African American artists — poets, writers, visual artists, and dancers — have historically served as change agents through their crafts.

Drawn from their ancestors' ancient rites of passage and the shared hopes of liberty, Black artists continue to fuse the rhythmic cadence of creative expressions with the pulsating beats of progress. Our museum celebrates Black History Month 2024 by highlighting the "art of resistance" and the artists who used their crafts to uplift the race, speak truth to power and inspire a nation.

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Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice. Paul Robeson (1898-1976) Concert artist, actor, athlete and activist

Whether digital, literary, visual or performing arts, Black trailblazers and innovators revolutionized their fields, often transforming them by pioneering new techniques and styles. Through art, important issues and figures in African American history are exalted, and underrepresented stories are preserved. For the entire month of February, we invite everyone to join us in celebrating art and its relationship with justice. Art plays a role in communicating emotions, building community and inspiring action.

Cultural Expressions (Literature and Poetry)

Culture shapes lives. It’s in the food people eat, the languages they speak, the art they create, and many other ways they express themselves.

I recognize that my power as well as my primary oppressions come as a result of my blackness as well as my womanness, and therefore my struggles on both of these fronts are inseparable. Audre Lorde (1934-1992) in 1980 Writer, professor, philosopher, poet and civil rights activist
Cultural Expressions Banner

Cultural Expressions Exhibition

Cultural Expressions is a circular, experiential, introductory space to African American and African diaspora culture.

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Photo of Maya Angelou

(Re)Creating the Narrative: The Black Women’s Literary Renaissance of the 1970s

Black women writers have consistently been a part of the cultural renaissances that have reshaped Black culture, nationally and globally. 

 

Learn More about (Re)Creating the Narrative: The Black Women’s Literary Renaissance of the 1970s
Playbill for A Raisin in the Sun. White background with yellow box at top; photograph below depicting a short-haired woman looking to the right.

Lorraine Hansberry: Playwright, Writer, and Activist

Her own family’s landmark court case against discriminatory real estate covenants in Chicago would serve as inspiration for her seminal Broadway play, "A Raisin in the Sun."
Learn more about Lorraine Hansberry: Playwright, Writer, and Activist
Detail showing the section of 'The Wall of Respect' celebrating black literary figures, Chicago, IL, 1967. It shows the following figures (left to right): W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin, Lerone Bennett, LeRoi Jones, Gwendolyn Brooks, and John Killen. The mural was on 43rd and Langley in Chicago's South Side and was conceived by OBAC (The Organization of Black American Culture). It depicts images of "Black Heroes" as positive role models for identity, community formation, and revolutionary action.

The Power of Poetry: Pre-Civil War to Reconstruction

As a medium for accomplished and innovative writers, poetry has always loomed large on the African American literary landscape.
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We Walk the Way of the New World by Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti), 1970

The New Negro Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement

After the end of WWI in 1919, artists, writers and musicians in black communities began to express themselves in new ways that embraced an African past, racial pride, and artistic and political freedom.
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Image of James Baldwin smoking a cigarette sitting at a typewriter.

“A Writer Is by Definition a Disturber of the Peace”

“One writes out of one thing only - one's own experience,” the author James Baldwin penned in “Notes of a Native Son,” his 1955 collection of essays on issues of race in America and Europe.
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Harry Belafonte, Coretta Scott King, and Duke Ellington (l. To r.), 1956

75 Years of Ebony Magazine

Explore the Johnson Publishing Collection and celebrate 75 years of Ebony Magazine and the African American experience.
Read More about 75 Years of Ebony Magazine
Civil rights and Union leaders sing 'We Shall Overcome' at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama

Boots on the Ground

Although James Baldwin often considered himself a “witness” to the Civil Rights Movement, this role did not bar him from actively participating in some of the Movement’s most critical, influential events.
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We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly. Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm Editors in the first edition of Freedom’s Journal founded in 1827

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Ida B. Wells

The Power of The Press

Black newspapers served local as well as regional and national audiences, helping to foster a sense of community and shared interests among African Americans living in different areas of the country.

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A color photograph of Audre Lorde speaking at a podium.

Historic Members of the Harlem Writers Guild

Immersed in progressive politics, they were all bound by a revolutionary spirit and a strong sense of compassion for the individual struggles of one another.

Explore the Constellation about Historic Members of the Harlem Writers Guild

Educational Resources

Lewis "Big June" Marshall Carrying the U.S. Flag, Selma to Montgomery March

Learning Journeys for the Classroom, Home and Museum Visits

Join us in exploring stories of African Americans in the Arts throughout February with a special focus on art as a platform for social justice.

Learn more about Learning Journeys for the Classroom, Home and Museum Visits

Taking the Stage (Performing Arts)

Through their achievements on the stage and screen, African Americans have used the power of performance to fuel social change.

The cultural heritage of the American Negro is one of America’s richest treasures. Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) Dancer, director, choreographer and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Taking the Stage Exhibition

Throughout Taking the Stage, visitors can contemplate how the roles black artists played on the stage and screen reflected changing aspirations, struggles, and realities for black people in American society. 

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Harry Belafonte pictured with civil rights legends Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy.

You Should Know: Harry Belafonte, Actor and Activist

From being the first Black American to win an Emmy to using his voice and his wallet to finance social justice, Harry Belafonte was dedicated himself to the improvement of his people and humanity across the globe. 

Read the Story about You Should Know: Harry Belafonte, Actor and Activist
Ailvin Ailey facing forward with his arms crossed in front of him.

Transforming Dance around the World

Alvin Ailey's influence prevails in a body of work that continues to be performed more than 50 years later and a dance theater company that continues to flourish.
Read the Story about Transforming Dance around the World
Pearl Bailey, Dorothy Dandridge, and Diahann Carroll in Carmen Jones

Actresses Who Refused Typecasting

Through their achievements in the dramatic arts, African American women have broken barriers, enriched American culture, and inspired audiences around the world.
Read the Story about Actresses Who Refused Typecasting
Dancer, choreographer Geoffrey Holder photographed in 1964

Making African America: The Arts

Art can be a nuanced but powerful medium to convey political or social messages. Artistic expressions are important vehicles for cultural exchange, community expression and even social critique.
Read the Story about Making African America: The Arts
Photograph of Louis Armstrong recording at the CBS Studio in New York

A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance

Harlem became a destination for African Americans of all backgrounds who shared common experiences of slavery, emancipation and racial oppression, as well as a determination to forge a new identity as free people.
Read the Story about A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance

Icons and Luminaries

Photograph for The Emperor Jones

A black and white promotional photograph for The Emperor Jones starring Paul Robeson (1898-1976), a concert artist, actor, athlete and activist.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Actor Sidney Poitier in "Lilies of the Field" promotional poster advertising the Italian release.

Promotional poster for the Italian release of "Lilies of the Field" starring Sidney Poitier (1927-2022), acclaimed actor, activist, director and ambassador. Poitier earned an Oscar for his performance in the film, becoming the first Black actor to win an Academy Award.

Getty Images
Autographed "Marshall" movie poster featuring actor Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020).

An autographed "Marshall" movie poster featuring actor Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) that was being auctioned off during CinemaCon in 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Boseman was an actor, director, writer and producer who portrayed groundbreaking figures such as James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson.

Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images
Cover of a 1950 program of Katherine Dunham and her dance company in New York

Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) and her dance company work out of New York, and issued this cover for a 1950 program. Dunham was a dancer and choreographer known as a pioneer in dance anthropology, or the study of dance in a social and cultural context. 

(Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
Dancer Judith Jamison, born in 1943, photographed as she appeared in 'Prodigal Prince' in 1967.

Dancer Judith Jamison, born in 1943, photographed as she appeared in 'Prodigal Prince' in 1967. Jamison is artistic director emerita of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and an esteemed choreographer whose awards and honors include an Emmy Award, the Kennedy Center Honor, and induction into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance.

(Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)
Choreographer Fatima Robinson poses at the premiere of "The Color Purple" held at The Academy Museum on December 6, 2023, in Los Angeles.

Choreographer Fatima Robinson, born in 1971, poses at the premiere of "The Color Purple" held at The Academy Museum on December 6, 2023, in Los Angeles, California. Robinson is a dancer, choreographer, and music video director whose credits include choreographing the Academy Awards and musical numbers in the 2023 “The Color Purple” movie.

(Photo by Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty Images)
Poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron performing onstage in the United Kingdom in 2010.

Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011) performs on the main stage on day one of Bestival on September 10, 2010 on the Isle of Wight, United Kingdom.  Scott-Heron was an author, poet, author, composer and recording artist whose songs included "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."

(Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images)
Saul Williams performs at BAM festival in Spain in 2016.

Saul Williams performs on stage during day 4 of BAM Festival at Antiga fabrica Damm on September 25, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. Williams is a poet, rapper, singer and actor known for blending poetry and hip hop. He co-wrote and starred in the 1998 independent film Slam. He also starred in Holler If Ya Hear Me, a musical inspired by late rapper Tupac Shakur.

(Photo by Jordi Vidal/Redferns)
Comedian, writer, activist Dick Gregory performs at the 2008 Bermuda Music Festival at Bermuda National Stadium on October 4, 2008 in Hamilton, Bermuda.

Pioneering comedian, writer, and activist Dick Gregory (1932-2017) performs at the 2008 Bermuda Music Festival at Bermuda National Stadium on October 4, 2008 in Hamilton, Bermuda. On stage, in comedy clubs, and on college campuses, on radio, television, and recordings, Gregory struck a blow to the heart of racism with messages full of wit and wisdom. He was active in the civil rights movement. He was a presidential hopeful as well as a prolific author who published several books and appeared in many films and television shows.

(Photo by Rob Loud/Getty Images)
Roy Wood, Jr., attends Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Trevor Noah Premiere Party Event on October 22, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Comedy Central)

The Daily Show Correspondent Roy Wood, Jr. attends Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Trevor Noah Premiere Party Event on October 22, 2015 in New York City. Wood is a comedian and actor best know for his appearances on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah where he's shed light on issues. He's also starred in Netflix’s comedy series Space Force, AMC’s Better Call Saul, and The Last O.G. on TBS.

(Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Comedy Central)

Educational Resources

Playbill featuring a graphic of a woman in front of a microphone with her arms stretched out to her sides.

North Star: A Digital Journey of African American History

Explore African American history through digital activities on the Smithsonian Learning Lab platform. The activities, or collections, have gathered objects, stories, videos and thinking questions all in one place.

Start Your Journey about North Star: A Digital Journey of African American History

Reckoning (Visual Art)

Visual art has long provided its own protest, commentary, escape and perspective for African Americans.

The power to inspire, the power to incite, the power to challenge... Tommy Oliver Photographer, producer and cinematographer in television and film
Black Love Matters: Untitled

Reckoning Exhibition

Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience. looks at the ways in which visual art has long provided its own protest, commentary, escape and perspective for African Americans. 

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Take a Gallery Tour

Two photographs of groups of women side by side. The black-and-white photograph on the top shows a crowd of women with their fists raised in a black power gesture. The color photo on the bottom shows a large group of female rappers sitting on a stage.

Represent: Hip-Hop Photography

Represent paired images from the museum’s Eyejammie Hip-Hop Photography Collection with historical photographs to highlight connections between hip-hop culture and its relationship to other important historical figures, social movements, and creative moments.

Learn More about Represent: Hip-Hop Photography
A black-and-white photograph of a man wearing a hat and gloves and carrying an air hose on his left shoulder. There is a railroad car in the background.

Everyday Beauty: Images and Films in NMAAHC's Collection

The Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA) gallery’s inaugural exhibition featured images and rarely seen films from the Museum’s growing photography and moving image collection.
Explore about Everyday Beauty: Images and Films in NMAAHC's Collection
Joe Frazier (l.) and Muhammad Ali (r.) in the "Fight of the Century" at Madison Square Garden, New York, 1971

75 Years of Ebony Magazine

Starting with its first issue in November 1945, Ebony chronicled black life and contributions across regions and generations.
Learn More about 75 Years of Ebony Magazine
A print for the United States Postal Service Emancipation Proclamation Forever stamp. The rectangular print has a white background and is covered in text in black and red ink

Gail Anderson: A Leader in Black Graphic Design

NMAAHC’s collection of Anderson’s work includes several objects related to her stamp design.
Read the Story about Gail Anderson: A Leader in Black Graphic Design
A detail of a photo of protestors around a barrel of hazardous material and an individual in a haz-mat suite.

An Artist Forged in a Steel Mill Town

Throughout her career LaToya Ruby Frazier has integrated herself into communities to collaboratively document people’s everyday lives during defining moments in American history, altering the narrative and the country.
Read the Story about An Artist Forged in a Steel Mill Town

Educational Resources

Gas mask with filter canister worn at demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri.

Art as Platform for Social Justice

Designed for grades three and up, this guide focuses on three not-to-miss objects and stories throughout the museum that highlight the connection between art and social justice.

Learn More about Art as Platform for Social Justice

Musical Crossroads (Music)

From the arrival of the first Africans to the present day, African American music has provided a voice for liberty, justice and social change. 

Music is our witness and our ally. The beat is the confession which recognizes, changes, and conquers time. James Baldwin, author “Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption" in 1979

Musical Crossroads exhibition

Musical Crossroads expands the definition of African American music to include African American music-makers in all genres and styles.

Explore! about Musical Crossroads exhibition
Marvin Gaye standing on stage with his hands raised as if praying

Religion in Black Music, Activism and Popular Culture

Spirit in the Dark examines Black religious life through a selection of photographs from the Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Ebony, Jet and Negro Digest. 

Explore! about Religion in Black Music, Activism and Popular Culture
Nina Simone with James Baldwin

Comrades in the Struggle

James Baldwin developed an intimate connection to other writers and to an array of visual and performing artists.
Read the Story about Comrades in the Struggle
Large crowd listening to a concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial

A Look at the Music of the Poor People’s Campaign

The nation’s least fortunate gathered in Washington not for spectacle but for solutions, not for sensationalism but for sustenance.
Read the Story about A Look at the Music of the Poor People’s Campaign
A silver gelatin print depicting a black-and-white image of Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday: An Icon in American Culture

One of her most famous songs, “Strange Fruit” was based on a horrific and detailed account of a lynching in the South. Many scholars now consider it one of the first protest songs of the Civil Rights Movement.
Explore! about Billie Holiday: An Icon in American Culture
Valaida Snow, 1920s

The Stage Belonged to Her

Valaida Snow's legacy includes her contributions to spreading American music—and specifically jazz—around the globe, as well as breaking barriers as a female instrumentalist.
Read the Story about The Stage Belonged to Her
Mahalia Jackson performs during the March on Washington, 1963

Mahalia Jackson: Gospel Takes Flight

In describing the legendary gospel singer, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: "A voice like hers comes along once in a millennium."
Read the Story about Mahalia Jackson: Gospel Takes Flight

Sweet Honey in the Rock's Carol Maillard on being an 'artivist'

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Sweet Honey in the Rock were among the featured artists at the Tune in Festival in October 2020 presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA / Source: CAP UCLA

Stories Behind the Objects

NMAAHC
NMAAHC

Black Voices in the Arts Lunch Series  

During Black History Month, we celebrated the contributions of Black artists who have used their platforms for social change. For three weeks, we featured performances of local artists including poets and spoken word artists, dancers, musicians, and a live painter inside Heritage Hall.

Afrofuturism (Digital Arts)

Afrofuturism expresses notions of Black identity, agency and freedom through art, creative works and activism that envision liberated futures for Black life. 

You got to make your own worlds. You got to write yourself in. Octavia Butler (1947–2006) Writer, Afrofuturist
The Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership

Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures

The exhibition immerses visitors in a conversation that reimagines, reinterprets and reclaims the past and present for a more empowering future for African Americans. 

Explore! about Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures

Go behind the scenes of NMAAHC's newest exhibition

We use the video player Able Player to provide captions and audio descriptions. Able Player performs best using web browsers Google Chrome, Firefox, and Edge. If you are using Safari as your browser, use the play button to continue the video after each audio description. We apologize for the inconvenience.

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Costume for the Wizard in The Wiz on Broadway

Multimedia Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism has influenced how Black people are depicted in film, television, art, and architecture. Explore the artists reimagining Black possibilities.

Explore! about Multimedia Afrofuturism
Black Women Afrofuturists

Black Women Icons of Afrofuturism

Their influence spans across disciplines, genres and decades – while re-imagining the past, present and future through a Black cultural lens. 
Read the Story about Black Women Icons of Afrofuturism

Ease On Down the Road: A 'Super Soul Musical'

The song lyrics, script, sets and costumes all reference and champion the struggles and triumphs of African Americans.
Read the Story about Ease On Down the Road: A 'Super Soul Musical'
headshot of Victor Glover

African American Achievement at NASA

At NMAAHC, we are proud to honor the many African American astronauts, engineers, technicians, and scientists who have contributed to sending humankind to the stars.
Read the Story about African American Achievement at NASA
A quilted and appliqued textile portrait of Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman: Life, Liberty and Legacy

A pioneer in what it means to be regarded as an icon, Harriet Tubman served as a physical manifestation of liberation for many.
Read the Story about Harriet Tubman: Life, Liberty and Legacy
Science fiction writer Octavia Butler

Remembering Afrofuturist Octavia Butler

The esteemed writer used her unique experiences as a Black woman in America to challenge and redefine the genre of science fiction—and in doing so paved the way for writers and artists who continue to push the boundaries of possibility today.
Read the Story about Remembering Afrofuturist Octavia Butler

Educational Resources

NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins standing in front of a fighter jet with the cockpit open

Narratives of African American STEM professionals

Through the Window and into the Mirror is a video conversation series about the experiences of African American STEM professionals today.  Interviews with Ron Gamble, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sharon Caples McDougle, K. Renee Horton, and Jessica Watkins are among the ones focused on space, space travel, and physics.

Learn More about Narratives of African American STEM professionals
Collage of pictures of African Americans who contributed to the nation's space agency, NASA.

A Celebration of African Americans at NASA

This Learning Lab celebrates Black pioneers at NASA, their bravery, their exploratory spirit, and their desires to express themselves fully through their commitment to space exploration.

Learn More about A Celebration of African Americans at NASA

The Science of Sound: Activities Inspired by Dr. James West

Using hands-on activities and easy to find materials, students will use the story of Dr. James West to discover how an object produces sound and how sound waves travel. 

Learn More about The Science of Sound: Activities Inspired by Dr. James West
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