In 1966 Miriam Matthews, a collector and former librarian, wrote to art-
ist Charles White to commission an image of Biddy Mason, the nineteenth-­
century black pioneer and former slave who had challenged California’s shift-
ing black codes.1 White had always been captivated by the ways the visual
could annotate history, and throughout his career he was sought out by all
manner of people to illuminate missing or overlooked aspects of the human
narrative.2 What did change for White in the 1960s was the way he approached
his craft, as he further complicated the pictorial surface and the understand-
ing of history itself.
White’s Biddy Mason project follows another important picture of a
nineteenth-­century figure commissioned by the Golden State Mutual Life
Insurance Company. Made from Chinese ink on illustration board, Charles
White’s General Moses (Harriet Tubman), 1965 (plate 1), is a portrait of this
important slave absconder, conductor on the Underground Railroad, aboli-
tionist, and Union spy during the Civil War. In White’s almost six-­foot draw-
ing, Tubman, the composition’s center of gravity, sits on a boulder, as if she
is taking a brief rest from the task at hand. She stares out at us with a direct,
relentless gaze. The artist takes on history—American, African American,
and also diasporic—in a commentary on transatlantic slavery. As in many
of White’s later works, the landscape is elusive—a small patch of grass and
South of Pico:
Migration, Art, and
Black Los Angeles
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