In 2013 the peer review journal, Slavery & Abolition carried within its Vol. 34, No. 2 issue, an expansive text on Charles White, titled “Love Letters to Black America: Charles White’s Art for the People.” Written by R. Blakeslee Gilpin, the text was introduced in the journal as follows:
This article examines the role of black history in Charles White’s visual aesthetic, from his history murals of the New Deal era, to his prints, lithographs and linoleum cuts of the 1940s and 1950s that challenged longstanding stereotypes of African-Americans and embraced an intimate realism populated by unexceptional Black Americans. This piece argues, however, that White’s final coup was his incorporation of this realism with historical sources, particularly his use of anonymous black faces and bodies to confront the legacy of slavery in the 1960s. Here, White plumbed the history of the antebellum era as he interrogated the symbolism of black bodies, the pervasive effects of slavery and the progress of racial equality.
This was a particularly useful text, which, while serving as a substantial introduction to White’s work, also carried with in particularly focused details that signaled the ways in which R. Blakeslee Gilpin’s text represented a quantum leap in scholarship on White. “Love Letters to Black America: Charles White’s Art for the People” began,
According to family lore, the artist Charles White came into the world during a devastating race riot on 2 April 1918. The notorious Chicago Riot actually took place the following summer, but the subsequent career of this crusading black artist deserves such an embattled and poetic beginning. White’s art did more than simply celebrate the dignity and beauty of black people: he reminded viewers of the long shadows that slavery cast over his country and challenged Americans not just to fight for racial equality, but also to reject the stereotypes that pervaded their culture. Drawn to art for its potential to effect social change, White’s work communicated ‘love, hope, courage, freedom, dignity – the full gamut of the human spirit. When I work, though, I think of my own people ... their history, their culture, their struggle to survive in this, a racist country’.
As White explained repeatedly, sharing black history was crucial to his work and he built his reputation with large public murals depicting stories and figures from the American past. Fitting both the aesthetic and social goals of the New Deal era, White’s murals were unashamedly and purposefully didactic. At the outset of his career, his simple goal was to instil pride in black history and correct ignorance of black contributions to American democracy. But he found that his murals were not reaching the masses. Beginning in the late 1940s, White shifted to producing prints, lithographs and linoleum cuts to more directly challenge longstanding stereotypes of African-Americans. In his attempt to confront this pervasive dehumanization, White answered W.E.B. Du Bois’ call ‘to see beauty in black’ by celebrating the universal human qualities expressed by African-American faces. Accordingly, over the following decades, White’s work focused on the trials and joys of often-anonymous black protagonists. While black history still provided a powerful wellspring and topical art also fed his lithography, White largely embraced an intimate realism populated by unexceptional Black Americans. White’s final coup was incorporating these various methods with more fluid historical sources, particularly by using anonymous black faces and bodies to confront the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life. By creating art about regular people that was accessible to regular people, White plumbed the history of the antebellum era as he interrogated the symbolism of black bodies, the pervasive effects of slavery, and the progress of racial equality.
The text contained a reproduction of Charles White, We Have Been Believers, 1949, lithograph, 40.50 × 30.20 cm. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Slavery & Abolition, 2013 Vol. 34, No. 2, 281–292,
R. Blakeslee Gilpin was at the time this text was published an Assistant Professor of History, University of South Carolina