Can a Negro Study Law in Texas?
How Charles White’s painting accentuates a power imbalance
Part 1: See
Can a Negro Study Law 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 upon his opponents, seemingly caricatures of old white politicians and academics.
While this piece is emblematic of the racism prevalent in America in the mid twentieth century, the main theme I want to focus on with regards to Can a Negro Study Law in Texas is the reversal of power dynamics and its consequences. To do this, there are two artistic elements I want to focus on: symbolism and proportionality.
Sweatt’s opponents are white males, who have historically had the most powerful seats in society, and this is further reinforced by the backdrop that surrounds them: a Greco Roman building decorated with columns and statues. By recalling the classical era with this structure and positioning Sweatt’s critics within it, White suggests that these men are powerful and have held power over other groups and minorities for a long time. The white politicians and academics hold “traditional power” (as symbolized by the classical building) that does not fit the demographic or needs of the present.
The lightning bolt in Sweatt’s hand is not visible in this version of White’s painting, though it was present in the original, and the classical recall here makes a comparison between Sweatt and his activism to Zeus and his lightning bolts. Sweatt is Zeus in this context; he holds the power and is the changemaker. Thus, Sweatt carrying his lightning bolt in this scene introduces the idea that this carefully constructed societal structure that favors the white male is about to be toppled with Sweatt’s activism.
Furthermore, the size of Sweatt compared to his opponents reflects White’s personal reaction to who has more power. Sweatt is portrayed as larger than life, with an exaggerated disposition and imposing frame. The white administrators pale in comparison, as White satirizes them as overweight and foolish politicians who take up less than an eighth of the painting.
The caricature style with which White depicts all of these figures suggests that the story of Sweatt’s activism can be applied to many different civil rights activists and their opposition. The caricature art style typically simplifies characters in a work of art to easily show viewers who the good and bad guys are, and this stripped back nature allows for White’s triumphant support of Sweatt to be conveyed.
Although racism was prevalent in the 1940s when White painted this work, the reversal of who has power in this painting — and the fact that Sweatt is seen asserting his dominance over his adversaries — suggests that this era was a tipping point in transitioning out of the traditional power dynamic to create a more inclusive America.
Part 2: Think
Building off of White’s stylistic decisions as discussed in the previous section, I want to connect the context behind Can a Negro Study Law in Texas to storytelling. Sweatt’s activism and the title of White’s painting relate to a specific instance in which Sweatt was denied admission to University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law because he was African American. Sweatt filed a lawsuit against UT Austin that eventually went up to the Supreme Court, and the Court agreed with Sweatt: asserting that UT Austin would have to admit qualified black students into 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 lense in The Thing Around Your Neck. What comes to mind most vividly is the idea of size and space. White plays with size and proportionality in Can a Negro Study Law in Texas by showing the victor or person with power (Heman Sweatt in this case) as larger than life, taking up a massive amount of space on the canvas.
Similarly, the men in Adichie’s short stories make the women, often their wives or significant others, feel small by invalidating their concerns or dismissing them altogether. In “Imitation” for example, Nkem doesn’t voice her concerns or worries about Obiora having a mistress back in Nigeria because she is afraid of disrupting the nervous peace that seems to have settled around their marriage and family.
Another example includes the narrator’s husband in “The Arrangers of Marriage” as he dictates their culture, food, language, and lifestyle without stopping to consider what the narrator wants. The narrator in this short story notes that they “spoke English now,” but he “did not know I spoke Igbo to myself while I cooked” — showing the moments of defiance that illustrate a power shift (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 reclaiming what is rightfully theirs or biding their time until they can make the decisions that they want to. This straddle between traditional and new power dynamics is apparent with the symbolism in White’s painting, and we see how power reversals have consequences on all parties involved.
I also wanted to consider this painting in relation to the museum space, the Blanton Museum of Art. The primary placard in the room explains that the pieces have been grouped together because almost all of them are by Charles White and fall under the Social Realism category. This category and White’s relation to it will be discussed in the following section, but I want to focus on the viewer experience in this particular passage.
Viewers can either enter from the main entrance on the second floor of the Blanton Museum of Art, or they can enter this room by passing through the Heroic Figures room. I find this placement interesting because this could imply that African Americans, who are the only subjects in the art in the Social Realism room, are heroic figures, and this room (Social Realism) is an extension of the one right next to it (Heroic Figures).
From a thematic perspective, 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 faced in their day to day lives. Artists like Charles White and Fletcher Martin chose to convey this by focusing on specific cases/individuals (i.e. Can a Negro Study Law in Texas) or by depicting African Americans in a positive and inclusive light.
Social realism, the theme that connects the artwork in this room, is focused on raising awareness to sociopolitical struggles in the early twentieth century, and this is immediately apparent in the stories of the individuals portrayed in the works of art. Can a Negro Study Law in Texas focuses on a caricature approach to these struggles compared to other works in this space, but much like the other works, there are immediate cues that indicate the injustices that black people faced during this era.
Part 3: Wonder
What was White’s relation to society (i.e. was he personally wealthy or socially supported), and did that influence his decision to portray primarily working class African Americans? Did African Americans viewing this piece feel uplifted and find his portrayal accurate?
Reading Charles White’s biography on the Museum of Modern Art webpage, I find my first question answered. 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 childcare, he painted signs and worked as a bellhop and cook as a teenager and early adult.
This clarifies my personal understanding of the piece. Knowing that White has endured some of the same discriminatory struggles of working class African Americans imbues the works with a more personal tone because I feel as though I can see the artist in the work. In a sense, the people portrayed in his works from Sweatt to the unnamed passerbys in other pieces are similar to the people that White encountered in his day to day life.
Another point that I found interesting is White’s belief that art should be a societal critique. White was not a famous artist during his lifetime because the arts community at the time had a clear bias for those of Caucasian descent over African Americans, so his works did not receive as much exposure during his lifetime as they did retrospectively.
I imagine this to shape his defiance in choosing to paint subjects that were not normally painted in segregated America. His later works address societal issues such as racism, lynching, and African American violence — making it clear that White believed that art could be used as a form of advocacy.
I could not find an answer to my second question, and this makes sense because there is likely no singular consensus about a reaction to a work of art. Everyone carries their own unique experiences with them, and this shapes how they interact with the art.
White’s paintings always portray African Americans in a positive light, and I imagine seeing people of color in dignifiable positions (as with Sweatt’s imposing figure in Can a Negro Study Law in Texas) was empowering for African Americans during this time period when segregation and discrimination were embedded in every interaction.
White argued that art should mirror 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 that his works are placed in: Social Realism. Through an interwoven relationship of White’s artistic style, social commentary, and viewer experience, we are able to see how the concept of power is being revolutionized to embrace the individual’s efforts and be more inclusive.