Before Charles White’s substantial autobiographical text appeared in Charles White: ein Künstler Amerikas, it 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."
Extracts as follows:
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. (34)
... 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. (35-36)
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. (39-40)