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Art for Equality

Art for Equality: The NAACP's Cultural Campaign for Civil Rights

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    Art for Equality
    Book Description:

    The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the nation's oldest civil rights organization, having dedicated itself to the fight for racial equality since 1909. While the group helped achieve substantial victories in the courtroom, the struggle for civil rights extended beyond gaining political support. It also required changing social attitudes. The NAACP thus worked to alter existing prejudices through the production of art that countered racist depictions of African Americans, focusing its efforts not only on changing the attitudes of the white middle class but also on encouraging racial pride and a sense of identity in the black community.

    Art for Equality explores an important and little-studied side of the NAACP's activism in the cultural realm. In openly supporting African American artists, writers, and musicians in their creative endeavors, the organization aimed to change the way the public viewed the black community. By overcoming stereotypes and the belief of the majority that African Americans were physically, intellectually, and morally inferior to whites, the NAACP believed it could begin to defeat racism.

    Illuminating important protests, from the fight against the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation to the production of anti-lynching art during the Harlem Renaissance, this insightful volume examines the successes and failures of the NAACP's cultural campaign from 1910 to the 1960s. Exploring the roles of gender and class in shaping the association's patronage of the arts, Art for Equality offers an in-depth analysis of the social and cultural climate during a time of radical change in America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4518-1
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Political Science, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction: “The national mental attitude”
    (pp. 1-10)

    In 1926 W. E. B. Du Bois was addressing an audience in Chicago when he rhetorically asked of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), “how is it that an organization of this kind can turn aside to talk about Art?” Why was it that an organization more commonly associated with courtroom battles and political lobbying should spend time, money, and effort encouraging, publishing, challenging, protesting, and creating poems, novels, short stories, plays, artwork, exhibitions, and films? The beginnings of an answer can be found in an article written by James Weldon Johnson, the NAACP’s first black...

  4. 1 The Birth of a Cultural Strategy
    (pp. 11-34)

    This book begins, perhaps inevitably given the nature and scale of the struggle, with the NAACP’s fight againstThe Birth of a Nation.The campaign against D. W. Griffith’s film remains the best-known and most widely discussed of all the examples of the NAACP’s attempts to challenge offensive depictions of the race in popular culture. It marks the first time the association spent considerable effort on such a cause. The campaign tells us much about the NAACP’s attitude toward culture as it established paradigms central to the ways in which the organization would try to influence the depiction of African...

  5. 2 Representing the New Negro
    (pp. 35-62)

    In 1925, James Weldon Johnson, literary critic, author, mentor, songwriter, poet, and first black executive secretary of the NAACP, published theBook of American Negro Spiritualswith his brother, Rosamond. This collection showed some of the many sides to this (Harlem) Renaissance man. Johnson had a long-standing interest in the arts, particularly in spirituals and what he saw as black American art forms. The book also complemented his work as a civil rights leader because it reflected his belief that by showing the world the achievements of his race he was helping to break down racial prejudice. As he wrote...

  6. 3 Du Bois’s Crisis and the Black Image on the Page
    (pp. 63-96)

    The front cover of the April 1911 issue of theCrisisshows a hand-colored photograph of a young African American woman in profile (figure 1). She is dressed smartly and demurely, wearing a high-necked and long-sleeved blouse, trimmed with lace. She is looking down at a hand-drawn copy of theCrisis.The photograph was taken by Addison Scurlock, photographer to black Washington, DC. Scurlock was known for his images of famous African American figures, society ladies, businessmen, and the great and good of the capital. A number of Scurlock’s photographs appeared in theCrisis;they were consistent with W. E....

  7. 4 “A union of art and propaganda”
    (pp. 97-126)

    The NAACP believed that it could use the arts to change white perceptions of African Americans, and for much of the first three decades of the twentieth century it also used this principle to challenge attitudes toward lynching. The NAACP’s strategy for ending mob violence was based on its conviction that the responsibility for lynching lay with the American public. Association president Moorfield Storey told the 1922 annual conference, “The people of the United States have the power to stop lynching and for all the lynchings that occur they are responsible, since they can if they will prevent them. ....

  8. 5 White in Hollywood
    (pp. 127-158)

    Walter White had a somewhat utilitarian attitude toward the arts and popular culture: he tended to see them in terms of how they could assist the African American struggle for equality. He promoted the artists of the Harlem Renaissance because he admired their talent but also because they were shining examples of black culture and achievement. He formed the Writers’ League Against Lynching and organized his art exhibition in order to drum up support for antilynching legislation. Similarly, when he watched a motion picture, he assessed whether it would reinforce or challenge racial prejudices. He was concerned that films were...

  9. 6 Blacks, Reds, White
    (pp. 159-190)

    The decade or so after the end of the Second World War was a time of flux in race relations in the United States. On the one hand, there was a lingering liberalism from the New Deal and the war; there was a growing international context to understanding race; and the federal government, at least to begin with, displayed some willingness to engage with racial issues. On the other, attacks on that liberalism began to increase, and the anti-Communist fear of threats to the status quo shaped much of the period. The NAACP had to respond to a number of...

  10. Conclusion: “The true picture of America”
    (pp. 191-204)

    The NAACP’s protest againstAmos ’n’ Andyseemed to bring the association back to where it had started, vigorously protesting what it saw as the demeaning portrayal of African Americans in “mainstream” white American culture. There were similarities between its campaign againstThe Birth of a Nationin 1915 andAmos ’n’ Andyin 1951. On both occasions the association was faced with a new medium and a growing industry in which African Americans had no power. It was so worried about the potential harm of these depictions of the race that it could see no alternative but to call...

  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 205-206)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 207-226)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 227-240)
  14. Index
    (pp. 241-258)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 259-262)