Resource

Reflecting on the Black Experience

Linoleum cuts by African American artist Elizabeth Catlett that explore the lives of Black women in America.

I have given the world my songs

Elizabeth Catlett, artist, I have given the world my songs, 1946-1947. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Winifred Hervey. © Catlett Mora Family Trust/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

My role has been important in the struggle to organize the unorganized

Elizabeth Catlett, artist, My role has been important in the struggle to organize the unorganized, 1947. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Winifred Hervey. © Catlett Mora Family Trust/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

I have always worked hard in America

Elizabeth Catlett, artist, I have always worked hard in America, 1946-1947. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Winifred Hervey. © Catlett Mora Family Trust/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

My right is a future of equality with other Americans

Elizabeth Catlett, artist, My right is a future of equality with other Americans, 1947. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Winifred Hervey. © Catlett Mora Family Trust/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Background

As the country acclimated to a post-war world, many African Americans questioned where they fit into society. Black women served their country in the military and the defense industries. Many participated in the Double V campaign, which raised awareness about the contradiction of America spreading freedom around the world while denying equal rights to people of color living within its own borders.

The war brought about many short-term changes for Black women, but little changed in the long-term. Society expected Black women—like their white counterparts—to give up whatever newfound freedoms they gained during the war. In addition, civil rights advocates made little progress to end Jim Crow policies and violence against Black Americans. America was just as limiting to men and women of color after the war as it had been before the war. There was one major difference, however. Through their wartime service, Black women briefly experienced the benefits of higher pay and integrated work environments. Losing those gains motivated them to fight against post-war setbacks, reclaim their wartime privileges, and contribute to the growing civil rights movement.

About the Image

These images were created by artist Elizabeth Catlett. Elizabeth’s grandparents were enslaved Africans. Her father was a professor of mathematics at the famous Tuskegee Institute and her mother worked an assortment of jobs to support the family. Elizabeth was denied entry to the Carnegie Institute of Technology because of her race and attended the historically Black Howard University instead. While there, she studied art and design and graduated with honors in sculpture.

Elizabeth’s mentors encouraged her to create art in response to what she knew and experienced. Her I am the black woman (originally entitled I am the negro woman) series is an example of her approach. Elizabeth created these pieces while participating in a radical artist community in Mexico City. The United States government considered her politics so extreme that they placed her on a list of dangerous people and barred her re-entry into the United States. Elizabeth eventually renounced her American citizenship and made Mexico her permanent home.

The complete set inclu