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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Segregation

Elizabeth Catlett, Special houses, The Negro Woman, 1946-1947
"Special houses"
Segregation and the Black Psyche
- Elizabeth Catlett, The Negro Woman, linoleum cut series, 1946-1947, selections (PDF)

Elizabeth Catlett's The Negro Woman is a series of fifteen linoleum cuts that, in the words of critic Melanie Anne Herzog, "acknowledges the harsh reality of black women's labor, honors several renowned heroines . . . and renders visible the fears, struggles, and achievements of ordinary African American women."1 Renamed The Black Woman Series in 1971, it falls roughly into two sections. The first, plates one through ten, establishes the Negro woman's place in the United States; the second, plates eleven through fourteen, illustrates how she has been rewarded for her efforts. The final plate asserts the Negro woman's right to equality. Following the example of Jacob Lawrence's The Migration of the Negro (see Theme II: MIGRATIONS in this toolbox), Catlett accompanied her images with a contextualizing narrative:
(1) I am the Negro woman. (2) I have always worked hard in America. (3) In the fields. (4) In other folks' homes. (5) I have given the world my songs. (6) In Sojourner Truth I fought for the rights of women as well as Negroes. (7) In Harriet Tubman I helped hundreds to freedom. (8) In Phillis Wheatley I proved intellectual equality in the midst of slavery. (9) My role has been important in the struggle to organize the unorganized. (10) I have studied in ever increasing numbers. (11) My reward has been bars between me and the rest of the land. (12) I have special reservations. (13) Special houses. (14) And a special fear for my loved ones. (15) My right is a future of equality with other Americans.
Here we focus on plates eleven through fourteen. In eleven ("My reward . . . ") , a woman peers forlornly over a strand of barbed wire. In twelve ("I have special reservations."), four African American women sit in sorrowful isolation in the colored-only section of a bus. In thirteen ("Special houses"), two women stare past each other against a background of tenement houses, and in fourteen ("And a special fear . . ."), a black man sprawls on the ground, a noose around his neck with three pairs of feet above him. In the isolation, alienation, sorrow, and terror depicted in these four pieces Catlett suggests some of the damage segregation inflicted on the black psyche.

Catlett (1915-) studied design and print making at Howard University and sculpture at the University of Iowa. In 1946 she received a fellowship that enabled her to continue her studies in Mexico City. There she became committed to using art to foster social change. Eventually, she settled in Mexico and became a Mexican citizen. (For more on Elizabeth Catlett, see Theme IV: COMMUNITY.) (3 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What would the bared wire in plate 11 ("My reward . . .") suggest to a viewer in 1946?
  2. How do the four plates infuse the words "special" and "reservations" with ironic connotations and multiple meanings?
  3. How does Catlett induce the reader/viewer to identify with the subjects of The Negro Woman series?
  4. What emotions do the images evoke, and how does Catlett communicate them?
  5. In plate 12 ("I have special reservations.") what does Catlett achieve by placing a single figure in the foreground, contrasted with three separate figures in the background?
  6. What effect does the tight framing of plates 11 ("My reward . . .") and 12 ("I have special reservations.") achieve?
  7. What do the three pairs of feet suggest in plate 14 ("And a special fear . . . ")?
  8. In what ways does Catlett's medium embody America's racial problems?

Framing Questions
  •  What constitutes segregation?
  •  How did African Americans experience it?
  •  What is the difference between segregation and separation?
  •  What are the consequences of segregation? Separation?

Catlett:  3 pages
Supplemental Sites
Elizabeth Catlett, overview, in African American World (PBS)

Elizabeth Catlett, overview, in the African American Registry

Elizabeth Catlett, overview and selected works, from Mojo Portfolio

Elizabeth Catlett, overview and selected works, from North Carolina Central University Art Museum

Elizabeth Catlett, overview and selected works, from Yale University Press

Elizabeth Catlett Online, links to online works, from Artcyclopedia

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Elizabeth Catlett, "Special houses," #13 in series The Negro Woman, linoleum cuts, 1946-1947. Reproduced by permission of the Art Institute of Chicago.

1Melanie Anne Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett: In the Image of the People (The Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press, 2005), 9.

1. Segregation–Separation   2. Lynching & Segregation   3. Antilynching Dramas
4. Life Under Segregation   5. The Black Psyche   6. Passing
  7. De-segregation–Integration   8. Separation & Power   9. Ambiguity of Integration

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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