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Course: For teachers > Unit 2

Lesson 3: Go deeper: oppression and resistance

Romare Bearden, Factory Workers

The artwork "Factory Workers" by Romare Bearden reveals the plight of African American workers in the 1940s defense industry. Commissioned by Fortune Magazine, it underscores the discrimination these workers faced. Bearden's piece serves as a potent social critique, embodying his dedication to portraying African American life and culture. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • blobby green style avatar for user Brett
    What is the meaning of the hand gestures in the foreground - the pointing finger and thumb and forefinger?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      It appears to me that they indicate convesation between the two men about something that is outside the frame of the picture, nothing more than that.

      I am one who uses his hands a lot while speaking, and who notices others who, unconsciously, express meanings with gesture alongside or on top of their speech. The men in the picture appear to me to have this habit as well.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user cakosa1
    Watch video and read the about section, and answer the following THREE questions:
    1. What is the story in Romare Bearden's Factory Workers painting? Explain like you would explain to a friend or a family member)
    2. Why do you think the artist made a realistic painting as opposed to a poster?
    3. How could this painting relate to what is happening today? (especially due to the Covid-19n crisis.)
    Submit your answers in Google classroom.
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(gentle dramatic music) - [Beth] 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-20th Century artist Romare Bearden. - [Dennis] The title of the work is Factory Workers. And 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 in hiring and promotion was bad for business, it was bad for the war effort, and was bad for society at large. - [Beth] 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. - [Dennis] So what we're seeing are two African American workers who have been denied jobs at a steel factory and trying to decide between themselves what to do next. - [Beth] 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 with a shed, and that third figure who is somewhat mysterious, a little bit in shadow, we're not sure if he represents the employer. - [Dennis] Or it could be a fellow worker who's now looking at a newspaper for additional job prospects. - [Beth] We do feel sympathy for these men who are looking for employment and unable to find it because of discrimination. - [Dennis] United States Armed Forces was segregated at this time and much of industry was also segregated. The article came out seven months after Pearl Harbor. - [Beth] This is 1942, we're in the middle of World War II. 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. - [Dennis] Bearden was commissioned to do the frontispiece, which is a very prestigious assignment. - [Beth] So gouache is a water-based medium, but it's opaque, it's not like a water color, 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. - [Dennis] 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 article would be on the right. - [Beth] 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. - [Dennis] Fortune magazine had a progressive editorial slant, it was founded by Henry Luce who also produced Life magazine and Time magazine. At this time Bearden made this picture, approximately 51% of defense industry jobs were not available to black workers. - [Beth] And that's remarkable considering the importance of the war effort and leaving these jobs unfilled, of course, damaged that effort. - [Dennis] President Franklin Roosevelt signed executive order in June, 1941 expressly prohibiting racial discrimination in defense industry and government. - [Beth] In response to protests from the African American community about the tremendous discrimination that was taking place. - [Dennis] 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. - [Beth] The law said 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, too, in more industrial cities. - [Dennis] The great migration from the rural and small town south to industrialized 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, and they invited prestigious writers, musicians, and artists. This was the milieu that Bearden grew up in, so he was very familiar with the cultural expression of African American community, African American life, and that was one of his principle goals in his art. - [Beth] 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. - [Dennis] The Mexican muralists' 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 realists in 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 Shahn 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. - [Beth] We're still really at the beginning of Bearden's very long and remarkable career when we look at this painting. - [Dennis] One of the most important modern artists in the United States, and certainly one of the most important African American artists as well. (gentle dramatic music)