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Video transcript

[Music] we're here in the print study room at the Minneapolis Institute of Art Mia and we're looking at a beautiful gouache by great early twentieth century artist romare bearden the title of the work is factory workers it was commissioned to illustrate an in-depth feature article in Fortune magazine on the plight of African Americans in the defense industry the purpose of the article was threefold discrimination and hiring and promotion was bad for business it was bad for the war effort and it was bad for society at large the article says the American Negro is agitated not because he is asked to fight for America but because full participation in the fight is denied him he is humiliated as a negro because he is not fully accepted as an American and of course the term Negro not one that we use anymore but was obviously very much in use in the early 20th century and another quote no serious review of the nation's status could ever overlook the contradiction between America's dream and the Negro reality so what we're seeing are two African American workers who have been denied jobs at steel factory and trying to decide between themselves what to do next their mouths are down turned it looks like a rather bleak landscape behind them with the factory in the distance and then this pile of coal the shed and that third figure who is somewhat mysterious a little bit in shadow we're not sure if he represents the employer or it could be a fellow worker was now looking at a newspaper for additional job prospects we do feel sympathy for these men who are looking for employment and unable to find it because of discrimination and I save Armed Forces was segregated at this time and much of industry was also segregated the article came out seven months after Pearl Harbor this is 1942 were in the middle of World War two we're at the beginning of America's involvement the defense industries are gearing up to serve the war effort and hiring millions of workers Bearden was commissioned to do the frontispiece which is very prestigious assignment so gouache is a water-based medium but it's opaque it's not like watercolor which can have levels of transparency so this does have the feeling of a monumental serious work even though it's not oil on canvas he's using these materials for a number of reasons one reason is metallic pigments were not allowed during war because of the war effort chromium red comes to mind so he uses earth tones muted colors the figures are looking to our right and the title and introduction to the Artic would be on the right we think about Fortune magazine and we might think about a publication that is more conservative leaning something that is very Pro corporate America but at this point fortune magazine had a more liberal bent Fortune magazine had a progressive editorial slant it was found by Henry Luce who also produced Life magazine and Time magazine at the time beard made this picture approximately 51% of defense industry jobs were not available to black workers and that's remarkable considering the importance of the war effort and leaving these jobs unfilled of course damaged that effort President Franklin Roosevelt signed executive order in June 1941 expressly prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry and government in response to protests from the African American community about the tremendous discrimination that was taking place and we believe that the article in Fortune magazine was the direct result of this order and the attention it received both in the press and in the lives of African Americans the lawsuit specifically there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries and in government because of race creed color or national origin this is the first order by the government about discrimination since the Emancipation Proclamation we often think about discrimination in the Jim Crow South we don't often think about the great extent of it in the north - in more industrial cities the great migration from the rural and small town south to industrialize centers and big cities in the north romare bearden was part of that he was born in North Carolina was brought to New York City by his parents both social activists they invited prestigious writers musicians and artists this was the milieu that Bearden grew up in so he was very familiar with the call trol expression of african-american community african-american life and that was one of his principal goals in his art this was something that was not just happening in Harlem with black artists but something that was happening broadly in the beginnings of the 20th century among artists we can think of the Mexican muralists for example the Mexican muralist social purpose was paramount and for Bearden as well social purpose as well as social critique it wasn't the only aspect of his art he was very much interested in modernism but at this time 1942 he is coming out of his experience with the social realist of the 1930s many who were involved with the WPA which was a federal government program to support the livelihood of artists and he's influenced by a number of his fellow artists Jacob Lawrence comes to mind Ben Shawn was an important social realist also working in New York social realism was meant to tell a story and that's what Bearden is doing in this picture factory workers we're still really at the beginning of Bearden's very long and remarkable career when we look at this painting one of the most important modern artists the United States and certainly one of the most important african-american artists as well you