Celebrating Black History Month

This month, the Mitchell-West Center for Social Inclusion is celebrating Black History Month by looking into the rich and beautiful influence of African Americans- and their struggles- on the arts. All manner of arts have been intertwined in the African American experience, with the influence of African Americans in the various facets of the arts being seen across the world. To celebrate some of these influences, we wanted to highlight some of the notable figures in the arts, both locally and nationally.


Augusta Savage

Augusta Savage was an American sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She was also a teacher whose studio was important to the careers of a generation of artists who would become nationally known, including Charles Alston, William Artis, Romare Bearden, Robert Blackburn, among many more. In her fight for equal rights for African Americans in the arts, Savage was an outspoken critic of the fetishized "negro primitive" aesthetic favored by the white art world. Savage beautifully sculpted her fellow African Americans with realism, humanity, and personality, combatting the stereotypical portrayals of the time.

Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley is an American portrait painter based in New York City, who is known for his highly naturalistic and vibrant paintings of Black people, frequently referencing the work of Old Master paintings. He painted the 2018 Presidential portrait of Barack Obama, becoming the first black artist to paint a Presidential portrait. Wiley’s works incorporate realistic portraits of African Americans with vibrant backgrounds of patterns, flowers, and other plants, setting his works apart visually from traditional portraiture work. In instances of his use of flowers and plants, Wiley selects the flora by looking into the meanings associated with them, as well as incorporating personal meaning based on the subject of the portrait. For example, in his portrait of former President Barack Obama, he included chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, jasmine, which is often associated with Hawaii, as well as African blue lilies, an homage to Obama’s late Kenyan father.

W.C. Handy

W.C. Handy was an American composer and musician who referred to himself as the Father of the Blues. One of many musicians who played the distinctively American blues music, Handy did not create the blues genre but was the first to publish music in the blues form, thereby taking the blues from a regional music style (Delta blues) with a limited audience to a new level of popularity. He was born here in Florence, Alabama, where a festival in his name to celebrate Jazz occurs every summer. The festival is a week full of events all across the Shoals area, including concerts, a “street strut” parade, and many more all celebrating the history of Jazz and its influence on the Shoals.

Watch a performance of him on the Ed Sullivan show in 1949!

Learn more about W.C. Handy and his influence on the Shoals area at the W.C. Handy Museum, and check out the W.C. Handy Music Festival website to learn more about the events across the Shoals.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison was an American novelist known for her influential writings about black experiences in a variety of settings. The critically acclaimed Song of Solomon (1977) brought her national attention and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved (1987); she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Morrison was noted for her examination of the experiences of Black Americans, particularly Black women. In an unjust society, her characters struggle to find themselves and their cultural identity. Her use of fantasy, her sinuous poetic style, and her rich interweaving of the mythic gave her stories great strength and texture.

It Comes Unadorned by Toni Morrison (2002)
It comes
Like a phrase
Strong enough to cast a spell;
It comes
Like the turn of sun through hills
Or stars in the wheels of song.
The jeweled feet of women dance the earth.
Arousing it to spring.
Shoulders broad as a road bend to share the weight of years.
Profiles breach the distance and lean
Toward an ordinary kiss.
It comes naked into the world like a charm.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald was an American jazz singer sometimes referred to as the "First Lady of Song", "Queen of Jazz", and "Lady Ella". She was noted for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing, timing, intonation, and a "horn-like" improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing. Fitzgerald was a 13 time Grammy winner, including the Bing Crosby Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1967. Her rendition of the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket A-Tasket” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1993, just 3 years before her death, Fitzgerald founded the Ella Fitzgerald Foundation with the mission to use the fruits of her success to support people of all races, cultures and beliefs. She hoped to make the lives of those helped by the Foundation more rewarding, and she wanted to foster a love of reading, as well as a love of music in the future generations. The Foundation makes grants to organizations that assist disadvantaged and at-risk children of all backgrounds on top of their devotion to help the disadvantaged, the at-risk and the needy, whether these conditions have arisen because of financial, medical or other circumstances.

Watch her performance of Summertime from 1968!

Salaam Green

Salaam Green is an American poet and activist born in the Black Belt of Alabama. Salaam is a Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Facilitator with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and founder and owner of theliteraryhealingarts.com. She is a New Economy Coalition Climate Solutions Fellow and an advocate for environmental and restorative justice in rural Alabama. A writer and storyteller, her work has appeared in The Birmingham Times, Scalawag, Bust, Feminist Review, Black Youth Project, Elephant Journal, Southern Women’s Review, AL.com, Birmingham Arts Journal, and more. Green was recently named as Birmingham’s first Poet Laureate, working with a number of organizations including the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Magic City Poetry Festival, the month-long celebration of poetry founded by Ashley M. Jones, the state of Alabama’s first Black and youngest poet laureate. Green is also a certified Listener Poet with the UAB Arts in Medicine program, working with healthcare workers to turn their experiences into poems, as well as facilitating writing-to-heal workshops.

Ms. June’s 2nd Avenue Resistance by Salaam Green

There is one single purple flower creeping from the sidewalk in front of Ms. June’s house on 2nd Avenue. The flower grows in the dark. Ms. June stands on the edge of her white, wooden triangular porch with tight, mauve slippers on her large fee. She tiptoes, waving her finger in the dense air through which cars speed — purple flower withstanding the wind.

Ms. June sleeps under a dirty coolant fan that blows lukewarm heat in the winter. One insecure strand of her hair falls loose behind the run down porch, greasy and psychedelic, disappearing in the dark. Artists, picture takers, and tourists walk in and out of Ms. June’s house with dirty sandals and hurry-up feet.

Many, many visitors partake in acrimonious wine, and dine on warm biscuits and jalapeño jam while Ms. June keeps a close watch on her purple flower. The sidewalk is busy, and a singular stem with happy leaves marks the spot of Ms. June’s blessed resistance.

Look for Salaam Green here on campus on February 22nd in the Wesleyan Auditorium at 11:00 AM as well as in Florence this April as Poet-in-Residence with the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library for National Poetry Month! More information will be announced closer to April on the FLPL website and social media!

Chadwick Boseman

Chadwick Boseman was an American actor known for his leading roles, including portrayals of numerous real-life figures. During his two-decade career, Boseman received multiple accolades, including two Screen Actors Guild Awards, a Golden Globe Award, and a Primetime Emmy Award as well as a nomination for an Academy Award. Boseman starred in the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 (2013), the James Brown biopic Get on Up (2014), the Thurgood Marshall biopic Marshall (2017), along with numerous other roles in action, crime, fantasy, and thriller movies like The Kill Hole (2012), Gods of Egypt (2016), and 21 Bridges (2019). Perhaps his most well-known role came in the 2018 Marvel film Black Panther, in which he plays King T’Challa of Wakanda, also known as the superhero Black Panther. His portrayal of T’Challa in the Marvel Universe has become a symbol of Black power in recent years, especially with the rise of the BLM movement. The use of his gesture from the film of crossed arms with fists bared has been used in BLM protests, as well as coming to be a symbol of the promise that a civilization can go forward in the face of unspeakable hardship and inescapable grief.

Viola Davis

Viola Davis is an American actress and producer. She is one of the few performers to have been awarded an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. She is the sole black actress to achieve the Triple Crown of Acting as well as the third person to achieve both statuses. Her acting career is full of roles showing Black women with strong, powerful, and complex stories. Davis has starred in numerous movies and TV shows, including The Help (2011) as Aibileen Clark, Suicide Squad (2016) and The Suicide Squad (2021) as Amanda Waller, How to Get Away with Murder (2014-2020) as Annalise Keating, The Woman King (2022) as Nanisca, and most recently, the Hunger Games prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (2023) as Dr. Volumnia Gaul. Her career is decorated with numerous awards and influential roles, solidifying her as one of the greatest actresses of the 21st century.

Black History Month on Campus

UNA's celebration of Black History Month kicks off on Monday, Feb. 5 at noon in the GUC Atrium. Join us for a brief presentation by Homecoming Queen Olivia Oliphant and community leader Wesley Thompson. Enjoy cookies, brownies, cupcakes, and lemonade. Grab a calendar of events for the month, and don't forget to pick up a free T-shirt!