Celebrating Black Musical Artists and Performers
has made a name for herself as one of the most important classical artists of today. She is a composer, a violinist, and educator of the highest level and continues to inspire musicians of all ages through her incredible work
is the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic. He has performed for world dignitaries, including a performance with Yo-Yo Ma at President Obama’s first inauguration. He has more recently been using social media and his celebrity to call attention to police brutality against Black citizens of this country. Learn about his “take two knees
” protest for peace and justice.
Nathalie Joachim is a Grammy-nominated flutist, composer, and vocalist. The Brooklyn born Haitian-American artist is hailed for being “a fresh and invigorating cross-cultural voice” (The Nation
). She is co-founder of the critically acclaimed urban art pop duo, Flutronix
, and comfortably navigates everything from classical to indie-rock, all while advocating for social change and cultural awareness. Her authenticity has gained her the reputation of being “powerful and unpretentious” (The New York Times
) -- introduction pulled from her website
I’ve put together 20 of my favorite resistance songs by Black artists. It starts with Ben Harper singing Maya Angelou’s I’ll Rise and finishes with one of the most famous protest songs of all time, Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. In between are all sorts of songs that explore the Black experience, from Billie Holiday’s absolutely haunting Strange Fruit to Nina Simone joyfully celebrating the end of Jim Crow. I included two war protest songs as well, because everyone should be familiar with Jimmy Cliff’s Vietnam if you haven’t heard it before.
(Contributors: Admissions Office Staff Members)
Celebrating Living Black Women Visual Artists
The "art world" of museums, dealers, collectors has held on tight to hundreds of years of lionizing white men, and currently moves at a glacial pace when it comes to giving women, especially women of color, a seat at the table.
At first, I had planned to share a few of my favorite visual artists with you. However, when I went online to pick images and references, I came across other artists whose work I knew somewhat. As I learned more about their practices -- had to include them, too! Along the way, I came across still more artists that I didn't know prior, and now look forward to following their work.
Please click here to see examples of the work of (coincidentally) 28 artists who range in age from 31 to 90 years old.
These evocative, talented, determined, fearless artists paint, draw, sculpt, quilt, collage, perform, photograph, design, and teach. Many work in more than one medium.
Finally, I love an exception to the rule (living artist). In this case it's the remarkable Alma Thomas
(1891-1978). I love, love, love her work. Alma Thomas was an art teacher in Washington DC public schools for 38 years and dove into her practice in 1960 when she retired.
(Contributor: Advancement Office Staff Member)
The Nicholas Brothers - Tap Dance Legends
July 1995. I was sitting in the sunlight on a stone bench in Griffith Park. A massive and historic park in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. I was waiting on a friend, caught in a daydream, when a handsome and refined older gentleman, dressed in a sharp black suit and matching black tie, silver goatee, and a shock of white hair crowning his head, sat down next to me on the bench. He smiled and nodded at me as if granting me permission to speak. Without pause, I introduced myself, and in return, he informed me that his name was Harold Nicholas. As we talked, he revealed that he and his brother Fayard had been professional dancers, The Nicholas Brothers, and they had even been "in a couple of movies.” We talked for 10 delightful minutes. Harold was a generous, warm, and soulful man. His eyes smiled when he laughed.
Later that day I read about Fayard and Harold's magical and very successful life in nightclubs, vaudeville, Hollywood, Broadway...and of course about their breathtaking tap dancing skills and love of performing. I had just shared a bench with Hollywood royalty. I pinched myself.
Fayard and Harold Nicholas, whose careers span more than six decades, make up one of the most beloved dance teams in the history of dance - the Nicholas Brothers. Legends in their own time and most recently portrayed in the award-winning made-for-television documentary, "We Sing and We Dance," they are best known for their unforgettable appearances in Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and 40s. Their artistry and choreographic brilliance, as manifested in their unique style - a smooth mix of tap, ballet, and acrobatic moves - have astonished and excited Vaudeville, theater, film, and television audiences all over the world. According to "Who's Who in Hollywood", the Nicholas Brothers are "...certainly the greatest dance team ever to work in the movies. And, they could sing! (—From the program of the 1998 Carnegie Hall Event: "From Harlem to Hollywood" A Tribute to Nicholas Brothers, "Tap Legends")
(Video - Fred Astaire once called this performance "the greatest dance number ever filmed.") Also starring Cab Calloway
(Contributor: Administration Staff Member)
Jerry Lawson - Computer Engineer and Video Game Pioneer
was a pioneer in the development of video games, tragically forgotten for many years. Without him, the video game industry would have followed a different (and probably worse) path. He helped develop some of the very first commercial video games, created the first system with interchangeable games, and built the first handheld controller.
He was born in Queens, New York in 1940 into a working-class family. While parents were poor, they worked hard to provide him with opportunities. After he became fascinated by radio in his early teens, his mother bought him a kit to build a radio receiver. This started his self education in electronics. He later built his own low wattage radio station that he operated out of his bedroom.
In high school he started to make money repairing televisions. He did some college work in electronics, but his talent was enough for him to get a full-time electrical engineering job without getting a degree. His friends and family noted that he always was motivated by challenges - if you told him it was impossible, he'd find a way to do it. His daughter said “You think about this kid, putting a radio station in his room to talk to people or hear frequencies beyond that prison that he was in, it was almost like pure escapism. He knew that there was more to be had in this world than what was in front of him and what he could see.”
In 1968, he moved to Palo Alto. At the time, the region was just starting to be a hub for electronics. (Until the early 60's Palo Alto was mostly filled with fruit orchards and cow pastures!) He went to work for Fairchild Electronics, one of the biggest companies at the time. He was a field engineer - basically an engineer for hire to help people solve problems with Fairchild products. As such, he got to know the three founders of a company called Syzygy, which would shortly become Atari. They were having trouble getting their first game, Pong, to work and Lawson helped them solve their technical challenges.
That prompted Lawson to start working on his own arcade game, Demolition Derby, which he soon licensed. His bosses at Fairchild could see that video games were an emerging technology and put Lawson in charge of a group to design a game they could market. He had strong electronics skills and strong people skills, so he was a natural at leading a development team.
Up until then, the few video games that existed were devoted machines. A Pong machine could play only Pong. Lawson realized that the hardware that controlled the game and the hardware that controlled everything else (the controls, the sound, and the graphics) could be separated. Rather than buying a game, a consumer could buy a platform that would play many, many games. He led the team that figured out all the significant challenges to have game cartridges that could be plugged into and out of a central console. Consumers couldn't be trusted to do things right every time, so the system had to be foolproof. (Lawson said that building consumer products was harder than military products because consumers were more unpredictable.)
He also took the joystick, which was usually hardwired into the game machine, and developed it into a handheld device. Think about that everytime you pick up your favorite controller! Finally, he added a pause button, another new feature. All of this came together in the first cartridge game system on the market, the Fairchild Channel F.
Speaking as a child of the 1970's I can tell you that both of these innovations, which we take for granted now, were mind-blowers. The early home video games were clunky and the controls were built into the chassis. You had to sit right next to the machine to use the controls. The joystick on a cord meant you could sit where you wanted, and you didn't have to sit right next to the other player. With Pong and Breakout you got one game, with a few variations, and that was it. Cartridges meant that one company could build the console and other companies, sometimes with really great new ideas, could make the games. Unfortunately, the Fairchild Channel F system came slightly too soon and it was quickly eclipsed by the Atari 2600, which built on all of Lawson's ideas but did so at a lower cost.
He also joined the famous Homebrew Computer Club
, where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak got their start. Lawson had his own minicomputer in the 1970s, which was extremely rare, because he bought one on salvage and repaired it. He was a Black man in a very white world, but his talent and persistence were obvious to everyone.
After Atari crushed the Fairchild gaming console, Lawson drifted away from computer games. He continued to do electrical engineering and mentored Stanford students. He struggled with health issues, particularly diabetes, but continued to invent and build. In 2006, he was at a vintage computer show and ran across a video game historian that recognized him. This led to a series of interviews
that reintroduced Jerry Lawson to the world. He began to get some of the accolades he richly deserved and the International Game Developers Association created an award
in his honor. Microsoft has created a series of grants
to support Black Xbox developers. Jerry Lawson died of complications from diabetes in 2011.
(Contributor: Science Faculty Member)
Euphemia Lofton Haynes - Mathematician
I’d like to introduce you to Euphemia Lofton Haynes
, the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in mathematics in the United States. She was also a teacher!
Haynes graduated from Smith College in 1914 with an undergraduate degree in mathematics, she earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Chicago in 1930, and she earned her PhD from The Catholic University of America in 1943. Her dissertation was titled “The Determination of Sets of Independent Conditions Characterizing Certain Special Cases of Symmetric Correspondences.”
Haynes also taught in Washington D.C. public schools for 47 years, and she became the first woman to chair the DC Board of Education in 1967. She fought hard against the “tracking” system, which she felt discriminated against underprivileged students by putting them in tracks that would not prepare them for college. She was a professor of mathematics at Miner Teachers College (now known as the University of the District of Columbia), where she created and chaired the Division of Mathematics and Business Education.
From a speech she gave to math teachers:
“Mathematics is no more the art of reckoning and computation than architecture is the art of making bricks, no more than painting is the art of mixing colors…what is the mathematician doing? He is building notions or ideas, he is constructing, inventing, adding to his body of science. With what is he working? Ideas, relationships, implications, etc. What are his methods? Observations, experimentation, incomplete induction. He is deliberately providing time for reflection and contemplation”
From a speech she gave at a high school commencement in 1960:
“I believe there are two requisites for success in life: (1) that one be always a student and (2) that he dedicate himself to the service of others.”
(Contributor: Math Faculty Member)
Lucille Clifton - Poet
Sometimes you find a piece of poetry that arrives at just the right moment in your life. That’s how I felt when, in the early 2000’s, I came across Lucille Clifton’s Blessing the Boats. As a new parent, I was figuring out how to balance feelings of protectiveness with wanting to raise kids who would be brave and confident. Clifton’s words spoke to me:
Blessing the Boats
(at St. Mary’s)
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
The poem led me to the poet, and I was hooked on both. Clifton’s poems bring her readers into her world with candor and generosity. She wrote about the African American experience, family life from a female perspective, and motherhood. Here’s a brief description of her life and work:
Lucille Clifton, born as Thelma Lucille Sayles, was a prolific poet and author best known for writing on themes related to African-American heritage and feminist issues. She served as the Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1979 to 1985 and won the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2007. Her style of prose was concise, freestyle lyrics with minimum punctuation. She found inspiration for her writings from the lifestyle, problems and challenges faced by her own family and the other African-Americans. Her poems were primarily a celebration of African-American culture and heritage. Her first book of poetry titled ‘Good Times’ published in 1969 was named as one of the best books of 1969 by the New York Times. She went on to create a highly successful book series for children, based on the life of a fictitious boy, Everett Anderson. Both her poetry and fiction dealt with common themes like human capacity for love, overcoming weaknesses, and the myth of the American dream. As the matron of a large family, she often wrote about family life, its triumphs and challenges. Her poems also reflect the process of self-discovery she underwent over a period of time as a woman, daughter, sibling, wife, mother, and most importantly, a poet.
Here is another of my favorites:
why some people be mad at me sometimes
“they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and i keep on remembering
Lucille Clifton died in 2010, after a long battle with cancer. She was 73 years old. Her daughter Sidney, a writer and producer, wrote an intimate tribute to her mom’s life and work that you can find here
(Contributor: Administration Staff Member)
Exploring what it means to be Black and Latinx (Afrolatinx)
Students in the Swarthmore College Linguistics Department have done an interesting project exploring what it means to be Black and Latinx (Afrolatinx).
What is the experience of being both Black and Latina? How do Spanish-speaking Blacks in Philadelphia express their identities? This digital humanities project features the voices of Latinx people, offering a series of podcast episodes and interactive web content that analyzes the interconnected expressions of language and identity in the African Diaspora. AfroLatinx Podcast™ is the collaborative effort of students in the Spring 2017 linguistics seminar, Language and Identity in the African Experience: From Kenya to Mexico, with instructor, Professor Jamie A. Thomas at Swarthmore College.
They draw from their studies/experiences of the racial dynamics in Latin American societies and bring it home, interviewing Latinx voices in Philadelphia. I like the combination of images, podcasts, texts with embedded autios, which gives us a multidimensional experience of the issues presented.
You can explore the 3 episodes, easy to find in their well organized website
Episode 1: Myth of Racial Mixture in Latinx Communities
Episode 2: In Between Black and Latinx
Episode 3: Beyond the Bounds of Race
(Contributor: World Languages Faculty Member)
Audre Lorde - Self-described "Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet"
Cannot be contained in a post, so here are a few markers to start a journey:
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”
“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
ESSAYS & SPEECHES:
"Lorde takes on sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class, and propounds social difference as a vehicle for action and change. Her prose is incisive, unflinching, and lyrical, reflecting struggle but ultimately offering messages of hope." — Back of the Book
“ZAMI is a fast-moving chronicle. From the author’s vivid childhood memories in Harlem to her coming of age in the late 1950s, the nature of Audre Lorde’s work is cyclical. It especially relates the linkage of women who have shaped her . . . Lorde brings into play her craft of lush description and characterization. It keeps unfolding page after page.”—Off Our Backs
(Contributor: Arts Faculty Member)
Celebration of Black Womanhood
On this last day of February, I want to join my colleagues in celebrating Black history and liberation and Black joy, specifically looking at how it is not confined to one month of the year. Several of us have been discussing ways to continue this conversation and one idea is to open a campus-wide collaborative resource.
I graduated from and worked for many years at Barnard, a women's college in New York City, where this week marks the beginning of Celebration of Black Womanhood Week — the bridge between the too short month of February (Black History/Liberation Month) and March (Women’s History Month). It was in conversations and at events held during this week that I first understood intersectionality (before I knew the term) and I thought I would share the tradition:
Originally called The Black Women’s Conference, the event is an opportunity to invite Black women from the arts and a range of professions to come to campus. The first one, in 1972, featured poet Sonia Sanchez and author Toni Cade Bambara. “At that time,” says Hill, “one couldn’t speak of anything that amounted to [collected] black women’s history. So we were all bringing [ideas to shape the event] that we had found in our families, in our communities, in our churches.”
The Black Women’s Conference became the Celebration of Black Womanhood, and expanded from a full day to a week. Actor and activist Ruby Dee, Planned Parenthood President Faye Wattleton, and lawyer-activist Florynce Kennedy are just some of the speakers who have attended.
— Barnard magazine, 2019
In recent years, I’ve experienced Celebration of Black Womanhood week at Barnard as an event when Black alumnae are invited to connect with current students and build a sisterhood, and as a time for students to deepen their understanding and engagement. A dear friend of mine who was part of the original Black Women’s Conference at Barnard introduced me to GirlTrek, which is “a health movement for African-American women and girls grounded in civil rights history and principles through walking campaigns, community leadership, and health advocacy.” My friend found motivation to keep walking while listening to the Black History Bootcamp podcast series compiled by GirlTrek and invited me to join her. The June 2020 Black History Bootcamp was a 21-day walking meditation focused on the history of Black foremothers. You might find this series of 21 podcasts (each 30-35 minutes) a great resource to learn about and celebrate Black women -- in February, March, and all year long. I listen on Spotify
, but you can also listen on Apple Podcasts
, directly through GirlTrek
, or wherever you get your podcasts.
(Contributor: Advancement Office Staff Member)