The bright lights or the artistic and psychological evolution of African Americans during 1920s America is filled with an uprising of talent amongst the black community. I discovered a painting, by Archibald Motley called “Octoroon Girl”. This piece was completed in 1925. I fell into fascination with this painting specifically because it was a painting of a fair skinned African American woman that was done in the 1920s, which is something I didn’t come across until discovering Motley. Being that I am of mixed heritage too, I am curious as to what life was like during a time of black and white segregation. Motley is an exquisite artist of his time and a revolutionary to the practices of disassembling color barriers in his work.
Archibald Motley was titled “The Man Who Captured the Black Experience”. Motely was born in New Orleans in 1891 and raised in a predominantly white neighborhood in Chicago. Due to his father being a white man, Motley was one of few blacks in his neighborhood. Although he did live in a mainly white neighborhood, he wasn’t too far from Chicago’s version of Harlem at the time called Bronzeville. Motley studied and closely examined the world of African American life. As a black man with no real connection to black culture he longed to connect to his side that he wasn’t fostered or nurtured around. Motley traveled to France, after earning the Guggenheim Fellowship, in search of international black communities and did many of his first paintings of black life there. He later came back to America to finish his work. Archibald became known as the “Jazz Age Modernist” as well for his groundbreaking art that played with social boundaries of black and white and his way of portraying African Americans of all skin tones, which was something not commonly practiced amongst black painters.
Motley based most of his art off the depiction of skin color and playing with the different tones of African Americans and their physical differences. He has multiple paintings of various toned women that he titled according to their heritage. For example, there was the octoroon, which is someone who is one-eighth black. He had a painting of a quadroon woman who is of one-fourth black heritage. Lastly he had the mulatto woman, who is half black and half white. He ventured into playing with skin tone and color due to his own mixed heritage race of being half black and half white. Although Motley himself never said it, many believe he did this because he felt that biracial folks didn’t have much of a voice at this point in history. In an interview with the Smithsonian in 1978 he said:
They’re not all the same color, they’re not all black, they’re not all, as they used to say years ago, high yellow, they’re not all brown. I try to give each one of them character as individuals. And that’s hard to do when you have so many figures to do, putting them all together and still have them have their characteristics.
Women that were of mixed race and labeled as octoroons or quadroons are direct offspring of black women being sexually exploited during slavery. Around fifteen percent of slave narratives have entries that recall sexual encounters with the slave masters, (Dunaway, 120) many children came as a result of these exploitive mannerisms of the white men on the plantation. Although most of the children became disowned by their white fathers due to social despise. For example, Thomas Jefferson, who had four children by his slave concubine and “was not in the habit of showing partiality or fatherly affection toward them” (Dunaway 123). These mulatto children came out fairer skinned and were considered a prized livestock. As we seen in 12 Years a Slave, the mulatto child of a slave woman was saved for prostitution. This was common practice during slavery to sell biracial females into being a ‘fancy’ for the rest of their young lives. Another cause of having mixed and fair skinned children was that “both free and enslaved African American women were blamed for their own victimization” (Taylor 236). There’s the stereotype of the black woman being a Jezebel. This stereotype in particular is one that sexualizes black women and makes the women out to be seen as them asking for their own victimization.
Being black in America during the 1920s was a struggle of identity and equality within itself already; so being a black woman was twice the burden. Women during this period didn’t have complete citizenship participation no matter if you were white or black. During the 1920s many colored women represented themselves greatly, both physically and intellectually, as painted and portrayed by Motley in this piece. His piece, “Octoroon Girl”, is famous for its way of portraying a black women in a positive light and presentation of the black middle class in existence. Despite black women’s positive image they had proven they still were not accepted by society as equals. It began with white women calling out for women’s equal rights to be able to pass the fifteenth amendment. As feminist groups began to form and gain a voice in politics; when it was time to preach of women’s equality they didn’t mention nor include black women into their arguments. Due to the feminist clubs not taking all women into consideration there was an up rise in black feminist organizations, such as the National Association of Colored Women (Taylor 239).
Archibald Motley’s “Octoroon Girl” is a staggering piece due to it being a revolutionary style. Motley was different when compared to his black counterparts. He was raised in a predominantly white neighborhood causing him to not see life how other blacks had to. A lot of black art at the time was of sharecroppers, the struggle of being black in America, or Harlem club scenes. Motley was one of the first black artists to do portraits of people during this period as well. He also was pioneering a style of art that played with the variety of physical appearances of black folks. Archibald Motley was an aspiration to blacks that were of mixed heritage during the 1920s. Motley’s goal with this portrait was to prove to his white audience that black women have class and elegance. When a white individual seen this portrait they would assume it was of a white woman until they seen the title. Motley purposefully hid all signs of African American features on the woman; it was his attempt to deconstruct any stereotypes of women of color and to prove that black women deserve to be treated like the lady they are.
By: Dashamena T.
12 Years a Slave. Dir. Steve McQueen. 2013. DVD.
Dunaway, William A. “White Exploitation of Enslaved Black Women.” The African-Amerin Family in Slavery and Emancipation. N.p.: Cambridge UP, n.d. 120-23. Print.
“Octoroon Girl.” N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2015. <http://nasher.duke.edu/motley>.
Taylor, Ula. “The Historical Evolution of Black Feminists Theory and Praxis.” Journal of Black Studies. 2nd ed. Vol. 29. N.p.: Sage Publications, 1998. 234-53. Print.