perhaps without realizing it, stylistic links to African art.

Do the shiny reflective materials used by modern African American folk artists serve the same spiritual purpose as they did for Africans? The African American folk artists would never try to explain why they reach for a particular object, shape, or color, any more than they would try to explain the origins of their art. But many offer a simple but profound explanation for what they do as artists, asserting that they are merely the vehicles of God; God is the artist, and they are his instrument of visual and spiritual communication. This spiritual connection or impulse has been constant in the folk art of African Americans for almost four hundred years, and it continues to inform the work of present-day native, visionary, and folk artists.


Since the 1960s, a younger generation of black Americans has been making another strenous effort to understand their African heritage: painters like Barkley Hendricks (b. 1945), Richard Yarde (b. 1939), Deborah Muir-head, and Jonathan Green; mixed-media artists like Faith Ringgold (b. 1930), Howardena Pindell (b. 1943), Lorna Simpson (b. 1960), Betye Saar (b. 1926), and Allison Saar (b. 1956); sculptors like Martin Puryear (b. 1941), Renee Stout (b. 1958), and Willie Birch (b. 1942); as well as artists who are difficult to classify, like Fred Wilson (b. 1954) and Adrian Piper (b. 1948). Their art and that of others has grown more self-conscious as they have endeavored to understand the meanings and spirtual significance that are the heart of traditional African art. As a result, they have learned to understand and appreciate the visual art traditions of their black ancestors and to synthesize those traditions with Western modes of perception and presentation, creating unique works of American art.

Contemporary black artists display a determination to work despite the irritating racism that continues to exclude them from major museum collections and prominent galleries. The confusion and guilt over what constitutes appropriate subject matter and contentwhich may have frustrated earlier artistsis being resolved through education, self-knowledge, and an understanding of black history, freeing black artists to confidently pursue their own personal artistic inclinations without denying their race.

As black men and women who make art, presentday artists must confront many of the same obstacles that hampered, but did not hinder, earlier African American artists. In the work of their forerunners, African American artists in the early 2000s find guides for their own intense and sometimes painful self-examination, without which there cannot be artistic expression or growth.

Clearly, we are on an eternal seesaw of American values, one day celebrating, the next demonizing African and black American values. While the binary black versus white thinking that has characterized American identity for four centuries runs deep, it is clear that this equation is becoming more and more difficult to maintain. What of the changing face of the country, particularly in young Americans? Is it possible that, as the United States discovers its multicultural self, we are traveling back toward the multiple and contradictory faces of reality once celebrated in the traditional African cosmogonic belief systems? Is it possible that we might be on the tapering end of the half millennia of negative values traditionally ascribed to African Africans? There is still an infinite amount of work to be done. However, if there is any one thing that historical and sociological study teaches us, it is that those who believe in themselves lead the lives worth living. And perhaps even more importantly, they are the ones who continue to push the American equation forward, creating a history we can be proud of. Perhaps even one day we will throw the old equation out, in favor of a better one: an equation that equals an American reality that all Americans will wake up to every day.


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Driskell, David. Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800-1950. San Francisco: Art Museum Association of America, 1985.

Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America. New York: StudioMuseum in Harlem.

Honour, Hugh. The Image of the Black in Western Art: From the American Revolution to World War I. Houston: De Menil Foundation, 1989.

Livingston, Jane, and John Beardsley. Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1982.

McElroy, Guy C. Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940. San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1990.

Perry, Regenia A. Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists. Washington: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1992.

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Plantation Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 199.

The African American Urban Artist: Rap, Graffiti, and the Painting of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

In the early 1980s, the young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat burst onto the New York art scene. Many have characterized him as the first great African American artist in the tradition of modern art luminaries such as Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock. While this ignores such talents as Romare Bearden and others, Basquiat's tremendous success did herald the appearance of an African American artist who was creating a wholly unique visual language. It was a means of expression not necessarily born of American folk traditions, but rather, on the one hand an intuitive sensibility for the tastes of the largely white and European New York and international art culture and on the other a visual language unique to Basquiat's Caribbean and African American perspective.

Basquiat's painting came out of the urban New York culture of the clubs in the early 1980s, as well as the burgeoning rap culture. Basquiat complained bitterly of the racism he suffered and found questions often loaded with a subtext involving his role as a successful black artist during interviews. As a result, though he came out of the graffiti scene, he sought to distance himself from that label and the implications that seemed to go with it. Still, he counted among his friends the likes of Freddy Braithwaite (better known as Fab 5 Freddy) and Toxic, both young graffiti artists of color. Basquiat's work exploded onto the scene while he was still in his early twenties, after a series of shows in alternative venues. The artist's jagged, skeletal figures, African mask-like portraits, and arcane iconography of scrawled words made him at once an undeniably powerful and unique artist and a lightning rod for the "primitivism in art" dialectic that had been a recurring theme in modern art since the Cubist images of Picasso and Matisse.

Indeed, many complained that Basquiat had been created, that he was a product of mass marketing, polished and presented by the doyennes of the art world in order to line their own pockets. This view, casting the artist both as somehow unskilled and victim, conveniently glosses over the fact that Basquiat himself longed for fame and made a concerted campaign to win over the New York art scene over the course of half a decade. It was precisely the sort of commentary that characterized his experience as a young, talented, black artist, and in some ways he received as much criticism from the black art world because of his disdain for the label of "black artist. "Put simply, his was a success that drew criticism from any and all sides.

The truth, however, is that Jean-Michel Basquiat was as media savvy and as calculating in his efforts to present his vision as any young art star, and that, in the end, the artist was consumed by his own campaign. In the late years of his career, he suffered from tremendous doubts as to his talent, fueled by the persistent presentation of the artist as some kind of "affirmative action" mascot of the art world. He ultimately died of a drug overdose, feeling alone and openly talking about never painting again. Many have speculated that the artist felt increasing desperation as a fascinated and critical public came to expect the young artist to constantly outdo his previous work. Whether intentional or not, there is no question his death was the result of the same forces that made him an international star in the first place, and is a frightening cautionary tale as to the pressures and costs artists of colors must endure if they wish to succeed at its highest levels.

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The Art of African Americans

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The Art of African Americans