February 2, 2018

Woodcuts by Campbell

        In honor of February being Black History Month, here’s a bit of black history in wood block prints.  These illustrations were done by E. Simms Campbell (USA, 1906-1971), the first black cartoonist published in mainstream national magazines.  I can’t find any of the brief biographies on-line mentioning anything about his non-cartoon art, but these woodcuts are graphic and powerful.  They show African American men and women in a wide range of experiences, from the elegantly dressed couple ready for a night on the town, to the more casual-looking banjo musician, to the men laboring so hard, perhaps on the railroad.  The dynamic style and superimposition of various picture elements make it hard for me to interpret exactly what’s going on, but Campbell’s people command these woodcuts, shoulders strong and heads held high.

        Actually, although these sure look like woodcuts, and although they are listed as such by Yale’s rare book library, which ought to know, they are called “drawings” on the title page of the book they illustrate.  I don’t know what’s up with that, except just to guess that some ignorant editor didn’t give it any thought.  Anyway, they are illustrations from a book of poetry by Sterling Brown, a professor at Howard University who studied the black culture and folklore of the Southern US.  Most of his poetry is written in dialect, attempting to show the power and rhythm of black speech, and I think these pieces have a great power and rhythm to go with that.

[Pictures: Untitled illustration of people at play, woodcut by E. Simms Campbell from Southern Road by Sterling Brown, 1932;
Untitled illustration of people at work, woodcut by Campbell from Southern Road, 1932 (Images from Yale University Library).]

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