I promised the day before yesterday that I would do some personal accountability on the subject that has been predominant on these pages for the past few days, but I got side-tracked by my affection for Kurt Vonnegut and my sadness that we had lost the voice of his humanity. Anyway, the confession: here we go… It’s a story. Bear with me.
I’m a nice liberal boy. Well, maybe not such a boy any more, but basically “nice”, and “liberal.” It would have deeply offended me, before I learned better, had anyone accused me of racism. But I was offered an object lesson quite some time ago, which taught me to see myself a little differently. The story concerns Charles White, an artist who achieved a certain prominence in the post-war years and who was a distinguished member of the faculty at Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) when I went there as Dean of the College in the mid-1970s. It was a tough time for the school. The Los Angeles County Supervisors, who had munificently funded the entire school since its founding in 1918, had recently bowed to the Howard Jarvis taxpayer revolt, and had voted to cut off all funds forever at the end of that school year. The school’s Director resigned, and I was left, a neophyte administrator, still wet—no, dripping—around the ears, to try to secure the school’s future.
In this circumstance, Charlie was an always cheerful friend and supporter. When other faculty were understandably tearing out their hair—and sometimes mine—for fear of losing their jobs, and students doing the same for fear their degrees would be worthless, Charlie was a rock. Better still, he was a solid three-martini lunch man, and in those days my own metabolism was capable of absorbing that kind of intake, no sweat, and leaving me still capable of a long afternoon’s work. Too bad he was also addicted to cigarettes, which he chain-smoked to the eventual cost of his health—and indeed his life.
Once the Otis matter was resolved—a long story, not relevant here—I decided that it was past time for Charlie’s work to receive more attention than it had done in recent years and, inspired by the added incentive of a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation, I embarked on the research for a book-length monograph. By this time, Charlie’s nicotine addiction had complicated an existing lung malfunction that had developed during the years of his World War II military service when, as an enlisted black man, he had been sent off to labor in the murky swamps of some remote facility that had, as I recall, no particular connection with the war. By the late 1970s, his health was seriously failing and the prognosis for his survival was dim, but he insisted on making himself available for a series of long interviews, in the course of which I learned much about his life and the ups and downs of his career.
Sadly, Charlie died before we could finish the interviews, but he left me with a large number of leads to follow up. My first lesson in the institutional racism of the contemporary art world came with the gradual discovery that none of the usual research methods seemed to apply. There were simply insufficient written materials about White, his work, and the socio-cultural milieu in which he worked in his most productive years. To find what I needed, I would have to rely on the memory of men and women who had been there with him in the trenches, so to speak—and I would need to travel to find them. It was not to be a matter of art history so much as oral history.
There followed a year in which I traveled widely throughout the United States, went to some places (Jackson, Mississippi, for example) which I would otherwise never have visited, and met some extraordinary people from Charlie’s past. A solid socialist and activist from the mid-1930s until ill health put an end to that kind of activity in the mid-1950s, he had worked with other “Negro” movers and shakers of the period (and yes, “Negro” was the preferred appellation in those days)—artists, writers, actors and intellectuals coming out of the great wave of the Harlem Renaissance in the early decades of the 1900s. I found myself talking to some who subsequently became well known—to Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier—and also to artists like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, who achieved considerable and well-deserved renown in the art world, at least in circles that paid attention to artists other than those in the mainstream of American culture. Then there were those eminently respectable and diligent artists—too many of them—who would never achieve recognition outside the small circle of their regional and racial circumstance.
I was, in short, discovering a new world of art history and artists. Not really a new world, but one that had previously been unknown to me, and whose successors remain, to this day, invisible to what we’re pleased to think of as the “art world.” There existed a whole culture whose marginalization could only be attributed, so far as I could see, to inherently racist attitudes to which I had ignorantly subscribed. As a Dean, educator, writer, critic, I was a part of a culture that systematically excluded, apart from those few who were permitted to cross the line, a whole category of artists on the basis of their race and their alienation from the mainstream path.
As I listened to a multitude of stories and became more and more aware of this systemic racism, I also learned to watch myself a bit more critically. Oh, I was not an intentional racist, for sure, but there were subtle signs that I had missed before. I noticed certain attitudes and expectations I brought with me to certain places (Jackson, Mississippi, for example, or the streets of Harlem) that dictated how I carried myself and spoke—with a certain wariness, a certain self-consciousness, a certain diffidence and awareness of difference. In my interviews, I noticed a special care with my locutions… and my circumlocutions. I noticed a different sensual awareness in my body. And I noticed that I spoke and acted in subtly different ways with black people than with white.
The book I wrote was never published. It took two years to complete, and I think it was a useful and overview of the work of an artist who had made a special contribution to the history of African American art. The responses I got from publishers were polite enough, but the chorus was plain: no one could see a “market” for the book. The best of Charlie’s work—the height of his career was really in the 1950s and 1960s—was exclusively figurative and the best of it graphic, rather than painterly. He had eschewed the path that led the mainstream artists into abstraction, into pop, into minimalism and conceptualism and hewed to the path of his own social conscience. He was not hip. He was not a “seller.” Not to make too fine a point of it, I was convinced that racism played a part in my failure to find a publisher—but I could never prove it.
Okay, hardly rabid stuff. But the experience left me with a real and personal understanding that racism runs deep in our society, and that I could not too easily let myself off the hook. I have had the opportunity, since those days, to learn more about interpersonal communication skills, and have come to understand that I get nowhere in a situation of conflict unless I first fully acknowledge what I bring to it, what part is mine. Conflicts start to get resolved when both parties are prepared to begin with some hard, honest self-evaluation; when I am right and you are wrong, there’s basically no resolution possible.
Which is why I see no purpose or promise in this supposed “national dialogue” on racism until we’re all prepared to look into ourselves before we start hurling brickbats. I have not heard any of those self-appointed defenders of black dignity speak up as loudly for the racially-tarred and feathered Duke University athletes as they have done about the Rutgers team; and while I understand there’s a serious need for advocacy, and honor these leaders’ sense of mission to provide it where there was none, this might be an excellent opportunity to open themselves up to the recognition that racism works two ways, and that it will continue to be a blot on our society until we acknowledge equal responsibility on all our parts. If I were close enough to the Reverend Al Sharpton call him Al, I’d challenge him to make a public avowal of the baggage that he himself carries around with him, and then continue with the important work of advocacy for those whose voice needs the megaphone he offers.