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Crash Course Black American History explores arts and culture! Learn about the art, literature, and political thought innovations of the Harlem Renaissance, the literature of Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, the origins of rap and hip-hop, and the poetry of Phillis Wheatley.

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CC Kids:
Hi, I’m Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History.

The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement, was an outpouring of artistic production and expression that took place from shortly after World War I and lasted into the mid-1930s. It was one of the richest, most vibrant, and most culturally generative artistic periods in American history and the work that emerged from that period continues to shape the landscape of American arts and letters today.

In this episode, we’re going to explore some of the writers, artists, and musicians who turned Harlem into a world-renowned hub of art and culture, and delve into the factors that brought them all together in the first place. Let’s start the show! [THEME MUSIC] So a few episodes ago we discussed the Great Migration, the decades when many Black Americans moved to the North for better economic opportunities and to escape domestic terrorism in the South. We also talked about the Red Summer of 1919, where Black veterans were targeted by White Supremacist groups, police officers, and mobs upon their return from World War I.

As these things were happening, more and more people in the Black community became increasingly politicized. They were tired of being treated as second-class citizens, and many began more forcefully advocating for their civil and political rights. Large cultural shifts can not only serve as a catalyst for social and political change, but they can also spark new forms of creative and artistic expression.

By the time the First Great Migration was over, over 1.5 million Black Americans had moved to the North, with 175,000 of them settling into Harlem - a single neighborhood in New York City. Even though Harlem was only three square miles, this influx of Black Americans turned this small area into the largest concentration of Black people in the world. These communities developed new forms of expression that were so unique, so moving, and so unlike anything America had ever seen before that Harlem gained both national and international attention.

And this explosion of artistic creation wasn’t just limited to Harlem, it also flourished in cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. We can separate much of the work into three categories: Visual Arts, Literary Arts, and Musical Arts. There were so many incredible visual artists who contributed to the Harlem Renaissance.

One of them was sculptor Richmond Barthe, who enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago to study oil painting, despite not having any formal training or a high school education. While there, however, he was drawn to sculpting and ended up creating work that portrayed the beauty of the Black body. Photographer James Van der Zee, provided some of the most complete documentation of African American life during this era, especially the emerging Black middle class in New York.

Muralist and artist Aaron Douglas used Egyptian and West African sources in his art to depict segregation and race. His innovative techniques drew the attention of Black intellectuals, like W. E.

B. Dubois, who would ask him to provide illustrations for their journals. And there was Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, an interdisciplinary artist and sculptor who portrayed the Black American Experience using African themes.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she said her work was “of the Soul, rather than the figure.” She was the first African American woman to receive a U. S. government commission for her art. And of course, the Harlem Renaissance included the literary arts.

Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. Langston Hughes was one of the most famous poets of the day. He was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1901 and lived in a variety of places across the United States from Illinois to Ohio to New York City - where he spent a year at Columbia University.

He also traveled abroad to Europe and Africa while working as a seaman. In 1926, he published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, while living in Washington DC. He finished his education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, which was a Historically Black University where he felt like he had more support than he did at Columbia.

Langston Hughes’ poetry was unique because it reflected both his personal experience as a Black man living in America and the experiences of working-class Black people across the country. He strived to reflect what he thought of as the authentic Black American experience, and refused to make Black life look happier or less painful than it actually was for so many. And because of this, Hughes had many critics.

Many Black intellectuals believed that Hughes was portraying Black Americans in a bad light. But in his autobiography, Hughes responded: “The Negro critics and many of the intellectuals were very sensitive about their race in books. (And still are.) In anything that white people were likely to read, they wanted to put their best foot forward, their politely polished and cultural foot—and only that foot." Hughes wasn’t daunted by the criticism, and believed that his work showed Black life, and America, for what it was. He wasn’t interested in hiding anything, from anyone.

Thanks Thought Bubble. Hughes wrote in his essay, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad.

If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” One of my favorite poems of his is entitled, Harlem, which goes: “What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” Langston Hughes was one of many famous Black writers during the Harlem Renaissance.

In fact, there were so many, that a special issue of the Survey Graphic - a social science and culture journal - was produced in 1925 to commemorate the impact of Harlem on the American literary landscape. It featured scholarly writings in history and sociology from some very important figures in academia and research. One was James Weldon Johnson - a lawyer, poet, and activist who is best known for co-writing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is now known as the Black National Anthem.

Additionally, he was an active participant in the NAACP and served as its first Black Executive Secretary from 1920 to 1930. Another writer featured in this special issue was Arthur Schomburg (also sometimes known as “Arturo”). Schomburg, a pioneer in the area of Black History, was an Afro-Puerto Rican man who developed one of the most significant collections of printed material about the Black Diasporic experience in the world.

His collection was acquired by the New York Public Library and the collection grew into what would become the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The famous issue of the Survey Graphic also included work from Walter White - a lynching investigator who attempted to secure passage of a federal anti-lynching bill - as well as poems by writers like Claude McKay and Countee Cullen. McKay and Cullen were both cornerstones of the Harlem Renaissance literary scene, but with divergent approaches.

Cullen--who many scholars believe was the person Langston Hughes was being critical of in The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain essay-- embraced colorblindness in his work and wrote in a prose that appealed to Eurocentric literary sensibilities. McKay, a Jamaican immigrant, proudly wrote poetry in his Jamaican dialect in addition to what he called “straight English.” One of McKay’s most famous poems, If We Must Die, speaks to the rising sense of Black militancy in many parts of the Black community. It goes: If we must die, O let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!

The editor of this historic issue of the Survey Graphic was Alain Locke. Locke, the first Black American to earn a Rhodes scholarship, received both his undergraduate degree and PhD in Philosophy from Harvard. He would go on to teach at Howard University and publish a book called The New Negro, a manifesto and collection of essays that embodied the spirit of the movement and expounded upon the importance of the Harlem Renaissance.

Locke highlighted even more Black literary geniuses - folks like Gwendolyn Bennett and Zora Neale Hurston. Bennett was a writer, editor, and poet who studied art in the United States and abroad. She was also assistant to the editor at Opportunity, which was the major publication of the Urban League and published many writers during the Harlem Renaissance.

Hurston, who wasn't fully appreciated until after her death, was a writer known for her efforts to preserve the folklore of Black Southern life. She wrote often about the nuanced experiences of Black women, best exemplified in her most well-known work, the book Their Eyes Were Watching God. We’ll learn more about her in a few episodes!

In the area of music, blues and jazz revolutionized the American landscape. Blueswomen singers such as Ma Rainey, known as “The Mother of Blues” and Bessie Smith, known as “The Empress of Blues,” used their remarkable voices to express their highs, their lows, their challenges, and their victories making their way through life in the United States as Black women. They especially focused on the stories of working-class Black life.

And both women also played an important role in exposing larger audiences to the music coming out of Black communities. Another important jazz musician during this period was Duke Ellington. He helped popularize big band style jazz music in the United States and produced many concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Other legendary musicians of this era included Eubie Blake, one of the first Black Americans to compose a major Broadway Musical, and Billie Holiday, whose song “Strange Fruit” is credited with being the first protest song of the Civil Rights era. In fact, many modern forms of music are influenced by blues and jazz - including rock, pop, country, and Hip-Hop. We are just scratching the surface of the artistic outpouring of the Harlem Renaissance!

There are so many artists that we could have talked about today and more that we’ll talk about in the episodes to come. But what’s clear is that Black Americans have made countless contributions to the cultural, artistic, musical, and literary landscape of this country. We can see it everywhere.

And as a writer like myself, I know that my work is only possible because of the path that was laid by these remarkable people. And who knows, maybe I’ll start painting or pick up a little bit of trumpet playing on the side ...or maybe not. Hi, I’m Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History and today we’re continuing our exploration of the Harlem Renaissance.

In our last episode, we talked about the proliferation of Black artistry across the Harlem Renaissance. Over a million Black people migrated to the North and changed the cultural landscape of New York and other northern cities. But the Harlem Renaissance wasn’t just about the books, the musicians, the singers, and the dancers.

It was also about the larger political messages that were conveyed both on the stage and on the page. As we’ve discussed, while many of the most famous contributors to the Harlem Renaissance were indeed artists, much of their work was deeply political and many of their own political ideologies were shaped by other Black activists and intellectuals of the day. Today we’ll be focusing on those thinkers and activists.

Let’s start the show. [THEME MUSIC] Often we revere the Harlem Renaissance as generally a fun time full of artistic production, possibilities, and enlightenment. But being Black in early 20th century America was an undoubtedly...rough time. Both the systemic and interpersonal manifestations of racism, even in the North, were everywhere.

While they were able to create such beautiful work, many artists struggled and very few could pursue their art full-time. They often worked in unstable and dangerous roles at industrial plants or on seaports, and often for lower wages than their white counterparts. This was the reality of Black folks in urban cities throughout the country.

Many may have escaped the violence of the South, but they still had to deal with the enormous amount of injustice in the North. One aspect of the Harlem Renaissance was the work of Black theorists and political thinkers who debated the most effective ways to help Black communities. Many Northerners were not as keen on Booker T Washington’s rhetoric from the South, which propped up accommodation to segregation and the slow but steady aggregation of Black economic freedom through vocational labor.

Washington rose to prominence as a race leader as the 19th century came to a close, and he championed “dignify[ing] and glorify[ing] common labor” while remaining separate from white Americans; even if it meant having less rights than white people. But as we’ve discussed before, recognizing that Washington was born into slavery and still lived in the South, his views prioritizing peace, safety, and calm seem more understandable. Still, this class of New Negroes -- as they described themselves at the time -- just weren’t down with any notions of accommodation, segregation, or having to “wait” for their freedom.

Northern labor activist A. Philip Randolph a nd economist Chandler Owen took time to define what the New Negro was looking for in The Messenger, an independent magazine they founded in 1917. They described the New Negro as uncompromising when it came political equality and universal suffrage.

And because economic mobility was difficult for Black Americans, Randolph and Owen also proposed that the New Negro be afforded the same protection through labor unions that their white counterparts had, and that they wouldn’t have to be exploited by people trying to price gouge them for things that they needed to survive. During this era, New York City became home to the headquarters of major organizations for Black Liberation, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which was founded in 1909, and the National Urban League which was founded in 1911. These groups were heavily involved in grassroots activism to combat discrimination and segregation.

The 1920s were the golden era for the National Urban League. Under the direction of Executive Secretary Eugene K. Jones, the group boycotted businesses that refused to hire Black people and put pressure on city schools to provide training for Black workers.

The 1920s were also a time of major growth for the NAACP. At the start of the decade, they appointed James Weldon Johnson as the organization’s first Black Executive Secretary and with his leadership, increased their membership to 100,000 people in 300 chapters nationwide. Meanwhile, Walter White, who would eventually himself become the Executive Secretary of the organization, investigated lynchings in the South, often passing as white, in the NAACP’s unsuccessful effort to pass a national anti-lynching bill.

But the NAACP did win some important victories. In 1917, in Buchanan v. Warley, it convinced the US Supreme Court to overturn city ordinances mandating where Blacks could and couldn’t live.

In 1926, the association was also able to successfully defend Ossian Sweet, a Black physician from Detroit, from murder charges after an attack on his home. Another important moment for Black Americans came with the creation of Negro History Week in 1926. The predecessor to Black History Month, Negro History Week was the brainchild of Carter G.

Woodson, who received his Ph. D. in history from Harvard in 1912, becoming only the second Black person to receive a PhD from Harvard, after W. E.

B. DuBois. Woodson was adamant about treating African American History and culture as formal fields of study.

Along with other activists, he charged schools and organizations to use this week in February to highlight and honor African American contributions. In the early 1970s, the week extended into a month-long celebration. In 1976, it became federally recognized.

But, of all the organizations enacting fresh and exciting initiatives to achieve equal rights for Black people, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was the largest, and most militant. Marcus Garvey and his first wife, Amy Ashwood Garvey, founded the UNIA in Jamaica in 1914, but it failed to gain the traction that they’d hoped for in their native country. Garvey immigrated to the US and began doing public speaking in New York City.

Garvey was known as what people would call a step-ladder preacher, like he’d literally grab a step-ladder and preach to anyone who’d listen in the streets of Harlem. Eventually, he was able to pull in mass support from the Black working class. And in May of 1917, he launched the New York branch of the UNIA, basing the headquarters in Harlem.

The UNIA’s militant weekly newspaper, the Negro World, began in 1918 and amassed more than 200,000 readers. Amy Jacques Garvey, Marcus Garvey’s second wife, was the editor for the popular women’s page, and wrote articles that spoke specifically to the concerns of Black women. According to Marcus Garvey, who was known to sometimes exaggerate numbers, by 1922 the UNIA had amassed 1,000 chapters with four million members across the United States, Caribbean, Central America, Canada, and Africa, including the parents of the soon-to-be-famous civil rights leader Malcolm X.

Marcus Garvey is an interesting figure in Black American History to say the least. And his story is one that’s worth digging into a little deeper. Let’s go to the Thought

Bubble: Marcus Garvey was fueled by an ideology known as Pan-Africanism, which emphasizes the dispersal of African-descended people across the globe due to the transatlantic slave trade. It is the idea that those Black people dispersed everywhere across the world experience the same kind of issues (like oppression), and have the same interests (like freedom), and that Black people across the globe should join together in their collective fight for liberation. He believed in an end to colonial rule in Africa and the unification of people across the continent. Garvey’s approach differed from those of the NAACP and the National Urban League, organizations who were integrationist.

Garvey believed that Black people should live separately from whites, and that many of them should take it upon themselves to go back to Africa, where they would have enough land and resources to set up their own nation-state. This approach became known as Black Nationalism. Garvey's life and career were nothing short of animated.

The famous photo of him wearing an Afrocentric headdress and military garb was taken at a parade up Lenox Avenue in Harlem. He authored his own Declaration of the Rights of Negro Peoples of the World, and at the 1920 UNIA convention, he declared himself the “Provisional President of Africa.” Garvey’s large following and influence even prompted the hiring of the first Black FBI agent who was tasked with infiltrating the UNIA. J Edgar Hoover, who would later become the infamous director of the FBI, once referred to Garvey as the “notorious Negro Agitator.” Thanks Thought Bubble.

This emphasis on Black separatism also led Garvey to some pretty strange allies, like the racist Ku Klux Klan, who in their own way, agreed with the idea of Black people leaving the US and settling somewhere else. This relationship to the KKK, in addition to his pretty terrible views on mixed-raced race people, made Garvey an even more divisive figure among other Black leaders. Some even launched a “Garvey Must Go” campaign because they thought his alignment with the Klan was so abhorrent.

Still, the UNIA did engage in racial uplift and reform on American soil, and in doing so, focused their efforts on making conditions better for Black people here. While the larger goal was creating a new nation-state, local units of the UNIA did cater to their communities' immediate needs, addressing issues like voter registration, healthcare, and education. To help achieve the UNIA’s founding members’ dream of getting many Black Americans back to the Motherland, the Black Star Line steamship Company was developed in 1919.

Using these ships to bring people to the continent, they hoped to unite African-descended people from around the world in a shared place. But it was more than that. The BSL was also created with the intention of serving as an economic tool for Black folks, to give them a place in the global economy by using these ships to transport goods throughout the African Diaspora and increase the value and influence of the Black Dollar.

Garvey wanted to foster the growth of a self-reliant and resilient global Black economy. A weird thing about Garvey though, is that as much as he talked about Africa and how important it was for Black people to return there, some of his own views about African people were pretty terrible. He said that one of the reasons he wanted to get to the continent was “to assist in civilising the backward tribes of Africa" which itself is a pretty...backwards view.

Ultimately, Garvey would sell shares of the ship which he named Phyllis Wheatley after the first Black American woman to publish a book of poetry. Except he didn’t actually own the ship. And this gave J Edgar Hoover and associates an opportunity to prosecute Garvey, something that they had long been trying to do.

During the trial, Garvey fired his attorney and decided to represent himself ...and it didn’t go well. Garvey was convicted of mail fraud in 1923 and was given a five year sentence. And in 1927, he was deported to his native Jamaica.

And with Garvey having been effectively exiled from the United States, the UNIA collapsed. Despite the controversy surrounding Marcus Garvey’s legacy, his impact has reverberated throughout history. He is credited with coining the phrase “Black is Beautiful,” and is a major figure in both the history of the Rastafarian Movement and the Black Power Movement.

The Harlem Renaissance was an historic, world-changing incubator of art and culture. And it existed alongside shifting political sensibilities in the Black community. And while not all Black people agreed on the tactics, or even the end goal, of their activism, what was clear was that through art, through literature, through music, through politics, Black Americans were going to more forcefully assert themselves as people who deserved equal civil, social, and political rights.

Hi, I’m Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History. As we’ve said in previous episodes, one of the richest, most culturally generative periods in American history was the Harlem Renaissance. So many incredible artists emerged from that period, and so many writers who transformed the landscape of American letters.

And as a writer myself, I’ve obsessively pored over the work of so many of these folks my entire life. I’ve studied how they constructed dialogue, how they created dynamic characters, how they brought Black American life to the pages of books that we’re still reading today. And one writer who has always stood out is Zora Neale Hurston.

She was brilliant, she was tough, and she had a BIG personality. I think you should get to know her. So, let’s start the show! [THEME MUSIC] Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama.

Her father was a preacher, her mother was a teacher and a seamstress, and she was the fifth of eight children. During her childhood, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, which was one of the first incorporated all-black towns in the entire United States. In fact, her father became one of the city's first mayors!

But in 1904, Hurston's mother passed away, and this made her home life a difficult one. Ultimately, Hurston left her home and she joined a traveling theater group. Still, she didn’t give up on her education and she was a product of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

To start, she completed her high school education at Morgan Academy, which was affiliated with what is now Morgan State University, in 1918. She then graduated from Howard University, with her associate's degree. While there, she co-founded the institution's newspaper, The Hilltop.

Later, she went on to become the first Black American woman to attend Barnard College where she obtained her Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology on a full scholarship. Hurston then went on to pursue 2 years of graduate school at Columbia University where she studied under the renowned anthropologist, Franz Boas. Boas’ work helped shift the debate on race from a biologically essentialist framework to one framed around cultural relativism-- the idea that cultures must be judged on their own merits and not on how they compare to other cultures.

Many of Boas’ ideas informed Hurston's future travels as she explored the social and cultural frameworks of Black life in America. While in New York for school, she founded a literary magazine called “Fire!!” with her new friends Langston Hughes and Richard Bruce Nugent. “Fire!!” was met with very mixed reviews though. The magazine was pathbreaking, but some saw it as vulgar and distasteful due to the references to homosexuality and open dialogue about other taboo subjects.

But what was clear was that Hurston was shaking up how the Black experience was portrayed in literature. She and her colleagues wanted to create images that were more expansive, something that reflected the plurality and complexity of the Black experience. Let's talk about how she did this in the Thought Bubble.

The essay that put Hurston on the map as a new literary force was called “Sweat.” It was published in 1926 in “Fire!!” and it was about a woman who was in a relationship that was full of infidelity, abuse, and betrayal. “Sweat” was considered revolutionary because of its feminist themes and dialogue about the consequences of seeking independence as a Black woman. In the 1930s, Hurston was one of many writers hired by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program created by Franklin D Roosevelt, and was able to use her anthropological training to document the experiences of Black Americans living in Florida. She received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1936 which allowed for her to travel to Haiti where she wrote her most famous work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Published in 1937, this story was about a Black woman who was searching for love, passion, and a sense of peace in a world that rarely afforded women, especially Black women, this opportunity. “This book was criticized by many Black male writers because they believed that Hurston did not take an explicit political stance, nor did she use the book to address the impact of racism and white supremacy. Hurston though, wasn’t interested in two-dimensional depictions of Black life, or in simply using her characters as pawns to make a larger political point. In her work, Hurston believed it was important to portray Black people as having hopes and desires and aspirations and failings, which is to say, she wanted to portray people.

Thanks Thought Bubble. Zora Neale Hurston's work broke many barriers by combining research and folklore while centering the perspectives of Black women. And judging by how widely her work is read today, you would think that she enjoyed a similarly wide readership during her own life?

Well, not quite. For much of her career, Hurston struggled to sustain a mainstream audience. She also struggled in her personal life.

She married and divorced several times and also lied about her true age. At the end of her life, she worked a series of jobs to make ends meet and later suffered several strokes. She then moved to a welfare home in St.

Lucie County, Florida, and lived there until she died in poverty in 1960. Hurston’s work was almost forgotten. But in 1973 Alice Walker, a prominent Black American author who is best known for her novel, The Color Purple, read Hurston's novels and was inspired.

Walker said that she felt a personal relationship to Hurston’s work and considered her the matriarch of Black Literature. After Walker found Hurston’s unmarked burial place in Fort Pierce, Florida, Walker bought a headstone for the grave and had it inscribed with the words “a genius of the South." In 1975, Alice Walker wrote an essay entitled In Search of Zora Neale Hurston, which ultimately lifted Hurston's writing from obscurity and turned her into the most widely published Black woman author of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker later said, “I realized that unless I came out with everything I had supporting her, there was every chance that she would slip back into obscurity.” Other authors started to acknowledge Hurston’s contribution to the American literary world as well, like Robert Hemenway (not that Hemingway), a professor of English and chancellor at the University of Kansas.

His 1977 biography of Zora Neale Hurston helped generate even more interest. Hurston's revival also led to the republication of many of her previously out-of-print works. And the book Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo, was published posthumously, in 2018.

It details her interviews with Oluale Kossola, a formerly enslaved man who at the time was thought to be the last American survivor of the Middle Passage. As we said before, Hurston is considered part of the Harlem Renaissance, but she took the Harlem Renaissance much further than Harlem. She used her work to elaborate on the various struggles Black Americans were experiencing all over the United States.

But she was also a product of the Black South and had a specific desire to take the lived experiences and cultural expression of Black southerners seriously. Her work provided a rich literary engagement with the meaning of Black culture, while it was being transformed by migration. Hurston’s work was also unique in the way that she incorporated her research methods into fiction and short stories.

Her training as an anthropologist helped her portray realistic and nuanced stories of the Black experience, because it was based on real conversations with real people. This was the case whether she was traveling to a rural town in Florida to interview formerly enslaved people, or when she traveled to Jamaica and Haiti to study religions of the African Diaspora. The great writer, Toni Morrison, who is in many ways a literary descendant of Hurston, once said, “Being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from.

It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it.” I think of this quote often when I’m reading Zora Neale Hurston. The power of her work isn’t limited by writing about the experience of Black women, or by being a Black woman. In writing about specific people and specific communities, she is able to tap into a set of more universal truths.

The same way very famous novelists from England or Russia or America do. She documented so many stories that might have otherwise been forgotten. And she looked at Black Southerners and said, "You are worthy of literature." And we’re so lucky that she did that.

Hi, I’m Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course Black American History. And today we’re talking about the origins of rap and hip hop. On the streets of Harlem and the South Bronx in New York City in the late 1970s, rap and hip hop emerged as a direct response to two things: 1) the rampant economic and political inequality of the post-1960s Civil Rights era and 2) the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Performers tackled a range of subjects, from pure braggadocio to parties to race, class, gender, and the unfolding political crises in the Black community. By the 1990s, hip hop counterculture emerged into the mainstream and in doing, so created upward mobility for individual artists through their fame and wealth, and subsequently lifted many of them out of poverty. Many artists also embedded social and political analysis into their work in an attempt to critique different aspects of American society and disrupt the status quo.

They used their lyrics and platform to explore issues like state surveillance, drug addiction, crime, unemployment, and racism. Soon hip hop became a billion-dollar industry that pioneered new forms of musical production that continue to evolve and revolutionize the music industry to this day. So as we learn about the rise of hip hop and rap, we’ll look at the resulting cultural conversations this important genre of music inspired.

Let’s get started. [THEME MUSIC] Rap and hip hop began in the 1970s on the streets of New York City, specifically in the Bronx. It started as a form of pure showmanship at block parties or other social gatherings at places like recreation centers and parks. Disc Jockeys (more commonly known as DJs or emcees) would compete with each other by layering and remixing beats at their turntables, and rhyming over the beats while friends battled it out in informal break dancing competitions.

After the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Black communities experienced a decreased interest in their political and economic well-being from the government and policy makers. The result was a lack of investment in Black communities and their social infrastructure, resulting in staggering poverty rates, increased police surveillance, and ambiguous messaging from former allies of the Black liberation struggle. At the same time, the country was seeing the burgeoning Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which emphasized radical visions of re-imagining Blackness through music, visual art, poetry, theater, and literature.

Hip hop was in many ways, an extension of this artistic project. And in the years that followed, Black communities turned to hip hop counterculture as an outlet for self-expression and freedom dreaming. The origins of hip hop music can be roughly categorized by four main pillars -- although we should note that it contains multiple forms of artistic expression that don’t fit neatly into any specific category, especially as the genre has grown and evolved over time.

But let’s take a look at these four pillars in the Thought Bubble. The first is deejaying or making music and beats using record players, turntables, and DJ mixers. This had never been done before, and completely revolutionized the sound and texture of the music.

It also allowed DJs to become sort of orchestrators, basically using their turntables like a conductor would use their baton. The second pillar is rapping or making rhythmic vocal rhymes over the beats created by DJs. Both DJing and rapping have diasporic roots within the Black community, drawing on traditions of African American gospel call and response, West African storytelling, and Jamaican remixing and music sampling (just to name a few).

The third pillar is graffiti painting. Movies like "Wild Style" and "Beat Street" helped to popularize the connection between hip hop and graffiti. Sometimes graffiti gets a bad rep, and is tied to images of social decay and urban blight, but the truth is that many graffiti artists are incredibly talented, and some of the work they create serves as a direct challenge to the idea that beautiful art can only be found in a fancy museum or a gallery.

The fourth and final pillar is break dancing, a style of dance that encompasses attitude, style, and oftentimes acrobatic agility. Now, real-life Clint would never dare try this on camera because my knees would be paying for it tomorrow, but animated Clint doesn’t have to worry about sore knees, and is always down, to break it down. Thanks, Thought Bubble.

Now we can’t talk about hip hop and rap without talking about the people and personalities that made the music. Groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were pioneers of the genre and they laid the groundwork for folks that would come after with their lyrical dexterity and social commentary. One of the most politically charged music groups in history, Public Enemy, came onto the scene in the late 1980s.

They employed the rhetoric of Black Nationalism and Black militancy and embraced revolutionary ideas like overthrowing the government. Their hit single “Fight the Power” was released in 1989 and featured in director Spike Lee’s classic film “Do the Right Thing.” The song tackled racism head-on and called on Black people to challenge and fight back against white supremacy. Other groups and artists that were contemporaries of Public Enemy include Run-DMC, Eric B and Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, and A Tribe Called Quest.

Each of these artists brought a complex mix of style, lyrical prowess, and artistry to their work that looked to challenge social norms. And these artists brought further innovation to the airwaves by pioneering new forms of music, sampling, and mixing. But early hip hop and rap stage competitions also often sparked heated rivalries that sometimes took on the form of gang rivalries.

For example, Wu-Tang Clan brought together artists, some of whom were formerly affiliated with rival gangs, to represent their neighborhoods in competitions against other rap groups from hubs like Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Wu-Tang painted vivid pictures of urban life using the language of the streets. But this was more than just slang for them; they created a new lexicon that weaved together rhetoric with diverse influences including the Five Percent Nation (an offshoot of the Nation of Islam), philosophy, Asian cinema, and food.

So these groups and artists were engaging in a complex nexus of intersecting identities and influences even as they were pioneering their own new forms of expression. As hip hop began to take over the mainstream as a dominant countercultural voice by the 1990s, some rappers and Black record label owners became millionaires seemingly overnight. Rap artists like Notorious B.

I. G., Tupac Shakur, and their supporting record labels Bad Boy Records (led by Sean “Puffy” Combs) and Death Row Records (led by Suge Knight) epitomized the infamous East Coast vs West Coast rivalry. Biggie and Bad Boy represented the original New York City-centric roots of hip hop while Tupac and Death Row represented the expansion of hip hop outside of its regional New York roots by offering a distinctly California sound.

In the late 1980s rappers Too Short, N. W. A, and Ice-T had already pioneered hip hop on the West Coast.

Coming out of economically depressed areas in Los Angeles and Oakland, their lyrics often reflected personal experiences. Some of N. W.

A.’s most popular and most controversial songs served as a direct response to the police brutality they witnessed in their own neighborhoods and questioned the very legitimacy of policing, an institution that many felt was only there to surveil and harass Black people. Regional differences played a major role in the evolution of rap styles and content. But the coast-to-coast rivalry centered largely on Tupac and Biggie’s interpersonal conflict.

The rivalry had much to do with competition among their record labels, media coverage, and two talented lyricists with a penchant for quick and rhythmic comebacks on their records. Unfortunately, the conflict between them ended in tragedy and the still-unsolved murders of Tupac Shakur in 1996 and the Notorious B. I.

G in 1997. As hip hop moved further and further into the mainstream, older Americans (both white and Black) often viewed it as a symbol of everything that was wrong in Black, working-class communities. This negative association affected all aspects of Black America.

Some of the animosity toward hip hop in the 1990s centered on discomfort with the controversial lyrics which painted an explicit picture of what many people called “ghetto” life, in addition to hypersexuality, violence, and misogyny that denigrated women while simultaneously glorifying the image of gang life. One of the strongest opponents of rap music was long-standing civil rights activist and politician C. Delores Tucker, who campaigned against what she saw as the “threat” of hip hop music to Black communities.

Even more discomfort grew out of the lyrical use of the N-word and unrestrained profanity in hip hop songs. Hip hop artists worked to reclaim and repurpose the N-word in their songs by replacing the “er” at the end of the word with an “a”' as an act of rebellion against the racial slur. But this argument of reclamation and repurposing wasn’t always persuasive, particularly to older Black communities who had witnessed the word’s use as a much more common slur in the early half of the 20th century.

In fact, in 2007 the NAACP would even stage an actual “funeral” for the N-word, pushing to eliminate it from the American lexicon altogether. But rap and hip hop in the nineties wasn’t entirely focused on battles of the coast or hypermasculinity of male emcees. It also saw significant output and innovation from Black women emcees.

Black women stepped into the male-dominated genre and offered fresh perspectives and musical revolutions of their own. They shifted the tone of rap music away from antagonizing and objectifying women to foregrounding Black feminist messaging and bringing those revolutionary politics to a broader audience. Female rappers like MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Queen Latifah, Da Brat, and Eve all evolved as artists by refuting and denying the sexist and misogynistic scripts offered to them by their male counterparts.

They articulated fresh perspectives on sexual, racial, and class politics through their music. For example: Queen Latifah’s 1993 “U. N.

I. T. Y.” was a commentary on the state of Black women in society and gender politics.

The lyrics focus on sexism, sexual harassment, and the public pressures that women in hip hop were often forced to conform to. Similarly, Sister Souljah’s “The Hate That Hate Produced” in 1992 evoked Black power rhetoric and called for the eradication of white supremacy. While some Black women rappers focused on a radical politics of unity and community engagement, others revolutionized the way that Black women were viewed as sexual objects by taking control of their own hypersexualized representation in popular media.

Rappers like Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown focused on a more sexualized feminine image, but projected an aura of dominance, control, and lyrical prowess that kinda flipped the script of Black women being passive receivers of the male gaze and into one of being in control of how that gaze was directed and deployed. And artists like Missy Elliott offered an even more complex and queered image of Black womanhood at the turn of the 21st century. Like their male counterparts, Black women emcees also garnered widespread commercial and critical acclaim.

Hip hop artist Lauryn Hill, formerly of the rap group The Fugees, became one of the most well-known examples of hip hop and Black feminism’s wide reach. Her first solo album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” released in 1998, won critical acclaim, worldwide sales, and five Grammy awards. From the coastal wars to the culture wars of the 1990s, hip hop and rap had a lasting influence on American popular culture and music, as well as on diasporic expressions of Blackness throughout the world.

As hip hop and rap evolved to encompass other demographics outside of the Black community in New York City, the artform became an expansive language that encompassed a variety of cultural critiques and shifts. From its days on the streets of the Bronx, to its place as a global cultural juggernaut today, hip hop has continued to evolve and expand. It’s now a global phenomenon that has been adapted and embraced by a wide variety of cultures.

It has gone from the fringes of society to the center of American culture, with hip hop artists even headlining the Super Bowl Half-Time Show for the first time in 2022. Today, as hip hop becomes even more mainstream, it’s important to remember its cultural roots as a method of self-exploration, rebellion, and anti-white supremacist advocacy. And while the genre continues to grow and evolve, we shouldn’t forget its origins, and how Black rappers used the art form to fight against social ills and racism, all while highlighting the creativity, innovation, and activism within the Black community.

And it’s these lessons and forms of self-expression that still carry over to many artists today who explicitly see themselves as a part of that revolutionary hip hop lineage. Hi, I’m Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History. “The difficulty for me in writing—among the difficulties—is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything,” Toni Morrison said in a 1993 interview with The Paris Review. Going on to say, “Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words.

What is not said.” When I first encountered Toni Morrison’s work in high school, it was most often atop a sea of unmade sheets on my bed, with two pillows propping me up against the headboard. I used one of those cheap, drugstore pens to underline the sections that most resonated. It was tough for me then, to read in places where there was a lot of noise.

I preferred reading and writing in my room, where I could listen to the soft scratch of ink on paper, and the ceiling fan whirring above. Which is to say, I first encountered Morrison’s words in the silence that she alludes to. In this series, we've talked about a number of authors who have used their work to share the lives and experiences of Black Americans on the page.

And the person we’re discussing today, Toni Morrison, is one of the best writers that this country has ever produced. She changed the literary landscape. She challenged the traditionally white male canon of literature and she did it on her own terms.

Let's start the show! [THEME MUSIC] I don’t know how else to put it, Toni Morrison is a legend. She published everything from plays to children's books. Her novels earned many prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

She also was the first Black American woman to win a Nobel Prize for literature. Much of her work centers on the stories of Black people at different points throughout American history. She talks about their highs and their lows, their triumphs and their failures, and the consequences of racism in everyday life.

Her work emphasizes the loss, memory, psychological trauma, and joy of Black life. She wrote in ways that remain enjoyable to everyday readers while inspiring writers of all races. She helped highlight Black American literature, serving as a catalyst for it to be nationally and internationally recognized.

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Wofford in 1931. Chloe was the second of four children. She grew up in Lorain, Ohio in an environment where segregation wasn’t the law, but the invisible lines were understood.

Although her family struggled in the aftermath of the Great Depression, she credits her childhood as what motivated her to eventually write: hearing African American folklore and music, learning about African American cultural rituals, and growing up working class. When she was twelve years old, Chloe converted to Catholicism. She was baptized under the name Anthony, for Saint Anthony of Padua.

And it would be under the nickname Toni that she would become world-famous. After graduating with honors from Lorain High School in Ohio in 1949, she attended Howard University. Toni experienced the dangers and horrors of the segregated South while touring with the Howard Players, an acting club.

But she also started to connect with other Black writers, activists, and artists. She graduated with a Bachelor's degree in English in 1953 and then went on to complete her Master of Arts in American Literature from Cornell University in 1955. After she obtained her Master's, she taught English at various HBCUs.

She married Harold Morrison, an architect, and had two children. In 1958, she returned to Howard University as a lecturer and joined a writing group where she would begin working on her first novel. She spent seven years at Howard University, got divorced, and then became an editor of the textbook division of Random House Publishing where she quickly moved up the ranks.

She eventually became a senior editor at Random House, the only Black American woman to hold that position in the company at the time. Morrison used her power and influence as an editor to publish many books by Black American writers, including Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, June Jordan, and Angela Davis. Many credit her with introducing a whole new group of Black writers to the wider world.

While elevating the Black authors around her by putting their work into print, Morrison started to put her own work in the spotlight. Remember that novel she started at Howard a few years earlier? Well, after waking up at 4am each morning to work on it while raising her two children on her own, it became her first published novel: The Bluest Eye.

It came out in 1970, when Toni was 39 years old. The Bluest Eye is about Pecola Breedlove, a young Black girl who had an extremely difficult childhood, and believed that her life would be better if she just had blue eyes like the white people around her. It was seen by some as a controversial book and was met with pretty mixed reviews.

But Toni Morrison stated in later interviews that the book’s reception was very similar to how other characters treated her main character in the novel. Morrison said she was “dismissed, trivialized, misread.” The lack of a warm initial reception for The Bluest Eye didn’t stop Morrison. She published her second novel, Sula, only three years later.

In this book, Morrison explores morality, ethics, and relationships, through the friendship between two Black women. This book had a much more positive reception than The Bluest Eye and it was even nominated for a National Book Award. By the time Morrison published her third novel, Song of Solomon in 1977, she was a household name in the Black community.

This was one of the few books Morrison wrote with a male protagonist, a young man searching for his identity while trying to escape an oppressive society. This was her first truly commercially successful book. It became the first book written by a Black American author to be selected by the Book of the Month Club since Richard Wright’s Native Son in the 1940s.

She received a National Book Critics Circle Award along with many other accolades. The book became a staple of American literature in classrooms, among academics, and for general readers. This success encouraged Morrison to become a full-time writer.

In 1987, Morrison released what many consider to be her Magnum

Opus: Beloved. The book is inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, an African American woman who was living in slavery. The main character of Beloved is Sethe, a formerly enslaved woman who is constantly haunted by her dead child after making the gut-wrenching decision to kill her children rather than see them become enslaved. Though three of her children survived, her infant daughter did not.

Morrison dedicates the book to the millions of Africans killed during the course of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The title of the book is taken from Romans Chapter 9, which states: “Those who were not my people, I will call my people and her who was not beloved, I will call beloved." The story explores themes of loss, morality, and the impossible choices that befall the oppressed. The book became an enormous critical and commercial success.

It was a best seller for 25 weeks and won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. From the 1980s onward Morrison's literary prowess impacted the minds and hearts of much of the world. She continued to win awards and honors throughout her life and in 1989 she became a professor in the Creative Writing program at Princeton University.

In 1993, she became the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. In 1996, she was chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities to give the Jefferson Lecture, and also won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Also, Oprah Winfrey loved her.

I mean, really, really loved her. It was Oprah who helped bring Toni Morrison’s work even further into the mainstream when she selected four of Morrison’s novels in six years for her book club. With an average of 13 million viewers watching these book club segments, the support from Oprah helped Morrison sell millions of copies and gave her a bigger sales boost than she experienced when she won the Nobel Prize.

In 1998, Beloved was even made into a movie starring…well Oprah, as well as Thandiwe Newton, and Danny Glover. And honestly, the rest is history! Morrison received a dozen honorary degrees and was a guest curator at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom --which was awarded to her by the first Black President of the United States, Barack Obama. In total, she wrote 11 novels, 9 nonfiction works, 5 children's books, 2 short stories, and 2 plays throughout her life. She died on August 5, 2019, in New York City.

Several years ago, before she passed away, I had the opportunity to see Morrison give a lecture in person. It was an extraordinary experience, to physically be in the presence of one of the greatest writers to have ever lived. When Morrison came onto the stage, the audience rose to their feet and gave a resounding round of applause.

Whistles and cheers ricocheted across the vastness of the room. Morrison was brought to a table at the front of the stage cloaked in a red cloth that had a small glass of water at its corner. At 85 years old, she was still remarkably lucid.

As I listened to her speak, I thought of my future children. How one day they will read Morrison, and how they might marvel at the fact that their father once shared a room with this writer who seemed to belong to another world. I will tell them that when she spoke, the vowels stretched across the theater like a hammock.

I will tell them that her laughter pushed open the walls of the room and invited everyone in. Morrison laid the foundation for generations of Black writers that followed. She rejected the idea that being Black or being a woman might hinder her appeal or the universality of her work.

In a 1987 interview with The New York Times, Morrison said, “I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a Black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither.... So it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.” Morrison is gone now, but she indeed made the world bigger.

She built upon her literary ancestors and paved the way for her literary descendants. She is one of the best writers to have ever lived and she transformed our understanding of what literature could do. Hi, I’m Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History.

We’ve spent a lot of time in this series talking about how hard it was to be a Black person in the Colonies and how colonial law oppressed people of African descent. I think most of us would look at these circumstances and just wonder how anyone survived, how people were able to wake up every single day and keep going in the midst of indescribably cruel conditions. But what’s most remarkable is that Black folks didn’t let these conditions crush them, or define them.

Slavery was what was being done to them, it was not who they were. They defined themselves by the families they formed, the communities they built, and the culture they created. American culture, from music to art to literature, would not be what it is today without the creativity, ingenuity, and brilliance of enslaved people.

They created art that spoke to the conditions around them, and art that imagined what life might look like on the other side of freedom. It was art that served as both a mirror for their lives and a window into what their lives might one day be. Today, we’re going to talk about a teenager who embodied this in her work, and who, through her stunning poetry, began to change the way that others viewed Black people in the colonies.

Put on your bonnet and pick up your quill pen, because today we are talking about Phillis Wheatley. Let’s start the show! [THEME MUSIC] Phillis Wheatley was the first English-speaking Black woman to ever publish a book. The thing is, it’s easy to think of Western poetry and literature as the gold standard.

After all, most high school English classes in the U. S. often teach and center the works of people like E. E.

Cummings, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Frost, and Homer. And while a bunch of these folks are great, it’s important to note that the West does not have a monopoly on poetry, and just because we’ve been taught that a certain type of poetry is considered “standard” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t interrogate the very notion of who is deciding what is or isn’t considered standard in the first place. There are many other important examples of literature that came from the African continent.

Like the Timbuktu Manuscripts, Epic texts and Oral poems like the Epic of Son-jara, and literature written by Kings like Zera Yacob. Even within her era, Phillis Wheatley was not the first Black Woman poet in New England. Before Wheatley, for example, there was Lucy Terry Prince, who wrote her poem, “Bars Fight” in 1746.

But it wasn’t published until about 100 years later. Phillis Wheatly was born around 1753 in the Gambia River region of West Africa. She was taken captive when she was about eight years old and, like millions of others, brought across the Atlantic to the New World.

After arriving in New England in 1761, she was sold to a couple named John and Susanna Wheatley. The Wheatley’s daughter had died nine years earlier, and historians like Vincent Carretta, have speculated that their grief led them to treat Phillis as a surrogate for their late daughter. This is another example of the complexity and the cognitive dissonance of slavery – purchasing a human child to replace the human child that you lost.

That’s a lot to unpack for your 18th century therapist. Anyway, Phillis was brought to the United States following the Great Awakening, a religious movement that emphasized the importance of conversion, through a process of spiritual rebirth and accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior. The three theologians that started this movement were Methodist Anglicans who came from the Church of England.

They were John Wesley, his brother Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield. Whitefield was known for his religiosity and passion, and he was one of Phillis’ greatest influences. He used to travel through the country - preaching and sharing his ideas about the Great Awakening.

His messages not only influenced the broader American public and poets like Phillis, but also introduced the first generation of Black Christian authors to Methodism. And there’s a lot of them! They included: Olaudah Equiano, Briton Hammon, Jupiter Hammon, James Albert, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, and Boston King.

Phillis had, what was in many ways an unusual upbringing, relative to the plight of most other enslaved people in the United States. Yes, some enslaved people were brought to church, but Phillis was also allowed to learn to read and write. In fact, within four years of arriving in Boston, Phillis was literate, and eloquent enough in the English language to write a letter to a minister and compose a short poem mourning the death of a neighbor.

But her big break came in 1770, when she published a poem about George Whitefield, a local minister whom she had first heard speak as a young child. Let’s go to the Thought

Bubble: Welcome to Crash Course Poetry Night, I’m your host Clint Smith! Wow, we have a full house tonight. Ben Franklin, good to see ya! Sorry man you’re going to have to leave that kite outside!

Wesley Brothers – didn’t expect to see you tonight! Thought you had a sermon to give! So being a bit of a poet myself, I am happy to introduce a young legend in the making.

Hailing from Boston, Massachusetts, show your love to Ms. Phillis Wheatley. She will be performing an excerpt from her piece with quite the title, “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of That Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, The Late Reverend, and Pious George Whitefield.”: Hail, happy Saint, on thy immortal throne!

To thee complaints of grievance are unknown; We hear no more the music of thy tongue, Thy wonted auditories cease to throng. Thy lessons in unequal'd accents flow'd! While emulation in each bosom glow'd; Thou didst, in strains of eloquence refin'd, Inflame the soul, and captivate the mind.

His lonely Tabernacle, sees no more A WHITEFIELD landing on the British shore: Then let us view him in yon azure[f] skies: Let every mind with this lov'd object rise. No more can he exert his lab'ring breath, Seiz'd by the cruel messenger of death. What can his dear AMERICA return?

But drop a tear upon his happy urn, Thou tomb, shalt safe retain thy sacred trust, Till life divine re-animate his dust." Thanks Thought Bubble. This poem was an 18th-century banger and it propelled Phillis Wheatley to fame. As her success grew, she became a symbol of the intellectual abilities of people of African descent.

And thus became an important part of the anti-slavery movement. You see, during this time, white people viewed Black people as less intelligent. But Phillis’s poetry directly countered that false stereotype.

Historian Winthrop Jordan has written that Phillis Wheatley ultimately “became antislavery’s most prized exhibit, her name virtually a household term for the Negro’s mental equality.” Another historian, Jessica Parr stated in her work that Phillis Wheatley forced the American colonists to question their ideas about Black people’s intellect and humanity. Remember, it was not uncommon for African Americans to be legally analogized to horses and other animals during this period. But Phillis’ capacity to not only learn, but to become an artist who wrote beautiful poetry, forced many white people to ask: were Black people actually just like us?

Many famous White philosophers who have been largely celebrated for their intellectual contributions, like Francis Bacon, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant were also people who debated the cognitive, emotional, and moral capacity of Black people and questioned if they were really, fully people at all. Phillis Wheatley’s literary success even brought into question what they believed. Her influence in the debate about Black humanity lasted well past 1773, when she finally gained her freedom.

But not everyone was convinced of Phillis’ talent. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote in his 1785 book, Notes on the State of Virginia, “Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. —Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet.

Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phillis Wheately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” Jefferson, of course, is wrong.

And it’s not the only time Jefferson was wrong on race. Far from it. In that same book, he wrote he had a “suspicion” that Black people “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Jefferson’s quite blatant racism in Notes on the State of Virginia is a reminder that the story we often hear about how great the Founding Fathers were, doesn’t always tell the full story.

But I digress, this isn’t about him, this is about Phillis. Wheatley would die prematurely at the age of 31 on December 5, 1784. But she accomplished so much over the course of her life.

She published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. This made her the first English-speaking person of African descent to publish a book AND the second American woman – of any race – to do so. She was also the most visible Black woman in New England during the American Revolutionary Era.

According to the historians Catherine Adams and Elizabeth Pleck, Phillis Wheatley was “the best-known black person in all of the colonies, hailed as a poetic genius, widely praised for her literary talents, her life was in many ways the exception to the common condition of black women of her place and time.” What’s more, she created a moment of accountability for the American colonies. Phillis Wheatley brought into question the false assumption that Black people were incapable of greatness, intelligent thought, and art. We should be clear, though, that while Phillis’ life and work are worthy of celebration and commemoration, it should not have been necessary for Black people to write and publish beautiful poetry in order to justify their humanity.

Phillis’s humanity was not contingent on whether or not she wrote these poems. Her humanity was always there, simply because she was human. And that’s enough.

It’s enough for Phillis, and for every other enslaved person. Still, her life is noteworthy. Her work has lived long beyond her time and she remains a remarkable example of how the gifts of people of African descent shine, even under the most inhumane of circumstances.

Phillis Wheatly created the bedrock upon which generations of Black writers would flourish. Poets like Robert Hayden, Langston Hughes, Gwendylyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Claudia Rankin are all part of her lineage. Even rappers like Lauryn Hill or Kendrick Lamar, can look at the impact of Phillis Wheatley on Black poetry and rhetoric as a part of their own origin story.

So, whether you’re bopping to the Fugees or Drake, thank Phillis Wheatley. Crash Course is made possible with the help of all of these nice people. And our animation team is Thought Cafe.

Crash Course is a Complexly production. And if you’d like to keep Crash Course free, for everybody, forever, you can support the series at Patreon; a crowdfunding platform that allows you to support the content you love. Thank you to all of our patrons for making Crash Course possible with their continued support.