The effect of this can be seen in the moving Birmingham Totem (1964), made in honor of the 1963 bombing of a baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four African-American girls were killed. White portrays a young boy examining a mound of wreckage, the splintered fragments of the church beneath his feet. As art historian Kellie Jones wrote in her book South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, the boy’s “hands are engaged, as if he is caressing the ruins.” She pointed out that in his right hand, he holds a plumb line, “marking him as a builder and creator, symbolic of those who reconstruct and renew, removed from such despicable acts of racial hatred and intolerance.”
The boy’s crouching body is cloaked, forming the head of this totem of trauma. Set against the blank, cream-colored surface of the paper, the boy and the rubble together resemble the assembled outline of a figure—suggesting the restorative power of the body, or perhaps the load of suffering that the body must bear.
White would adopt this hunched, cloaked figure in later works as something of a stand-in for the homelessness and disenfranchisement rampant among African-Americans—but also the community’s resilience and dignity in the face of racism. In J’Accuse #1 (1965)—the first of a series whose name references the Dreyfus affair, a famous episode of anti-Semitism in France—a female figure sits, pyramidal, Madonna-like, enrobed in a thick blanket. She represents a powerful moral indictment of systemic prejudice and oppression. In Mississippi (1972), she is further abstracted from any background and made the center of a kind of inverted, twisted compass, with north at her feet and a bloodied handprint over her head standing in for the south. Even as White effectively turns his subject into a symbol, she has such weight and solidity, her features so carefully drawn, that she also asserts herself as an individual.