“This is precisely the time when artists go to work.” This powerful quote, from the one and only Toni Morrison, started showing up in my newsfeeds and timelines almost daily in mid-2016. As Donald Trump inched closer to the White House, this quote became a battle cry for artists to start speaking up. And they did—in droves.
Beyoncé gifted us with LEMONADE, a visual album about the plight and beauty of the black woman in America. Solange gave us A Seat At The Table, a gorgeous, humble, forward-thinking masterpiece about black folks’ place in society. Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes dropped Freetown Sound, an aural collage of songs and poetry that served blackness, queerness, and masculinity as food for thought.
Colson Whitehead released the powerful novel The Underground Railroad, which went on to win The National Book Award for Fiction and is now being developed into a miniseries, which will be directed by none other than Moonlight filmmaker Barry Jenkins. Jenkins’ film was the first from a black director to be crowned Best Picture. Donald Glover just became the first black man to win Emmys for comedy writing and directing.
All of these works reckon with the current tense political times, even when referencing America’s troubling past with race. All these works represent these artists at their best, creating beyond the confines of the boxes that the entertainment industry tries to squeeze them into. They’re making and releasing art with purpose. They’re telling us to speak up, to be proud, and to hold our heads high. We’re receiving these messages loud and clear, and we need to keep hearing them.
The fact that these messages are happening now, in such quick succession and so potently, indicates that we may be in the midst of a new Black Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance took place in the 1920s. After World War I, and after several black people migrated north, Harlem, which was originally intended as an upper-class white neighborhood, was resettled as a Black one. The upper Manhattan area was home to Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, Louis Armstrong, and Josephine Baker, to name a few. Whether it was Hurston’s writing or Baker’s performance in Shuffle Along, or Armstrong’s music, some of the greatest artists of all time were born in this movement.
A black renaissance is defined as a period in which black art, literature, and music experience both renewal and growth. One could argue that black culture has always been influential, always at the forefront of various mediums of art. That there’s never really been a lull in terms of powerful output. But there’s something different about what we’re seeing now.
The art that’s being released now is urgent. It exists as a reminder for us to love ourselves, a message that we need now as we face adversity and challenges to our very existence in this country day in and day out. These songs and shows and movies and books are a record of this moment in black history. There’s a power and a clarity about these works that’s leaving a mark on us like nothing before it.
A renaissance isn’t just about how successful the works are. Commercial success isn’t exactly the best barometer here, because Atlanta would still be a great show even if Glover hadn’t won all those awards. What truly defines a renaissance is impact. This art is still being discussed 6 months to a year after its release. We recognize that we’re witnessing some of the best black art, and subsequently some of the best American art, in quite some time.
We’ll look back on this era with fondness and pride because the art we have now means something. It matters. This is the new Black Renaissance.