I had the opportunity last week to reconnect with on old friend. Charles White, one of the key figures in 20th century African American art, died in 1979, but his son, Ian, still lives in the house where I used to visit Charlie on a regular basis in the two years before he died. Ian was only thirteen years old when his father died, and today he is himself an artist--who devotes a good deal of time and energy to the preservation of his father's legacy.
The house where Charlie lived with his wife, Fran, is situated at the outermost reaches of the Los Angeles urban/suburban sprawl, in the arid foothills of Altadena where the mountain lion still roams. It's a long, steep, winding road up there from the 210 freeway, and you feel the world drop away behind you as you make the drive. It's more than thirty years since I last visited, but memories came flooding back with each steep curve.
I headed up that way often with my tape-recorder and my note pad to conduct a series of interviews with the artist as a part of my work on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to write a much-needed monograph on Charles White's life and art. I had found already that the usual historical resources--in books and journals--were remarkably thin. The best source of the information I needed was Charlie himself. Pursuing the project after his death, I traveled throughout the country to interview early associates, from the well-known (Jacob Lawrence in Seattle, Washington) to the relatively obscure (John Biggers in Jackson, Mississippi), from the streets of Harlem in uptown Manhattan to the archives of Golden State Mutual in Los Angeles.
For a well-educated and, I had always thought, well-informed young writer--and, I have to add, a nice white guy--it was an eye-opening experience. I learned a lot about my own complacent ignorance of an entire, rich field of American culture that had remained hidden from view; and about the institutional racism that served to keep it "underground." I learned a lot about my personal racial prejudices I had not known about--and would never have believed until confronted with them in my "travels with Charlie." I have Charles White to thank for that important education, not only about his work, but about myself.
I have to thank him also for his friendship. I got to know him first when I was Dean--and, soon after my arrival, Director--of what was then Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles County. (It was on my very first day as Dean that the L.A. County Supervisors, in their wisdom, and facing the wrath of taxpayers spurred on by Howard Jarvis and the infamous Proposition13, voted to cut off all funds from the school for which they had unquestioningly footed the bill for the sixty years of its existence. The Director resigned; I inherited his very hot hot seat.) Students and faculty were running amok, alarmed at the prospect of imminent closure. Charlie was a rock of support and comfort--usually over a three-martini lunch.
So all these memories came back as I drove that familiar route to Charlie and Fran's place last Thursday. Ian, then thirteen, is now... well, do the math: a grown man. Over the years, he has put together a truly remarkable archive of memorabilia and art works, and a vast, indispensable library of books on African American art and culture. In the interests of preserving his father's legacy and housing the expanding the archive, he managed to purchase the next door property, from which he maintains the website, Charles White: Images of Dignity. He is also deeply involved with the CEEJJES Institute founded by the Dr. Edmund W. Gordon family as "a cultural, education, and research foundation dedicated to improving the educational and social conditions for all disenfranchised people" with "a particular emphasis on the lives of children of color." The Institute is also the home of the Charles White Gallery and the Du Bois Literary Collective.
It was a profound pleasure to catch up with Ian and his work, and to revive these memories of a man I am proud to have called my friend. I have been invited to write a catalogue introduction for the exhibition of a collection of Charles White's work later this year, and will be posting more about this outstanding artist in future entries on The Buddha Diaries. I hope that you'll feel inspired to check out his work online, and perhaps to take further interest in his legacy.