When Art Is an Act of Protest

A summer of activism in Chicago reminds us that in order for history to be taught, it must first be recorded.

Then

Charles White, 1939

Chicago, Illinois

Then

Charles White, 1939

Chicago, Illinois

“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,” said artist Charles White in a 1978 interview with the Negro History Bulletin. “The fact is, artists have always been propagandists. I have no use for artists who try to divorce themselves from the struggle.”

By 1978, the 60-year-old White had been a celebrated artist, draftsman, painter, and printmaker for over three decades, and was famed for his work that meditated on the themes of black history, culture, and racial injustice. White’s mother, a domestic worker without access to other childcare options, often left him at the Chicago Central Public Library, steps from the Art Institute of Chicago. White split his days between the two institutions, reading, drawing, and wandering the galleries. His childhood was defined by both a voracious desire to make art—it was “an integral part of my being,” he told the interviewer in 1978—and by racial prejudice.

As a child in a predominantly white public high school, White painted sets for school plays that he was barred from acting in. He grew disillusioned by the exclusion of black history from the classroom; at the library, he had read about prominent black historical figures such as Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman, and he was incensed to find that—aside from a single sentence devoted to Crispus Attucks, the first man to die in the American Revolution—his high school history book did not mention a single black person.

Five Great American Negroes, 1939. Currently on view at Museum of Modern Art through January 2019. Courtesy of Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. ©The Charles White Archives. Photograph by Gregory R. Staley

“I raised this question to my teacher and she told me to sit down,” White said in a 1965 interview with the Archives of American Art. “She didn’t even bother to be polite about it.” After that, White protested the class—which his school wouldn’t allow him to drop—by not participating. “When the term paper came, I signed my name and turned it in blank,” he said. White funneled his energy into art and activism; as a high schooler, he was the staff artist for the National Negro Congress in Chicago. Later, he would become an important figure in Chicago’s Black Renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s, alongside people such as writer Richard Wright and dancer Katherine Dunham.

In 1938, like many creatives weathering the devastation of the Great Depression, White joined the Federal Art Project, a WPA program that employed out-of-work artists. He was first hired as an easel painter and paid $97 a month to produce one painting every five weeks—but he asked to be transferred to the mural division, so he could work in a medium that he regarded as an ideal platform for social commentary. In 1939, he began work on Five Great American Negroes, a nearly 13-foot-wide mural on canvas depicting many of the people who had been omitted from his high school history book, including Sojourner Truth, Washington, and Douglass, as well as contemporaries Marian Anderson and George Washington Carver. (The mural is currently in the permanent collection of Howard University.) Completed in 1940, the artwork put White on the map, garnering media attention and an invitation to display work at the American Negro Exposition, a landmark exhibition in Chicago that celebrated black artists, writers, and musicians.

When White started painting Five Great American Negroes, efforts had already been underway for decades to research and teach black history within the African American community. Historian Carter G. Woodson, often referred to as the “father of black history,” founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 and launched Negro History Week (precursor to Black History Month) in 1926. However, this effort almost exclusively affected African Americans. “It did not, as a general rule, cross the color line ... It was not until the 1960s that the civil rights and Black Power movements brought black history into white consciousness,” writes Jeffrey Aaron Snyder in his 2018 book Making Black History: The Color Line, Culture, and Race in the Age of Jim Crow.

Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America, 1943. Collection of Hampton University.

In 1942, White was able to expand on the themes he explored in Five Great American Negroes when he received a grant for a grand mural at Hampton University, a historically black university in Hampton, Virginia. Over the course of nine months, White painted directly on the wall of the school’s main auditorium in egg tempera, a technique he had learned during his work with the WPA. Unveiled in 1943, The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America would become one of White’s most famous works. “The object was to take the contributions both through the physical revolt of fighting for the abolition of slavery, and also the contributions that had been made in the sciences as well as the arts, as well as politics,” White told his 1965 interviewer.

At 12 by 17 feet, the mural is a sweeping depiction of prominent black figures from history (including some that had appeared earlier in Five Great American Negroes), such as Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Booker T. Washington. Peter Still, a runaway slave, is shown gripping a flag emblazoned with the words: “I will die before I submit to the yoke.” The mural, like many of White’s works, was a corrective to historical narratives that ignored the accomplishments of black Americans.

White would go on to enjoy a vaunted career, with 53 solo shows, exhibitions at major institutions including the Whitney Museum of Fine Art, and a 14-year teaching post at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. Art historian and curator Andrea Barnwell Brownlee writes in her 2002 monograph Charles White that, despite his success, “the general lack of interest in African American art until recent years” as well as a scholarly “discomfort with radicalism” contributed to an insufficient lack of awareness of White’s work. (A retrospective of White’s work is currently on tour; it is his first major show in 30 years.) In an introduction to the 1967 book Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White, White’s friend, the musician Harry Belafonte, praised the “tough and tender strength” of White’s work. “All of his art is a testimony to the vitality of American culture,” wrote Belafonte. “And his art is tremendously American.”

Then

Charles White, 1939

Chicago, Illinois

Now

Carlos Javier Ortiz, 2018

Chicago, Illinois

Now

Carlos Javier Ortiz, 2018

Chicago, Illinois

I spent the summer of 2018 in Chicago. There was a lot of tension in the air: the case against police officer Jason Van Dyke, who fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014, was headed to trial in early September, and no Chicago police officer had been found guilty of murder for an on-duty shooting in about 50 years. And general gun violence seemed unending: over a single weekend in August, there would be 72 people shot and 13 killed in the city.

Protests provided a balm. Community organizers, such as Reverend Michael Pfleger, Reverend Marshall Hatch, and Tio Hardiman, devised actions against gun violence that wouldn’t just touch communities on the South and West Sides of Chicago, but also parts of the city not generally associated with gun violence, including Lakeshore Drive and Wrigley Field. The gatherings were about addressing state violence—like the killing of Laquan McDonald—but also about the roots of violence in the community itself: widespread poverty and the city’s divestment in affected neighborhoods.

I was on the ground in July 2018, filming a protest that would shut down a major South Side highway, the Dan Ryan Expressway, during an action “designed to focus a spotlight on crime, joblessness and poverty plaguing city neighborhoods,” per the Chicago Tribune. “Hopefully we got their attention,” Reverend Pfleger told the reporters. “Today was the attention-getter, but now comes the action.” A month later, I filmed another protest that began along Lakeshore Drive, in the expensive North Side of Chicago, and made its way to Wrigley Field, where protestors called on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign. There’s a myth that black and brown people don’t talk about violence in their own communities. But with my work, I wanted to convey that people see these protests as a kind of recognition. It gives you the power to say, “We’re not going to stand for this.” I wanted the film to have a mood of empathy, a mood of love. It’s a story of love and resilience and I hope people can escape from their ideology, take a step back, and listen.

I look at documentation and experimental filmmaking as ways of conceptualizing a moment in time: the noises in the street, the shouts and chants, the signs and slogans—the evidence that these actions even took place at all. A protest can happen, and then dissolve. But these protests did have a real effect on the city: in September, Mayor Emanuel announced that he would not be seeking a third term as mayor next year. And in October, Officer Van Dyke was found guilty of murder for shooting Laquan McDonald. But this is not the end. It’s not about communities saying that this is a problem that’s going to fix itself. After all, the past has a tendency to repeat itself.

Carlos Javier Ortiz is a director, cinematographer, and documentary photographer who focuses on urban life, gun violence, racism, poverty, and marginalized communities. Ortiz is a Guggenheim fellow in film and video. His films We All We Got (2014), A Thousand Midnights (2015) and Shikaaw (2017) have screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, Los Angeles International Film Festival, and Art Basel, among others. Special thanks to Avery R. Young for providing the music for the film.

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