How Charles White’s Painting Accentuates a Power Imbalance
VSa negro study right in texas is a charcoal and ink painting created in 1946 by Charles Whites. It features civil rights activist Heman Sweatt with a book in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other as he is about to charge at his opponents, seemingly caricatures of old white politicians and academics.
Although this piece is emblematic of widespread racism in America in the mid-twentieth century, the main theme I want to focus on in regards to Can a nigger study law in Texas is the reversal of power dynamics and its consequences. To do this, there are two artistic elements that I want to focus on: symbolism and proportionality.
Sweatt’s opponents are white men, who have historically held the most powerful seats in society, and this is further reinforced by the backdrop around them: a Greco-Roman building decorated with columns and statues. By recalling the classical era with this structure and positioning Sweatt’s criticisms within it, White suggests that these men are powerful and have long held power over other groups and minorities. White politicians and academics wield “traditional power” (symbolized by the classic building) that does not fit the demographics or needs of the present.
The lightning bolt in Sweatt’s hand is not visible in this version of White’s painting, although it is present in the original, and the classic reminder here draws a comparison between Sweatt and his activism towards Zeus and his flashes. Sweatt is Zeus in this context; he holds the power and is the agent of change. Thus, Sweatt wearing his lightning bolt in this scene introduces the idea that this carefully constructed societal structure that favors the white male is about to be overthrown by Sweatt’s activism..
Additionally, Sweatt’s size relative to his opponents reflects White’s personal reaction to who has the most power. Sweatt is portrayed as larger than life, with an exaggerated disposition and a towering figure. White administrators pale in comparison, as White describes them as overweight, mindless politicians who take up less than an eighth of the board.
The cartoonish style with which White portrays all these figures suggests that Sweatt’s history of activism can be applied to many civil rights activists and their opposition. The cartoonish art style usually simplifies the characters in an artwork to easily show viewers who the good guys and bad guys are, and this stripped-down nature helps convey White’s triumphant support of Sweatt.
Although racism was prevalent in the 1940s when White painted this work, the inversion of who has power in this painting – and the fact that Sweatt is seen asserting his dominance over his opponents – suggests that this era was a tipping point in transitioning out of traditional power dynamics to create a more inclusive America.
Building on White’s stylistic decisions as discussed in the previous section, I want to relate the context behind Can a nigger study law in Texas to storytelling. Sweatt’s activism and the title of White’s painting relate to a specific case in which Sweatt was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin Law School because he was Afro -American. Sweatt filed a lawsuit against UT Austin that eventually went to the Supreme Court, and the Court agreed with Sweatt: asserting that UT Austin should admit qualified black students to its law school.
Heman Sweatt’s victory is visualized in White’s painting, and the idea of historically powerless groups reclaiming their identity and power can also be seen through Adichie’s feminist lens in The thing around your neck. What comes to mind the most is the idea of size and space. White plays with size and proportionality in Can a nigger study law in Texas by showing the victor or person in power (Heman Sweatt in this case) as larger than life, taking up an enormous amount of space on the canvas.
Likewise, the men in the Adichie short stories make the women, often their wives or loved ones, feel small by invalidating their concerns or rejecting them altogether. In “Imitation” for example, Nkem does not voice his worries or worries about Obiora having a mistress in Nigeria because she is afraid of disturbing the nervous peace that seems to have settled around their marriage and of their family.
Another example includes the narrator’s husband in “The Arrangers of Marriage” as he dictates their culture, food, language, and way of life without stopping to consider what the narrator wants. The narrator of this novella notes that they “spoke English now”, but he “didn’t know I was speaking Igbo to myself while cooking” – showing the moments of defiance that exemplify a shift in power (Adichie 167).
In both of these stories, the traditional power structure is apparent with the men asserting their dominance over the women, but the stories end with the women claiming what is rightfully theirs or biding their time until they can take the decisions they want. This overlap between traditional and new power dynamics is evident in the symbolism of White’s painting, and we see how reversals of power have consequences for all parties involved.
I also wanted to consider this painting in relation to the museum space, the Blanton Museum of Art. The first sign in the room explains that the plays have been grouped together because nearly all of them are by Charles White and fall under the Social Realism category. This category and White’s relationship to it will be discussed in the next section, but I want to focus on the viewer’s experience in this particular passage.
Spectators can either enter through the main entrance on the second floor of the Blanton Museum of Art, or enter this room through the Hall of Heroic Figures. I find this placement interesting because it could imply that African Americans, who are the only subjects of art in the Social Realism room, are heroic figures, and this room (Social Realism) is an extension of the one next door (Heroic Figures).
Thematically, it becomes clear that many of the narratives portrayed in the paintings in this museum space focus on the lives of working-class African Americans and the bigotry they face in their daily lives. Artists like Charles White and Fletcher Martin chose to convey this by focusing on specific cases/individuals (i.e. Can a nigger study law in Texas) or portraying African Americans in a positive and inclusive light.
Social realism, the theme that connects the artworks in this room, is focused on raising awareness of the socio-political struggles of the early 20th century, and this is immediately apparent in the stories of the individuals depicted in the artworks. Can a nigger study law in Texas focuses on a cartoonish approach to these struggles compared to other works in this space, but just like the other works, there are immediate clues that point to the injustices black people faced during this time.
What was White’s relationship to society (i.e. was he personally wealthy or socially supported), and did this influence his decision to portray primarily working-class African Americans? Did African Americans who watch this play feel uplifted and find its accurate portrayal?
Reading Charles White’s biography on the Museum of Modern Art webpage, I find the answer to my first question. White grew up as an impoverished African American during the Great Depression and continued to face racism and bigotry in his career as an artist. Because his mother could not afford child care, he painted signs and worked as a bellhop and cook in his teens and early adulthood.
This clarifies my personal understanding of the piece. Knowing that White endured some of the same discriminatory struggles as working-class African Americans imbues the works with a more personal tone because I feel like I see the artist in the work. In a sense, the people depicted in his works, from Sweatt to the unnamed passers-by in other pieces, are similar to the people White encountered in his daily life.
Another point that I found interesting is White’s belief that art should be societal critique. White was not a famous artist during his lifetime because the art community at the time had a strong bias for those of Caucasian descent over African Americans, so his works did not receive as much acclaim. exhibition during his lifetime than retrospectively.
I imagine this shapes his challenge to choose to paint subjects that were not normally painted in a segregated America. His later works address societal issues such as racism, lynching, and African-American violence, making it clear that White believed art could be used as a form of advocacy.
I haven’t found an answer to my second question, and that makes sense because there’s probably no singular consensus on a reaction to an artwork. Everyone carries with them their own unique experiences, which shape how they interact with art.
White’s paintings always portray African Americans in a positive light, and I imagine seeing people of color in dignified positions (as with the towering figure of Sweatt in Can a nigger study law in Texas) was empowering for African Americans during this time when segregation and discrimination were embedded in every interaction.
White argued that art should reflect the struggles of the contemporary world and “had a role to play in changing the world” (MoMA), and this is reinforced by the museum space in which his works are placed: social realism. Through an interwoven relationship between White’s art style, social commentary, and viewer experience, we are able to see how the concept of power is being revolutionized to encompass the efforts of the individual and be more inclusive.