Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:5:33

Video transcript

(piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in painting storage. We've pulled out a long metal rack filled with paintings, and amongst them is a small painting by Horace Pippin from 1943 called Mr. Prejudice. - [Jessica] The painting is filled with various characters. First and foremost, a white man wielding an ax above a V. - [Steven] He's so menacing. - [Jessica] He's looking straight out at the viewer with creases in his brow and his mouth fixed in a frown. - [Steven] He's been called by some critics an executioner. You can almost image that ax coming down on somebody's neck. And just at the seam of the V is a wedge and a crack that he's producing. - [Jessica] The wedge is not just driving a crack through the V, it's really dividing the entire canvas in two. - [Steven] On the left side is the Statue of Liberty painted in a dark brown, and so clearly the artist is making a Statue of Liberty who is black. - [Jessica] At the very base of the V, on the left is an African American machinist, on the right is a white machinist, with their backs towards one another. - [Steven] This is 1943 in the middle of the Second World War when American focus was on its war production, but there were racial divisions that were undermining it. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had signed a proclamation which outlawed discrimination in wartime industries, because he felt it was hurting the war effort. - [Jessica] And that theme is then continued at the base of the canvas, and on the left, there are four African American figures who are associated in some ways with the war effort. We have a figure who's been interpreted as a doctor wearing a face mask. Some feel that it could be a soldier who'd been injured in the war effort. Then, there is a World War II Naval Officer. Then, a World War II aviator. And then next to him, and infantryman from the First World War. - [Steven] The artist, Horace Pippin, had been part of the famous Harlem Hellfighters, African American soldiers who actually spent more time on the front lines than any other regiment during the First World War, and had enormous successes. But there was racism in the American Army itself, even during World War I. So much racism against the Harlem Hellfighters that the Americans eventually put those troops under the command of the French. - [Jessica] And Pippin was injured in the line of battle. - [Steven] He was right-handed, and it was his right shoulder that was wounded. - [Jessica] He'd expressed an interest in art as a young man, but had to work to support his family. After his return from World War I with his injured arm, he discovered that he could make art by using his left arm to hold his lame right arm. His left arm could guide it. And then almost as a sort of physical therapy, he became more and more proficient. And then he really began working in earnest in the 1930's. - [Steven] And then his celebrity grew. His paintings were shown at the Museum of Modern Art. - [Jessica] And people have pointed out that the infantryman in this painting has his right arm hanging rather limply by his side. - [Steven] It's interesting that the group of figures on the left are, with the exception of the sailor, facing us, but they're opposites on the right side, white figures are facing the African Americans. The largest of those figures is also an aviator. He has his arm extended, but he doesn't actually seem to be reaching his hand out to shake. - [Jessica] The African American Naval Officer almost looks as though he would be shaking hands with the aviator, but not quite. - [Steven] But it's the figures about those men that are the most chilling. The figure in the red shirt with the black hat stares with a menacing look towards the Statue of Liberty, and he holds in his left hand a noose, a reference to the lynchings, especially that had taken place in the American South, in the wake of the First World War. - [Jessica] And perhaps even more chilling, above him, is a figure with a white robe of the Ku Klux Klan. - [Steven] Both standing opposite this black Statue of Liberty, creating this powerful confrontation. - [Jessica] There's also a diagonal relationship between the figure who is wearing the garb of the Ku Klux Klan paralleled in the lower left-hand corner with the African American man who's also in white who is wearing is wearing a mask across his mouth. - [Steven] There is also the parallel between the torch of Liberty and the noose in the opposite corner. And so this is a painting about stark contrasts. Contrasts that made up the reality of African Americans in the US in the years from the First to the Second World War. - [Jessica] There was tragedy in these soldiers risking their lives for their country. - [Steven] The heroism with which blacks fought in the First World War, one would think would accord them respect upon their return, but historians see the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, in the 1920's especially, as a response to the return of black soldiers. - [Jessica] And that's where we return to the conversation of the V. The V for Victory coming into the second world war was a phrase coined by Winston Churchill that took root in the United States, particularly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, very prominent iconography. In the African American community, there was talk of having a double V, a victory abroad, but also the need for the victory at home against racism. So this double V here inflated into a single V, but in a sense it has that double meaning of military conflict and racial conflict. (piano music)