So much of American popular culture is the work of Black artists. One of the original art forms that America can take credit for is jazz, which was created by Black musicians. Rock and roll began with White performers re-recording songs by Black performers. Even the acclaimed musical comedy, another American original, draws as much from Black performers and minstrel shows, as it does from European operettas. As the 20th Century unfolded, Hirschfeld's drawings captured a great deal of the impact Black artists had on the performing arts in America.
His early drawings of Black performers can be offensive to our eyes in the 21st Century, but they unfortunately capture the narrow minstrel-like range Black performers were forced into in the 1920s and 1930s. As a wider spectrum of roles were offered or created by Black artists, Hirschfeld drew them as well.
For Black History Month, we have collected articles and exhibitions currently on our website the explore the role of Black performing artists in America as seen through Hirschfeld's work. We invite you to immerse yourself in this work and celebrate the accomplishments of Black artists. A third of our online exhibitions to date have focused on Black history, and we have new ones on Black film and Black music in the works.
As Hirschfeld wrote in 2002 in a new introduction to his classic book Harlem as seen by Hirschfeld about Harlem residents, but could just as easily be applied to many Black people, "Harlem people just kept on rising above whatever met them at eye level; regardless of the rugged terrain or the economic weather, Harlem residents had their own means of levitation. They perfected an art form beyond the Arts, beyond the stage, beyond the Cotton Club. Very real people meeting reality head on and then stubbornly transcending it."
Learn how Hirschfeld’s earliest-known portrait of Duke Ellington helped the legendary composer and musician deal with racism in his first national tour in 1931, in an enlightening essay by Ellington scholar, Steven Lasker
In 2015, one of the most anticipated shows on Broadway was Shuffle Along Or The Making of the Musicial Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. This new production was just that: the story of the making of Shuffle Along, the landmark African-American musical revue of 1921. See drawings of the cast members, as well as a fair share of performers from the original production.
Despite Broadway’s nickname as The Great White Way, Black actors, directors, composers, lyricists, playwrights, designers, and producers have long played an important role in the American Theater. Visit this exhibition and learn of some of the Black artists that make the American Theater what it is today.
This exhibit contains a mix of well and lesser-known artists, and nameless groups of dancers, who have contributed to the history of dance in America, curated by dance historian and choreographer Melanie George.