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February celebrates African American contributions in the arts

Related Links and Resources

Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity (OMA&D): Creating pathways to cultivate a campus climate that enriches the educational experience for all.

Black Opportunity Fund: A fund designed to support the needs of UW’s Black community across the Seattle, Bothell and Tacoma campuses.

Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: UW Bothell Campus

Equity and Inclusion: UW Tacoma Campus

Jacob Lawrence Gallery: Contemporary UW art space dedicated to education, social justice and experimentation.

Northwest African American Museum: Showcasing African American art, history and culture in the PNW. Largest online encyclopedia on African American and Global African History on the Internet.

We come together each February to celebrate Black history. The official designation has changed over time, expanding from a weeklong celebration created by Carter G. Woodson in 1926 into Black History Month in 1960. It has since been referred to as African American History Month, and, more recently, Celebration of the African Diaspora. Language, like culture, evolves.

Though the naming conventions have changed, February remains a month of reflection and celebration of Black history, life and culture — a chance for us to pay tribute to people and events of the past, to celebrate the work happening now to advance racial equity and battle all forms of racism and racial injustice, and to reaffirm our commitment to the work that lies ahead in advancing equity.

This year’s theme — “African Americans and the Arts” — focuses on the contributions African Americans have made across all artistic genres. Like culture and language, art is in a constant state of evolution. As an art lover, I am particularly honored to celebrate those who use their creative talents to inspire change, catalyze opportunities and make spaces in which marginalized perspectives and voices are amplified.

Black History Month is a chance to shine a spotlight on people such as Kemi Adeyemi, associate professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, who founded the Black Embodiments Studio — an arts incubator in Seattle with public programing dedicated to supporting Black artists and building discourse around contemporary Black art.

It’s a chance to honor and remember the words and legacy of poet and professor Colleen McElroy — the UW’s first full-time Black female faculty member — who passed away this past December. Storyteller, painter, dancer and powerful force in the literary world, McElroy was unafraid to tackle challenging subject matter, including racism, homelessness, abortion and war. In her Letter To America series of poems, the poet asks us all, as Americans, to “look at your reflection in the mirror — your own mistakes/do you have the constitution for it?”

Playwright, director and professor in the UW’s School of Drama, Valerie Curtis-Newton uses her UW role to encourage student-artists to take risks, build and uplift community and courageously explore difficult topics. Her inspiring 2022 University Faculty Lecture, Carving out a brave space: Courage in art, focuses on the impact of her work on the Seattle art scene and beyond. “Have something to say,” is Curtis-Newton’s mantra. “Be brave enough to say it. Use your art to change the world.”

A group of UW student artists did just that in 2023’s A Black Sense: Time, Art and Being, an immersive, interdisciplinary research cohort offered by the Office of Undergraduate Research’s Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities. Participants included musician and visual artist Jai Lasker, ‘25, who focused her research on the significance of the resonator guitar in Black folk and blues music; poet and activist Bitaniya Giday, ’25, whose research amplified the voices of incarcerated Black writers; and painter Obse Dinsa, ’25, who explored depictions of the Black Diaspora through visual art.

These artists and countless others bravely put their artistic talent to work in pursuit of justice and a better world.

Art helps build bridges across genres and generations, and there are many ways to celebrate the contributions made by Black artists here in the Pacific Northwest. The Northwest African American Museum is hosting Doretha Williams’ Black History Keynote on Feb. 15, the Jacob Lawrence Gallery on the UW Seattle Campus offers a contemporary art space dedicated to education, social justice and experimentation, and the UW’s Henry Art Gallery will feature an exhibit of mixed media artist Hank Willis Thomas’ work later this month — to name just a few.

The national designation of Black History Month reflects our shared commitment to celebrating Black achievement, but Black history has a critical place in our learning and exploration all year round. I hope we will all use this time to reflect on the important work of advancing racial equality and to consider how, together, we can lift up Black voices, recognize Black excellence and celebrate Black culture throughout the year.