Charles White

Charles White was born in 1918 and grew up in Chicago, where he was raised by a single mother. She often had to leave him at the public library while she cleaned houses. His father was a Native American who worked as a porter for the Pullman Car company. He did not live with the mother and son, but they all met occasionally.

White developed a strong interest in art that his mother encouraged with a gift of oil paints. When he was 13, he dropped out of school because of his awareness of the systemic racism in the public school system. He soon found a job as a sign painter that allowed him time to sit in on art classes and, shortly afterward, he received a grant to attend classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

During these early years, White often visited his mother’s family in Mississippi and learned about the extreme hardships facing African Americans there. His immediate family had suffered greatly from racism in the South: three of his uncles and two cousins had been lynched.

As an adolescent, White read Alain Locke’s The New Negro, an anthology of poetry and articles on science and literature, and he took to heart Locke’s call for a Black aesthetic “grounded in modernist approaches to African art” (James 2016). His first-hand experiences and wide reading sharpened his political awareness and, while still a teenager, he became the house artist for the National Negro Congress in Chicago.

White returned to high school and continued to protest what he saw as Chicago’s racist public school system. Thanks to classes he attended at the Artists Craft Guild, he met other young Black artists and studied with teachers who emphasized the importance of drawing the beauty in everyday life of African Americans. By the time White was 16, he was part of a group of Black intellectuals and artists in Chicago that included Katherine Dunham, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks and Elizabeth Catlett, whom he later married.

White received scholarships from the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Frederic Mizen Academy of Art, but as soon as White received the scholarships in person, both were soon withdrawn because of “administrative errors.”

When White was 22, he worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the New Deal’s arts project and his work was selected for the 75th anniversary of the end of slavery. The following year he completed a WPA mural entitled Five Great American Negroes that featured Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth, Marian Anderson, and George Washington Carver. The mural was included in his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 2018; it is now in a permanent collection at Howard University.

While White was still in his twenties, his work was shown throughout the United States, in Poland and in the Soviet Union. In 1941, he married the sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett, and they moved to New Orleans where White taught briefly at Dillard University. During this time, he was brutally beaten for entering a segregated restaurant.

The couple also spent time in Mexico City working alongside Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, a social realist painter whose radical politics were intrinsic to his art work. White considered his experience in Mexico a turning-point in his life, and said it was his introduction to artists who were political and were creating art “for and about the people” (Knight 2019).

The marriage with Catlett ended in 1945 and, a few years later, White married a social worker. Back in New York, White joined the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, where he met Harry Belafonte. The two formed a lifelong connection and collaborated on projects for many years; Belafonte commissioned many works from White, including the portrait Folksinger, which would become the image for his TV special, Tonight with Belafonte (see video of MoMA curator Esther Adler).

White was first and foremost an artist and believed that an artist’s work had to be grounded in a response to social issues. His main concern was the oppression facing Black Americans. He saw himself as a Communist and belonged to the John Reed Club. He believed that a dignified representation of African Americans could educate and elicit empathy among all working people and would be a call for universal human rights.

In 1966, just before an exhibition at the Heritage Gallery in Los Angeles, White apparently had a crisis of faith. As violence against African Americans became ever more visible in the mid-1960s, White may have found more reasons to doubt the usefulness of his work. Before the exhibition opened to the public, he retitled every work except one, “J'Accuse.” The phrase invokes Zola’s 1898 message to the French government accusing it of anti-Semitism because it failed to correct the unjust charge of treason brought against a Jewish army officer. White’s appropriation of the phrase was an indictment of the endemic racism in America that had gone unchecked for centuries.

Because he suffered from tuberculosis, White moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1956, where he continued to work until his death in 1979. In an interview after the 1966 exhibition, White said that art, like religion, can change neither society, nor politics, nor racism, but it can change individuals—a possibility which his work clearly realized.

An important collaboration with the author Lerone Bennett in 1975 led to his work illustrating Bennett’s book, The Shaping of Black America, which contains White’s iconic portraits of five African Americans who made important contributions to American life. They were W.E.B. Du Bois, Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Reverend Richard Allen and Captain Paul Cuffee (1759-1817).

The value of White’s work was recognized throughout his life and he had exhibitions at major galleries and museums throughout the US. and in Europe. In 2018, in commemoration of the centenary of his birth, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago created an exhibition of his work that traveled to other museums in the US. White was a dedicated teacher and had many students who went on to become accomplished artists. He used to say, “If you know, teach.”

• Art Institute of Chicago: Charles White.

• Christopher Knight. Review: “Charles White show at LACMA pinpoints the power of an underappreciated black artist.” Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2019.

• Christopher Knight. Review: “Charles White show at LACMA pinpoints the power of an underappreciated black artist.” Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2019.

• Eddie Chambers, College Art Reviews. The Shaping of Black America.

• Erica Moiah James. “Charles White’s ‘J’accuse’ and the Limits of Universal Blackness.” Archives of American Art Journal 55:22 (Fall 2016).

• Hammer Museum, UCLA. “Charles White.” Accessed April 1, 2023.

• Museum of Modern Art. Exhibition Charles White: A Retrospective. Oct 7, 2018 to Jan 13, 2019.

• Museum of Modern Art. Charles White. Curator Esther Adler, artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, conservator Laura Neufeld, and security officer Yannyck Kao Sy reflect on the power of White’s images. 2019.

• Normal Rockwell Museum. Illustration History: An Educational Resource and Archive. Https://

• Paul von Blum. “Charles White: An Artist for Humanity’s Sake.” The Journal of Pan African Studies 3, no. 4 (December 2009).

• Paul Cuffe: American ship owner, merchant, and Pan-Africanist. Encyclopedia Britannica.

• Serafina Harris. “Charles White and the Purpose of Education.” Organization for Positive Peace: Striving for a New Synthesis, issue 4 (July 2020).