Sidney Finkelstein had, in 1953, distinguished himself as a noted admirer of the art of Charles White. That year, Finkelstein had written a text on White for the February (Negro History Week) issue of Masses & Mainstream, titled "Charles White's Humanist Art", a text that ran to four pages. Subsequently, Finkelstein wrote a text on White for what was, for a considerable period of time, the most substantial scholarship on the artist. Published in Germany, in 1955, this German language publication was titled Charles White: ein Künstler Amerikas [an American Artist], and published by VEB Verlag der Kunst, Dresden. Finkelstein was a highly distinguished Marxist cultural critic, born in Brooklyn, New York in 1909, receiving his education from City College in New York, Columbia University and New York University. He went on to become a renowned critic of music, literature, and the arts. Finkelstein’s and White’s career paths would cross in a number of ways, and it was a commonality of purpose that lead to Charles White: ein Künstler Amerikas. Finkelstein worked as a music reviewer for a number of publications including New Masses, Masses and Mainstream. The latter, Masses & Mainstream, was a New York-based journal, published from 1948 to 1963, and was an American Marxist monthly publication. It resulted from a merger between New Masses, which ceased publication in January 1948, and Mainstream, a Communist cultural quarterly established the previous year. Charles White contributed illustrations to a number of the covers and contents of Masses and Mainstream and the journal published a set of White’s prints in 1953.
Finkelstein was active in the Communist Party U.S.A. and was in essence CPUSA’s leading theoretician of music, arts and culture. [As an aside, the only African American woman thus far, to run for the presidency of the United States did so as a Communist Party U.S.A. candidate. Charlene Alexander Mitchell (born c. 1930) was an African-American international socialist, feminist, labour and civil rights activist whose name appeared on the ballot in 1968.] Perhaps not surprisingly, Finkelstein was, in 1957, called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee for his Communist party affiliation.
For several decades from the early 1950s Finkelstein served on the staff of Vanguard Records, the New York based record label for which Charles White contributed a number of drawings for their record sleeves. Finkelstein’s text on White (published when the artist was 37) ran to nearly 13,000 words, an unprecedented depth of scholarship on an African American artist, even at the present time, more so of course, in the mid 20th century. The essay by Finkelstein was supplemented by a particularly in depth autobiographical statement by White, in which he discussed his upbringing, and a number of experiences he had had, which informed his practice. His text even mentioned, in passing, his marriage to, and divorce from, Elizabeth Catlett.
An additional context for the importance of Charles White: ein Künstler Amerikas can be gleaned from a feature on White written for Ebony magazine in 1967. The writer, journalist Louise Robinson, noted, “The publication of [White’s] Images of Dignity alone is a singular achievement. No other living Negro artist has ever had a book of his works published (a collection of the art of the late Horace Pippin appeared in print after his death.” [Louie Robinson, “Charles White: Portrayer of Black Dignity. Artist achieves fame with works on Negro themes,” Ebony 22/9 (1967): 25-36] Charles White: ein Künstler Amerikas was published a full 12 years before Images of Dignity and was in many respects every bit as substantial, if not more so. The German text was a translation from the original English, undertaken by one Wolfgang Martini.
From White’s autobiographical text in Charles White: ein Künstler Amerikas,
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.
White's text appeared in the April 1955 issue of Masses & Mainstream, pages 33 - 44. The cover of the issue trailed White's contribution as "A Negro Artist's Credo", while the autobiographical text was titled on page 33 as "Path of a Negro Artist."
The work on the dust jacket of Charles White: ein Künstler Amerikas was Preliminary Drawing, Charcoal, 1956.