Charles White and the Purpose of Education

By Serafina Harris.

In 1975 Charles White rendered the legendary folk hero, John Henry

People still talk about the night John Henry was born. It was dark and cloudy. Then, lightning lit up the night sky. John Henry’s birth was a big event …  

He told his family, “I am going to be a steel-driver some day.” Steel-drivers helped create pathways for the railroad lines. These laborers had the job of cutting holes in rock. They did this by hitting thick steel drills, or spikes. By the time John Henry was a young man, he was one of the best steel-drivers in the country. He could work for hours without missing a beat. People said he worked so fast that his hammer moved like lightning.

The Legend of John Henry, told by Shep O’Neal

The Birth of Chicago between Labor and the American Dream

The population of black people in Chicago grew largely through the migration of freed slaves, industry, technological development and the World Wars. At the same time, the famine-driven Irish and Germans who were fleeing from inability to achieve a democratic revolution came to America, following the promise of the American Dream. The English, Welsh, and Scotch were also part of this wave of immigrants between the 1840s until the Civil War commenced. Up until the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves were achieving their freedom through Chicago, by either stopping in Chicago or making their way up to Canada: “Up the Mississippi, across the Ohio River, through the Allegheny gaps, over the western prairie, nearly a hundred thousand slaves were passed from farm to farm and town to town during the seventy years operation of ‘freedom’s railroad’ handled primarily by Church leaders and political radicals.” From abolition and mobilized Freedmen, the Great Chicago Fires, and the rise of the working class, Chicago grew into a complex and modern city. The 1893 Chicago World Fair attracted newcomers drawn to its displays of opulence and technological advancements. Peoples of European descent streamed into stockyards, pacing plants, farm implement factories and railroad yards, warehouses and grain elevators. In conjunction, the colored residents were employed as coachmen, butlers, cooks, and maids, servants in stores, hotels and restaurants, and as porters on Pullman coaches. Black business and a growing black professional class also developed. In 1917, the same year as the Russian Revolution, came Ms. Ethelene Gary Marsh, daughter of a preacher. She was sent up from Mississippi when her mother passed to live with her aunt in Chicago at 16 years of age.

Ms. Ethelene Gary Marsh had been working domestically ever since she was eight years old, though she dreamt of teaching music. In Chicago she would meet Charles White, a restaurant and construction worker. Through them, Charles Wilbert White would be born to Chicago on a Monday, 2nd of April, 1918.

Principled Ideas as the Foundation of Art

Through a gift from his mother, Charles Whites’ service to the world commenced when he was seven, when his mother put paint brushes into his hands. He developed a voracious appetite for ideas about humanity through consistent study at the Chicago Public Library. He read books from A through Z, Mark Twain and Jack London being notable works he has mentioned. Importantly for Charles White, he was deeply inspired by The New Negro an anthology of poetry, works of science and literature, written by Alaine Locke in 1925. Through this book Charles White discovered Alain Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Arna Bontemps, Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner and Denmark Vassey, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. It is in the library where he found the body of Black painters, like Aaron Douglass, Henry Osawa Tanner, and Edward Mitchell Bannister. Charles White recalled reading “through everything in the children section, and then at the age of twelve, begged the librarian for a card that would permit me to enter the section where I could read more advanced books”

By fourteen Charles White took classes at the Artists Craft Guild led by Bernard Gross and Margerate Taylor, where he would meet artists Eldzier Cortor, William Carter, Charles Sebree, Charles Davis, Elizabeth Catlett, George Neal, Richard Wright, Gwedolyn Brooks, and Kathleen Dunham. Some of these artists took advantage of funds from The New Deal to plan for a federally funded public center for the arts on the South Side of Chicago, a center which is still running today. The public center was remodeled with the Illinois Art Project, and was created to support poor artists and groups like the Negro People’s Theater Group. Charles White studied Marx, Lenin and Engels while a part of the WPA Illinois Fine Arts Project with other muralists Edward Millman and Mitchell Siporin. His group drew inspiration from Mexico, especially from the art of Diego Rivera and David Alfero Siquerios. Charles White was also active in Communist-oriented John Reed Club and the Artists Union. 

Charles White illustrated magazines like “Freedomways” which included writings by Paul Robeson meant to convene progressive ideas and showcase notable historical moments. In many ways this magazine connected the anti-colonial struggle to the search for freedom in America. The earliest editors were W.E.B. Du Bois, and Shirley Graham Du Bois, John Henrik Clarke, W. Alphaeus Hunton, and Augusta Strong. Esther Cooper Jackson, married to James E. Jackson, managed this paper for the 25 years it ran, alongside fiction writer Jean Carey Bond. The art director would be Margaret G. Burroughs, and John Devine would succeed her in 1963. White also illustrated other magazines that served culture, truth, and human progress including the Masses and Mainstream, Opportunity, the New Masses, the Daily Worker, Negro Digest, and The Worker. Charles White would illustrate an immense amount of political pamphlets, like Behold The Land by W.E.B. Du Bois, which spoke of the revolutionary potential of Southern youth, published in 1946. In August of 1951 White went to the people’s democracies of the Eastern Germany as head of a US delegation to the Third World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace in Berlin. Charles White also visited the Soviet Union the same year September 15th where he went to the birthplace of Stalin and visited the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  Marxist art critic Sydney Finkelstein, in his essay “Charles White’s Humanistic Art”, writes of Charles White journeying to Europe, and speaking with progressive artists of France, Italy.

Representatives of the Soviet Youth Antifascist Committee welcomes Charles White in Moscow, 1951 from Charles White Archives, CA

The art of Charles White depicts labour, the soul and truth of the people, and the deep commitment to the will of the spirit. Freedom would ring on the extensive amount of covers and art reviews that Charles White illustrated. Charles White depicted beauty as truth, following the core aesthetic principles as ancient as “portrait sculpture of Africa”. Sidney Finkelstein would continue that Charles White’s works, “recall something of the quality of the great spirituals, which created under slavery, expressed in music the dignity, human character, right to love and sorrow, and the determination to fight for liberation, of the Negro people; … a profound lesson emerges… the lesson of understanding the strength and unconquerable character of the working people; it is the lesson of confidence in the future. And it is no accident that it should be a Negro Artist who teaches us this lesson.” Charles White would be the artist for people and in service to true human progress. Charles White has stated that

“Being an artist, it’s a lonely activity, you dig down in yourself, you try to draw out something meaningful for you, out of a whole vast book of ideas – your total existence. I used assembled images of black people that symbolically represent the masses of black people in this country. I use this image to talk about the conditions of man. The injustice of society. And yet when I use this image, I’m not addressing myself, or solely to the black people. Hopefully I’m creating an image that cries for justice, for all oppressed peoples.”

In an interview run by Sharon G Fitzgerald written in a Freedomways pamphlet on “Charles White, Art and Soul”, Charles White defined art as the development of values that must occur for people to live a spiritually fulfilled life, a necessary part of civilization. Art is foundationally set in the spirit and faith of man. He would also state in his Address to the Second annual conference of Negro Artists that:

“Art should serve as a vehicle through which the artists reveals the beauty of the healthy world of people and nature, for all vital art discovers and opens one’s eyes and heart to that which we previously could not see or feel- the beauty of real human values that grow out of love – the beauty of spirit and infinite intangibles that make life the most precious possession of mankind”.

Towards the Future: The Purpose of True Education

Charles White was around 19 when he first taught a general education course in St. Elizabeth’s Catholic High School while in the Art Institute as a full time student on scholarship. At the same time, he worked another job to sustain himself. He would teach again only after his second marriage, his sojourn in Mexico, and after spending 17 years in New York. By 1957 he moved to California and lived in Altadena, but then moved again, settling into a house below the gravestone of John Brown’s son in Highland Park.

Here he began teaching at the Otis College of Art and Design and the Westside Community Center. Teaching would become the reason why he woke up in the morning. In loving life, he loved his students for their vitality and honest commitment to the truth. White’s universality of his own spirit worked through a diverse collection of students, including Kerry James Marshall, David Hammons, Ulysses Jenkins, Richard Wyatt Jr and Judithe Hernandez, Oliver Nowlin, Greg Dikson and Charles Dickson, Martin Payton, Collie Lowe, Gary Lloyd, Kirk Silsbee, and Ronnie Nichols. Charles White would be a teacher of technique and fundamentals, but also of the philosophy and heart of artwork, and the responsibility of the artist to the truth. He taught that it is within the soul that artwork carries its energy through the visionary into the future. While teaching, Charles White would turn into a preacher and a mentor with generosity and approachability. Richard Wyatt Jr explains how Charles White was no neurotic professional constantly seeking perfection with no time for anything else. During lunch hour, he would always be with his students. Kerry James Marshall and Kirk Silsbee would describe how Charles White would rather students come into the class without paying than not come at all. Suzanne Jackson stated that “the classroom” of Charles White, “was everywhere”. 

The life and pedagogy of Charles White speaks to the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois about the role of education in creating a society in achieving true democracy:

“The experiment of democracy has proceeded slowly because the mass of people do not have the intelligence, the knowledge, or the experience to enable them to bear the responsibility of rule… The real reason for lack of intelligence and experience among the mass of people is poverty. Poverty and its accompanying problems of ignorance, sickness and crime remain major problems in every leading country of modern civilization. Unless these problems are sincerely and frankly faced and solution attempted for their settlement, there can be no satisfactory development of the democratic ideal.”

The purpose of education is for all children, and for a generation to be able to move history forward and better the world. The teaching process shapes human beings who can make a world that is full of capability and truth. The ideal of education is to build an enduring society with love energizing humanity. 

There are many children today who like Charles White strive, wonder, and create; yet instead find violence, drugs, and confusion to depend on. Children are meant to continue the history of experience and transmit the purpose of the world into reality. But instead, children crowd homes without proper space, and high schools without the care of a qualified high school building, supplies, or experienced teachers. For those in the inner and poor cities across this country, democracy is a false concept and will not be true unless the problem of poverty, war, and racism are solved and a true education is available to all. 

It is here that artists have a responsibility. Charles White was committed to the people to achieve the true Democractic ideal. He taught, not for his own ego, but for the future. He created art because he was urged by his soul.  The lessons we learn from Charles White are echoed by Du Bois’s concept of the immortal child. Du Bois writes:

“If a man die shall he live again? We do not know. But this we do know, that our children’s children live forever and grow and develop toward perfection as they are trained. All human problems, then, center in the Immortal Child and his education is the problem of problems”

Charles White understood as an artist he, like all other responsible people in society, had a duty to the next generation, and lived and created his art not for his own acclaim, but for a better world. In the ability to teach truthfully he reached the heart of people. So it is that truth guides the making of history.

Time is the moment of progression, where life reflects the ultimate direction and action made by the whole of society. The West, fearful of the world, but warring with it, tightens the constrictor stronghold that is wealth and monopoly through manipulating human relationships along the color line. Despite the achievements of Charles White, his mother should not have been prevented from spreading songs because she was poor and black. The release of pressure from race, from poverty, from jealousy is to be free. Charles White talked about this notion that in all of his artwork that he ever made that he is only painting one picture. He states that he:

“..always paint fragments of it. Your whole career comes out to be the sum total of one thing. You’re one belief, one person. Whatever you are, whatever you’ve shaped, that’s it, you are that individual. There’s a thread in everything I’ve done, there’s a continuity. I paint in fragments of what is the total me. I don’t have a big enough canvas to paint the whole thing on one canvas; it would stretch across this world. I constantly search for more dimensions, but I’ll never fulfill all my potential in terms of my dimensions. I won’t live long enough to do it… Hope, Dignity, reality, as I see it. If I paint an expression on a face, there’s tremendous sorrow without the loss of dignity. There’s hope by the gesture of the body. It’s all embodied in the whole, total being of the person or the atmosphere of the incident. The ingredient I can’t deal with is happiness. It ain’t there, not for what I see. What I see the whole big picture of this society, I don’t see happiness the way I define it. For there to be happiness, you have to have freedom, first of all. That’s essential.”

Further Readings

  • Color and Democracy, W.E.B. Du Bois
  • “Immortal Child”, Darkwater, W.E.B. Du Bois
  • The Negro, W.E.B. Du Bois
  • The Education of Black People, W.E.B. Du Bois
  • Black Metropolis, St. Clair Drake and Horace Clayton
  • The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago 1932-1950, Robert Bone, Richard A. Courage
  • Rethinking Social Realism: African American Art and Literature, 1930-1952, Stacy I. Morgan
  • The Black Chicago Renaissance, Darlene Clark Hine and John McCluskey
  • The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, Mary Helen Washington 
  • Charles White: The Art and Politics of Humanism, 1947–1956, John P Murphy 
  • Charles White: A Retrospective, Sarah Kelly Oehler


Videos on Charles White 

2 thoughts on “Charles White and the Purpose of Education

  1. I was so delighted to come across this article. Charles White is a great favorite of mine and I enjoyed his illustrations for many periodicals. I bought his latest catalog resume. I lived in Chicago and knew Margarite Burroughs and many other artists. Thank you so much for this article!


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