9 Extraordinary African American Women In The Arts Who Changed US History

Getty Images

There are many notable African American names throughout history. When it comes to the arts, there were many notable female names that stand out. These nine women have shown that creativity, imagination, determination, and will take you far. From books to films, to pieces of art, and activist movements, all of these women have contributed greatly to U.S. history both artistically and politically.

1. Faith Ringgold

Grace Matthews/Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold is a painter, writer, speaker, mixed media sculptor, and performance artist who hails from New York City. She taught art at the University of California, San Diego from 1997-2002, and has 22 Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts Degrees. She has won over 75 awards, as well as fellowships and grants, like the National Endowment For the Arts Award for sculpture and The New York Foundation For the Arts Award for painting. Her work has been featured in many museums and galleries across the world, including The Museum of Modern Art, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and The St. Louis Art Museum.

One of her most notable works is her series of paintings titled American People, "which portrayed the civil rights movement from a female perspective," according to Biography. She was also heavily involved in activism and made posters in support of the Black Panther Party.

2. Maya Angelou

Getty Images

Maya Angelou's work is often taught in schools around the nation, and one of her most notable works is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She was a notable African American author, poet, historian, songwriter, playwright, dancer, stage and screen producer, director, performer, singer, and civil rights activist. Some of her works include Gather Together in My Name, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, I Shall Not Be Moved, and Mom & Me & Mom. In 1959, she became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was associate editor of The Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt from 1961-1962.

She also worked as the feature editor of the African Review in Accra, Ghana. She went down in history as the first black woman director in Hollywood. As for her political involvement, Jimmy Carter appointed her to the Commission for International Woman of the Year, wrote and read a poem for Bill Clinton's inauguration, and was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010.

3. Ella Fitzgerald

William P. Gottlieb/Wikimedia

Ella Fitzgerald began her career at the Apollo Theater in 1934, where she was discovered for her beautiful, soulful voice. She has become known in history as the "First Lady of Song," and was the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award. Before her death in 1996, she had garnered 13 Grammy Awards in total and sold over 40 million albums. She has a troubled childhood and lived on the streets before she entered an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where she sang Judy and The Object of My Affection, which won her first prize.

She grew to become one of the most popular jazz vocalists in history and performed across the world. During her lifetime, she was awarded the NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

4. Angela Davis

Bild Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia

Angela Davis is a writer, professor, and scholar who supported gender equality and prison reform. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama on January 26, 1944, and has spent her life educating and advocating for civil rights. She has a history of being very involved is activism, after having been through racial discrimination growing up in the south. She organized interracial study groups, became involved with the Black Panthers, and worked with the Che-Lumumba Club. She traveled and lectured for years, and currently teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Women, Race, and Class, as well as other books.

5. Debbie Allen

Getty Images

Debbie Allen is an acclaimed choreographer, director, and dancer, who got her start when she starred in Broadway's West Side Story in 1980. She received a Tony nomination for her role in West Side Story and also got cast in the film Fame. In 2001, she opened a nonprofit school, the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in LA. In 1960, her mother took her and her siblings to live in Mexico, and after living there for two years, Allen came back to the U.S. and applied for the Houston Ballet School, which rejected her for her skin color. However, one of the instructors who saw her secretly enrolled Allen, and after a while, they let her stay because of her talent. She has made several appearances on shows including In the House and Grey's Anatomy. She was also seen at the Women's March in LA in January 2017.

6. Edwidge Danticat

Getty Images

Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian-American writer known for the many novels she has written, including Brother, I'm Dying,The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker,Claire of the Sea Light, and Breath, Eyes, Memory.She was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Her parents moved to Brooklyn after fleeing political turmoil in Haiti that involved the oppressive regimes of François Duvalier, but Danticat stayed behind with her brother. They both eventually moved to the U.S., where she published her first book, Breath, Eyes, Memory. She studied French literature at Barnard College in Manhattan and graduated with a creative writing graduate degree from Brown University in 1993. Her book, Breath, Eyes, Memory was picked to be an official book club pick by Oprah Winfrey.

She has won many awards for her writing, including the American Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.

7. Lorraine Hansberry

David Moses Attie via National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute

Lorraine Hansberry was an African American playwright and activist. She actually became known in history as the first black playwright. She was also the youngest American to win a New York Critics' Circle award. She was the granddaughter of a freed slave, and her parents gave generous contributions to the NAACP. Her family was part of a historic legal case, Hansberry v. Lee, which ruled that racially restrictive covenants were illegal. The case came after her family moved to a white neighborhood and were attacked by neighbors. She went to the University of Wisconsin for writing but ended up dropping out to move to NYC. While in the Big Apple, she attended the New School for Social Research, where she wrote for and edited Freedom, a progressive black newspaper.

She tragically died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34, but her infamous play, A Raisin in the Sun, continues to be honored to this day.

8. Nina Simone

Ron Kroon/Wikimedia

Known for her beautiful voice, Simone sang an eclectic mix of jazz, blues, and folk sounds. She was born in North Carolina on February 21, 1933, with the birth name Eunice Kathleen Waymon. She began playing piano at the age of three and also sang in her church's choir. She trained at Julliard School of Music in NYC, where she taught piano and accompanied other performers while in school. When she could no longer afford to attend the school, she left for Philadelphia, where she stayed with her family while she saved money. In the 1950s, she began playing jazz and blues in Atlantic City clubs, and a bar owner had told her to sing along to what she was playing.

Her stage name came from the Spanish word "niña," a cute nickname her boyfriend at the time would use for her, and "Simone" was derived from French actress Simone Signoret's first name. She became Nina Simone.

Simone used her music for political reasons too, and her work became known as "the voice of the Civil Rights Movement." Her song Mississippi Goddam was a reaction to Medgar Evers' assassination, and Why (The King of Love Is Dead) was a reaction to the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

9. Toni Cade Bambara

Carlton Jones-Scribe Video Center via June Givanni Pan African Film Archive

Toni Cade Bambara was an editor, teacher, and writer who received her B.A. in theater arts and English from Queens College. While she worked towards her Master's degree in modern American fiction at New York City College, she was a social worker, occupational therapist, and worked on several projects in her community. She worked at City College in 1965 with several student publications and also directed the Theater of the Black Experience. She also wrote for several magazines at the time. Bambara published her first book, The Black Woman: An Anthology, in 1970, and published her first short-story collection, Gorilla, My Love, in 1972. She continues to be celebrated and remembered for her work as a brilliant, dedicated, and fearless African American writer.

You Might Also Like

Everything That Is Wrong With Trump's Black History Month Speech

Meet The Four Women Judges Who Are Standing Against Trump's Immigration Ban