Charles White and the Black Chicago Renaissance
Richard A. Courage
I would ask my teachers why they never mentioned a Negro in history. I would bring up the name . . . of Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass. I would mention the painters, Bannister and Tanner. My teachers answered smugly and often angrily. . . . 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. 2
This is how Charles Wilbur White (1918-1979) described his struggle as a Chicago high school student to defend the achievement of his people against the misinformation and “grotesque stereotypes” that affronted them “in what we were taught. . . . the books, . . . motion pictures, cartoons, newspapers, ‘jokes,’ and advertisements.”
From this impulse grew a brilliant career — spanning painting, drawing, and graphic arts, strikingly consistent in its commitment to a representational art of social concern, and producing works notable for masterful draftsmanship, profound feeling, and resonant associations of human dignity.
By the time of his death, White’s works could be found in some 50 museums around the world, he had dozens of awards and many one-artist shows to his credit, and he had inspired the rising generation as an art teacher in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. His stature continues to grow as evidenced by the many books whose covers are graced by his images, the publication of a full-length biography by Andrea Barnwell in 2002, and by the high value set on his works by collectors, critics and scholars. In 2007, White's General Moses (Harriet Tubman) sold for $360,000 at auction.
And now, emerging scholarship on White’s Chicago milieu promises to shed new light on his apprentice years. Knowledge of his early life and career offers a window onto the Black Chicago Renaissance.
White was part of a remarkable circle of African American creative artists and intellectuals who came of age on the South Side during the 1930s. “I happened to grow up in a time in Chicago,” he told an interviewer, “when my peer group included Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, Katherine Dunham, Richard Wright. . . . The way the community structure was, if you were interested in any of the arts you eventually knew everybody else, every other Black brother and sister who was interested in the arts.”
To White’s list could be added writers Arna Bontemps, Frank Marshall Davis, and Theodore Ward, photographer Gordon Parks, musicians Margaret Bonds, Oscar Brown, Jr., and Nat “King” Cole, sculptor Marion Perkins, painters Margaret Burroughs, Eldzier Cortor, and Charles Sebree, and cartoonist E. Simms Campbell. They knew each other as neighbors, classmates, friends, lovers, colleagues, and comrades. Their families, White recalled, “had come from the peasantry of the South; we were close to the soil. Our . . . eating customs, our speech patterns, all grew out of the folk idiom. That was reflected in the kinds of work we were trying to do.” 3
Chicago’s astonishingly rapid growth as “Hog Butcher, Tool Maker . . . and Freight Handler to the Nation” was fed by a constant influx of newcomers, initially from Europe, but after World War I halted immigration, “Sweet Home, Chicago” fired the imaginations of restless southern blacks.4 One of them was Ethelene Gary, daughter of poor Mississippi farmers and granddaughter of slaves. She moved to Chicago in 1914 and met Charley White, a construction worker of Creek ancestry, originally from Georgia. On April 2, 1918, their son Charles was born. Ethelene worked as a domestic and raised her son alone in “a very poor, ramshackle neighborhood.”
White attended Englewood High School, a predominantly white institution whose art faculty exhibited at the Paris Salon, New York Watercolor Club, and the Art Institutes of Chicago and Atlanta.5 Painter Archibald Motley, Jr., had been the sole black graduate in the Class of 1914, but by the1930s, about a quarter of the students were African American. White met other aspiring creative artists at Englewood, including Cortor, Sebree, Burroughs, Brooks, and Campbell.
Despite the encouragement of his art teachers, he had ugly experiences elsewhere. African American students at Englewood traveled together to avoid gangs of stone-throwing whites near Wentworth Avenue, the border between white and black neighborhoods.6 White designed sets and painted scenery for school plays, but discovered that black students were not permitted to act in them. Because his teachers “never mentioned a Negro in history,” the youth educated himself from books such as Alain Locke’s New Negro, encountering “a new world of facts and ideas in diametric opposition to what was being taught in the classrooms and text books.”
White grew increasingly rebellious: “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.” 7 Fiercely precocious and eager to deepen his artistic skills, he plunged into a world of leftist politics and socially conscious art.
One of White’s early mentors was painter Morris Topchevsky, whose family had fled pogromist violence in their native Bialystok and eventually joined some 55,000 other poor Russian and Polish Jews crowded into Chicago’s West Side. 8 The artistic and political collaboration of West Side Jews and South Side blacks in community centers, leftist organizations, and WPA cultural projects was an important facet of Bronzeville’s creative flowering. Topchevsky had been a resident art teacher at Hull House but, by the early 1930s, had moved to the Abraham Lincoln Center, a South Side settlement house. 10 He was also a Communist Party member active in the John Reed Club, and his studio became an interracial gathering place for aspiring artists, including Richard Wright, Margaret Burroughs, and Charles White.
Margaret Burroughs later recalled that:
Charles . . . learned much from. . . Si Gordon, Mitch Siporin, Aaron Bohrod and Morris Topchevsky. . . . As a member of the Artists Union and the John Reed Club, Charles participated in “rap” sessions sometimes hosted by “Si” and “Toppy,” which acquainted him with such black heroes as Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass. . . . It was also these sessions that no doubt first introduced him to the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. 11
Morris Topchevsky's Century of Progress painting is a comment on the "Century of Progress" theme of the 1933-34 world's fair in Chicago and its contradiction in the city's shanty towns and unemployment.
Topchevsky’s influence on White may be seen in their published declarations of artistic intent. In 1933, Topchevsky wrote: “I am indebted to the art works of the past, [but] at the present time of class struggle, danger of war and mass starvation, the artist cannot isolate himself from the problems of the world and the most valuable contribution to society will come from the artists who are social revolutionists.” 12
In 1940, White told an interviewer: “I am interested in the social, even the propaganda, angle of painting. . . . The old masters pioneered in the technical field. . . . I am interested in creating a style of painting that is much more powerful, that will take in the technical end and at the same time say what I have to say. Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent.” 13 '
These declarations were classic formulations of social realism. Alain Locke observed at the 1937 National Negro Congress that “Each generation has some such characteristic and representative aesthetic . . . . Today’s is social realism, reaching out to what has been called proletarian art or the expression of the life and cause of the masses.” 14 Social realism, David Shapiro notes, is “not an art of the studio.” Radical young artists turned from such academic conventions as the posed model and still life toward “dramatic moments in the lives of ordinary poor people.” 15
White recalled that one “particularly inspiring teacher,” Memphis native George Neal, “got us out of the studio and into the street. He made us conscious of the beauty of those beat-up old shacks. . . . of the beauty of black people.” 16 Hailed by the Chicago Defender as “the foremost Race art instructor in the city,” Neal supported himself as a sign painter and illustrator while studying part-time at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) and teaching art at the South Side Settlement House. 17
In 1932, George Neal gathered his more promising students, including White, Burroughs, Cortor, and Sebree, into a group called the Art Crafts Guild. To promote the work of his young protégés, Neal organized “community exhibitions. . . in places like a Negro Baptist Church, a Young Men’s Christian Association House, a Settlement House or Boys Club. . . . occasionally . . . a vacant lot.” 18
Although White was nearly expelled from Englewood, a fifth, catch-up year allowed him to graduate, and he even won a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute, where he followed in the footsteps of older African American artists such as Motley, William Edouard Scott, and Richmond Barthé, who studied at AIC while the vast majority of art academies, north and south, followed Jim Crow admissions policies. 19 Earlier generations of AIC students were exposed to a conservative curriculum stressing fundamentals of line and color, composition and design, and life-like representation of the human figure, but by the time White enrolled, students were fully exposed to cubist, expressionist, surrealist, and other avant-garde influences.20 As he and other Bronzeville artists launched careers, diverse modernist influences were manifested in numerous instances of formal experimentation enhancing their portrayals of the “social scene.”
In 1938, White was hired by the Illinois Art Project, his appointment hastened by a campaign of the militantly interracial Artists Union. The Union grew alongside the Project with the goals of serving as bargaining agent for its employees, ensuring artists’ participation in decisions, and making the Project permanent.21
With steady income, materials, and studio space, White was free to paint fulltime, yet he remained acutely aware that the hiring of several African Americans was an opening wedge, not the end of racial exclusion. If artists of the Harlem Renaissance had sought “civil rights by copyright,” i.e. advancing racial equality through the demonstrated excellence of their creative work, the Bronzeville generation challenged the color line head-on.
White spent nearly as much time picketing with the Artists Union as painting in Project studios. Eventually, at least 26 black Chicago artists were hired, more than in any other city.22
The Illinois Art Project was organized into easel, mural, sculpture, and other divisions, and White was initially hired as an easel painter. A representative piece is his 1939 watercolor Kitchenette Debutantes. The title drew its ironic bite through reference to the living conditions of thousands of South Side residents crowded into vermin-ridden kitchenette flats. Technically, White made skillful use of light and shadow, perspective, and color to draw the eye to the foregrounded figure and then toward a second female figure behind. Sinuous lines and swirling background colors define the human element against a rectangular frame. White’s “kitchenette debutantes” may await a caller or preen in the mirror, but clearly no cotillions lay in their futures. Their lives appear as tightly bounded as the window that frames their figures and as drearily predictable as the wall of bricks beneath.
Kitchenette Debutantes exemplifies an important element of the iconography of the Black Chicago Renaissance. If the literary and visual art of the Harlem Renaissance frequently centered on the cabaret or house-rent party, scenes where Langston Hughes’ “long-headed jazzers play,” the art of Bronzeville often employed imagery of entrapment and deprivation. “The kitchenette is our prison,” begins a long passage in Richard Wright’s 1941 photo-text documentary, 12 Million Black Voices. “The kitchenette throws desperate and unhappy people into an unbearable closeness of association. . . . The kitchenette is the funnel through which our pulverized lives flow to ruin and death on the city pavements, at a profit.” Gwendolyn Brooks’ more subtly ironic treatment, “kitchenette building,” appeared in her 1945 collection, A Street in Bronzeville. Ubiquitous within the experience of the artists and their subjects, the kitchenette iconically evoked the crowded, impoverished conditions of urban working-class life.
Charles White’s attention to details in his 1939 watercolor Kitchenette Debutantes suggests the influence of another mentor, Edward Millman, who had studied fresco under Diego Rivera before becoming director of mural projects for the Illinois Art Project.
Millman forged a realistic style that emphasized certain elements to achieve symbolic resonance, for example “the ‘squint’ in the eyes of the prairie farmer, . . . . a weather-beaten face . . . [or] gnarled, knotty hands.”23 George Mavigliano and Richard Lawson observe that “Americans have never enjoyed a mural tradition such as Europe’s. But federal subsidy of artists called upon them to create one. . . . The Chicago-based muralists. . . were greatly influenced by the Mexicans.” 24 Mitchell Siporin remembered driving to Mexico City “to see these murals. . . which we’d seen . . . . in periodicals. . . . The spirit of the WPA. . . had something to do with turning us towards the Mexican mural renaissance. . . . the idea of a public art, . . . working in close contact with a viewing public and built in a public building.” 25
White transferred to the mural division, where he worked with Millman and Siporin before painting Five Great American Negroes (1939-40). In this five-by-thirteen-foot work, the central images of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass are dynamically balanced by Sojourner Truth and a procession of freed slaves on the left and contemporary figures Marian Anderson and George Washington Carver on the right. The mural’s epic sweep challenges erasure of African Americans from American history while its large blocky masses create a sculptural effect worthy of the elevated theme. The mural was well-received and helped make 1940 a watershed in White’s early career.
From July to September, White's works hung in the Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro, part of the American Negro Exposition held at the Chicago Coliseum to mark the 75th anniversary of abolition. Unprecedented in scope and ambition, the Exposition gave evidence of black Chicago’s growing awareness of itself as a political, economic, and cultural center of African American life.26
At the Art of the American Negro exhibition, White won first prize in black and white for There Were No Crops This Year, a tightly framed graphite portrait of two farm laborers, fatigue and anxiety etched into their faces. White’s treatment of their hands holding open an empty grain sack echoes a short poem he published in 1938:
I thrust forth empty hands
Hopelessly . . . .27
The image points to another element of Bronzeville iconography, a trope of black hands as synecdoche for the common conditions of black plebian life.28 The most thoroughly elaborated iteration was Richard Wright’s 1934 poem “I Have Seen Black Hands,” whose densely clustered images of suffering and unrest give way to a revolutionary vision of “black hands / Raised in fists of revolt, side by side with the white fists of white workers.” Such iconographic parallels support a reading of White’s early works as social realist narratives representative of politically charged Bronzeville.
In December 1941, White married Elizabeth Catlett, an art instructor at Dillard and winner of the Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro’s first prize in sculpture for her limestone, Negro Mother and Child. In summer 1941, Catlett had shared a coach-house flat and studio with Margaret Burroughs while studying lithography at the recently opened South Side Community Art Center.
An important site for Bronzeville’s burgeoning cultural scene, the South Side Community Art Center’s studios were staffed by Illinois Art Project employees, including White and other veterans of George Neal’s Art Crafts Guild along with leftist white artists, including Si Gordon and Morris Topchevsky.
According to Melanie Herzog, stylistic similarities in their graphic works and paintings of this period sometimes led people to “compliment White on work that was actually Catlett’s.” Herzog attributes this to “mutual exploration wherein each contributed to the other. Neither artist believed in working in isolation. First in Chicago and then in New York, Catlett and White were part of a close-knit community in which many artists were working to define an artistic vocabulary of style and imagery that would proclaim their social concerns and their African Americanness.” Herzog describes a stylistic range from “simplified naturalism to . . . expressionist realism,” suggesting the latter was more typical.29
One striking example of “expressionist realism” is White’s 1942 ink drawing Native Son. Bigger Thomas, the “native son” of Wright’s 1940 novel, is a murderer, rapist, and fugitive, desperately struggling to avoid capture. In White’s rendering, the figure seems to be running. Outsized arm and chest muscles burst through his tattered shirt. His extended left hand clutches a jagged piece of lumber; the squarish fingernails bear a marked resemblance to bullets. Haunted eyes seem to transfix and track the viewer. White’s figure is a nightmare vision, echoing Wright’s view of his fictional protagonist “as a symbolic figure of American life,” one of the casualties of "a dislocated society. . . dispossessed and disinherited.”30 The grotesquely muscled, writhing figure in White’s Native Son may be said to embody the writhing soul of Wright’s Bigger Thomas, who in turn symbolizes a society tortured and distorted by race and class oppression.
Patricia Hills offers a cautionary note about “the textbook label . . . social realism”: “[A] movement in art is not necessarily based exclusively on shared intentions and ideologies but rather is defined by the ‘look’ of the art produced. . . . Many paintings by the so-called ‘social realists’ are not in fact denunciatory. . . . Many of the paintings by liberal, urban American Scene painters . . . often seem more pointedly ‘revolutionary’ in their exposure of the ills of society.”31
White’s early works included not only “denunciatory” narratives, but stylistic experiments and complex explorations of the African American subject. In his 1941 oil painting, Spiritual, for example, a black figure of indeterminate gender is presented against an abstractly dramatic background, suggesting waving grasses and dark, swirling clouds. The buttocks and thighs dominate the lower section, seemingly rooted in the earth but played off the contrapuntal upward motion of the straining muscles, turned head and great, reaching hands. The viewer’s perspective from below, the rising curve of arms and hands, and the play of light on the face draw the eye toward the point where those hands nearly touch the upper boundaries of boundaries of the frame. Yet the heavy buttocks pull the eye down, creating tension rather than visual resolution.
Spiritual calls to mind another text which influenced White — W.E.B. Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk.32 In chapter one, Du Bois transforms an anecdote of his first encounter with “the color-line” into a near-mythic account of the “spiritual strivings” of his race: “One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Du Bois articulated a problem of racial representation with which White wrestled: “The innate love of harmony and beauty that set the ruder souls of his people a-dancing and a-singing raised but confusion and doubt in the soul of the black artist; for the beauty revealed to him was the soul-beauty of a race which his larger audience despised.”33
Recalling his early years, White wrote: “In Chicago I had still tried to defend [blacks] 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. . . . I had been so affected by the grotesque perversions of Negro culture, by the ridicule heaped upon everything Negro, that even . . . . a touch of dialect, or the beautiful music of the spirituals, made us faintly ashamed.” 34
Spiritual could be read as emblematic of White’s own struggle with racial shame, his attempt to embrace “the soul-beauty of a race which his larger audience despised.” Such an interpretation would focus on tension between the upward straining head and hands and the unavoidably prominent and earthbound buttocks. Is the figure striving to achieve the ostensibly ethereal realms that the young artist, in his naiveté, associated with “the white figures told about in the books”? Does this struggle demand negation of the physical self, the black body reduced for centuries to a beast of burden? Is this an instance of “unreconciled strivings . . . in one dark body”? This is merely one possible line of inquiry, of course, and answers to such questions are not immediately apparent, yet the very complexity of Spiritual suggests an aesthetic diversity present in White’s oeuvre even at the moment of his greatest commitment to the “propaganda angle” and social realism. Such diversity was present among other artists of the Black Chicago Renaissance, as suggested by Eldzier Cortor’s sculpturally elongated female nudes or Charles Sebree’s enigmatic harlequins, jugglers, and actors.
In April 1942, White was awarded a fellowship by the Chicago-based Julius Rosenwald Fund, which would take him to New York for study at the Art Students League, followed by several months at Hampton Institute (now University) where he painted the Contributions of the Negro to American Democracy mural.
The Hampton mural is a culmination of White's Chicago experience — his training with the master muralists, his immersion into African American history, and his recognition of the perseverance of ordinary working people.
Charles White would never again live in Chicago, but Chicago would always live in him — in his expansive network of friends and colleagues, his struggle to balance the demands of art and radical activism, and his efforts to create a visual language of supple power and gestural eloquence, capable of representing “the soul-beauty of a race” at work, play, and worship, in repose, grief, and kinship, indeed in all life’s quotidian moments.
Richard A. Courage is professor of English at Westchester Community College and co-author with Robert Bone of The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932-1950, Rutgers University Press, 2011.
1. Patricia Sehulster, Dora Apel, and Patricia Hills provided helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay. (The author inserted this note on essay title page.)
2. Charles White, “Path of a Negro Artist,” Masses & Mainstream, April 1955, 35-6.
3. Sharon Fitzgerald, “Charles White in Person,” Freedomways 20.3 (Third Quarter 1980): 159.
4. James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
5. History of Englewood High School: 1874-1935, (Chicago: Privately published,1935).
6. Margaret Burroughs, interview with Anna Tyler, 11 November and 5 December 1988, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
7. White, “Path,” 36.
8. Larry Forhman, “Portrait of an Artist: Morris Topchevsky (1899-1947),” New Masses, July 22, 1947, 9-10.
9. Richard Courage and Nathan Harpaz, Convergence: Jewish and African American Artists in Depression-era Chicago (Des Plaines, IL: Koehline Museum of Art, 2008).
10. Forhman, “Portrait”; Susan Weininger, “Completing the Soul of Chicago: From Urban Realism to Social Concern, 1915-1945,” in Chicago Modern, 1893-1945: Pursuit of the New, ed. Elizabeth Kennedy (Chicago: Terra Museum of American Art, 2004), 58-60.
11. Margaret Burroughs, “He Will Always Be a Chicago Artist to Me,” Freedomways 20.3 (Third Quarter 1980): 152-3.
12. J.Z. Jacobson, ed., Art of Today: Chicago 1933. (Chicago: L.M. Stein, 1933).
13. Willard Motley, “Negro Art in Chicago,” Opportunity, January 1940, 22.
14. Stacy Morgan, Rethinking Social Realism (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004), 6-7.
15. David Shapiro, Social Realism: Art as a Weapon (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973), 14.
16. Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists From 1792 to the Present (New York: Pantheon, 1993), 407.
17. “George Neal, Artist, Dies; Rites Held,” Chicago Defender, September 3, 1938.
18. White, “Path,”37.
19. Bearden and Henderson, History, 116, 338.
20. Wendy Greenhouse, introduction to Chicago Modern, 18-19.
21. George Mavigliano and Richard Lawson, The Federal Art Project in Illinois, 1935-1943 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990), 30-45; Francis V. O’Connor, introduction to Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project, ed. Francis V. O’Connor (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975), 26-8.
22. The names of the twenty six artists appear in Robert Bone and Richard A. Courage, The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago, 1932-1950 (Rutgers University Press, 2011), 235.
23. Edward Millman, “Symbolism in Wall Painting,” in O’Connor, Art for the Millions, 67.
24. Mavigliano and Lawson, Federal Art Project, 17.
25. Mitchell Siporin, interview with Geoffrey Swift, 11 November 1965, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
26. Adam Green, Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 18-48.
27. Charles White, “It’s Life,” Chicago Defender, June 11, 1938.
28. James Smethurst, The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946(New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 204.
29. Melanie Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 40-45.
30. Richard Wright, “How Bigger Was Born,” in Richard Wright: Early Works, ed. Arnold Rampersad (New York: The Library of America, 1991), 866-7.
31. Patricia Hills, Social Concern and Urban Realism: American Painting of the 1930s (Boston: Boston University Art Gallery, 1983), 9.
32. Edmund Gordon, interview with author, Dec. 20, 2006. I am indebted to Prof. Gordon, a close friend of White’s, for many valuable insights on the artist’s literary, artistic, and political ideas and influences.
33. W.E.B. Du Bois, "Souls of Black Folk," in W.E.B. Du Bois: Writings, ed. Nathan Huggins (New York: The Library of America, 1986), 363-366.
34. White, “Path,” 39-40.