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Arts innovators: Changing culture

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(CNN) -- From distinctive sounds to literary eminence, African-American performers, artists and writers have transformed their respective fields. The following is just a sampling of African Americans whose contributions have changed the arts.

Katherine Dunham
Beginning in the 1940s, Katherine Dunham traveled the world studying, choreographing, performing and promoting black dance, introducing it to thousands of people of all races. Schooled in both dance and anthropology, Dunham conducted research in the Caribbean and elsewhere in an effort to understand the roots and styles of African-American dance. She then put together routines that reflected the diversity of black dance, performing around the country. Before her death in 2006, Dunham had been the recipient of numerous honors including the Presidential Medal of Arts, French Legion of Honor and the NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ray Charles
Growing up in southern Georgia and northern Florida in the 1930s, Ray Charles lost his sight but found his talent for music. Over the next half century, he entertained thousands around the world with his blues songs, tinged with elements of jazz, soul and rock 'n' roll. Skilled at the clarinet and saxophone, Charles is best known for his work on the piano, adorned with his omnipresent sunglasses and swaying to the music. A film about his life, "Ray," released shortly after his death in 2004, introduced him to yet another generation.

Miles Davis
Miles Dewey Davis III, the son of an East St. Louis, Illinois, dentist, grew up to be one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. Davis was best known for his natural talents and innovative approach, combining elements from different cultures and genres to produce a fresh, distinctive sound. Music producer Bob Belden once compared Davis to Mozart and Beethoven, calling his most famous work, "Kind of Blue," "the perfect jazz album."

Billie Holiday
Eleanora Fagan made her professional singing debut at 16 years old in a Harlem club, adopting the name "Billie Holiday." Holiday would perform alongside some of America's top musicians, composing tunes that tackled issues like lynching, racism and poverty with wrenching intensity, before dying in 1959 at the age of 44.

Zora Neale Hurston
In the 1920s, a group of African Americans gathered in New York to discuss and reshape their own society's literature, art and attitude. Novelist, anthropologist and playwright Zora Neale Hurston played a central role in the movement, which became known as the Harlem Renaissance. With black luminaries like Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois, Hurston spoke of the struggles, joys and prospects of African-American society, writing poems, non-fiction works and novels, including 1937's "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison's lyrical writing style, strong female characters and ambitious subject matter thrust her to the forefront of the American literary consciousness. In addition to building a fiercely loyal readership, Morrison's efforts have netted her the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature, a Pulitzer Prize (for "Beloved," 1987) and a National Book Award (for "Song of Solomon," 1977).

Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier set the stage for black actors and directors, rising atop his profession and making strong statements about race in his films. He was the first male African-American actor to win an Oscar (the best actor award for 1963's "Lilies of the Fields"), the first to star as a romantic lead (1961's "Paris Blues") and the first to become the nation's No. 1 box office star (1968). Poitier also addressed the thorny issues of racism, on film and off, appearing in the first mainstream films condoning interracial marriages (in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner") and attacking apartheid ("The Wilby Conspiracy").

Alice Walker
The daughter of sharecropper parents, Alice Walker grew up in rural Eatonton, Georgia, and went on to become one of the most respected women in the civil rights movement and American literature. Her most famous work, "The Color Purple," won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and was later made into an award-winning movie starring Oprah Winfrey and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Stevie Wonder
"Little Stevie Wonder" jumped into the limelight in the early 1960s and continues to make remarkable music today. His prodigious career -- including 19 Grammy Awards and more than 72 million in record sales -- is full of innovations and techniques that rank him among the best songwriters of the last decades. In addition to his music, Wonder has worked for social and political change -- he was among those who pushed for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday made a federal holiday.

Richard Wright
Born in 1908 in Natchez, Mississippi, Richard Wright wrote several influential books including "Native Son," "Uncle Tom's Children" and "Black Boy," exploring themes about racism and life in the South. Wright was at times criticized for his nonviolent views and Marxist beliefs. Disillusioned with life in the United States, he moved to Europe permanently following World War II.

Others who paved the way: Notable scientists | Cultural pioneers | Political and business leaders


Toni Morrison is not only popular with readers, but the critics as well, winning the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.


• Explainer: By the numbers
• I-Report: Black in America
• Timeline: Civil rights struggle
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