by Jenny Woodley. University Press of Kentucky, June 2014. 270 p. ill. ISBN 9780813145167 (cl.), $40.00.
Reviewed November 2014
This volume traces the NAACP's less well known cultural campaign to change depictions of African Americans in the arts and popular culture and to promote a sense of cultural and artistic black identity in the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. The work forms part of the series Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century. Author Jenny Woodley has written previously on this topic and provides a thoroughly researched account.
With a focus on the period before 1955, Art for Equality documents the extensive cultural campaign to combat racial prejudice against African Americans through the promotion of arts and culture, the use of positive images, and through lobbying against stereotypical representations of African Americans in film and television. Comprised of six chapters, the work begins by examining the fight against the controversial film The Birth of a Nation. This is followed by an overview of the period between 1910 and 1934 during which the NAACP promoted the cultural achievements of African Americans through participation in the Harlem Renaissance and through the seminal magazine The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, under the direction of editor W.E.B. Du Bois.
The remaining chapters explore the use of the arts as propaganda to influence views of lynching; the efforts of Walter White, NAACP executive secretary, to change the stereotypical and harmful portrayal of blacks in motion pictures during the Second World War; and the NAACP's cultural strategy between 1945-1955 with a focus on film and television, including the impact of anti-Communism. The volume concludes with an overview of the organization's efforts into the late 1960s. Albeit significant, the cultural campaign is revealed as a less successful strategy than the use of law courts and legislation to combat structural and institutional racism.
The work is principally a narrative and readers expecting the inclusion of images reflecting the cultural campaign will be disappointed. The selected images included are black and white reproductions from The Crisis. While the account is fascinating, the text can be somewhat repetitive in parts. A comprehensive bibliography, including primary and secondary sources, is included, as well as a detailed index.
What sets the work apart from other treatments is the focus on NAACP's activities relating to arts and culture as opposed to political activities. A highly readable volume which will be of interest to students, historians and general readers, Art for Equality is recommended for library collections supporting undergraduate and graduate programs in a wide range of disciplines.