The 2024 theme of Black History Month is "African Americans and the Arts," honoring the way art has been integral for preserving memory, history, empowerment and cultural expression amongst Black communities.
The Association for the Study of African American Life and History describes the significance of this year's theme:
“African American art is infused with African, Caribbean, and the Black American lived experiences. In the fields of visual and performing arts, literature, fashion, folklore, language, film, music, architecture, culinary and other forms of cultural expression, the African American influence has been paramount. African American artists have used art to preserve history and community memory as well as for empowerment. 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. In 2024, we examine the varied history and life of African American arts and artisans.”
This month, faculty, staff, students and alumni at the University of Washington School of Public Health share some of the Black artists and their writings, performances, and activism that inspires the work they do in public health and health equity.
Drs. LeConte Dill and Ryan Petteway became the editors for Poetry for the Public’s Health — a section of the journal Health Promotion Practice (and now a podcast) which is a “bi-monthly, peer-reviewed journal that publishes authoritative research, commentary, practical tools, and promising practices that strategically advance the art and science of health promotion and disease prevention.”
“This innovative journal is housed at the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE) and provides essential tools for the practice and praxis of public health. Merging the art of science is congruent with nursing practice and these scholars have pushed the boundaries of public health in this regard, which is inspirational!”
- Monica McLemore, professor, Child, Family, and Population Health Nursing, adjunct professor, Health Systems and Population Health and Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies
Angela Davis is a professor, writer and activist fighting for Black liberation, feminism and queer rights.
bell hooks (1952-2021) was a prolific author and educator who published around 40 books, and is well-regarded for cultural writings on race, feminism, and class.
“Davis reminds me to change the things I cannot accept. hooks' reflections on love, liberation, and community are a regular touchpoint that center me and fuel my work.”
- Assiatou Diallo, senior tech advisor at the International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH)
Bob the Drag Queen is a Season 8 champion of RuPaul's Drag Race and comedian/actor/performer including co-star and co-producer of HBO's "We're Here," about being queer in small-town America.
“Bob the Drag Queen is a brilliant performer and activist. She uses her art to elevate voices of the Black queer community as well as raise awareness about HIV, combat stigma and racism --— and never stops slaying.”
- Adrienne Shapiro, MD, Ph.D. assistant professor in Global Health and Medicine
Maya Angelou, (1928-2014) an American memoirist and poet, wrote the poem “The Mask” after observing how a maid’s laughter on a bus served as a survival apparatus. Angelou combined this poem with one of her own, “For Old Black Men” and a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar into a spoken-word performance.
“Watching Maya Angelou read this poem I feel deep discomfort on a gut level. While I can never know what it’s like to suffer from racism, intergenerational trauma, and health disparities, I know there are so many who have to put on a brave face and go about day-to-day life in society pretending everything is fine when it’s not.”
- Lisa Hayward, manager of community engagement, Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences
Wa Na Wari is an art and community organization located in the Central District, Seattle. They “create space for Black ownership, possibility, and belonging through art, historic preservation, and connection.” Their work spans art, community organizing, and research.; nNot only do they sponsor art residencies and curate art festivals and exhibits, but they also provide community meals, gardening programs, and oral history archives.
“I first learned of their work through Dr. Wendy Barrington and Candace Jackson's course in the Nursing School: Collaborating for Health Equity. Wa Na Wari is emblematic of how art, activism, and community can become a space for resistance, expression, and empowerment — all key parts of individual and community well-being.”
- Carolyn Fan, Health Services doctoral student and ARCH research scientist
Alma Thomas (1891–1978) was an educator and an artist in Washington D.C. Alma Thomas began seriously painting in the 1960s after retiring from her job as a public school art teacher. She became known for her bold colors and abstract art.
“Seeing a painting by Alma Thomas evokes feelings of hope and light. There is movement in the seeming simplicity of her work that sets the stage for transformation and progress into the future. Every time I see one of her works, I smile!”
- Yolanda Evans, MD, MPH, associate professor of Pediatrics, adjunct associate professor, Health Systems and Population Health
Zahyr Lauren (they/them), also known as The Artist L.Haz, is a West Coast-based artist, writer, former human rights investigator, and former attorney.
"The art itself has become a health tool in the artist's quest for holistic health. As a former attorney who temporarily lost the ability to walk due to stress, art addressed the psychological causes of the issue, placing the power of healing in the artist's hands and outside of the institutions. The Artist L.Haz sees art as a tool for health equity because it empowers one as a creative director in their own healing journey. It is a privilege that The Artist L.Haz is a member of our Seattle community and I hope that the UW community will find ways to support them and their transformative work."
- Mienah Z. Sharif, assistant professor of Epidemiology
Bisa Butler is an American textile artist, known for her vibrant quilts that also serve as portraits.
“Bisa Butler glorifies Black beauty in her quilts, portraying Black people using vibrant colors and the bold, large-scale motifs of West African batiks. She reminds us to celebrate the creativity and dignity of Black people everywhere.”
- Amalia Magaret, research professor, Laboratory Medicine, adjunct research professor, Biostatistics
Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was an American science fiction author, recipient of the Hugo and Nebula awards, and the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.
Vanessa L. German is an American artists who uses mediums like sculpture, paint, writing, and performance to repair and reshape disrupted systems, spaces, and connections.
Paula Wilson is a multimedia artist, with works spanning paintings, sculpture, prints, textiles, collages, and videos.
“I am inspired in my life and work by Octavia Butler's writing, the sculptures and performances of Vanessa L. German, and the print and mixed media installations of Paula Wilson. We are at a time of great change in our world, working to decolonize all the areas we work within, from art to public health, working to liberate ourselves from oppression, the harms of capitalism, interrupting the harm being done to Earth's systems so they may heal, and unearthing and healing the buried trauma of the last few thousand years through working with our own ancestral lines. Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams says that this is a time through which only truth can pass. It feels like we are shedding the illusions of the past and working to bring forward truth and our care for life. Each of these artists show me ways to do this well. Navigating from the heart with a love for each other, creating out of community, seeing deeply, the wild, the absurd, the unexpected. In general, I have been looking to Black, queer leaders who have navigated so much themselves, it feels like they hold the keys to our collective healing and liberation.”
- Leah Nguyen, program manager, UW Consortium for Global Mental Health
African American quilts hold significant cultural, historical and artistic importance, playing a crucial role in expressing the experiences, stories, and resilience of African Americans throughout history.
“If I had to pick one favorite quilt artists, it would probably be Faith Ringgold. I wrote my undergraduate history honors thesis on Black feminist theory and wrote a chapter on quilting in the form of a quilt. Quilts use differently shaped pieces of fabric, they are beautiful to look at, and they are made with so much love to keep family members warm. Some of the themes of intersectionality I focused on in my thesis have much higher visibility nowadays.”
- Paul K. Crane, MD MPH, professor of Medicine, adjunct professor in Health Systems and Population Health
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was a pioneering African American anthropologist, folklorist, and author known for her influential contributions to the Harlem Renaissance.
James Baldwin (1924-1987), a renowned American novelist, essayist, and social critic, explored complex themes of race, sexuality, and identity in his powerful works, challenging societal norms.
Toni Morrison (1931-2019), a Nobel Prize-winning author, is celebrated for her storytelling that examines the African American experience and the themes of race, history, and culture.
Gloria Naylor (1950-2016), an acclaimed African American novelist, is best known for her critically acclaimed works, such as "The Women of Brewster Place," which explore the lives and struggles of black women in America.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist known for her work on racial and social justice issues.
Beyoncé is a globally renowned singer, songwriter, and performer known for her powerful vocals, dynamic stage presence, and influence in contemporary pop and R&B music.
Bob Marley (1945-1981), the iconic Jamaican reggae musician, is celebrated for his profound impact on music and culture, using his music to promote messages of peace, love, and social justice.
Harry Belafonte (1927-2023), a legendary singer and actor, played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement and is known for his activism and humanitarian work.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959), a groundbreaking jazz and blues singer who made significant contributions to jazz and pop music.
Nina Simone (1933-2003), a versatile and influential singer-songwriter and civil rights activist, used her unique voice to convey messages of empowerment, justice, and resilience.
Miriam Makeba (1932-2008), a South African singer and anti-apartheid activist, gained international acclaim for her captivating voice and her role in raising awareness about the struggles of black South Africans under apartheid.
Kehinde Wiley is an American artist best known for his portraits that render people of color in the traditional settings of Old Master paintings.
Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), an African American painter, is best known for his narrative series depicting the history and struggles of African Americans, such as "The Migration Series," which chronicles the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the early 20th century.
“These artists depict truths about the Black and/or African American reality which brings meaning and purpose to my own understanding and centering of BIPoC in public health.”
- Dr. Sarah Prager, professor, Obstetrics and Gynecology, adjunct professor, Health Systems and Population Health