Michael Ray Charles: When Racist Art Was Commercial Art

In 1998 I published an article in Print about the artist, satirist and social critic Michael Ray Charles. It is appropriate that on this anniversary of Martin Luther King The Daily Heller republishes Charles’ words on how degrading stereotypes and negative racist imagery have impacted the American consciousness and conscience. And how as an African American he has co-opted and reclaimed caricatures that were an integral piece of American visual culture. 

“What if the Jews never talked about the Holocaust?” writes Michael Ray Charles in the introduction to his catalog of paintings, Michael Ray Charles: An American Artist’s Work (The Art Museum of the University of Houston). This rhetorical question underscores an artistic exploration that delves deep into the history of commercial art stereotypes, which during the late 19th and early 20th centuries relegated African Americans to graphic ghettos comprised of Sambos, mammies, minstrels, and coons. Charles argues that the once ubiquitous existence of these characters are virtually unknown to blacks. He believes that graphic depictions of infantile, shiftless, and baffoonish black men and women are artifacts that shed needed light on the conflict the black people have in society today. As both a reminder and as a way to co-opt these negative portrayals, Charles, 31 years old, a painter and professor at the The University of Texas at Austin, recasts ugly stereotypes in huge, satiric paintings that challenge the language of institutional racism.

The messages he conveys through his art, however, are not always welcome. “A lot of Blacks don’t want to see images like mine; perhaps they bring up too much pain,” asserts Charles. “A lot of whites are embarrassed and feel ashamed by them.  But out of sight, out of mind doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It happened, and I feel it has not been dealt with.”

Charles is a strictly representational painter whose early work addressed political and social issues with homage to such 19th century commentators as Goya and Daumier, but without their rapier wit. However, with his most recent paintings of racial stereotypes found in vintage commercial art — which he began painting in 1993 and continue through his most recent exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York — he uses wit and irony to attack both the racism of the past and present. His paintings are rendered in a primative style and he quotes vintage circus banners, vernacular signs, and folk paintings, a pastiche that underscores the fact that these disturbing images were once was America’s most popular art.

Critics have attacked the artist for resurrecting images that were long ago hidden from view, ignored by historians as a sad chapter in the continuum of a burgeoning nation. But Charles argues that the issues raised by these images continue to haunt society albeit through different, contemporary stereotypes of ganstas, rappers, even characters on black-oriented TV sitcoms. Subjugation through imagery is something that is never totally expunged, and Charles wants to make certain that people understand the power that these had over peoples’ perceptions.

As a child Charles may have seen the remnants of vintage imagery that was still around his native Louisiana, but he did not think much of them — then. “When I was in graduate school, however, a colleague of mine gave me a little Sambo figurine,” he relates. “At the time I was doing paintings about the American flag so I didn’t use [these stereotypes] initially — I didn’t think it was what I was searching for. However, since I began to use such images, I feel I will never view life in the same way. ”

Through reprises of these dubious icons of “negro” America, Charles asserts that the roots of current stereotypes can be traced back to the history of disenfranchised blacks, but his art is also a form of self-exploration. “I want to know about these images — how they were used, why they were used, and when they are being used,” he says. “But there’s more to my work than just black face image or the clown caricature. I am deeply motivated by various forms of communication.” Common black stereotypes have changed from the poor shiftless, field-hand to mighty supermen atheletes earning million-dollar contracts and Charles’ visual archeology has helped him see how these vintage images are reconciled and revised. “I see images of the Black basketball player everywhere. I know it’s a hot fad, but I remember watching the Olympics when the first dream team was assembled, oh boy did America jump on the backs of those atheletes… But ultimately how does it effect the conditions of blacks,” he asks himself. And that is the rhetorical question present in all his work.

The mammy, particularly in the image of Aunt Jemima (who continues to grace the package of her namesake product) is one of the characters that Charles singles out for scrutiny. This is because in the history of stereotypes the desexualization of black people was deliberate, and the mammy — the caring, house servant who often raised the white man’s children — was the most desexualized of all. Charles portrays her in his work as kind of heroine. In a stunning parody of Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, Aunt Jemima sits regally to suggest her unacknowledged contributions to white and black America (the Saturday Evening Post never showed a black woman in an heroic light, if at all). At the same time his ironic portrayals of mammy are harsh critiques of her diminuation in mainstream popular art. Charles regards the way that mammies and other black types were portrayed in art was a wanton attempt to make them unthreatening to whites. “I think they had to remain child-like, overweight, lazy, and unintelligent,” he explains.  “for whites to remind themselves of who they were.”

The minstrel show is another target. These musical entertainments, popular during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and comprised of whites putting on black face and cavorting on stage, were as well attended as the ethnic vaudeville shows. Minstrelry was the white’s attempt to mimmick and make fun of blacks, and a way of experiencing otherness at a safe distance. Some historians have argued that the essence of Black people was stolen. On the contrary, Charles insists that “it cannot be stolen. The essence of blackness, for me is defined as being able to withstand, to evolve, to grow inspite of, to show one’s wounds, to wear one’s scars, and get right back up because there is nothing else left to do. ”

One wonders how African American’s viewed themselves as a result of the national ad campaigns and comic sections that routinely used these stereotypes. Did the bombardment of these stereotypes have an indelible impact on self-esteem?. Charles believes that not only did the images influence blacks’ interpretations of themselves, “they continue to influence whites, Asian, European, African, and many other cultures’ perceptions of [American] Blacks and how they see themselves. These images are forever part of the vocabulary of what one should want and what one should not want. ”

Yet given Charles’ best intentions to educate blacks and whites through exposure to these images and his commentaries about them he says that he has received mixed responses. “One woman onced asked me ‘How does it feel to be the Clarence Thomas of the Art World?’” he relates. “She believed that Clarence Thomas was a sellout and by association, giving me the same title she said that I was selling out, too.. She had a very limited perspective. I am an individual who happens to be black. The fact that I am black does not mean that I represent, or support, every black cause.” In fact, she is not alone in feeling that introducing these images, which took many generations to forget, does more harm that good. “Her comments initially  bothered me,” continues Charles. “But ultimately I found it more humorous than anything. I don’t know, maybe she saw a part of herself in one of my paintings.” Nevertheless, Charles is disturbed that people cannot see the symbolic intent of his work, and only fixate on the surface meaning. “I had a journalist walk up to me and say, ‘So tell me about the Black woman in this painting.’ I responded by saying, that it’s not a Black woman; it’s an image that I use to refer to a Black woman. I don’t think she was able to separate the caricature image of a black person from the reality of knowing what a black person actually is.”

Through these paintings Charles is also attempting to understand when and if perceptions among whites towards blacks began to change for the better. “It’s evident that some white peoples’ perceptions about blacks have never changed,” he says about his conclusions. “This process of change has been a gradual thing that is consistently gaining and losing ground.”

One of the changes that have occured since the Black Power and Black is Beautiful consciousness raising days of the 1960s, is indeed the notions of ugliness and beauty. After one of Charles’ openings, a showing of paintings that included critiques of Little Black Sambo, the perennial children’s story (originally an East Indian folktale) of a little African boy’s travails with a tiger, he tells of an elderly white woman who came up to him and said, “‘Please don’t make the Sambo ugly; I love little Sambo. I grew up with the Sambo; it’s so dear to me.’” As she started to cry, Charles was struck by how much she had invested in a the fictional character. “She went on to say that she’s not racist,” Charles continues. “That her children grew up around black people, they had black people over all the time, and she worked in a school in which she taught black students She began making a cradling gesture as if she was holding a little baby.” But Charles concluded that “she didn’t get it.” She did not see his painted interpretation of Sambo as anything but a black person, rather than a representation of attitudes. “That instance is one of the things that really motivates me to continue my exploration into these images and how they effect us. ”

Michael Ray Charles’ paintings are tours de force that are formalist masterworks and discomforting messages. He understands the difficult line he’s toeing by reprising such charged images. Yet he insists that they deserve a certain respect that comes from more scrutiny. “I think about so many people whose lives these images have affected. A lot of Black people have died and many are dying under the weight of these images. That’s motivation enough for me to explore, and deal with, these things.”

8 thoughts on “Michael Ray Charles: When Racist Art Was Commercial Art

  1. P

    It’s one thing to talk about the Holocaust, and not forget about injustice that happend in the past.
    But that is not the same as bringing back old images that are degrading. Why re create offensive caricatyres and nuture those stupid images on peoples mind. I don’t see the meaning of that. When jewish people let the whole world not forget about the racism that they met, the Holocoust – they does not use old stupid negativ images of themself when they talk about what happend. Not like this without any context. It’s very contaproductive and opposite of going forward to something new. I think Bill Cosby brought more change with the Cosby show to white peoples mind than someone bringing up all those negative images. It’ s very hard to understand the point.

  2. Pingback: Mer smakfullt att vägra antirasistisk konst? « BLOGG

  3. george wells

    Once accused of being a racist (A WHITE WHO DOES NOT EMBRACE HIS OWN GENOCIDE) always a racist.  Once accused  of being a racist by an anti-white white or anti-white non-white always a racist.  Once accused of being a racist by a pro-white genodicidal maniac always a racist.  What is an evil WHITE  to do?
    Africa for Africans, Asia for Asians, White Countries for Everybody 
    Annihilation by Assimilation Every white country on earth is supposed to become multicultural and multiracial. EVERY white country is expected to end its own race and end its own culture. No one asks that of ANY non-white country. The Netherlands is more crowded than Japan, Belgium is more crowded than Taiwan, but nobody says Japan or Taiwan will solve the RACE problem by bringing in millions of third-worlders and assimilating and intermarrying with them. Everybody says the final solution to the RACE problem is for EVERY white country and ONLY white countries to bring in the third world and assimilate with them.
    Immigration, tolerance, and especially assimilation are being used against the white race. All this immigration and intermarriage is for EVERY white country and ONLY white countries. Anti-white is called anti-racist, but it leads to the disappearance of one race and only one race, the white race.
    It is genocide.

  4. Larry

    Anti-whites never miss an opportunity to talk about how “racist” White people are.
    White people can never disprove they are “racist”, no matter what they do it is seen as a form of “racism” by the so-called “anti-racists”.
    Who are they kidding? Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.

  5. Gar5

    How to identify if a commenter is anti-White and is inciting White genocide:1) They deny there is such a thing as White people or White countries.2) They scream about how evil White people are.3) They justify White genocide using one of a thousand different reasons.4) They wish for White genocide/celebrate it.5) They say any White who objects to points 1,2,3,4 are naziswhowanttokillsixmillionjews and should not be allowed to speak.

  6. Steven Heller Post author

    This is not a forum for racism of any kind. The comments above appear to be rooted in a white supremacist philosophy, which is decidedly wrong-headed, and obviously so to any reader of Imprint.

  7. Zrinski

    The R-WORD has been a principal tool anti-Whites have used to further their program of White Genocide. It carries the fundamental lie that racial feeling is a learned pathology rather than an innate biological trait that evolved to protect the survival of racial groups.

    The R-WORD was developed by Trotsky as a way to dehumanize MILLIONS of White Christians mass-murdered in the Bolshevik Revolution for simply being White and Christian.
    The R-WORD is an attack word used by anti-Whites against White People and ONLY White People to facilitate the program of White geNOcide-by-assimilation via mass third world immigration and FORCED integration and “assimilation” in ALL and ONLY White countries. Anti-racism is a code word for anti-White.

  8. PierreK

    Nobody is flooding and forcibly “integrating” every black nations and ONLY black nations with non-blacks and calling native blacks evil racists for opposing their replacement. This is happening in white nations and ONLY in white nations. Its genocide. They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white. Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.