Work, war, and racism: Bearden’s Factory Workers

Work, war, and racism: Bearden’s Factory Workers


(gentle dramatic music) – [Beth] We’re here in
the Print Study Room at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Mia, and we’re looking at a beautiful gouache by great early-20th Century
artist Romare Bearden. – [Dennis] The title of the
work is Factory Workers. And it was commissioned to illustrate an in-depth feature
article in Fortune Magazine on the plight of African
Americans in the defense industry. The purpose of the article was threefold, discrimination in hiring and promotion was bad for business, it
was bad for the war effort, and was bad for society at large. – [Beth] The article
says, the American Negro is agitated not because he is
asked to fight for America, but because full participation
in the fight is denied him. He is humiliated as a Negro
because he is not fully accepted as an American, and of
course the term Negro, not one that we use
anymore, but was obviously very much in use in
the early 20th Century. And another quote, no serious
review of the nation’s status could ever overlook the contradiction between America’s dream
and the Negro reality. – [Dennis] So what we’re seeing are two African American workers who have been denied
jobs at a steel factory and trying to decide between
themselves what to do next. – [Beth] Their mouths are down turned. It looks like a rather
bleak landscape behind them with the factory in the distance, and then this pile of coal with a shed, and that third figure who
is somewhat mysterious, a little bit in shadow, we’re not sure if he represents the employer. – [Dennis] Or it could be a fellow worker who’s now looking at a newspaper for additional job prospects. – [Beth] We do feel sympathy for these men who are looking for employment and unable to find it
because of discrimination. – [Dennis] United States
Armed Forces was segregated at this time and much of
industry was also segregated. The article came out seven
months after Pearl Harbor. – [Beth] This is 1942, we’re
in the middle of World War II. We’re at the beginning
of America’s involvement. The defense industries are gearing up to serve the war effort and
hiring millions of workers. – [Dennis] Bearden was commissioned
to do the frontispiece, which is a very prestigious assignment. – [Beth] So gouache is
a water-based medium, but it’s opaque, it’s
not like a water color, which can have levels of transparency. So this does have the
feeling of a monumental serious work even though
it’s not oil on canvas. – [Dennis] He’s using these materials for a number of reasons. One reason is metallic
pigments were not allowed during war because of the war effort, chromium red comes to mind. So he uses earth tones, muted colors. The figures are looking to our right and the title and
introduction to the article would be on the right. – [Beth] We think about Fortune magazine and we might think about a publication that is more conservative leaning, something that is very
pro-corporate America, but at this point, Fortune magazine had a more liberal bent. – [Dennis] Fortune
magazine had a progressive editorial slant, it was
founded by Henry Luce who also produced Life
magazine and Time magazine. At this time Bearden made this picture, approximately 51% of defense industry jobs were not available to black workers. – [Beth] And that’s remarkable
considering the importance of the war effort and
leaving these jobs unfilled, of course, damaged that effort. – [Dennis] President Franklin Roosevelt signed executive order in June, 1941 expressly prohibiting
racial discrimination in defense industry and government. – [Beth] In response to protests from the African American community about the tremendous discrimination
that was taking place. – [Dennis] And we believe that the article in Fortune magazine was the direct result of this order and the attention it
received, both in the press and in the lives of African Americans. – [Beth] The law said specifically, there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers
in defense industries and in government because of race, creed, color, or national origin. This is the first order by the government about discrimination since
the Emancipation Proclamation. We often think about discrimination
in the Jim Crow south. We don’t often think about
the great extent of it in the north, too, in
more industrial cities. – [Dennis] The great
migration from the rural and small town south to
industrialized centers and big cities in the north, Romare Bearden was part of that. He was born in North Carolina, was brought to New York
City by his parents, both social activists, and
they invited prestigious writers, musicians, and artists. This was the milieu
that Bearden grew up in, so he was very familiar
with the cultural expression of African American community,
African American life, and that was one of his
principle goals in his art. – [Beth] This was something
that was not just happening in Harlem with black
artists, but something that was happening
broadly in the beginnings of the 20th Century among artists. We can think of the Mexican
muralists, for example. – [Dennis] The Mexican
muralists’ social purpose was paramount, and for Bearden as well, social purpose as well as social critique. It wasn’t the only aspect of his art. He was very much interested in modernism, but at this time, 1942, he is
coming out of his experience with the social realists in the 1930s, many who were involved with the WPA which was a federal government program to support the livelihood of artists. And he’s influenced by a
number of his fellow artists, Jacob Lawrence comes to mind. Ben Shahn was an important social realist also working in New York. Social realism was meant to tell a story and that’s what Bearden is doing in this picture, Factory Workers. – [Beth] We’re still
really at the beginning of Bearden’s very long
and remarkable career when we look at this painting. – [Dennis] One of the most
important modern artists in the United States, and certainly one of the most important
African American artists as well. (gentle dramatic music)

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2 thoughts on “Work, war, and racism: Bearden’s Factory Workers”

  • Interesting 🙂 I understood the great migration to mean that African Americans who migrated from the south regions were actually landing the opportunities they sought.

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