Charles White Images of
Dignity Biography Paintings Drawings Prints Photos
Publications and Media Museums What's New Home
ContactMailing Lists  
Biography

Charles
I was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 2, 1918. Both of my parents were from the South. My father, a railroad and steel worker, was a Creek Indian. The Creeks had been centered mostly in Georgia, where they were hounded and discriminated against like anyone else with a skin darker than white. My mother came from Mississippi. All her folks were farmers. Her own mother, my grandmother, had been a slave, the illegitimate daughter of a white master. I am not proud of this one white man who was one of my great-grandfathers. He was of a much lower order of humanity than those whose lineage was directly African. A typical slave master, he did not regard the product of his seduction of a slave as his offspring. She was just another slave chattel. My mother was born free, but four of her relatives, two uncles and two cousins, were lynched in Mississippi.

Of my parents, it was my mother to whom I was closest. My father died when I was eight. My mother later married again, but she parted from my stepfather when I was thirteen, and from that time on we looked after one another. She loved music and art. When I was seven years old she bought me a set of oil paints, and I painted my first picture, which she still has. When I was nine, she bought me a violin and got me a music teacher. I scratched away on the instrument for about seven years, but my all-consuming interest was painting and drawing. I liked music, and I think that music has had a deep and helpful influence on my painting. But I resented the time given over to practice on the violin, and whenever I thought my mother wasn't watching, I would drop it for the paintbrush. My mother would have preferred me to be a musician but in this, as in everything else throughout our life together, she had a wonderful fund of patience, always gentle with me, trying to understand why some things of which she thought less meant so much to me, never criticizing me sharply or harshly.

From the earliest years I can remember, I was made conscious of the fact that there were differences between Negro people and white. I played with white children. My mother was a domestic worker, traveling to white people's houses to scrub their floors, wash their clothes and cook for them. When I was a baby in arms she would take me to these homes, as there was nobody to look after me, and I would sometimes play with the children there. We lived in a very poor, ramshackle neighborhood of Chicago, and were for a time the only Negro people on the street. I would play with the neighbor's children, but the feeling that there were "differences" permeated the air, growing more intense, of course, as we grew older. It became even more glaring when I entered grade school. The idea that there were "differences" was ever-present in the attitudes of the teachers and in what we were taught. Then I learned to read, and there it was in the books, as well as in the motion pictures, cartoons, newspapers, "jokes" and advertisements. The Negro people were portrayed as grotesque stereotypes. And the "difference" was brought home to me again when I went out to earn money to help out in the house, which I did from the age of nine. I delivered groceries for a store, earning 75 cents a week, and made money in other ways apparently reserved for Negroes : shining shoes, cleaning, sweeping as a porter in shops. I couldn't define the "differences," let alone understand the reason for racism, but the fact of it was always there.

When I moved on to high school, my odd jobs in the evenings continued. I worked as a hotel bellhop, and a counter attendant in an ice cream parlor.

A little later on I was to be a valet and a cook. I had been a good student in grade school, was marked out as especially gifted with the paintbrush and pencil. This continued in high school, where the art teachers seemed to be proud of me. The school had about two thousand pupils, of which about 25% were Negroes. All the teachers, of course, were white. And prejudice was always there. When I was sixteen, and again when I was seventeen, I won an art scholarship in a competition run for high school students by the state of Illinois, but these scholarships were denied me when it was discovered that I was a Negro. I was avidly interested not only in painting, but in literature and drama. The drama group in the school allowed me to paint the scenery, and design the sets and costumes. But I also wanted to act, and this was forbidden to a Negro.

My disturbed feelings sometimes broke out into open defiance, and in studies such as history I came to be known as a "problem." To explain how this happened, I have to go back a little. When I grew too big to be carried by my mother to the homes where she worked as a servant, she would leave me for two or three hours in the public library. I became a voracious reader, and continued this throughout my school years. I went through everything in the children's section, and then, at the age of twelve, begged the librarian for a card that would permit me to enter the section where there were more advanced books, and to check out four books instead of two. I again read practically every book on the shelves, at first starting with the authors whose names began with the letter "a" and hoping to work up to "z." I grew impatient with this somewhat mechanical approach and browsed about, finding a writer I liked and then reading everything the library had by him. I thus read through the works of Jack London. Another favorite was the writer of historical romances, Rafael Sabatini. And I accidentally came upon books that had information that had never been imparted to me in school.

I discovered that the Negro people had played a proud role in history. A book that fascinated me, and opened up new vistas, was Doctor Alain Locke's, "The New Negro." I had never realized that Negro people had done so much in the world of culture, that they had contributed so much to the development of America, that they had even been among the discoverers of the continent.

For a while I kept this newfound knowledge to myself. It became a kind of secret life, a new world of facts and ideas in diametric opposition to what was being taught in the classrooms and textbooks as unquestionable truth. But then, the clash began to come out in the open.

I would ask my teachers why they never mentioned a Negro in history. I would bring up the name of Crispus Attucks, the first martyr of the American Revolution of 1776, or of Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass. I would mention the painters, Bennister and Tenner. My teachers answered smugly and often angrily. The histories from which we were taught, they would say, were written by competent people, and whatever they did not mention was simply not important enough to mention. When I spoke up about these ignored great figures, I would be told to sit down and shut up. In public speaking classes, whenever I had a chance to speak, it would be about these discoveries of mine. The other Negro students were often embarrassed by this. It had been deeply ingrained in them as in me in my first school years, that to be a Negro was something of which to be ashamed; that the Negro people were an inferior people, illiterate, uncouth. And this was intensified by the clownish role forced upon Negroes in the cinema, by thousands of barbs and shafts in the comic strips, in the newspapers, in casual conversation of white people. Everything characteristic of Negro culture was isolated and distorted into an object of hilarity. And so it was considered best not to mention this embarrassing word or subject. It is a terrible thing, this turning of children against their parents and ancestors, robbing them of their heritage and the riches of their past, leaving them spiritually motherless and fatherless.

I grew to dislike school intensely. Many times I was on the point of being expelled. I was called stupid and arrogant. My mother was asked to come to school, and receive a list of complaints. And so whenever I didn't feel like going to school, I didn't go. Playing truant, I would go to the Art Institute of Chicago and wander about its art galleries, looking at paintings, and dreaming of becoming an artist. Outside of my art teachers, who would come to my rescue when I got into trouble, I was very lonely in school. But I did find a small group of students struggling to break down discriminatory practices in school, and joined them. Thus at sixteen I had my first experience in an organized movement to attack some social problem.

In these years I also began to feel more confidence in myself. I became friends with a white fellow student whose father was a professional sign painter. He taught both of us the trade and we set up a little shop after school hours, doing signs and lettering, and even theatre displays. For a time we were hired by a theatre to do this work, and given 75 dollars a week. Unconscious of the existence of trade unions, certainly the schools never mentioned them, we did not know that the employer was using us to avoid hiring union members, and was thus saving an amount equal to what he was paying us, which we soon found out. During this time I also sketched incessantly, at lunchtime or in whatever spare time I could find in the evenings. I drew whatever I saw; the people I knew, the streets about my home, events that had happened. And I discovered that there were other Negro artists in Chicago. I read in a Negro newspaper of a Negro art group called the Arts Crafts Guild, which met every Sunday. I was fifteen at the time. I timidly took a few drawings to their meeting, and was admitted. They met every week, mostly to work from a model, or from scenes in the streets, and criticized each other's work. They had community exhibitions, and thus some of my work was first publicly seen, in places like a Negro Baptist church, a Young Men's Christian Association house, a Settlement House or Boys Club. We would occasionally take over a vacant lot for our exhibitions. We got to know each other intimately, and would visit each other's homes. Some lived in a garage which we rented for a studio. Dues were small. None of us had any formal art training except for one who had gone for a short time to the Institute, and was the club president, chief critic, guide and instructor, giving us all some knowledge of the technical aspects of handling paint.

We decided we would give out prizes at our exhibitions, the judges being an older artist and one of the leading figures in the community. We earned money through parties, and announced that the prizes could now be, instead of a few dollars worth of art materials, a "scholarship" to the Art Institute. We could not give a real scholarship, of course, which cost 250 dollars, but we were able to pay the fees for a few night lessons. We also stipulated that whoever was the winner would have to teach us what we had learned. In this way, we all shared the prizes. Altogether we managed to send about a dozen club members to Institute classes. I never won one of those "scholarships," but I did get to do some drawing from life at a sketch class run by an artist named Todras Geller, who did a good deal of work for Chicago synagogues.

When I was nineteen and just out of high school, the most exciting event of my artistic career up to that time took place. I won a statewide competition for high school graduates, the prize being a full scholarship to the Chicago Art Institute. And this time the prize was actually given to me. I still had to make a living working at night and vacation times, but was able to finish the two-year course in one year. With this expert technical instruction behind me, I felt that I was really set on the road to becoming a full-fledged artist. But how was I to make a living and still find enough time to draw and paint? At this point, the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) arts project beckoned.

The W.P.A. arts projects, instituted by the New Deal administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, were a form of unemployment relief, but they established the principle that the unemployed were to be given useful work, not simply a miserable few pennies of a dole. And they also embraced the principle practically unheard of up until then in United States history that the arts were socially useful work. In a queer way, some of the very restrictions that "free enterprise" put on the projects worked to the advantage of the artists. For the work done by the unemployed had to be of a kind that did not compete against private business. So the work done on the arts project drawings, paintings, murals, could not be privately sold, but had to be a public possession, hung in schools, post offices, and other community and government buildings. Many of the artists on the projects found a gratifying new spirit entering their work, with the knowledge that it would be publicly seen and discussed, looked upon by the people as their own.

To be accepted on the project, one had to prove possession of the requisite skills, and also had to be unemployed, unable to find work, on relief, and a pauper, without any suitable possessions. The latter part of this was easy. The Negro people were poor even in boom days. Since the crash of 1929, the great mass of Negro families had been unemployed. But when it came to be accepted as an artist, racism again showed its face. The director of the Illinois art project did not think that Negro people could be artists, and on the entire project there was but one Negro: an elderly artist who had earned a national reputation some years before. Otherwise no Negroes were taken on, although there were from fifty to a hundred who were fully qualified. But an Artists Union had formed, which I joined. It went on strike against those discriminatory practices. We picketed the projects; I was arrested a few times by the police, and spent some nights in jail. Finally we won. And so my first lesson on the project dealt not so much with paint as with the role of the unions in fighting for the rights of working people.

Looking back at my three years on the project, I see it was a tremendous step for me to be able to paint full time, be paid for it, although the pay was the bare minimum of unemployment relief. The most wonderful thing for me was the feeling of cooperation with other artists, of mutual help instead of competitiveness, and of cooperation between the artists and the people. It was in line with what I had always hoped to do as an artist, namely paint things pertaining to the real everyday life of people, and for them to see and enjoy. It was also a thrill for me to see so many accomplished artists at work, and to be able to learn from them.

I became active in Artists Union committees and also took part in the work of the League against War and Fascism, and the organizations for support of the republican government of Spain. It was obvious that the welfare of the Negro people, the progress of all the working people, and the cause of democracy were linked together. And this was also the basis for the progress of art. The artist could not spend his life in his studio. He had to play a role in social life.

When I was twenty three I won a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, a philanthropic organization. At this time I also married. My wife was an accomplished sculptor. With the fellowship grant we went to live and work for two years in the South, touring practically all the southern states but mainly living in Louisiana, Virginia, and Georgia. I painted a mural for the Hampton Institute, a Negro college in Virginia. It dealt with the theme I had long before tried to argue about in high school, the contributions of the Negro people to the development of democracy in the United States.

These two years in the South were one of the most deeply shaking and educative experiences of my life. I was in the real home of my people, where the vast majority had lived and worked from the days when they were brutally brought in the slave ships. In many places Negro people were almost the entire population. Yet, without the right to vote, without elementary civil rights, denied any protection of courts or government, they were domineered over by a corrupt ruling clique, who had the guns, and had the reins of the police, courts and politics in their hands. If necessary, the rulers could also unleash the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and lynching. They kept the population of the South, Negro and poor white, in poverty and illiteracy, making it a source of cheap labor. I felt the whiplash. In New Orleans, once, I walked into a tavern, and was brutally beaten, for Negroes were not allowed to enter such public places. In Hampton, Virginia, a streetcar conductor pulled a gun on me and could have pulled the trigger with impunity.

But I also learned to understand and love my people as I had never before. In Chicago I still tried to defend them against misrepresentation, by showing that we too had our philosophers, our artists, our explorers, our orators, our military heroes. We were just like the white figures told about in the books. Like my Negro schoolmates, I had been so affected by the grotesque perversions of Negro culture, by the ridicule heaped upon everything Negro, that even the genuine culture came to be something to wipe out of mind, and ignore. A touch of dialect, or the beautiful music of the spirituals, made us faintly ashamed, especially if there were white people present. Everything different from the Anglo-Saxon stereotype was fit only to laugh at. And now in the south I began to understand the beauty of my people's speech, their poetry, their folklore, their dance and their music, as well as their staunchness, morality and courage. Here was the source of the Negro people's contribution to American culture, and of the far vaster contribution they could make to the world in the future. Particularly the music affected me, the spirituals, blues, ballads, work songs, gospel songs, church songs and secular songs, and it has remained one of the most important influences on my work. It is not that I have ever tried to translate the music directly into pictorial art. But the music affected me so perfectly, in a way that touched the heart more directly than any other art, the dignity, the outpouring of tenderness, the social and comradely feelings, and humanity of the people. It is this that has helped in my efforts, in paintings and drawings, to present a feeling of universal humanity within a particular image, so that all people of good will, looking at a particular image would feel that something of themselves was contained there. It is this that the great Paul Robeson expresses in his singing in a marvelous way, so that he becomes the foremost bard of a people, symbolizing their common aspirations. Questions that had long been raised in my mind began to be answered. A slowly developing process that had caused so much turmoil of mind and heart took a new leap, the hunger to understand the complexities of the life of my people began to find some satisfaction, although I still have so much to learn. Seeing the people living on the land, seeing the culture as a part of life, long-standing confusions began to be erased.

I spent a year and a half in the Army. There I contracted tuberculosis. Discharged from the Army, I went to Mexico for two years, and this was another memorable chapter in my education. There I worked with the leading Mexican artists, including those of the Taller de Grafica Popular. I was especially moved by Leopoldo Mendez, the great master of popular woodcut. One of the honors of which I am most proud is that of having been elected an honorary
member of the Taller.

On my return from Mexico, my wife and I agreed to a divorce. I spent two years in a hospital, trying to arrest the case of tuberculosis, and underwent five operations. I then met the woman who became, five years ago, my present wife. She and my mother have been my two greatest teachers. What I learned from them was what an artist has to know about human beings to be an artist. My mother's moral strength taught me to see how much the peace and human dignity of the world will be protected and won by the simple, ordinary people. The guiding love and sympathetic understanding of my wife taught me again not only the wonderful potentialities of human beings but also their strength in the face of every adversity. It is one of the sources for the optimistic feelings that I like to think my pictures convey.

What may be called in part a kind of honeymoon, and also one of the most thrilling experiences of my life, was the trip my wife and I made to Europe in 1951. We went through France, England and Italy, and then attended the world youth festival in Berlin. From there we were invited to visit Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Soviet Union. I had known from reading, of course, that there were many artists over the world who had taken quite a different direction from the inhuman and abstract direction in which so many of the young artists of my own country were moving. It was quite another thing to meet and talk to these artists directly. Formerly, at home, striving to give my art a more realistic quality, going against the tide of what everyone was claiming to be "new" and "the future,"

I sometimes felt very much alone. There were others, of course, thinking the same way, but scattered from one another, and all feeling alone. I now realized that the great forward-moving tide of art was realism, and that the majority of creative artists in the world were realists. I can never feel alone as an artist again. I learned valuable lessons from what had been done in a short time, by artists, coping with basic problems, in Germany. How tremendously they had advanced in a few years! I realized for the first time the greatness of the 19th century social artists in Russia, particularly Repin.
I learned profound and basic lessons from the Soviet
and Chinese artists.

But even more important was the contact I had with the peace forces over the world. I began to understand something of the strength of the working class, and its role in the development of society, from the struggles and achievements in the people's democracies and the Soviet Union. I began to understand something of the mighty force that had been unleashed in the peace movement, reflecting the conscious desire of the masses of people over the world, and their conviction that they could accomplish this task. I got a perspective that is very difficult for the average American to attain, namely the ability to see international questions as the primary concern of all peoples. It is not easy for the average American to feel pride in his own culture and at the same time be able to see the qualities it has in common with cultures apparently so different from his own, to be able to identify himself with the African people, Chinese and other Asian people. At home I had begun to reach such conclusions theoretically, but only after this concrete experience was I able to make these feelings part of my actual painting and graphic work. I was able to look back and evaluate my own work, see the difference between a merely general humanist approach and one in which the character and world view of the working class, its internationalism and optimism played a major role. I will never forget the hospitality and warmth showered upon me, and what I can call the affection bestowed upon me as a representative of the oppressed Negro people and of the people striving for peace in the United States. If I had come back with nothing else, this would have been the most powerful experience and influence on my life from then on.

In my work I have always striven, even when dealing with an actual personage or incident, like the case of the Trenton Six or Mrs. Willie McGhee, to give the portrayals a general humanity, so that people looking at them will say, "This is somebody I know," or, "This is somebody I've seen." I feel that even more than in my work of three years ago, I have been able to engender a feeling of hope. Even in a scene exposing the harshness of life of the common people, such hope is latent and must be revealed.

My wife and I live very simply. I no longer have my hopes and aspirations tied up with becoming a "success" in the market sense. I have had a measure of success in exhibits, some prizes and awards, although not as much as I might have gotten had there not been certain "difficulties" presented by my speaking as part of the Negro people and the working class. Getting a marketplace success or recognition by art connoisseurs is no longer my major concern as an artist. My major concern is to get my work before common, ordinary people; for me to be accepted as a spokesman for my people; for my work to portray them better, and to be rich and meaningful to them. A work of art was meant to belong to people, not to be a single person's private possession. Art should take its place as one of the necessities of life, like food, clothing and shelter. I was happy when I learned that the portfolio of drawings reproduced by the magazine "Masses and Mainstream" had reached many lands, and was helping my people to be understood tens of thousands of miles away. When I heard that a group of share-croppers and factory workers in Alabama had combined whatever coins they had to buy a portfolio, had shared the pictures among themselves, and passed them from home to home, I felt that I had made a "success." An incident I like to remember was that which took place when the African scholar, Dr. Matthews, to whom I presented a portfolio, returned to South Africa. The Malian government had refused to extend his passport. When the officials in Africa discovered the portfolio among his belongings, they refused to let it pass, for the presence of these Negro faces was, to them, propaganda. Simple human dignity and brotherhood are dangerous propaganda to racists and fascists. They finally allowed the portfolio to go through, when they found one portrait of a white man among the six pictures. That made it "art." The portrait happened to be one of Abraham Lincoln.

I live in the United States as a progressive Negro artist. Like all artists, I have special problems. But I have reached a point in my life at which I know, with a conviction deeply rooted in reality, confirmed by small but potent and inescapable signs, that the future is very bright, and it holds great promise for the Negro people and all the working people of my country; I have tried to put this message in my art.

--Charles White, shared by Fran White. April 26, 1982

Return to top of page


COPYRIGHT 2008 Charles White Images of Dignity
All Rights Reserved.
E Mail: info@charleswhite- imagesofdignity.org

Home | Biography | Paintings and Murals | Drawings | Prints | Photography | Publications and Media | Museums | What's New | Contact | Mailing Lists | Print