Influential Black Authors and Artists You Should Know



For this Black History Month, I decided to educate myself on the lives and careers of some African American authors and artists that I wasn’t previously familiar with. And in case you’re in the same boat as me, here is a little bit about them! 


Lorraine Hansbury: Hansbury was a playwright and activist who was born in 1930. The granddaughter of a formerly enslaved person, Hansbury is most famous for being the first Black playwright, with her play A Raisin in the Sun earning her the title of the youngest America to win the New York Critics’ Circle award. She died in 1965 of pancreatic cancer. 


Augusta Savage: Savage was a sculptor, educator, and one of the lead artists in the Harlem Renaissance. Born in 1892, Savage began sculpting at a young age despite her father’s (often violent) protests against it. Her talent flourished after her move to New York and she was eventually commissioned to make a sculpture for the 1939 World’s Fair.  She titled it The Harp and it was unfortunately destroyed at the end of the fair. Savage died in 1962 of cancer. 


Phyllis Wheatley: Wheatley was kidnapped from West Africa in 1761 and was sold as a slave, and is credited as the first African American and first U.S enslaved person to publish a book of poetry in the colonies. Wheatley was educated by her master’s wife and children and eventually given her freedom. She published her first volume of verse, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. She eventually died after a tumultuous marriage and battle with pain in 1784. 


Jean-Michel Basquiat: Basquiat was a neo-expressionist painter who was born in 1960 to a Hatian-American household. He started out as a graffiti artist under the moniker “SAMO.” He became famous for his crown motif as it celebrated Black people as royalty or saints. In the mid-1980’s as his fame was beginning to take off, he collaborated with Andy Warhol, which resulted in a showcase of their artworks. Sadly, he died in 1988 of a drug overdose. You can see some of his work here.


Alex Haley: Haley was a writer and a former member of the Coast Guard, who was born in 1921. He passed time in the Coast Guard by transcribing shipmates’ love letters until he was eventually promoted to Chief Journalist of the Coast Guard, and he won several medals during his time in the service. After leaving the service, he began work on one of his most famous writings, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. After the massive success of the autobiography, he began his ambitious work Roots, which told the story of his ancestor’s journey. He eventually died in 1992. 


Henry Ossawa Tanner: Tanner was a painter who was born in 1859, and is best known for his biblical paintings and paintings depicting scenes of African American life and culture. His painting, “The Banjo Lesson,” arguably his most famous work, depicted a grandfather teaching his grandson how to play the banjo. He also won the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Lippincott Prize for his painting “Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” in 1900. He was also named honorary chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honor later in life, which is France’s most distinguished award. He died in Paris in 1937. You can see his work here.