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Washington University Film & Media Archive

I'll Make Me A World: African-American Artists in the 20th Century

A celebration of some extraordinary achievements by African-American writers, dancers, painters, actors, musicians, and other influential artists of the 20th Century. The six, one-hour programs that comprise this series are listed as follows:

Lift Every Voice — a look at the first generation of African-American artists born to freedom. Bert Williams and George Walker forge careers as vaudeville stars. Performing within a racist minstrel tradition, they nonetheless make a living as black artists, infusing minstrels with genuine elements of black culture. In New Orleans, talented musicians create the innovative and exuberant sounds of ragtime and jazz, music that comes to be identified as quintessentially American. And a powerful new medium - film - allows Oscar Micheaux to make motion pictures that present the complexities of African-American life at a time when many white filmmakers were promoting dangerous racial stereotypes.

Featured artists include:

Without Fear or Shame - focuses on the years of the Harlem Renaissance. Female blues singers bring their southern sounds north and a flourishing African-American arts scene in New York City creates widespread interest in black culture. When community leaders like W.E.B. DuBois see the possibility of employing art in the struggle for racial justice, conflicts emerge over just what that art should express. Some African-Americans argue that art must present blacks in the best possible light. Young writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston want their work to reflect real-life experiences, complexities, and culture of black communities. Many white patrons, on the other hand, wrongly see African-American art as simply an expression of exotic primitivism.

Featured artists include:

Bright Like the Sun — an exploration of the challenges that African-American artists face during the Great Depression and World War II. Legendary singer and stage and screen performer Paul Robeson commits to using his art and status to fight for social justice. Augusta Savage, an internationally acclaimed sculptor, turns to building community institutions where the talent of young black artists, such as Jacob Lawrence, is nurtured. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and other young musicians create Bebop, a controversial and innovative style of music that transforms jazz from popular entertainment into a recognized art.

Featured artists include:

The Dream Keepers — presents a series of American-American “firsts” in all fields that mark the nation at mid-century. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, overwhelming popular with black and white audiences, is the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Some fields, however, remain closed to African-Americans, as we see in the lives of ballerinas Delores Browne and Raven Wilkinson. An artist who epitomized the era, James Baldwin, chooses exile in Paris as he struggles to launch his literary career; however, events in the States compel Baldwin’s return as he lends his words and voice to the Civil Rights movement.

Featured artists include:

Not a Rhyme Time — brings cultural revolution as black artists challenge mainstream aesthetics, identity, and power that ultimately defy the very notion of a mainstream. Transformed by the Black Arts Movement, poet Gwendolyn Brooks begins to write about black pride and self-determination. The era of black pride deeply affects Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, Benny Andrews and other African-American visual artists who challenge mainstream institutions’ representations of black art and offer an alternative vision. Alice Walker writes about a black woman’s quest for independence in The Color Purple and wins both the Pulitzer Prize and the outrage of some African-Americans who condemn her book for criticizing black men rather than a racist society.

Featured artists include:

The Freedom You Will Take — shows how African-American films, dance, music and spoken-word scenes guide the transformation of contemporary culture in American. In response to the narrow depiction of African-Americans in “blaxploitation” films, black independent films begin to offer a counterpoint. Spike Lee makes She’s Gotta Have It, which redefines black cinema, and ignites a new wave of independent films by and about African-Americans. Following the death of his partner Arnie Zane, dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones stages The Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, his first work overtly exploring the black experience in America. Visual artist Kara Walker and poet Saul Williams represent a younger generation who dare to challenge convention.

Featured artists include:

Premiere: February 1999 PBS