Horace Pippin’s Mr. Prejudice (1943) will be useful for the study of:
- the contribution of African Americans to the war effort — during both the First World War (including the Harlem Hellfighters) as well as during the Second World War
- efforts to limit discrimination against African Americans including Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 executive order (number 8802) outlawing discrimination in wartime industries
- the history of racism and discrimination in the American army
- the history of the Ku Klux Klan
By the end of this lesson, students should be able to:
- discuss Horace Pippin’s Mr Prejudice as a primary document that links to its specific historical context during the Second World War (the history of racism in the United States, and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan)
- understand the significance of the participation of African Americans in the armed forces during World War I and World War II
- apply the tools of visual analysis to support interpretation of the artwork
- identify and elaborate on certain key issues related to “Politics and Power,” prompted by an example of American art
1. Look closely at the painting
Look closely at Horace Pippin’s Mr Prejudice (downloadable images available for teaching)
Questions to ask:
- Describe the 13 figures.
- Are there clues that help you identify their meaning within the painting? Start by looking at what the figures are wearing, and what they hold.
Some of the figures are actively engaged, look closely and see if you can determine what these figures are doing
- How is the painting composed? How are the figures grouped?
- Pippin is known for his direct, seemingly self-taught style of painting. What do you notice that suggests that the artist did not go to art school?
- How do the figures in the painting make you feel? Do specific figures make you feel different ways? What might be some reasons for this?
2. Watch the video
The video on Pippin’s Mr Prejudice is less than 6 minutes in length. Ideally, the video should provide an active rather than a passive classroom experience. Please feel free to stop the video to respond to student questions, to underscore or develop issues, to define vocabulary, or to look closely at parts of the painting that are being discussed. Key points, a self-diagnostic quiz, and high resolution photographs with details of the painting are provided to support the video.
3. Read about the painting and its historical context
Pippin was interested in producing a kind of “insider ethnography” — teaching people about the African American community through his pictures. He once said of himself, “You know why I am great? Because I paint things exactly the way they are. I don’t go around making up a whole lot of stuff. I paint it exactly the way it is and exactly the way I see it.” Pippin was keenly interested in the events of daily life in the African American community around him. He painted scenes of families playing dominoes, saying prayers, eating breakfast. But he also painted portraits of his Amish neighbors, and recreated scenes in the Bible stories that he heard as he grew up. Big themes concerned him as well: events in American history, World Wars I and II, and racism. Pippin had fought in World War I, where he was disabled and shipped home after a year in France; he painted many scenes from his experiences there. In Mr. Prejudice, painted during World War II, Pippin provided a trenchant social commentary on racism in America, reminding the viewer that while “V” stood for Victory, and black machinists and steel workers were of vital importance to the war effort at home, the Ku Klux Klan (on the right) and the Statue of Liberty (on the left) still vied for control of America. The African American soldiers and sailors, fighting abroad for international freedom even as he painted this work, were still serving in a segregated military.
1. Celeste-Marie Bernier, African American visual arts: from slavery to the present (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), p, 102.
From Angela L. Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J. Wolf, and Jennifer L. Roberts, American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (Washington University Libraries, 2018), p. 512, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (available for free download)
Although Mr. Prejudice is a relatively small painting…its impact is powerful. The group of figures in the lower half were painted with flat shapes and bold colors and placed symmetrically on either side of the giant “V” separating them. A grim-faced white man, bare to the waist like an executioner and intent on his task, hammers a wedge down into the “V.” Only after we notice the skin color of the other people in the painting—black on the left side and white on the right—and what they are wearing, do we realize that the artist is making a strong social statement. Horace Pippin was deeply affected by his experiences as a soldier in a segregated troop during World War I in France, where he fought bravely for democracy. He also remembered how African American soldiers were treated poorly after they returned home. He painted Mr. Prejudice over twenty-five years later, towards the end of World War II, when he saw more discrimination against the next generation of young African American soldiers. For African Americans, the “V” for victory referred to winning the struggle for equality in the U.S. as well as winning the war in Europe.
Horace Pippin fought in the 369th Regiment, a famous African American Infantry division nicknamed the Harlem Hell Fighters. Throughout the boredom and the bloody battles, the men of the 369th Regiment were both fearless and fierce, although over half of them lost their lives. The French government was so impressed that the entire regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre (French for “cross of war”), one of France’s highest military honors.
4. Discussion question
Though African American artists like Horace Pippin may have seen themselves simply as artists, American culture identified them as “black artists.” Do artists from an oppressed minority have a special responsibility to address that oppression in their art? How does knowing about the an artist’s background change how we understand or interpret a work?
5. Research question
How were African American soldiers like Pippin received when they came home after serving in World War I? How did that contrast with the way that white soldiers were received?
Celeste-Marie Bernier, Suffering and Sunset: World War I in the Art and Life of Horace Pippin (Temple University Press, 2017).
Audrey Lewis, ed., Horace Pippin: The Way I See It (New York: Scala Arts Publishers, 2015).
John W. Roberts, “Horace Pippin and the African American Vernacular,” Cultural Critique, no. 41 (1999), pp. 5-36.