Aaron Douglas’ History Lesson on the Responsibility of Black Artists

Aaron Douglas mural above the door, Cravath Hall (Nashville Public Library, Special Collections)

In an interview with Fisk University professor Leslie Collins, Harlem Renaissance painter and educator Aaron Douglas recalled his admiration for the “spiritual power” undergirding Negro life. He noted that if Black artists can tap into this “enormous” and “spiritual” power by writing about it or drawing it, it would be like tapping into “a gold mine.”1 Douglas’ observation responds to one question that early Harlem Renaissance leaders continuously sought to answer: what is the role of the Negro artist? As part of the younger “literati” crowd, Douglas joined artists like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Richard Bruce Nugent who had altering views of what their art would mean for Black culture, liberation, and beyond. These artists saw themselves as having a responsibility to make every Negro “accept what beauty is their own without question,” as Hughes suggested in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Like other young Negro artists, Douglas’ charge to future generations was to take the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance movement, magnify it, and carry it on. This same charge is one Douglas implemented visually in his library murals at Fisk University, fulfilling his role as a Black artist and HBCU educator who cultivated a revolutionary hope and mirrored the inherent beauty and toil of Black people.2

Completed in 1930, Douglas’ Fisk Murals connect Black Americans’ past, present, and future in a modernist, panoramic fashion that captures the race’s development and resilience in the New World. The first segment of the mural depicts scenes of civilizations in Africa, including the pyramids of Egypt, wildlife, and more. The uniform green silhouettes of people in the surrounding palm trees and greenery bring to mind the connection Black people in the Americas initially had with their ancestral homeland. The kinetic movement of the figures – some with shields and sticks in their hands – reveal the innate dance, rhythm, and traditions of the people living in their natural element. Subsequent mural panels illustrate African people’s enslavement and new life in the Americas, their resistance and struggle for freedom and citizenship, Emancipation, and finally, present-day college students and graduates in front of Fisk’s historic Jubilee Hall. Some scenes illustrate faceless figures in anguish and linked together by chains – a literal and figurative indicator of the shared oppressive struggle all Black people share – while other mural panels exhibit the glory, ambition, and determination refined in Black experiences as shown through faceless figures on a chariot or looking upwards and to the light of the future. Douglas’ intentional choice to center African heritage in his paintings unequivocally ensures that viewers understand Black people’s contributions to art, history, culture, education, and the world in general.

Notably, Douglas chose to use two particular themes in the murals, spirituality and labor, to emphasize what he thought of as the “most important aspects of our development” in the western hemisphere. It was keeping the faith and singing spirituals that kept enslaved people going, and through their free labor, they built not only the foundations of America, but also their culture and sense of self. The calculated scenes in each segment represent significant markers in African and African American history; the murals serve as a historical, current, and futuristic reminder of the longevity, struggle, beauty, and endurance of Black life despite facing the horrors of the Middle Passage, chattel slavery, racism, and exploitation. Although the depictions of Black labor were not “grand” in Douglas’ view, his Fisk Murals will continue to exist on the historically Black university campus so that future generations of Black Americans will keep in mind the importance of the diaspora’s evolution and the sense of pride and identity forged throughout Black history.

The underlying “spiritual power” that Douglas and other Black artists drew from Black experiences fueled Negro spirituals and jazz, paintings and theatrical plays, and literary works such as Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry and Jean Toomer’s Cane. These artistic mediums showed Black life realistically, especially at a time when Langston Hughes remarked in his essay, “When the Negro Was in Vogue,” that the “so called Negro Renaissance of the ‘20s was not so gay and sparkling beneath the surface as it looked.” Ironically, however, Hughes observed it was also an era where white writers were more commercially successful writing about Black people than Black writers were themselves. So, if the Negro artist is to avoid creating “echoes of the work of white artists” in order to become the “medium through which humanity expresses itself,” then their art must also be sociopolitical in nature.3 This Black artist must write about, sing about, or paint the depths of blackness in ways that non-Black artists cannot. As renowned painter Aaron Douglas noted, the Black artist’s responsibility today and going forward is to “mine for gold” in the enormous and spiritual power sustaining Black life and capture the inner truths of the Black condition in America and the world.


  1. Douglas, Aaron. “Aaron Douglas Chats about the Harlem Renaissance.” In The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, edited by David Levering Lewis, 118–27. New York: Penguin, 1995.
  2. Davis, Donald F. “Aaron Douglas of Fisk: Molder of Black Artists.” The Journal of Negro History 69, no. 2 (1984): 95–99. https://doi.org/10.2307/2717601.
  3. Bearden, Romare. “The Negro Artist and Modern Art.” In The Romare Bearden Reader, 87–90. Duke University Press, 2019. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv11hpqjj.7.
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Tiffany Pennamon

Tiffany Pennamon, M.S., is a doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant in the Department of English at the University of Florida. She is also a freelance photojournalist and artist. Follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.