Charles White was an American artist known for his chronicling of African American related subjects in paintings, lithographs, and murals. White’s best known work is The Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy, a mural at Hampton University.
Charles Wilbert White was born on April 2, 1918, to Ethelene Gary, a domestic worker, and Charles White Sr, a railroad and construction worker, on the South Side of Chicago. His parents never married and his mother raised him — as she had no child care, she would often leave him at the public library. There White developed an affinity for art and reading at a young age. White’s mother bought him a set of oil paints when he was seven years old, which hooked White on painting. White also played music as a child, studied modern dance, and was part of theatre groups; however, he stated that art was his true passion.
White’s mother also took him to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he would read and look at paintings—developing a particular interest in the works of Winslow Homer and George Inness. During the Great Depression, White tried to conceal his art passion in fear of embarrassment; however, this ended when White got a job painting signs at the age of fourteen. Since White had little money growing up, he often painted on whatever surfaces he could find including shirts, cardboard, and window blinds. White learned how to mix paints by sitting in everyday for a week on an Art Institute sponsored painting class that was taking place at a park near his home. His mother re-married when White’s father died in 1926. She married a steel mill worker who would become an abusive alcoholic, especially towards a young White, leaving him to escape into art. This is also the same year his mother began sending him to Mississippi twice a year to his aunts, Hasty Baines and Harriet Baines, where he would learn about his heritage and African American Southern folklore – these themes would heavily influence his art for the rest of his career as an artist. An early activist, as a teenager, he volunteered his talents and became the house artist at the National Negro Congress in Chicago.
White won a grant during the seventh grade to attend Saturday art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. After reading Alain Locke’s book The New Negro: An Interpretation, a critique of the Harlem Renaissance White’s social views changed. He learned after reading Locke’s text about important African American figures in American history, and questioned his teachers on why they were not taught to students in school, causing some to label him a “rebel problematic child”. White did not graduate from high school, having flunked a year due to his refusal to attend class after being disillusioned with the teaching system. He was encouraged by his art teachers to submit his art works and won various scholarships that would later be taken away from him as an “error” and given to a whites instead. He was admitted to two art schools, each then pulled his acceptance because of his race. White ultimately received a full scholarship to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. While in school, White identified Mitchell Siporin, Francis Chapin, and Aaron Bohrod as his influences. He was an excellent draftsman, completing five drawing courses and received a final “A grade”. To pay the costs of materials in art school, White became a cook, using his mother’s instruction and recipes. White later became an art teacher at St. Elizabeth Catholic High School to pay the costs for art material. White was hired Works Progress Administration artist, and was later jailed for forming a union with fellow black artists who were being treated unfairly and wanted equal rights.
Charles White’s commitment to creating powerful images of African Americans—what his gallerist and, later, White himself described as “images of dignity”—was unwavering over the course of his four-decade career. White believed that art had a role to play in changing the world: “Art must be an integral part of the struggle. It can’t simply mirror what’s taking place. It must adapt itself to human needs. It must ally itself with the forces of liberation. The fact is, artists have always been propagandists. I have no use for artists who try to divorce themselves from the struggle.”
Using his skills as a draftsman, printmaker, and painter, White developed his style and approach over time to address changing concerns and new audiences. His 1945 lithograph, Hope for the Future, shows a mother holding her child in front of a window that opens onto a bleak landscape; a noose hanging from a barren tree in the background is just visible over the mother’s right shoulder. With this image, White condemns the violence facing African Americans and forces the viewer to confront it. In his much later work Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man) (1973), the central figure, a sunglass-wearing street preacher depicted in the brown oil-wash that would become White’s signature medium, commands viewers’ attention with a sandwich board sign reading “NOW.” The preacher is bundled up in a bulky coat and scarf, while his sunglasses mask his gaze. His raised left hand forms a peace sign that also doubles as a papal blessing. Stenciled text at the top of the composition reads “CHICAGO,” and the haunting skeleton hovering behind the preacher and the shapes and shadows filling the background all hint at further meaning without providing clear answers. White frames the street preacher with gravitas befitting a prophet, leaving the viewer to decode the details.
White lived in Chicago, New York, and, finally, Los Angeles over the course of his career, and was a critical member of creative communities in each of these cities. He counted photographer Gordon Parks, painter Jacob Lawrence, and singer and actor Harry Belafonte as friends and colleagues. From his earliest days as a mature artist, White was also a gifted and dedicated teacher, and David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall were among his many students. His practice of making rigorous, socially committed art affected these younger artists, some of whom continue his legacy in their own work. As Marshall noted, “Under Charles White’s influence I always knew that I wanted to make work that was about something: history, culture, politics, social issues. . . . It was just a matter of mastering the skills to actually do it.