I first learned that I was White when I was 43. Until then I just blithely took the color of my skin for granted and assumed, I suppose, that everyone else did the same. Oh, I knew that there were different races of the human species, with skins of different hues, but I was never much bothered about what that might mean. Harry and Peggy had visitors from different parts of the world--a Black bishop from Africa, a Japanese priest--and welcomed the young people my cousin Hugh brought in from his Oxford days, Monu, from India, Graeme from South Africa.... I myself had a friend at Cambridge, an Arab from the Lebanon. I even had a brief love affair with a beautiful Parsee woman I met when I lived in London. More love on my part, I fear, than on hers! But I never really thought of myself as a White man until 1979.
This thought came up yesterday as I wandered through an exhibition called "Black American Portraits" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I'll be talking about that in a minute. Meantime, though, let me explain how I discovered I was White. Well, am White still, actually. Curiously it was a man called Charles White who helped me understand. And he was a Black man. Sorry if this begins to sound confusing!
Charles White--I knew him as Charlie--happened to be teaching at Otis Art Institute when I arrived there as Dean, and soon as Acting Director when the Director who hired me left what appeared to be a sinking ship. It was a time of difficult transition and I was soon bearing the brunt of the challenge to keep the school afloat, and Charlie was the best friend I had. He was unfailingly at, and on my side. We used to go out for lunch together a couple of times a week and Charlie insisted on my joining him for his habitual three martinis. I got to know him as a friend long before I got to know his contribution as an artist. Which is a part of the story.
Charlie left Otis at the same time as myself, in 1979, when it merged with another art school in distant New York. He was already severely ill. I knew enough about his life's work by now to understand that it had received virtually none of the critical attention it deserved; and casting about for where my life would take me next I applied for a fellowship at the Rockefeller Foundation for a study of his life and work. My application was approved--and this is when I began to discover I was White.
A trained academic, I started out along the usual research path--in the library, searching for magazine articles, critical reviews, books... and soon discovered this was pretty much a dead end. I turned to Charlie for help and started on a series of interviews that lasted several months. I'd drive up with my tape recorder (yes, we still had them!) to his home in the foothills up behind Altadena and we'd sit and talk about his early days with the WPA--the Works Project Administration--that kept many artists busy in the days following the Great Depression, recording American social history in photographs, paintings and drawings, murals...; and about his years in the 1950s in New York at the time of the great "Negro" cultural resurgence with such like-minded colleagues as Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Lorraine Hansberry, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and a host of others. It was exciting stuff.
But Charlie died in 1979. I was left with my tape recordings and little else to work with, and it struck me with sudden, convincing clarity that the dominant culture in America had always been, and would continue to be White. The only recourse I had was oral history--to go out there into an "art world" I had never known existed, a world of artists, critics, historians whose work had been sidelined by the headlong rush of the American (read, predominantly White) mainstream. I began to follow the bread crumbs Charlie had laid out for me, heading off to the South Side of Chicago, Harlem in New York, Jackson, Missisippi, for God's sake, to meet with artists like John Biggers, David Driskell, Eldzier Cortor, Jacob Lawrence--fine artists of whom, in my ignorance, I had never heard.
Which is how I discovered just how White I was. I was not merely self-conscious, venturing up beyond New York City's (then still) safely bourgeois West Side into the depths of Harlem. I was, I confess it, actually scared. Would I not be mocked for my whiteness on those streets, if not actually mugged by angry Black men? (This was the 1970s, Black Panther days!) Still, I went. In many places I was the only White face in sight. And... despite my ridiculous fears, I found myself surrounded by nothing but warmth and welcome in those places. I was greeted by artists, curators, writers, with nothing but genuine eagerness to meet and talk. And I felt honored by their generosity.
My take-away from that year of discovery was gratitude, of course, but also an undeniable sense of humility, even shame. I had always thought of myself as a nice, broad-minded, liberal sort of chap and I was confronted with something I had never dreamed I nurtured secretly within me: my racism. There I was, a writer about art and artists, a critic, living with and working on assumptions I had cheerfully made about American art that omitted a whole culture that had remained invisible to me--largely because I had never bothered to look; a culture that remained, insistently, invisible to the powerful and increasingly commercial mainstream.
That culture was on glorious, multifarious display at the museum yesterday. The work on view was not exclusively by Black artists, though primarily so, but it documented the rich, complex and often exuberant diversity of Black life in America. There were, of course, the two famous, magisterial portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald respectively. I found myself deeply moved by these, recalling how much great, historical potential had been literally stolen from this pair by envious people bent on destroying them. And then the larger portrait show, where I found images by artists I'd been privileged to meet in connection with my Charles White project--Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers, David Driskell--along with countless other lesser-known artists whose work was new to me, but equally impressive.
My thought on leaving the show was that the influence of the predominantly White, predominantly commercial mainstream is still powerful in America, but that it is at least under siege. The respect shown by this exhibition to the community of Black artists, and indeed the Black community at large, is belated, perhaps, but still welcome. We know from the unabated stream of tragedies relayed to us by our daily news sources that there is still an unconscionable amount of work for us to do, but this exhibition was a refreshing and inspiring reminder that the work has surely begun, and that the creative energy that inspires and drives it is unstoppable.