Charles White (1918-1979), USA

Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois

, 1974

Charcoal, wove paper

Diam. 14 3/4 in. (37.5 cm)


About this artwork

Charles White did many portraits of his friend W. E. B. Du Bois (1869-1963), an academic and activist who was a major force behind the emergence of the civil rights movement in America. He was the first Black American to receive a Ph.D from Harvard University and his writings and research on Black communities shaped seminal thinking on race in America. Du Bois’ work is seen as a critical precursor to the Negritude movement later articulated by Senghor, Aimé Césaire and others.

Du Bois believed that systemic racism in US was so extreme that the only solution was “agitation and protest”, a position that led to deep disagreement with Booker T. Washington, another influential Black leader whose approach was more conservative. Washington said that Black people should accept discrimination for the time being and earn respect through their hard work and economic success. Du Bois’ more radical position, which was influenced by Marxism and Pan Africanism, said that all Black people should be united in their political struggle and in a shared cultural nationalism, a line of thought that links Du Bois with Negritude.

Du Bois’ seminal work was the The Souls of Black Folk. He co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, and served as editor of its monthly magazine, The Crisis.

According to art historian Lucinda Gedeon, this portrait by Charles White is a preliminary study for what later became one of a series of five portraits of prominent Black figures. The others were Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Rev. Richard Allen and Capt. Paul Cuffee.

The drawings were for the first edition of The Shaping of Black America by Lerone Bennett (1928 - 2018). Bennett was an historian and writer who wrote about race relations in the US; he was also an executive editor at Ebony magazine. The Shaping of Black America is described as a “developmental history” of Black lives in America, from the time of slavery onward, including their relations with white servants, the emergence of Black founding fathers, and concludes with a section on Black labor and capital.

Swann Galleries. “Charles White.” Catalogue: African American Art, December 10, 2020 - Sale 2554.

Serafina Harris. “Charles White and the Purpose of Education.” Striving for a New Synthesis. Issue 4, July 2020.