African-Americans have had a large part in making valuable contributions to the areas of fine arts and entertainment in our country. Some of the best writers, musicians, actors and performers emerged from their culture to express themselves in a world that has sometimes ignored, belittled or discriminated against them. Many were “pioneers”, of a sort, by being the first to score certain achievements, making it easier for those who were to follow.
These are but a few of these noteworthy individuals:
……In 1773 poet Phillis Wheatley became the first known African-American to publish a book. Amazingly, she was still a slave when her work Poems On Various Subjects was published. Her Massachusetts owners had allowed her to be educated and she started writing poetry at an early age, becoming well known in the Boston area for her precocious literary skills. Wheatley was eventually freed, but appears to have had a rather unhappy life thereafter, dying in poverty at the age of 31.
…William Wells Brown wrote Clotel; or the President’s Daughter, making him the first African-American to have a novel published when it was released in 1853. Brown was a runaway slave at the time. The novel chronicles the experiences of three generations of women and some believe it may have been based loosely on Sally Hemmings, the alleged slave-mistress of Thomas Jefferson, and her descendants, as the theme was clearly about interracial love. Brown was a passionate abolitionist, who spoke out publicly and wrote against slavery and its cruelties
…In Dahomey was the first Broadway musical written by African Americans. The songs were by Will Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar also contributed his talents, script-wise. The featured stars were Bert Williams, one of the greatest entertainers of his day, and his stage partner George Walker. Having African-Americans as stars on Broadway was somewhat novel during the time, since, prior to that, those playing African-American characters had chiefly been white performers in blackface. Dahomey premiered on Broadway in 1903 and was a big sensation.
…In 1936, composer William Grant Still was the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He went on to become the first African-American to have a major orchestra perform an original symphony he wrote and to have an original opera, A Bayou Legend. performed on the medium of television. He had a distinguished career, working with musicians in both the classical and jazz world. Most may not be aware that Still scored the film Lost Horizon and television shows, such as Gunsmoke.
…In 1940, actress Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Academy Award. A Best Supporting actress Oscar was given to her for her strong performance as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. While this was certainly a stereotypical role, the fact that an African-American actress was recognized for her work was considered to be an honor at that time. She was later brutally criticized by many activists in the African-American community for continually agreeing to play servant roles, something that hurt her deeply. Born in Kansas in 1895, McDaniel started out in black minstrel shows when she was still a teenager and went on to sing in clubs and on radio. She began her film career in 1932 with The Golden West. Although she played domestics and slaves in the majority of the 300+ films she appeared in, she believed that she stood apart because she always played her characters as assertive and unwilling to be intimidated. Still, her contributions remain a matter of controversy and disagreement within African-American circles.
…Kentucky-born baritone Todd Duncan became the first African-American to join The New York City Opera in 1945. Before that, he had been singing with a number of black operatic companies. His big break came when composer George Gershwin cast him in the role of Porgy in his opera Porgy and Bess in 1935. This gave a huge boost to his career and many doors of opportunity opened up for him on the concert stage. He went on later to teach at the Curtis Institute, one of the most prestigious music schools in the United States.
…In 1950, poet Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African-American female author to win the Pulitzer Prize, when she received it for her work Annie Allen. She wrote from the experience of living in this country as both a person of color and a woman.
…In 1950 pianist, singer and personality Hazel Scott was the first African-American woman to host her own television show. Hers is one of the saddest stories in entertainment, as her career was derailed by accusations that she was a communist sympathizer. Just the very rumor was enough to ruin an artist during the days of McCarthyism, so her television show The Hazel Scott Show was canceled and her career went into a nosedive.
…In 1955, contralto Marian Anderson was the first African-American to join the Metropolitan Opera. She was more than up to the pressure, having weathered earlier storms of racism. She will always be remembered for her famous Lincoln Memorial concert in 1939, where she sang because the Daughters of the American Revolution would not allow her to sing at Constitution Hall. The indignity angered DAR member Eleanor Roosevelt enough to resign her membership from the organization and she arranged for Anderson to do the concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This was one of the defining moments in the history of civil rights.
Arthur Mitchell was the first African-American male to join a major ballet company when he became a part of The New York City Ballet, later becoming its first African-American male principal dancer. This was a brave step for both Mitchell and the ballet company to take, since this was done during time of tremendous prejudice, and having a male person of color dancing alongside white females was a pretty bold statement for that era. Mitchell stayed with The New York City Ballet until 1969, when he went on to help found the first African-American ballet company The Harlem Dance Theater.
…1956, smooth singer Nat King Cole was the first African-American male to be a network television host. When The Nat King Cole Show aired, it created great controversy in the South, particularly when Cole had white female guest stars. Companies were just too afraid to lend their support to the show, so it ended up being canceled, due to lack of financial sponsorship.
…Sidney Poitier was the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actor when it was awarded to him in 1964 for his performance in Lilies of the Field. Poitier was considered to be one of the quintessential “new” African-American film actors, because he played characters who were strong, intelligent and unwilling to be
disrespected. Raised in the British West Indies, he later came to new York and acted on the stage, then began his film career in movies such as No Way Out and The Blackboard Jungle. The movies he was in confronted racial issues head-on, indicating that there was a new day in Hollywood and in America. His illustrious career as both an actor and director has spanned decades and includes notable work in films and on television.
…The first African-American to direct a movie in Hollywood was photographer/filmmaker Gordon Parks, when he made The Learning Tree, which he also wrote, in 1969. Before that, he had distinguished himself by working for magazines like Life, where he was their first African-American photographer, producing powerful pictures about poverty, race and American society.
…1993 brought the first Nobel Prize in Literature to go to an African-American, when it was given to writer Toni Morrison, who also went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Her works include BThe Bluest Eye, Tar Baby,Beloved, Jazz, Sula, and Paradise. She writes primarily from the standpoint of African-American females and their inner struggles and difficult experiences. Well respected by the literary intelligentsia, Morrison is currently a professor at Princeton.
…In 2002, Halle Berry was the first African-American to win a Best Actress Award, which she obtained for her role in the movie Monster’s Ball. Berry had been a beauty pageant winner and done a t.v. sitcom prior to getting a small, but attention-getting part as a crack addict in the movie Jungle Fever. Extremely beautiful, as well as being a capable actress, she might, in years past, have been relegated to playing “tragic mulatto” roles. She has persisted in working hard to get good parts and has turned in stellar performances in both films and television. Beside Monster’s Ball, Berry has appeared in films like Boomerang, Losing Isaiah,Bullworth, X-Men and Die Another Day. Her television work includes playing the title role in the mini-series Queen and the cable movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, in which she played the tragic actress who was the first African-American to get nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award.