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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 includes 15 linocuts that highlight the contributions of African American women in the 1940s and earlier in American history. Each image provides a glimpse into the challenges Black women faced in post-war America. The four images included here were selected because they speak to women’s contributions in the workplace, in the creative community, and in the broader fight for racial equality.

Vocabulary

  • linoleum cut / linocut: An art form that involves carving an image in a piece of linoleum, rolling ink over the carving, and pressing it against a piece of paper.
  • Tuskegee Institute: An African American school for higher education and job training. One of the first of its kind. Founded by activist Booker T. Washington in Alabama in 1881.
  • Howard University: A historically Black university in Washington, D.C.
  • Carnegie Institute of Technology: A college in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Discussion Questions

  • What is happening in each of these individual images? What story do they tell when examined together?
  • What do you think the artist is trying to say through these images? What does the title “I am the black woman” mean in the context of these images?
  • Which image stands out to you the most and why?
  • Consider the titles of each image. How do the titles add deeper meaning to each image?
  • What have you learned from these images about the challenges African American women faced in the post war period?
  • Many people incorrectly assume that the African American community did not fight for civil rights until the mid-1950s and 1960s with leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. How does Elizabeth Catlett’s art prove that people were thinking about equal rights much earlier?
  • Elizabeth’s grandparents were enslaved, and her father worked at the Tuskegee Institute. How do you think her family heritage may have inspired her art work?
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Suggested Activities

  • Lesson Plan: In this lesson designed for eleventh grade, students will learn about the impact of World War II on African Americans. They will consider the gains as well as the obstacles that African Americans faced during and after the war, and reflect on how these experiences motivated people to join the growing Civil Rights Movement.
  • View more of this series by visiting the Smithsonian’s digital collections.
  • Elizabeth Catlett’s series is a reflection on the history of African American women from the founding of the nation until 1946. Combine this resource with any number of items relating to the Black experience from Modernizing America: 1889—1920 and Confidence & Crises: 1920—1948.
  • Combine this resource with the artwork of Augusta Savage to consider how two African American women used their artistic talents to advocate for equal rights.
  • Learn more about the challenges African American women faced in the post-war era by combining this resource with the life story of Pauli Murray.
  • Pair the image entitled “I have given the world my songs” with the life story of Bessie Smith to consider the contribution and impact of Black women in music.
  • The image entitled “I have always worked hard in America” refers to the high percentage of Black women who worked in the domestic sphere. Learn more about African American women and work by combining this image with Fannie Barrier Williams’ article in the Chicago Defender and additional resources in the Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow curriculum.
  • The image entitled “My role has been important in the struggle to organize the unorganized” speaks to the role of African American women in organized labor. Learn about the challenges of integrating labor unions by reading the life story of Ella May Wiggins.
  • Gain more insight into the historical context of these images and learn more about the Double V campaign, the African American community’s fight for civil rights during World War II, by checking out the resources in the WWII & NYC curriculum.
  • Have students consider Elizabeth Catlett’s artistic process and inspirations, then create their own prints rooted in an interpretation of their personal identity in this arts integration activity.

Themes

AMERICAN CULTURE; AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

  • For more resources relating to women and modern life in the early twentieth century, see The Armory Show at 100.
Source Notes
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