William Aiken Walker is best known for his paintings depicting the lives of poor black emancipated slaves especially sharecroppers in the post-Reconstruction American South

Smiles of the Black people are white. The eyes of Blacks see and reflect the white light. Their palms are of the same destiny as the Whites have.

Wlliam Aiken Walker, “Cotton Pickers”

The man and the woman in the “Cotton Pickers” are visibly satisfied with their lives. They are posing for the painter as for a photographer – with cheerful readiness. But it is not a sociological perspective we are interested in Walker’s paintings here but relations of the cotton pickers not only with cotton as a material they work with, but with cotton’s white color as such – it is a white color cotton pickers confront seems to be the punctum of the paintings. The relations between the masters and slaves were “colored” by the contrast between whiteness of the masters and blackness/brownness of slaves. Before the emancipation of the slaves the whiteness of the masters was colored by the hate towards them, but after liberation the white color was free to create in the previous slaves, if not admiration but a psychological fixation. And William Walker’s painterly intuition is far from neglecting this fact.

It is not easy to determine who is more obsessed with the whiteness of the cotton in contrast with the sharecroppers’ faces – the farmworkers themselves or the painter. Walker focuses on agricultural workers’ smiles, obvious in the woman and recognizable in the man (the woman holds piece of cotton in her hand and keeping the basket with cotton – with a naturality of a queen carrying a crown). And as a queen’s crown shines with precious stones, the cottons in the basket, as if, sparkles with an almost exotic whiteness.

The painting’s coloration is warm and soft – the sun is not aggressive and the sky is not completely opened or not covered by clouds with certainty. The cabin behind is of the color of sand mixed with soil, the grass is not too green, and so is the forest in the background. But the cotton is absolutely, virginally, almost metaphysically white. It is like flakes fallen from the pure sky in famous miracle of Christian religion. It is the very substance of cleanliness and purity. In this sense it is more beautiful, more from “another world” than any flower. It looks that these people love cotton as something of an exception from everyday life, perhaps, as a present from unknown benefactors.

For the unconscious of some African-Americans the cotton was the very substance of whiteness. This unconscious of some slaves after liberation was worshiping whiteness as a magic substance of strong and smart people who are creators of the civilization of human resourcefulness , entrepreneurship, toughness and intellect. Today many Black people try to prove to themselves and the world that they can succeed in the culture of whites and even sometimes be ahead in business dealings, technical sciences, engineering and art, and in self-sacrificial love towards their country.

So, to return to William Walker’s painting, growers of cotton became growers of whiteness. Workers for whites became craftsmen of whiteness. Walker’s intuition in the ‘Cotton Pickers” traces the relations between blackness and whiteness, when obsession with white substance becomes for some Blacks the drive to achieve in white world. The pearls of cotton became for many Black people the diamond dream of white success equal or superior to the one many Whites can enjoy. Even the whitish underwear of the Black sharecroppers is perceived in many Walkers’ paintings as a symbol of being White in essence. The contrast between blackness and whiteness in its endless mixtures in Walkers’ works became a painterly analysis of the particularities of the white and black colors in relation to one another.

W.A. Walker, “The Boy”

In Walker’s painting “The Boy” we see not only the enthusiastic reaction of a boy-cotton picker on the painter’s desire to paint him, but the presence of white parts of his face as signs of his vitality, positivity and optimistic predisposition. White teeth in pink frame of healthy gums, the white scleras and the white spots in the center of his pupils (reflecting the white light of life), the white of his shirt, especially seen through the rip in his jacket – are perceived, as if, as a proof that blackness doesn’t contradict whiteness, and instead, as if, it asserts a good prognosis of a common future of Whites and Blacks in U.S.A.

W.A. Walker’s Self-Portrait