Because of the desperate economic and social conditions of the 1930s, artists developed a renewed interest in displaying the plights of laborers and disenfranchised individuals (the Ashcan School had dealt with these themes earlier, at the turn of the 20th century). Building out of leftist concerns, social realism aimed at social change, and the mural seemed uniquely able to argue for this as a very public art form. For many artists, mural painting was also a reaction against the decadence of art displayed in galleries and private homes, which seemed gratuitous in an era of extreme poverty. A number of muralists dealt with the social problems and suffering of the Depression era, but "the majority of works embodied . . . a naive form of social realism, inspiring Americans to reflect on their heritage of revolution, hard work and religion in an attempt to bring back prosperity" (Grove Dictionary of Art). A smaller group of muralists, including Aaron Douglas, worked to highlight social problems and attack social injustices within the very fabric of American society.


Michael Lensen, Mining, Mount Hope, West Virginia

Detail from Diego Rivera, Modern Industry (1933)

Although social realism is defined primarily by its message and political leanings rather than its style, it is often associated with the hard-edged muscular forms popularized by Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. The work of these two quintessential muralists was extremely influential in the U.S. during the 30s, especially among artists living in cities where their work could be viewed (New York, San Francisco, Detroit). African-American muralists including Charles Alston, Charles White, and Hale Woodruff adopted elements of the Mexican muralists' work into their own. White and Woodruff apprenticed under Rivera, and Alston recalls going "down to Radio City when Rivera was painting the one they destroyed [Man at the Crossroads]. And between his broken English and my broken French we managed to communicate" (Lefalle-Collins and Goldman, 34).

While Douglas did not adopt a style similar to these muralists, his work expresses similar concerns, if more subtly. As with other artists concerned with social inequities, Douglas' interest in the labor movement increased during the 1930s. He came to believe labor was "one of the most important aspects of Negro development" and included laboring blacks in his murals for Fisk University (1930), among others. His purpose in doing so was clear: "He wanted the Fisk students to realize the Negroes' important contribution to the building of America" (Kirschke, Douglas, 111). Other muralists painted scenes of African-American laborers later in the decade under the federal art projects, but most of these murals were painted in the South. Their purpose seems to have been reinforcing the existing Southern white hegemony through depicting blacks being supervised by white foremen, rather than taking pride in the fact that black labor had secured and would continue to secure American prosperity (American Artists' Congress, 32-34). Cotton Scene, for example, painted for a post office in Harselle, Alabama, divides labor distinctly into black agricultural work and white commercial handling.


Lee R. Warthen, Cotton Scene, Hartselle, Alabama

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In contrast to the figures in these murals, Douglas' laborers emanated dignity, self-respect, and self-sufficiency. One reoccurring image was that of the contemplative man with a hoe. In the Fisk University Murals (1930), Spirits Rising (1930-31) and Idyll of the Deep South (1934), this figure appears, reminding viewers of the black sharecropper who generally did not enjoy the celebratory spirit that white agrarian workers did in the 30s. See for example, Turning a Corner and Noble County—Ohio, painted for post offices in Anthony, Kansas and Caldwell, Ohio, respectively, which contrast with the scene of black laborers above.click for larger imageThe hoe also recalls the communist emblem of the sickle, which symbolized the proletariat, as well as Jean-Francois Millet's painting Man with a Hoe (1863). The latter was used by progressives at the turn of the century to highlight the growing serfdom agricultural workers experienced. At a time when many regions were celebrating their agricultural heritage, Douglas' figure resonates with concerns of many social realists of the time. Black sharecroppers in particular were the focus of Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell's You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), because of their suffering under what they, Douglas, and others saw as essentially a feudal system.

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Douglas was also interested in blacks' participation in the industrial labor force. In many of his murals, the factory appears as a symbol of black progress, a prize on top of the racial mountain. But Douglas also recognized that industrial jobs were in conflict with other goals, such as education, pointing to the earlier split in the African-American community between Booker T. Washington, who advocated vocational training for blacks, and W.E.B. Dubois, who argued for a liberal arts education.click for larger imageIn Slavery Through Reconstruction, for example, Douglas placed the university and factory side by side on top of a hill. Douglas himself admired Fisk for its promotion of the liberal arts even under pressures to become a technical school, which is why he chose to depict drama, philosophy, music, poetry, and science in his mural series for Fisk (A Thing of Beauty).

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Douglas also commented on the failures of the factory system, often associated with urban areas and often with the urban North, which seemed to hold so much promise for blacks in the 20s. Though much more ubiquitous in the South, white violence against blacks rose in the North when huge numbers of black workers migrated North in search of industrial jobs and freedom from Jim Crow South. In his mural of 1930 for the Sherman Hotel, the urban North, symbolized in a cabaret scene, is not free from the specter of white physical violence, symbolized by a hand coming up from the bottom of the mural, connecting it with terror typical of the South.click for larger imageIn his Aspects of Negro Life series of 1934, painted for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), a predecessor to the WPA, the South "with blood on its mouth" appears more clearly, grabbing at a man running with his suitcase (Hughes, "South," 24). This figure, representing the Great Migration, Douglas envisioned as the African-American agricultural worker "fleeing from the clutching hands of serfdom," running away from oppression more than towards anything (Samahin, 55).The panel, and this series of murals, ends on what Douglas himself called a "depressing note," that of another imposing hand, this time of hunger, poverty and death reaching to claim a dejected black man during the depression. The aspiration of reaching the urban, industrial environment is critiqued here through the machine cog that can only briefly hold the saxophone player, on top of the racial mountain. Smoke ominously bellows out from stacks, threatening to choke the Depression-era figure. The Statue of Liberty mimics the jazz musician's gesture, perhaps a signal of the downfall of both images of freedom in the 30s.

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Douglas' interest in the African-American as laborer grew over the course of the decade, not only as an abstract ideal but as a reality for himself and other black artists and cultural workers. Although Douglas was one of the most successful black artists at this time in securing mural commissions, Douglas also "easily identified with the worker, as he had to take on various menial jobs in order to support his education as well as his quest to become an artist" (Douglas, 81). As was the case for many Americans—especially African-Americans disillusioned with the current social and economic system—communism seemed an attractive alternative for Douglas at this time. Starting in the late 20s and early 30s, the Communist party in the U.S. increased its efforts to involve black Americans by focusing more attention on racism and particularly giving more precedence to their anti-lynching campaign. An estimated "75 percent of black cultural figures had Communist party membership or maintained regular contact with party members during the 1930s" (Kirschke, "Depression," 26).

At what is seen as the height of his political involvement (1934-36), Douglas became involved in the American Artists' Congress, a leftist organization whose call was directed toward artists who

understood that collective organization was necessary to combat fascism. Specific concerns of the congress included the decline of traditional forms of patronage, the inadequacy of government programs, the censorship of works of art such as Rivera's Rockefeller Center mural, and various violations of civil liberties (Hemingway, 123).

He spoke at the Congress' February 1936 meeting, presenting a paper entitled "The Negro in American Culture," the only speech given by an African American (Hemingway, 124). In his paper, Douglas "claimed that the identity of the 'Negro artist' was an inherently proletarian one, for he 'is essentially a product of the masses and can never take a position above or beyond their level.'" (qtd. In Hemingway, 300, note 81).

Charles Alston, Modern Medicine (1936)

A publicly declared Marxist, Douglas said he had been "bolshevised by conditions" (Hemingway, 90). He showed his commitment to social reform and leftist causes by becoming the first president—in 1935—of the Harlem Artists Guild, an offshoot of the left-wing Artists' Union whose members mobilized to deal with the concerns of black cultural workers whose needs they felt were not being addressed by the larger downtown-based organization (Timmerman, 21).

He must have been involved when the group protested the rejection of murals painted by Charles Alston, Georgette Seabrooke, Vertis Hayes, and Sara Murrell for Harlem Hospital in early 1936. Although approved by the WPA, who was funding the project, the local sponsors at the hospital objected to the fact that there was "too much Negro subject matter," "Negroes may not form the greater part of the community 25 years hence," "Negroes in the community might object to the Negro subject matter in the murals," and "the hospital is not a Negro hospital, therefore why should it be singled out for treatment with Negro subject matter?" (qtd. in Berman, "Walls," 123). The HAG responded by citing the superintendent's decision as one of a series of discriminatory acts by the hospital and pointing out that "basically it is self-evident that such discrimination against the work of Negro artists is simply the logical result of such segregation of Negro artists into an all-Negro project as has been fostered by the WPA art administration" (qtd. in Berman, "Walls," 123). The murals were finally accepted by the superintendent after a "representative group from Harlem [agreed] . . . there is no offense to Negroes in these paintings" (qtd. in Berman, Mural, 106). Most historians of and participants in federally funded art projects in the 30s have stated that the government programs gave blacks freedom to paint as they wished, but that they could not help but be discriminatory because of the larger social structure of the time. The Harlem Hospital murals illustrate one of a number of negotiations on the part of black artists in the 30s.

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Douglas had encountered government censorship in his work under the Public Works of Art Project and perhaps used this experience to aid Alston in his battle with the Harlem Hospital Administration. He had wanted to offer an alternative ending to his Aspects of Negro Life Series, one where black and white workers united. He was sure his entire series would have been rejected, however, due to earlier revisions he was forced to make when addressing one of the most emotionally charged racial issues of the day, lynching (Kirschke, 123). In his work for the PWAP, he addresses lynching in two panels. First, the Ku Klux Klan's ghostlike appearance coincides with that of Union soldiers leaving after the Civil War in Slavery Through Reconstruction, pointing to the northern abolitionists' neglect to secure not only the rights but the safety of blacks in the South after the war.click for larger imageIn the next panel, the legacy of this action can be seen in the lynching depicted in Idyll of the Deep South. On the far left side of this panel, mourners kneel under the feet of a lynched man. While not nearly as graphic as Diego Rivera's American Civil War (1932), Douglas captures the agony felt after these murderous acts and indicates that, like the African dance, it is inextricably linked with African-American consciousness.

Though Douglas did not include anti-lynching messages in any of his other murals, he was committed to the cause, and helped to organize The Struggle for Negro Rights Exhibition in 1935. The show was in part a reaction to the NAACP's An Art Commentary on Lynching of the same year, who the party accused of barring two groups, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights and the International Labor Defense (ILD), two Harlem-based organizations with ties to the Communist party. The NAACP and the Communist party disagreed on what the fundamental causes of lynching were (the product of the economic deprivation of Southern whites or a practice deliberately orchestrated by the Southern ruling class "to terrorize the Negro into submission," respectively). They had really butted heads over the defense campaign for the Scottsboro Boys, nine young African Americans who were framed for and eventually convicted of raping two young women in Alabama in 1931. In Andrew Hemingway's words,

The role of the Communist-dominated International Labor Defense in defending the victims, and the numerous direct action protests organised by the Party to prevent a legal lynching, were strongly criticised by the predominantly middle-class NAACP, despite the fact that its own tactics were completely ineffectual. Although the reputation of the ILD was tarnished when its lawyers attempted to bribe a witness in autumn 1934, the energy of the Communists' Scottsboro campaign helped to make the Party an increasingly significant force in Harlem politics (65).

Despite the Party's commitment to civil rights, and the fact that Aaron Douglas was on the committee for the exhibition, "he did not show, and indeed among the forty-four artists whose work had been selected by 'a jury composed of Negro and White representatives from labor and art groups'," none have been identified as African American (Hemingway, 65).

Douglas was unique as a muralist because his style, while promoting social change, did not coincide with that of many other social realists. It did not show a direct line of influence from the Mexican muralists as many artists working in a social realist vein did. He instead chose to use modernist aesthetics in his murals.