Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
African American Artists in the 20th and 21st Centuries
Research Paper – African American Art & the Great Depression
The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn of the twentieth century. The federal government took unprecedented action to provide relief, recovery and reform. No group was harder hit by the Great Depression than African Americans. The New Deal was slow to deal with the unique situation faced by African Americans. The struggles of the Great Depression laid the foundation for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Art would play an important role in influencing the future. Despite its limitations, the New Deal, through the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Arts Program (FAP), was responsible for reshaping the cultural agenda and “marked a significant turning point in the production of black culture.”1 The artists of the Great Depression built upon the work done during the Harlem Renaissance. New Deal art extended and affirmed art that translated “politics into cultural terms.”2 The FAP looked for a “new sense of authentic American culture – one that championed national values and traditions by celebrating regional and racial diversity.”3 As a result, many artists worked to place African Americans in the historical narrative of the United States while combating long held stereotypes. None were less important than Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Dox Trash, and the creators of the Harlem Hospital murals. Throughout the decade, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) continued its struggles to gain social and political equality for African Americans. The NAACP employed many avenues to achieve its goals. An Art Commentary on Lynching and the Marian Anderson concert were two such avenues of artistic protest. Real change does not happen with one big event; it is incremental. The actions of both blacks and whites during the Great Depression helped generate the spark which would produce great change after World War II.
Most African American lives were far removed from the affluence of the 1920s and the cultural boom of the Harlem Renaissance. At the start of the Great Depression, the majority of African Americans still lived in the South. Most eked out a meager existence as tenant farmers and sharecroppers. “According to the 1930 census, 56% of the total Negro population lived in rural areas, and about 40% of Negro wage earners were engaged in some form of agricultural work. Ninety-seven percent of these colored farmers lived in the South, but less than 20% of them owned their land. Roughly 70% stood at the bottom of the agricultural ladder as wage hands, sharecroppers, and share tenants, while another 10% were little better off as cash tenants.”4 Land owners exploited their tenants. African American farmer were at the mercy of the land owners. Land owners usually controlled the sale of the tenants’ harvests and therefore undercut and defrauded the farmer. In addition, sharecroppers and tenant farmer were perpetually indebted to property owners because they “borrowed” for seed and other purchases. Most croppers earned less that $200 per year. Conditions compared to the poorest in the world. “They lived in broken-down shanties without sanitation, plumbing, heating or windows. Their food was sowbelly and weeds; their diseases were pellagra, malaria, and malnutrition; their death rates were fantastically high.”5 New Deal programs that were supposed to address this poverty in reality did not. Southerners feared that social legislation would undermine the rigid race structure in the south.6 Programs initiated by the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) asked farmers to take land out of production to increase the price of crops. Farmers would then receive payments to leave the land fallow. In the south, since most of the actual farming was done by tenant farmers and since they did not own the land they farmed, AAA benefits did not reach them. To make matter worse large numbers of renters were thrown off the land that was no longer under cultivation.
African Americans were disadvantaged of the disadvantaged. Rural housing was bad but the situation in urban centers was worse. “Negroes [were] segregated into the cheapest, most unsanitary, and the ugliest sections. Landlords [gouged exorbitant] rent from low-income families, [and paid] little heed to the ordinary principles of decency in providing sanitation, heat, or necessary repairs. Streets and alleys in Negro neighborhoods [were] . . . poorly lighted and otherwise neglected. Negros [lived] in slums or blighted areas and [were] kept imprisoned there by un-American restrictive covenants which [prevented] rental or purchase of property outside of designated districts.”7 Half of all African Americans were jobless. A long held racial belief that African Americans could get by on less than whites led to pressure in some Northern cities to fire African Americans as long as whites were out of work. In Harlem, half of the areas 500,000 residents were on relief living in broken-down tenements threatened with eviction due to non-payment of rent. Although there was no racial component to the divvying up of New Deal benefits, New Deal aid was at the discretion of the administrator. During FDR’s first term little attention was paid to the suffering of African Americans. The net effect was that the vast majority of African Americans did not benefit from programs designed to alleviate the hardships of the Great Depression. As Eleanor Roosevelt became aware of the injustices suffered by African Americans, she began to put pressure on the President. Slowly federal agencies began to address the needs of African Americans by providing jobs and relief. For the first time since Reconstruction, the federal government actively supported blacks and made a concerted effort to incorporate them into the mainstream of American life.
One area in which the federal government played an active role in assisting African Americans was in the arts. In 1933 the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was established by the Civil Works Administration. The PWAP lasted for less than one year. In 1935 the Federal Art Project was established under the Works Project Administration. These programs provided employment for more than 5,000 artists who created more than 225,000 works of art.8 The FAP was designed to provide artists with income and fund patriotic art projects in an effort to rally dispirited American citizens. Because so much of the art produced would be displayed in public, artists were inspired to produce works for a broad audience. The artists portrayed “the American Scene” through local and regional subjects and left a legacy of images that picture the country striving to survive through hard work and ingenuity. “Once administrators began to develop components of the Federal Arts Project, it became clear that these government-sponsored programs would not only employ African Americans but would represent them in contributory fashion.”9
The art created by African Americans not only reflected “the American Scene,” but the continuing influence of the New Negro Movement of the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance. After World War I, African American culture flourished in what came to be called the Harlem Renaissance. More broadly this flowering was part of the New Negro Movement. Art was greatly influenced by the historical forces which shaped the African American experience. The Great Migration, which began in 1910s, transferred population from the rural South to the industrial north. This flight was spurred by white terrorism. It was seen as a flight from the medieval to the modern. African Americans had little political and social rights, but the act of migration was an act of protest. The New Negro Movement epitomized this change; the Harlem Renaissance was a celebration of the new black self. The transformation was from fearful and lazy to industry and pride. African American artists saw themselves taking back history and resurrecting their past from racism. It was a period in which African American artists saw the power in visualizing history, identity and politics.
The thought provoking voice of Alain Locke challenged the African American artist to create a new cultural paradigm. Alain Locke advocated the adoption of African ancestral arts. He believed that for African American artists to become true artists, they needed to learn the art of Africa and create a new original African American art. He believed the artist was obliged to adopt the racial idiom in their artistic expression. He stressed “the lesson of a classical background, the lesson of discipline, of style, of technical control pushed to the limits of technical mastery”10 that can only be gained by incorporating a fresh artistic language.
This idea created tension for the African American artist. Langston Hughes clearly expresses the dilemma faced in The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. He saw a mountain of whiteness and its identification with virtue, beauty, morality and money standing in the way of racial individuality and true artistic expression. He advised artists to “work against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites.”11 Hughes believes that “an artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.”12 He was able to clearly express the aspiration of the African American Artist when he wrote: “We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”13 Langston Hughes wanted African American artists to be artists in their own right. He did not want artists to deny their heritage nor be constrained by it. Langston Hughes wanted the African American artist to be authentic, just as he was authentic in the written expression of who he was.
The tension of what it meant to be a true African American artist continued throughout the Great Depression and the New Deal as African American Artists benefitted from the recognition given by their involvement in the WPA. The New Negro movement continued to influence artists as their search for a black self and a black history continued during the Great Depression.
African American artists of the Great Depression were uniquely aware of their position within the larger culture. What their art conveyed and how it was received was of great importance. How their art reflected the African American condition was central to the creation of art. Like most WPA artists, they were heavily influenced by social realism. They used this artistic style to educate and communicate the forces of African American history. They used public art to portray the dignity of the African American past. They were deeply concerned with righting social inequality. In the face of continuing discrimination, they brought a sense of self-respect to the works they created. The work of Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, and Dox Trash reflect the aspirations, challenges and tensions faced by African Americans during this period. The experience of the Harlem Hospital muralists also exemplifies the continuing struggle for social equality.
One artist who was able to conquer the “Racial Mountain” was Aaron Douglas. During the Great Depression he produced 7 murals between 1930 and 1937. His murals gave voice to the ideas of Alain Locke. Douglas’s murals of the 1930s reflected a stylized version of African American themes rather than those of typical New Deal murals. He portrayed the values of democracy, freedom and social equality while subtly integrating elements of race consciousness and a racialized history. He created a modern aesthetic combining elements of social realism, expressionist primitive art, cosmopolitan avant-garde illustrations and art deco design.14 The best examples of these can be found in his murals at Fisk University and what is now the Schomberg Center of the New York Public Library. “He turned his work into a modernized version of African [art form] by reaching into the Black Experience and relating it to his African heritage figuratively as well as literally. . . .through these murals, Douglas interpreted the spiritual identity of black people as a kind of soul of self that united all black people in Africa and the New World.”15 African Americans could look to these murals for education and inspiration. He wanted African American workers to take pride in their contribution to the American past and American prosperity. He gave his figures dignity and strength, something that was lacking in the hardships of the Great Depression. Douglas also used his art and reputation to foment change. Even though he did not contribute work, Dougals helped organize the anti-lynching exhibition The Struggle for Negro Rights. Additionally, he became of teacher of art at Fisk University. In the film Hidden Heritage: The Roots of Black American Painting, David C. Driskell—an artist who replaced Douglas at Fisk, and a leading educator and scholar of African American art—discussed Aaron Douglas's role in art history: "At a time when it was unpopular to dignify the black image in white America, Douglas refused to compromise and see blacks as anything less than a proud and majestic people." His art helped inspire future generations.
Jacob Lawrence was an artist of the Great Depression era who was also concerned with African American historiography, and the preservation and transmission of the African American experience. Between 1910 and 1970, approximately six and a half million African Americans left the South in search of a better life. Migration represented the chance at achieving the unfulfilled opportunity of freedom and economic well-being promised by Emancipation. Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series narrates this event. Lawrence panels are a translation of oral history to “canvas.” Like Douglas, Lawrence was a griot with a brush. The Migration series gives testimony to the African American experience of migration absent from the textbooks. When asked about his color palate, Lawrence explained: “We lived in the deep Depression, not only my mother but the poor people in general. In order to add something to their lives, they decorated their remnants and their homes in all these colors.” 16 In memory, this time period is in black and white. Jacob Lawrence restores the historical memory in color. Lawrence used a repetitive color scheme throughout the series. The brightness of the colors indicate the hope and striving common to the migrants. He used these colors as a thread which connects the repetitive nature and the communal experience of migration. “He took the stuff of social realism and brought it into a field of generalization and abstraction that made it consonant with modern art.”17 Lawrence did not question his role as an artist. In an interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr., he stated: “I think the black artist’s responsibility is to be himself, and if we live up to that responsibility then we are representing the black community either way.”18 Jacob Lawrence would continue to give voice to voiceless through his art. When Lawrence died on June 9, 2000, the New York Times called him "One of America's leading modern figurative painters" and "among the most impassioned visual chroniclers of the African-American experience.19
Dox Trash was an artist who “built upon established pictorial traditions in a manner that carried distinct resonances for African Americans.”20 He was able to address the question of "whether it was better to be a 'Negro artist' and develop a racial art or to be an American artist who was a Negro."21 He bridged the conflicting voices of those who called for race-conscious art with those who called for African American art to be just another expression of American art.
Many of his images are faceless and nameless. Using themes of the New Deal he portrayed the heroic worker. Because his workers were anonymous and represented the cultural mainstream, Trash was able to reach a more diverse audience than many other African American artists. The viewing public was able to reflect upon the conditions of the laborer without being concerned with issues of race. In his Untitled carborundum print of a lynching victim Trash used Raphael’s The Entombment of Christ as the model. He used western art to convey the cruelty of lynching as equivalent to the suffering of Christ. By creating images such as his faceless laborer and lynching victim, Trash’s work could be understood on more than one level. As a result, Dox Trash negotiated a position as an American artist who also embraced his identity as an African in the context of American art. His art transcended the social conditions of most African Americans making his success one more ingredient in the quest for equality.
The rejection of WPA murals of Harlem Hospital reflects the continuing racial discrimination faced by African Americans and the vagaries of the New Deal policy with regards to equality. Pursuit of Happiness by Vertis Hayes, Recreation in Harlem by Georgette Seabrooke, Magic in Medicine and Modern Medicine by Charles Alston, and Modern Surgery and Anesthesia by Alfred Crimi were rejected by Harlem Hospital superintendent and the commissioner of hospitals. As characterized by the Harlem Artists Guild, the murals were rejected because they had “too much Negro subject matter.”22 In addition there were concerns “that Negroes [would] not form the greater part of the Community twenty-five years hence, [that] the Negroes in the community would object to Negro subject matter in murals, [and that the] hospital [was] not a Negro Hospital [and as such] should [not] be singled out for treatment with Negro subject matter.”23 Community protest eventually reversed the decision. “Ironically, the publicity sparked by the controversy served to bring more attention to the murals than they may have had otherwise.”24 The success of their protest proved that African Americans could marshal their power to demand their rightful place in American society and American history.
This episode demonstrates the continuing tension between the African American community and the larger society. While individual artists such as Douglas, Lawrence, and Thrash seemed to navigate between two worlds, this was not necessarily true for the vast majority of African American. During the Great Depression, the NAACP continued to work toward racial equality. The NAACP employed art as one method to affect change. Two events which highlight their efforts are the anti-lynching exhibitions and the Marian Anderson concert and subsequent mural production.
The NAACP's stated goal is to secure for all people the rights guaranteed in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution. The NAACP’s goal is to remove barriers of racial discrimination through the democratic process. In addition, the NAACP was formed partly in response to the continuing gruesome practice of lynching. Between 1909 and 1939 a primary goal of the NAACP was to make lynching illegal by passing federal anti-lynching legislation. Lynching was believed to arise out of ignorance and economic oppression. Although the number of lynchings had declined from over one hundred each year in the 1890s to ten in 1929, there was a marked upsurge with the advent of the Great Depression. Between 1930 and 1935, lynchings average approximately 18 per year, with a high of 28 in 1933.25 The NAACP had employed various methods to gain national attention to this problem. “The earliest method was advertising in national magazines, using texts emphasizing the hypocrisy of the American Constitution as it related to African Americans accompanied by rather explicit photographs of actual lynchings. Another was to hang a black flag from the NAACP New York
office window announcing each incident, which read, A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.”26 In 1934, the Costigan-Wagner Bill came before Congress. In an effort to spur the demand to end lynch violence and increase public awareness of the situation, two art exhibitions were held in New York City in 1935. An Art Commentary on Lynching was sponsored by the NAACP and Struggle for Negro Rights was sponsored by leftist members of the Artists' Union and several Communist-affiliated organizations.
Artists who participated in the two exhibitions developed visual images that portrayed and condemned lynching as racist violence. The exhibit became the first to work towards countering negative attitudes toward African American men. During slavery black men were “boys.” With emancipation the African American man became a “threat” to white society. Lynching was a way to keep him in his place. Fear of the threat to the virtue of white womanhood was exploited and intensified white mob anger. “The literal enactment of castration to "punish" lynch victims who supposedly sought out or responded to a white woman's gaze had been brought to public attention just a few months before the exhibitions, when news reports of the lynching and castration of Claude Neal made national headlines.”27
Artistic contributions were modulated by the racial, political, and cultural affiliation as much as by empathy. Even though the work of both black and white artists was presented, the white artist more easily portrayed the emasculation of the African American male. They felt free to show the horrors of lynching and remove the deception of protecting “virtue” without fear of retribution. The art presented stressed the dignity of black victims as well as the spiritual anguish felt by African-American communities. Many images also evoked Christianity and its role in the ability of African Americans to endure continuing injustice. “The works that have survived movingly demonstrate individual artists' anguish over the issue of lynching and its terrible costs, but they should also be evaluated as statements that participated in a complex cultural dialogue.”28 These exhibitions allowed artists the opportunity to attack not only lynching, but the cultural politics of racial prejudice, when discrimination was endemic to the art world.
The Costian-Wagner Act received support from many members of Congress, but FDR would not give it the support it needed to pass. Roosevelt was afraid he would lose the backing of Southern-Senators and he needed them to pass New Deal reforms. Although the bill did not pass, it brought attention to this horrific crime. The art created by these two exhibitions gave voice to the horrific crime perpetrated against racial equality and would be a lasting legacy of the civil rights movement.
The events surrounding the Marian Anderson concert and subsequent mural production are another example of the interaction of art and civil rights during the Great Depression. On Easter Sunday in 1939, Marian Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to an integrated crowd of 75,000. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) had denied her the use of Constitution Hall; she wanted to sing before an integrated audience. The denial led Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady, to resign from the DAR and to find an alternative venue for the concert. Organized in part by the NAACP, this was a transformative event in the history of the civil rights. The symbolism was palpable: a black artist descendant of slavery standing in front of the great emancipator. Mary McLeod Bethune, a member of FDR’s Black Cabinet, said of the concert: “History may well record it, but it will never be able to tell what happened in the hearts of the thousands who stood and listened yesterday afternoon.”29
Black and white forces acted quickly to capitalize on the euphoria generated by the concert. The symbolism of the concert would be immortalized in a federally funded mural. It was felt that the events of the Anderson concert provided a fortuitous opportunity to use federal art to agitate for social change. The story of the mural’s subsequent production encapsulates the forces at work with regards to African Americans place in American society. Initially, prominent black artists such as Charles White and Hale Woodruff communicated with director of the Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture. Hale Woodruff felt that “there [was] no other Negro capable of doing the subject full justice in a mural. . . . [and that] only a Negro could fully appreciate and understand the full significance of this incident and memorable event.”30 There was concern by the director of the Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture that selecting from a segregated pool of potential artists would be symbolically offensive. Seeing as competitions are democratic, the commission would be awarded through a blind contest. As a result, a well-meaning enterprise minimized the voices of African Americans. Although African American artists worked on the production of the mural, the commission was given to a white artist. Mitchell Jamieson was selected out of 171 entries.
The mural itself focusses on the audience rather than Anderson. “The staid composition belies both the simmering passions that inspired the concert as well as the jostling for control that accompanied the creation of the mural. The painting’s real significance is social rather than aesthetic.”31 The mural re-imagines the relationship between the races; it envisions a new racial paradigm. The integrated audience was unusual for its time. The artist’s work expresses a feeling of racial harmony not yet present in American society. By blurring time, the mural challenges the existing order. The viewer is also removed from the crowd and so is symbolically above the events of the day. The mural is a quiet argument for change through ideation rather than conflict.
The concert and subsequent mural production helped shaped African American activists. The mural’s makers shaped the civil rights movement as they made art. Blacks and whites set out to transform the world they lived in. They built bridges through art. Although fraught with contention, “the Marian Anderson affair . . . illustrates . . . [how] the campaign for civil rights [was] driven by moral outrage, but held in check by deference to propriety.”32 The lessons learned by this experience would inform civil right activists in the future.
In 1940, Chicago hosted an exposition called The Cavalcade of the American Negro. To accompany the individual exhibits, the WPA’s Illinois Writers Project produced a small book of African American history. The preface began as follows:
“This is the story of a brave people forced to become a part of the
American scene, more often than not treated unjustly, generally discriminated
against, and frequently persecuted; yet, despite these handicaps, a people who
have contributed generously to American culture. The story of the Negro’s
cultural contributions is told too briefly here; many more pages would be needed
to give the story the completeness it deserves. Nevertheless, the very fact that
the American Negro Exposition is taking place and the fact that this survey of
the cultural achievement of race now finding a place of its own is being distributed
to thousand, are encouraging signs.”33
This opening points the headway that African Americans had begun to make in American society. New Deal art made great changes a possibility. African Americans were beginning to be inserted into American history.
The question of how art reflects society is complicated. In analyzing African American art of the Great Depression, the viewer does not necessarily see a direct reflection. The African American experience of the 1930s was not much different from that of the 1920s. The vast majority of African Americans lived in abject poverty. Most artists reflected an idealized version of African American life, but their purpose was not to make art that reproduced life as they knew it. As much as art can be a reflection of its time, it can also be aspirational. Art can reflect what is hoped for. Art can confront the wrongs in society in quiet and subtle ways seek change. Though it may not appear as such on first view, the works created during the 1930s were works of protest. The African American artists of the Great Depression artists asserted national identity in the face of those who would deny it; this in itself is an act of defiance. They combated invisibility through art by creating not only art, but an historical record. The Harlem Renaissance set the stage upon which the Great Depression artists reaffirmed and extended the cultural self-determination sought by African Americans. These artists took an important step in combating discrimination and used their art to help African Americans secure their rights. Their efforts along with the NAACP fought to obliterate racial stereotypes, free African American history from the margins and give birth to the modern civil rights movement.
1 Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff, Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the
Roosevelt Era (The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 2009), p.2.
2 Ibid, p.4.
3 Ibid, p.28.
4 Raymond Wolters, Negroes and the Great Depression – The Problem of Economic Recovery
(Greenwood Publishing Corporation: Westport Connecticut, 1970), p.7.
5 Robert Goldstein, The Great Depression – The United States in the Thirties (Fawcett Premier: New
York, 1968), p.197.
6 Ibid, p.203
7 Works Project Administration, Cavalcade of the American of the American Negro (Diamond Jubilee
Exposition, Chicago: 1940), p.17
8 Smithsonian American Art Museum: National Museum of African American History and Culture
Oh Freedom! – Teaching African American Civil Rights Through American Art at the Smithsonian
9 Sklaroff, p.32.
10 Alain Locke, The Legacy of Ancestral Arts, The New Negro (Atheneum: New York, 1977;1925), p. 256.
11 Langston Hughes, “The Artist and the Racial Mountain” The Nation, Vol. 122 Issue 3181 (6/23/1926),
pp. 692-694. http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/mountain.htm
14 Donald F. Davis, “Aaron Douglas of Fisk: Molder of Black Artists” The Journal of Negro History,
Vol. 69, No. 2 (Spring 1984): p. 96.
16 Jacob Lawrence and Henry Louis Gates Jr., “An Interview with Jacob Lawrence by Henry Louis Gates
Jr.”MoMA, No.19 (Spring 1995), pp. 14-17.
17 Ibid, p.14.
18 Ibid, p.17
19 Holland Cotter, “Jacob Lawrence is dead at 82; Vivid Painter Who Chronicled Odyssey of Black
Americans” New York Times (June 10, 2010).
20 David R. Brigham, “Bridging Identities: Dox Thrash as African American and Artist” Smithsonian
Studies in American Art , Vol. 4, No. 2 (Spring, 1990), p. .
21 Ibid, p.
22 Harlem Hospital WPA Murals (Columbia University 2008), http://www.columbia.edu/cu/iraas/wpa/.
25 Wolters, p.338.
26 Judith Jackson Fossett and Jeffrey A, Tucker, Jeffery A., Editors, Race Consciousness: African-
American Studies for the New Century, “Hanging on Their Walls: An Art Commentary on Lynching,
The Forgotten 1935 Art Exhibition” by Margaret Rose Vendryes (New York University Press: New
York, 1997) p. 156.
27 Helen Langa, “Two Antilynching Art Exhibitions: Politicized Viewpoints, Racial Perspectives,
Gendered Constraints,” American Art, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring 1999), p.35.
28 Ibid, p. 36.
29 Sara Butler, “The Art of Negotiation: Federal Arts, Civil Rights, and the Legacy of Marian Anderson
Concert, 1939-1943” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Winter 2005), p.181.
30 Ibid, p.193.
31 Ibid, p.175.
33 Works Project Administration, Cavalcade of the American of the American Negro (Diamond Jubilee Exposition, Chicago: 1940), p.9.
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