Black Unity also helps one to begin to discern the
spatial and time dimensions of the African Diaspora and
the creative solutions offered by artists who use visual
and plastic form to inspire and direct the course of the
liberation struggle, and also to foreground, within a
contexturalist frame, issues of race, gender, and class.
Inspired by the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain LeRoy Locke and Richard Wright, among others, Catlett revealed through her work, public lectures, and writings, a consistent concern for expressing an African American identity, a "womanist sensibility," to draw upon the words of writer Alice Walker, and an unswerving solidarity with the oppressed in Latin America, Africa and other parts of the world. This social consciousness was early manifested when Catlett was enrolled at Howard University, an institution long noted for its sizeable Caribbean and African student populations.
While Catlett was not too unlike other undergraduate students of the time (and now) who liked to dance and have fun, she had a serious side--an interest in seeing justice and equality in America and the elimination of oppression wherever it might exist. Because of this interest, Catlett frequently participated in student groups that picketed federal agencies, particularly the Department of State and the Department of Justice, calling attention to racism and injustice, discrimination, police brutality, and lynching, things that are still not uncommon in the United States.
At Howard, Catlett learned to respect the importance of scholarship and dedication to task from her mentor James A. Porter, artist and art historian, who published the ground-breaking book, Modern Negro Art, in 1943 (republished 1969 and 1992). From her teachers in the Department of Art, and from the writings of philosopher Alain Locke (Catlett did not study with Locke), and from a visit to the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, in 1932, Catlett became aware of African art. She accordingly created compositions inspired by African art, as can be seen in a few examples of student work.