Be Thinc / from the series Forever Free, 1993
Michael Ray Charles, American, born 1967
Acrylic, dirt, and copper penny on paper
Sheet: 36 5/8 × 22 in. (93 × 55.9 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Wilder Foundation

Habits of Mind

  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications

Be Thinc

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.





Social Studies



Connecting to the Work of Art

Born in 1967, Michael Ray Charles was raised in the small town of St. Martinville, Louisiana. During his senior year of high school, Charles was awarded a $500 art scholarship to attend McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He joined the basketball team and in 1989 graduated with a degree in advertising. After moving to Houston, Charles briefly attempted advertising work before being accepted into the master of fine arts program at the University of Houston. While pursuing his degree, he was featured in Fresh Visions/New Voices: Emerging African American Artists in Texas, a 1992 exhibition at the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In 1993 Charles received his master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Houston and exhibited his Forever Free series at Moody Gallery.


Be Thinc is often considered one of Charles’s more abstract works. The painting features the familiar face of Sambo from The Story of Little Black Sambo, a once-popular children’s book written by Helen Bannerman in 1901. Sambo eventually became a symbol of derogatory racial stereotyping. Charles explores the character throughout the series Forever Free: “The Forever Free series started out of [my] attempts to deal with the Sambo image, [and] the multiple meanings involved in its existence both past, present, and possibly in the future.”


In this work, Charles used a black background, which he filled with Sambo’s characteristic large round eyes and wide open mouth. The vintage graphic style associated with Norman Rockwell’s images in The Saturday Evening Post is echoed in the distressed surface and pictorial style of this work, although Charles conceded that Rockwell represented a world completely foreign to him. Another important symbol found in this painting is the “black” penny, which Charles included in the background of most of his works. The coin features a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, the “great emancipator.” Charles considers the penny to be the currency of the black man, as it is the cheapest coinage in America. The artist’s incorporation of symbolic and provocative imagery, such as the penny and Sambo, stems from his desire to deal with the use of visual signs in culture.


Charles has said: “I touch on taboo images, stereotypes perpetuated by blacks and stereotypes perpetuated by whites. It is in part to help me understand the stereotypes, and in part for others to understand. I hope my work can spur conversation so that the issues can be discussed.” Although controversial both within and outside the African-American community, Charles’s art encourages an open and free dialogue concerning the complex and diverse meaning of signs and symbols prevalent in American society. By tracking the development and use of this imagery, the artist strives to make everyone question his or her role in promoting racism.

Conversation Starters


  • What is your gut reaction to this work—what emotions do you feel when you look at it? What words would you use to describe the style?
  • What symbols can you identify in this work? What do they remind you of?
  • What materials can you identify?
  • Look at the way Charles has applied the paint, and the finish of the piece. How would you describe it? What does it remind you of?


  • The main image is of Little Black Sambo, a once-loved cartoon character invented by a white woman to caricature African-Americans that is now commonly regarded as a racist stereotype. How did Charles depict him? What emotions do you feel when you look at the likeness?
  • Charles’s career as an artist began with a fascination with advertising. How do you see this fascination playing into the artwork? In what ways is Be Thinc like an advertisement? In what ways is it different?
  • Analyze the writing that Charles included in the work. What do you think it means? Why did he include it? Is there an irony or double meaning in any of it?
  • Charles said of his work, “I touch on taboo images, stereotypes perpetuated by blacks and stereotypes perpetuated by whites. It is in part to help me understand the stereotypes, and in part for others to understand. I hope my work can spur conversation so that the issues can be discussed.” What stereotypes and symbols are at play here? What role do they have in your understanding of the issues that Charles is concerned with?
  • Among the materials used in this piece are dirt and a copper penny. Knowing that Charles pays careful attention to symbolism and stereotype, why might he have included those materials?
  • What role do artists have in social conversations, such as those surrounding race? Why do you think Charles chose to comment on these issues? How is his artistic contribution to the conversation different than a political or economic contribution?


• Research the Sambo image, including its meaning, symbolism, and racial connotations. Why would Charles include Sambo in his work? What is he saying about depictions of African-Americans? Can you think of any current negative or questionable depictions of African-Americans?

• Research other works in Charles’s Forever Free series. Pay careful attention to the imagery and to the titles of each work of art. Also note that Charles often incorporates words and phrases into his work. What do you think the title Be Thincmeans? Is “thinc” a word? Explain your response.

• Compare Charles’s work to that of other African-American artists, such as John Biggers, Charles White, Melvin Edwards, and Elizabeth Catlett. How is each artist commenting, celebrating, questioning, or disregarding his or her African-American heritage?

• Charles’s art has a nostalgic quality. Compare his work to that of Norman Rockwell, an artist who captured a very different side of American culture. How and why do you think Rockwell’s work influenced that of Charles?

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.