What Does Charles White Sound Like? A Playlist from Terrance McKnight

October 24, 2018
Terrance McKnight. Photo: Marco Antonio.
Terrance McKnight. Photo: Marco Antonio.

WQXR host Terrance McKnight worked with Associate Curator Esther Adler and The Museum of Modern Art to develop a playlist for the exhibition Charles White: A Retrospective. McKnight chose audio clips—including songs, poetry, and political speeches—in response to selected works made by White. While some pairings make historical connections, others draw on the subject matter of the images or McKnight’s own artistic associations. “I wanted people to take three to five minutes to meditate on these images and really hear the stories that I’ve concocted, that these people are telling,” McKnight reflected, “and really imagine the lives of these people they’re looking [at]…. I want them to walk away with more empathy and more appreciation of the beauty of what [White] did and what was important for him.”

Terrance McKnight's playlist for Charles White: A Retrospective

Isabel Custodio: Take me through your process. How did you go about creating this playlist?

Terrance McKnight: I started just by trying to learn by reading the exhibition catalogue. So just trying to learn as much about Charles White as I could, to figure out what was important to him and trying to match that with what was important to me. I figured if I could find some common ground between us, that would give me some insight as to how to approach it.

And in doing so, I learned that his mom, like mine, came from Mississippi during the Migration. Like me, he was a college professor. Like me, he was very interested in black history and black culture, and, like me, he was very close to music and musicians. After I got that information I just started living with the images. And I’d just flip through the book day after day after day and, you know, just had him in my mind all the time.

What I wanted to do was to bring them to life and try to figure out the images he created. What were those people thinking, or what they were talking about, or maybe what was he dealing with when he sketched these particular individuals?

I knew that part of his agenda was to bring out these characters in history that he thought were important. Some were well known, others weren’t. I wanted to do the same thing with musicians and bring out some of the important musicians of his time in particular who were important, some who were less known. I wanted to deal with living artists, different genres. I wanted to make a playlist accessible to people with differing music tastes.

Therefore, you’ve got some soul, you’ve got some music from the concert hall, you’ve got some jazz and some blues, you've got popular songs, a hum-ready tune. I wanted to create a diverse palette of music, just like he created a diverse palette of people from different walks of life.

Do you have a favorite pairing, one that really strikes you or you feel resonates with your personal experience?

Yes. Before I started school, James Brown came out with that song, "Say It Loud." And every day my sisters would come home from school and I would hear them walk in the door. They'd be like, “Terry, Terry.” And I’d answer and they’d say, “Say it loud.” “I’m black and I’m proud.” “I didn’t hear you, say it loud.” “I’m black and I’m proud.”

That was my rallying cry as a young child, and so by the time I went to kindergarten, I was very aware of my blackness.

When you walk in [to the exhibit] I knew people would see [Charles White’s mural Five Great American Negroes (1940)] right away. When I looked at it I thought, what did all these people have in common? You know, what was their message? And I was like, they had to be bold when their blackness might have been shameful because it was the thing that, you know, created the division. Here they were standing proud of it. From Frederick Douglas to Sojourner Truth, all of them were proud of who they were.

Charles White. Five Great American Negroes. 1939. The mural depicts from left to right: Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Marian Anderson, and George Washington Carver.
Charles White. Five Great American Negroes. 1939. The mural depicts from left to right: Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Marian Anderson, and George Washington Carver.

I put that song up against that image, and it looks like the people are actually dancing. So it seemed like it was the perfect fit. And once I got that one, everything else fell into place. I was in Mississippi when it came to me, and once I got “Say It Loud” everything else I was able to do probably within a week. But it took me months to figure that one out.

Did anything in particular happen while you were in Mississippi that caused you to realize that was the right song?

Oh, yeah. I was in Mississippi listening to Lead Belly. Before I got to Mississippi, I was trying to listen to Lead Belly and couldn’t understand a word that he was saying. I mean, I was like, “I don't understand what Lead Belly’s...what he’s singing about. I don't get it.”

So I went down to Mississippi, to my family property. Lead Belly grew up a couple hundred miles from us. I started thinking, just listening to my cousins talk and listening to people talk down there. And then it kind of started making sense, and I started thinking about the way my grandfather would say words.

I’d listen to him, and then I was able to hear [Lead Belly] more clearly from Mississippi. And so as I started looking at the images listening to his music, it just all started to fall in place.

What did working on this project make you think about the relationship between visual art and music?

I think that now that I’ve become familiar with Charles White, with his art, I’m able to hear and see how this idea of dignity and beauty and righteousness and morality is so equally matched between the musical arts and what he was trying to do.

I've got some concert music in there. I've got George Walker. And T.J. Anderson, his "Watermelon Revisited" is in there. These guys were about the same thing, fighting for the same issues as musicians and composers as Charles White was doing on a canvas.

You could see the pain. You could see all of the expressions, the emotions on these people’s faces. And he made it personal. Charles White was really bringing these very negroid facial features to the fore, just like the black composers were bringing or using spirituals and idioms from black music that had universal themes.

There's another one I did, [Young Farmer (1953)]. It looks, to me, like valleys, and I paired that with [George Frideric] Handel. I paired that with Handel because you had these black men and black women coming out of the South growing into concert music. I've got William Warfield singing that.

Charles White. Young Farmer. 1953.
Charles White. Young Farmer. 1953.

William Warfield became this great concert artist, and so they were leaving the South, oftentimes, and sending so much money back to their families, trying to make things better for those in the South because they were still dealing with Jim Crow down there.

So you had all these black musicians moving from the South. Not all of them, you know, were jazz musicians or blues musicians. Some of them were classical musicians. I want to bring that to the fore. I thought it was important to use Handel and talk about every valley being exalted because Handel was someone who invested in the slave trade.

Charles White was all about this universality, so I wanted to even say that even Handel’s “Valley” can be exalted. His crooked road can be made straight, just like William Warfield and these black singers were trying to make things better for their people back home, maybe this message is that there’s redemption for all of us.

McKnight also interviewed actor Harry Belafonte for this exhibition. You can hear an excerpt from his interview here. Charles White: A Retrospective is on view October 7, 2018–January 13, 2019. Buy tickets today.