"I Paint My Folks"
Editor's note: Charles White is a distinguished artist whose paintings of "my folks" -- black people-- have moved millions of viewers.
On August 11, 1971, Mr. White received a special award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. J. E. Lowery, Chairman of the S.C.L.C. Board of Directors, presented Mr. White a plaque bearing this inscription: "The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Ralph David Abernathy, President, presents at its 14th Annual Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, August 11, 1971, this special citation of respect and gratitude to Mr. Charles White for the incomparable beauty of his contribution to Black Culture, the Movement, and the Fine Arts."
Mr. White was repeatedly interrupted by applause when he responded as follows:
I could do better painting a picture than I could do talking at this moment. It's one of the most beautiful moments of my life. While I'm not a speaker, I've found it necessary to communicate sometimes with words.
A brother yesterday asked me, he pleaded apologetically for his ignorance about who I was, and I've had several people say, well they knew Charles White was a special guest, but who is Charles White? He asked me what I did. I said, "I'm an artist." He said, "yeah, but what do you paint?" I said I paint my folks. He says, "well, but that isn't quite enough -- what do you paint?" Probably a lot of you here don't know my work.
There was an old woman who lived not far from here, in the state of Mississippi. She died about ten years ago. She lived to be a hundred and nine years old. She was born a slave. She was brought to this country by a man by the name of Yellowby. He brought her and her sisters and brothers, nine or ten, which he fathered, in Trinidad, West Indies. This old woman was one of them. She lived a hundred and nine years in Mississippi. I haven't been able to stay in Mississippi over two weeks, but she lived there for a hundred and nine years!
There are all kinds of rewards. Congress, the government, has metals of honor. It's incredible, he kind of an award that could be given to a man. A man can be given a medal for some kind of distinguished service to the country for killing in a war. There must be some great reward for living a hundred and nine years in Mississippi. Her name was Hasty Baines. Hasty Baines was my grandmother's sister. What do I paint? I paint about Hasty Baines.
There is a woman seventy years old, who lives in Chicago, Fifty Third and Indiana, she's my mother. She's been a domestic worker since she was seven years old. They had to place a box in front of the sink for her to get up and wash dishes for the Yellowbys. I paint about this woman.
I paint about you. I paint about Dr. Abernathy, I paint about Rose Parks, I paint about Coretta King. I paint about each and every one of you. Oh, you are the most beautiful people in the world. You are truly beautiful.
There is a new science. Not new, but a new word is coming to our language, a word we weren't familiar with. Only a few years ago we became familiar with this word. It's called ecology -- the science of the study of nature, of water, of all the things that surround us. It is this science that has become involved with the pollution of our environment. This, they say, started with what may be the Neanderthal man. Man, since his existence on earth, has begun to pollute water, has begun to pollute and destroy our natural surroundings, so much so that we only may have eight thousand or more years to live, We may not last that long if this continues.
Pollution has become a serious problem. So much so that our president has remarked about it, and has declared his intent to do something about ridding our land of pollution.
But, he has forgotten one thing…that the most devastating pollution that exists is the pollution of the man's soul. This is the pollution that is destructive. It is not the water or the trees that endanger us. No, my friends. It is the pollution of the soul.
For three hundred years we've been on the verge of getting together the black people of this land. We've gotten together to rid man of this poison. To clean up the soul of man, This is the inspiration that gives me the courage, the strength to paint a picture. To paint the image of you. To paint something that gives you dignity.
I sit and do a silly little thing like taking a brush, and I sit in a little cubicle that I call a studio -- and I paint an image of man. Nothing I see, but something I feel. Something I relate to you about the spirit of man. I try to communicate this relationship. I try to find and search for answers to three questions: Who am I? What am I? Why?
I have never found the answers to those questions. But the search, oh, that glorious search. That search that's being nurtured by experiences like this. By being in your presence. By hearing the culture that I've heard these last two days -- The Operation Breadbasket Choir, last night. Willie-T and his group -- Oh, baby, that was beautiful. And that's what I paint.
Drum Major, Southern Christian Leadership Conference/ Vol. 1/ No. 2