CHARLES WHITE: The friendship I've had with Paul Robeson is one of my most cherished friendships.
ESTHER ADLER: Paul Robeson was an athlete, he was an actor, a singer, and he was incredibly popular. He was also tremendously persecuted for his political views to an extent that I even find shocking today. And I think that idea that someone who had such talent and who meant so much to so many people had a platform to address injustice and to try to change the world was something that was really meaningful to White in terms of shaping his own practice.
This is pretty much a full scale study for the head of Robeson as it appeared in this major mural that's still on the wall at Hampton University in Virginia. It's called The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America. He's in this mural with figures like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, George Washington Carver.
And White talks about the way he would make murals. He would start out with kind of a general pencil sketch and then he would do these incredibly detailed drawings of each of the figures. So the gleam in Robeson's forehead shows up also in the final painting. The way he's handled the various folds in his skin and the character in his face—all of that is worked out here in the drawing and then eventually transferred to the mural.