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Here are bonus biographies of 29 Black Art Icons—one for each day of Black History Month—that we couldn’t fit in our African Americans and the Arts Journal.

Be sure to pick up or download a copy of our Journal to see more Icons in the fields of Visual Arts and
Fashion & Design!


Alvin Ailey*  (1931-1989)
Alvin Ailey was a dancer, director, choreographer, and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Congress named the theater a "vital American cultural ambassador to the World” in 2008. Ailey was also a pioneer of programs promoting the arts in education, particularly in underserved communities.

Debbie Allen*  (born 1950)
Best known for her roles in the film Fame (1980) and its television spin-off, award-winning actress, dancer, and choreographer Debbie Allen has also had a successful career as a director and producer.

Marian Anderson*  (1897-1993)
A talented contralto, Anderson was the first African American singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Her experiences with racial prejudice and segregation made her a central figure in the Civil Rights Movement and personified the struggle of African American artists.

Louis Armstrong*  (1901-1971)
A pioneer and influential figure in the history of music, Armstrong’s trumpet solos and expressive vocals transformed jazz from ensemble-based music into a soloist’s art. In his later life, Armstrong moved to Corona, Queens, and his house has become a museum dedicated to preserving his humanitarian legacy.

James Baldwin*  (1924-1987)
An author whose centennial will be celebrated in August 2024, James Baldwin wrote essays, novels, plays, and poems that explored race, sexuality, identity, and justice; challenged myths and stereotypes about African Americans; and confronted the realities of racism and discrimination in America.

The Belleville Three*  (1980s-Present)
Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson embraced the emerging technology of samplers, synthesizers, and drum machines, as well as conceptual elements from science fiction, to invent Detroit techno, an Afrofuturist style of music that led to the development of electronic dance music (EDM).

Beyoncé*  (born 1981)
Singer, songwriter, actress, businesswoman—Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is one of the bestselling musical artists of all time, and (with 32 Grammy wins) one of the most awarded as well.

Charles Burnett*  (born 1944)
Called "the nation's least-known great filmmaker and most gifted Black director” by The New York Times, Burnett’s 1978 film Killer of Sheep was one of the first 50 films selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Octavia E. Butler*  (1947-2006)
Butler is best known for her groundbreaking stories in the science fiction genre, and particularly for her explorations of race, gender, power, and humanity's relationship with technology.

Julie Dash*  (born 1952)
Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film with a nationwide theatrical release directed by an African American woman. In 2004, Daughters of the Dust was selected for the National Film Registry. Dash’s film also served as a key inspiration for Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade.

Angela Davis* (born 1944)
A former Black Panther member, proud activist, and celebrated author, Angela Davis continues to be a force in the prison abolition movement.

Frederick Douglass*  (1817 or 1818-1895)
In his journey from enslaved young man to internationally renowned author, abolitionist, and civil rights leader, Frederick Douglass’s brilliant words and brave actions shaped the ways that we think about race, democracy, and freedom.

Paul Laurence Dunbar*  (1872-1906)
Although he died at the age of 33, Dunbar was a prolific writer of short stories, novels, librettos, plays, songs, essays, and the poetry for which he is best known.

Katherine Dunham*  (1909-2006)
Known as the "matriarch and queen mother of Black dance,” Katherine Dunham directed her own dance company for several decades and was also a pioneer in the field of dance anthropology.

Ella Fitzgerald*  (1917-1996)
A singer who was known for her impeccable phrasing, timing, and intonation, Fitzgerald recorded more than 200 albums and 2,000 songs in her lifetime. Her career spanned more than five decades and was filled with countless awards and accolades.

Jimi Hendrix*  (1942-1970)
Even though his career lasted less than a decade, Jimi Hendrix is considered one of the most important guitarists and songwriters in the history of rock and roll.

Billie Holiday* (1915-1959)
Born Eleanora Fagan, singer Billie Holiday went on to pioneer new phrasing, improvisation, and tempo in different music styles, notably swing and jazz.

bell hooks* (1952-2021)
bell hooks was an author, activist, and professor whose deep analysis of race, gender, and class revolutionized the public understanding of how oppression and power work.

Langston Hughes*  (1901-1967)
Langston Hughes was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of Black intellectual, literary, and artistic life that took place in the 1920s. A major poet, Hughes also wrote novels, short stories, essays, and plays. (He is also the namesake of one of our QPL branches!)

Zora Neale Hurston* (1891-1960)
An author, anthropologist, and filmmaker who wrote more than 50 short stories, plays, and essays, Zora Neale Hurston is best known for her iconic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Sissieretta Jones*  (1868 or 1869-1933)
In 1892, soprano Sissieretta Jones became the first African American to sing at Carnegie Hall. She also performed at the White House for four consecutive U.S. presidents, and at concerts attended by British and German royalty.

Spike Lee*  (born 1957)
Shelton Jackson "Spike" Lee is a film director, producer, screenwriter, and actor. His groundbreaking films have explored racism and race relations, told many stories from the perspective of the Black community, examined the role of media in our society, and much more. Lee has won numerous awards for his work, and his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, has produced more than 35 films since 1983.

Gordon Parks* (1912-2006)
Gordon Parks was a groundbreaking figure in documentary photojournalism (with a particular focus on civil rights, poverty, and African Americans). He also helped create the highly influential "blaxploitation" genre of film.

Prince*  (1958-2016)
Prince Rogers Nelson incorporated a wide variety of styles in his music, including funk, R&B, rock, new wave, soul, pop, and hip hop. A talented musician who often played all or most of the instruments on his records, Prince sold more than 100 million albums during his lifetime.

Marlon Riggs*  (1957-1994)
Marlon Riggs was an award-winning gay filmmaker, educator, poet, and activist who produced, wrote, and directed several documentary films, including the groundbreaking Tongues Untied (1989), which was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Run-DMC*  (1983–2002)
Formed in 1983 in Hollis, Queens, Run-DMC is one of the most influential groups in hip hop history; the first hip hop act to sell gold, platinum, and multi-platinum records; and the second hip hop group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Gil Scott-Heron* (1949-2011)
Gil Scott-Heron was a jazz poet, singer, musician, and author, best known for his spoken-word performances and his song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."

Sister Rosetta Tharpe*  (1915-1973)
A pioneer of the electric guitar, Sister Rosetta is known as "the Godmother of Rock & Roll" and influenced musicians including Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards.

Colson Whitehead*  (born 1969)
Known for his diverse and critically acclaimed body of work, Colson Whitehead has received numerous awards and honors for his novels, which often explore themes of race, identity, and American history.

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