Sunday, February 01, 2015

The humanist spirituality of Charles Wilbert White

The humanist spirituality*—or beauty, goodness, and dignity—in the work of the Black artist, Charles Wilbert White (April 2, 1918 – October 3, 1979):

“…The main point is that what really I’ve always tried to do,…which I think most artists have to do, is that I try to deal with truth as truth may be in my personal interpretation of truth and truth in a very spiritual sense—not ‘spiritual’ meaning religiously spiritual, but ‘spiritual’ in the sense of the inner-man, so to speak. I try to deal with beauty, and beauty again as I see it in my… interpretation of it, the beauty in man, the beauty in life, the beauty, the most precious possession that man has is life itself. And that essentially I feel that man is basically good. I have to start from this premise in all my work because I’m almost psychologically and emotionally incapable of doing any meaningful work which has to do with something I hate. I’ve tried it. There’s been a number of tragedies in my life, in my family’s life. My people on my mother’s side come from Mississippi and we’ve had five lynchings in my family, two uncles and three cousins over a long span of years. I’ve lived in the South, have had unpleasant personal experiences, been beaten up a couple of times, once in New Orleans and once in Virginia. My people all lived in rural sections mostly, were all farmers, so, and yet, at the same time I still maintain in spite of, again, my experiences, my family’s experience, tragedies, I still feel that man is basically good. 
The other thing I try to deal with, the third point, is dignity. And I think that once man is robbed of his dignity he is nothing. And I try to take the sense, well I deal with Negro people primarily in terms of image I try to give it the meaning of universality to it. I don’t address myself primarily to the Negro people. They certainly are key, you know, and a major part of the audience that I address myself to, but generally I use an image in a more formal, universal sense than is sometimes understood by critics or people who see it.” 
Excerpt from an oral interview with White conducted by Betty Hoag for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, March 9, 1965, in Los Angeles, California. 
* For an introductory outline of such a spirituality, please see here. 

Image: Charles White, Trenton Six (1949)


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