Deeds and Words: The Legacy of Charles White

Charles White at LACMA
Charles White: A Retrospective, May 2019 – Los Angeles County Museum of Art 

LAST SUMMER,  when the country was surging with COVID infections and civil unrest, I  heard a protest moving its way through the main thoroughfare adjacent  to my home. Masked citizens carried signs and raised their voices in unified calls for justice. I wondered at once where they were headed to gather. Just a few taps and swipes on my mobile let me know that crowds were headed to Charles White Park. A fitting place for a protest calling for racial justice. 

White, the  artist, made the San Gabriel Valley his home for decades, dedicated his work and  life to addressing inequity and offering not simply uplift but examples and tools for the journey toward social justice.  In 2019, I made it  a point to get out to LACMA to see the wide-ranging retrospective of his work — the drawings, paintings, mural details,  sketchbooks—even early documentary-style photographs.

Immediately, I regretted that I had waited until the last minute to view the show. One slow Sunday morning, walking through the galleries simply wasn’t enough. This was one of those retrospectives that was meant to view more than once, to spend time with each period, medium, approach. The last show that I felt the same way about was the Kerry James Marshall exhibition at MOCA, and coincidentally but not entirely surprising, Marshall was a student of of White’s at Otis College of Art and Design.

“When Frustration Threatens Desire by Kerry James Marshall from “Mastry” at MOCA

UA couple of months ago, I was asked to write an essay for Otis on White and his impact on students and on Southern California. It was precisely the right antidote for the at-the-boiling-point trouble we were living in in the moment. White’s own path offered up a series of difficult hurdles, but he kept clearing them, time and again, and always reached back to help others strategize so they had a clear sense of how to clear their way as well.

From the essay:

It is possible to make a portrait with the gifts of legacy. Those deeds and words become textures, hues, strokes, and shadings. Memory assembles itself into an afterimage that reflects that richness, and the depth and breadth of the impact a single figure may have on people, place, and practice.”

As I was working on the essay, reading deeply, and connecting with people who either crossed paths with him in work or social arenas or who knew him as a teacher, most everyone commented on his commitment to recasting skewed narratives about Black people in the United States. Instead White set out to center his work around the celebration and documentation of the contribution of a people maligned and misunderstood: For both him and his subjects: “His art was a shelter and a balm.”

That piece is now live at here