In 2016 Erica James published a fascinating text titled "Charles White's J'Accuse and the Limits of Universal Blackness", in the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art Journal. James' text argued that, "African American artist Charles White grounded his aesthetic practice in radical left politics and the belief that the representation of black people communicated a universal mandate of freedom. This essay explores how White's faith in a cosmopolitan politicized aesthetic was formed, deployed, and ultimately challenged leading up to his 1966 exhibition at the Heritage Gallery in Los Angeles. "[Author's abstract]
This was a wide-ranging text, centred in large part on White's J'Accuse series and its display at the Heritage Gallery. A wonderful range of archival images, related artwork, and reproductions of White's work illustrated the text. One of the striking images to accompany James' text was a reproduction of the poster of the 1966 exhibition which in large part was the focus of the text. From the text,
...We can now return to White's deliberate evocation of the Dreyfus case and Zionism in his 1966 exhibition at the Heritage Gallery, where he renamed all but one image on view J'Accuse. By making an exception in the case of the lithograph Exodus II, the artist proposed an analogy between the experiences of Alfred Dreyfus in France, the Jews in Egypt, and blacks in the United States. Such an analogy acknowledges a long history of relations between African Americans and left-leaning Jews that coalesced around the fight for civil rights. As historian Clayborne Carson has observed, both groups ... responded to minority status in American society by identifying with the universalistic, egalitarian ideals of the Western liberal tradition." Eric J. Sundquist, moreover, has probed how African Americans adapted the "foundational Jewish narrative to the culture of the black diaspora." Informing the writings of authors such as Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison, Negro spirituals like "Go Down Moses," and metaphorical journeys to "The Promised Land" taken by black Southerners (including Martin Luther King Jr.), the Exodus narrative has served as a powerful story of freedom for many black Americans.
At the Heritage Gallery, White appropriated and transformed this story and Zola's "J'Accuse... !" to indict US racism. While no one is certain what sparked the artist's change in titles, I argue that it expressed White's crisis of faith in the capacity of his politicized aesthetic to do the work he intended it to. In 1966, the dream of freedom for blacks in the United States seemed to be slipping further and further away. White found himself faced with the question: How could black people represent something in his work that they did not possess in society? In their studies of the widely known example of profound injustice, art historians Dewey F. Mosby, Jennifer J. Harper, and Albert Boime have explored the possible references to the Dreyfus case in the work of African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937). But unlike Tanner, White left nothing to speculation, directly evoking the case in order to make visible black Americans' ongoing struggle for civil rights.
...White's actions at the Heritage Gallery in 1966 suggest a realization on the artist's part that, despite years of embracing a worldview whereby his work could originate in the local concerns of African Americans but carry universal implications, his efforts were rotting at the roots. One hundred years following African American emancipation, there were certainly reasons to celebrate—schools had been desegregated across the United States, and the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) signed into law—but spectacular acts of violence worked against the fight for black freedom. In 1963, for instance, the predominantly black Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, an important meeting place for civil rights organizers, was bombed, and civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated. The following year, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) members James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered. The year 1965 opened with the activist Malcolm X's assassination and America's entry into Vietnam. And, that summer, the Watts riots exploded in Los Angeles, the city where White lived from 1956 until his death...
A hugely significant piece of scholarship, that appeared in Volume 55, Number 2, Fall 2016 issue of the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art journal.