Within White’s extraordinary output, Ye Shall Inherit the Earth is an exceptionally poignant embodiment of the artist’s championing of civil rights causes and, in particular, black feminist causes. Perhaps the ultimate embodiment of White’s dedication to these aims, Ye Shall Inherit the Earth represents the figure of Rosa Lee Ingram, an African-American woman who, in the late 1940s, became the subject of one of the most explosive capital punishment cases in American history – a key moment in the history of civil rights activism. In 1947, Ingram, a widowed mother of fourteen, and two of her sons were accused of killing their neighbor, a white sharecropper, after enduring years of his harassment and abuse. Although all three were initially sentenced to death, the public outcry was so immediate and vigorous that the three sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. The continued protest against the incarceration of the Ingrams became a central catalyst for African-American women across the political spectrum and served as a rallying cry and key cause for such groups as the Women’s Committee for Equal Justice and the Sojourners for Truth and Justice. In 1954, following years of continued widespread protest against the Ingrams’ imprisonment, the Women’s Committee for Equal Justice organized a letter writing campaign centered on the image of the present work. Timed to coincide with Mother’s Day, two sets of postcards were sent: one, featuring a photograph of Ingram and her sons, was sent to the Georgia governor to demand their release, while the other, illustrating Ye Shall Inherit the Earth, was sent to Ingram, assuring her of the continued efforts being made on her behalf. Selecting his title from the well-known Biblical verse, White chose these words to underscore Ingram as a potent symbol not only for marginalized African-Americans seeking civil reform, but also for the plight of women within a male-dominated society. Although it would be another five years of fervent campaigning before Ingram and her sons were released, Ye Shall Inherit the Earth is powerfully emblematic of White’s dedication to the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century.
Underscoring the significance of the work, Ye Shall Inherit the Earth was featured as the main image in a portfolio White published in 1953 titled Six Drawings; at the time, this portfolio was moderately priced so as to be accessible to a wide audience. White's desire to make his art more attainable was a concern shared by other artists of the era and attests to their determination to have their art brought to those sidelined by steep gallery prices and exclusive museum exhibitions. Testament to the success of this portfolio, White later learned that a small group of workers in Alabama combined their savings to purchase Six Drawings, and agreed to share the pictures among themselves - a beautifully touching conclusion to the creation of this important portfolio.
Gazing out at the audience with a quiet dignity, White’s totemic figure clutches her child to her breast, her left hand draped protectively over his head. While her pose suggests the statuesque solemnity of a Madonna, the figure is rendered in soft and tender shades of charcoal, allowing sinuous lines, gentle highlights, and the smooth grisaille palette to imbue the work with a quiet and restrained elegance. Her nondescript hat and clothing replace the Virgin Mary’s traditional lapis garb, positioning her in the contemporary agricultural setting of 1950s America. Half-swaddled, her cherubic infant leans against her breast, safely enclosed within her caring grasp. When the present work was exhibited in 1953 at ACA Galleries, Harold Zilberg wrote of its emotive power: “…a mother stands holding her child, and as she looks out of the picture with a determined steady gaze, seems plainly to be saying, ‘We are going to change this world and make it a better place for our children to live in.’” (Harold Zilberg, “Charles White’s Exhibit: A Warm Tribute to Negro People’s Struggle,” Daily Worker, February 19, 1953, p. 7)
Exemplified within the present work, White’s distinctive approach to portraiture communicates universal human themes while simultaneously exploring intensely personalized narratives, ultimately creating a body of work that continues to resonate deeply today. His contribution to the course of twentieth-century art history cannot be understated, not only as a supremely talented artist and social historian, but also as a mentor and teacher to some of today’s best-known artists. In the preface of the exhibition catalogue for Charles White: A Retrospective, former student Kerry James Marshall writes of his beloved teacher at the Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles County: “The labor, the work, in Charlie’s drawings is palpable. One can follow the process through his technique and understand exactly how the image came to be on the page or the canvas. His most accomplished drawings achieve true perfection. The effect is dazzling, efficient, and never extravagant. An atmosphere of stillness and quietude envelops the space in and around the work. I can’t help remembering a Shaker motto I read somewhere that governs their sense of piety and discipline: ‘Hands to work, hearts to God.’ The terms art and work gain embodied meaning in the best of his pictures.” (Kerry James Marshall, “A Black Artist Named White,” in Exh. Cat., Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago (and travelling), Charles White: A Retrospective, 2018, p. 19)
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