Whitewashing the Great Depression

“How the preeminent photographic record of the period eclipsed people of color and shaped the nation’s self-image.”

This is the subtitle of Sarah Boxer’s article “Whitewashing the Great Depression,” which appeared in The Atlantic, December 2020. Read the full article HERE.  (You may have to subscribe at least to the online Atlantic to read it all—which isn’t a bad thing to do anyway.)  The article is part report on three books: Svetlana Alpers’ Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch), Mary Jane Appel’s Russell Lee: A Photographer’s Life and Legacy), and Sarah Hermanson Meister’s Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures.  Evans, Lee, and Lange were among the most prominent photographers documenting The Great Depression while working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and producing some of the most iconic American photos in the process.

Photo by Russell Lee, 1938

The article’s main message is this: If you look at the roughly 175,000 negatives in the FSA/Office of War Information file, you’ll see that these and a cadre of other talented photographers took plenty of pictures of people of color, but politics got in the way.  The main culprit, at least at first, was their boss, Roy Stryker.  But he’s described as a realist.  “And the reality was that Congress, which controlled the FSA’s funds, was dominated by Southern Democrats, who, as Appel writes in her Lee biographer, were ‘interested in preserving the racial status quo.'”  President Roosevelt feared the Southern Democrats, too, because without them his New Deal programs had little hope of surviving. So, among other things, he wouldn’t back an anti-lynching campaign for fear of losing that base.  “To tug at the Dixiecrats’ heartstrings,” Boxer writes, “Stryker realized that the photographs presented to them had to accentuate white suffering.”  At the time, roughly 90% of the country was white, so under-representing Blacks may have been an attempt at proportional representation. But no group was harder hit than Blacks.  While 25% of whites were unemployed, half of Black Americans were, and they made up more than half of the country’s tenant farmers who were, reports Boxer, “often forced out of work by white ones,” a pattern which held in the North where “whites called for African Americans to be fired from any jobs as long as there were whites out of work.”

Other media also skewed the collective portrait of the Depression’s victims.  Fortune magazine, for example, asked Walker Evans and James Agee for a “record of the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers,” and when Evans and Agee’s famous Let Us Now Praise Famous Men came out in 1941, pictures of Black Americans were left out.  It took nearly 20 years for some of them to be added back in the book’s second edition.  So Evans, Lange, Lee and many others often flouted orders that Stryker and others gave them.  Lee constantly focused on the downtrodden, giving equal attention to people of color, as did Lange, though FSA leadership instructed her to “focus attention on the plight of white victims” and “to avoid representing instances of interracial sociality.

Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1937

In sum, Boxer writes, “Although the photographers who worked for the FSA took many pictures of people of color—in the streets, in the fields, out of work—the Great Depression’s main victims, as Americans came to visualize them, were white. And this collective portrait has contributed to the misbegotten idea, still current, that the soul of America, the real American type, is rural and white.”  In this present day where many complain about “cancel culture,” it’s important to say that the point is not to cancel out the hardships white Americans endured but to tell a fuller story about what “the real American type” is.  The “real American type” is more complicated, full of color and difference, and realizing that makes more room for everyone—whites certainly included—to appreciate what we have endured together and to try not to make that endurance harder on others than it already is.

Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching page.

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Looking Back Before Moving Ahead

The five-minute VIDEO below is part of an interview I did for NIC News Today with Anne Marie Gerhardt, Director of Communications for the Northern Illinois Conference (NIC) of the United Methodist Church.  This episode was shown a few times at the Annual Conference meeting in early July and attempted to give everyone a sense of what’s been happening with the Anti-Racism Task Force.  “A lot has changed since last year,” Gerhardt begins, “including you coming on as consultant to the ARTF.  Tell us a little bit more about what the highlights were for you.”

It’s summer, a time when things supposedly slow down a little, when we supposedly catch a breath and look back at what we’ve done so we can gear up for moving forward again in the rush of Fall and early Winter.

I was surprised, first of all, at how much was already going on, but two questions became key: 1) how sustainable were all these initiatives, and 2) do people working on all these know what others are doing, and do they all see themselves and their initiatives working together towards one goal, the goal of creating a less racist church, conference, and country?  Both questions are still way up in the air.  My goal before the year is out—and my consultancy is over—is to bring these questions closer to the ground. I’m especially anxious, and hopeful, about the second question. I’m most gratified because I can see people beginning to see themselves as part of one great struggle.

Here’s just one example of how we need to see initiatives working together.  The Clergy Peer Reflection and Engagement Series (CPRES) brings pastors together to study about how the church has been a major source, or at the very least highly complicit, in creating and sustaining racism. They talk about how they can begin to change that, and they form bonds that help them know they’re not alone, that other peers want to become anti-racism leaders.  Every pastor at CPRES, then, should seek to bring the workshop Becoming the Beloved Community to their church. Do they all see this?  Not yet.  But we hope they do soon.  Becoming the Beloved Community seeks to communicate not just essential knowledge about racism to its attendees but also to help create bonds within and between congregations of those who also want to seek a less racist, more just and more equitable world, and support their pastors, to urge them on and have their backs when they bring up the topic and start anti-racist initiatives.  The odds are against those pastors.

At a recent meeting of a committee I chair—the one that produced the Becoming the Beloved Community workshop—we had a consultant in to help us look back before we moved forward.  She shared a study showing that only 20% of church goers wanted to hear more about racism. 80% did not. On the other hand, of those actively seeking out a church, 80% wanted to hear more about racism, while only 20% did not.  The church, in other words, is profoundly out of balance with what much of the outside world is looking for. That’s only one reason I repeat, in closing, what I’ve said many times: IF we work hard, we might see a less racist U.S. in 40 to 100 years. I’m still hopeful, but many days it seems that the 100-year mark is also way too hopeful.  And note that I’m only saying less racist, not racism free.  Still, that’s something to fight for.

Go HERE to see my draft proposal for a main page on anti-racism work for the NIC website. Here you’ll see my vision in graphic form for gathering all components of anti-racism work together so everyone can begin to see the big picture and begin to feel that we’re in one great struggle together.  Eventually, people will be able to click on a link to find out more about each initiative, program, fellowship or committee listed.

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Randy Newman: Cruel and True

Randy Newman explains his concept behind “I Want You To Hurt Like I Do.” Berlin, 1994.

No one writes songs quite like Randy Newman, and certainly not about the subjects he writes about.  He celebrates L.A. in “I Love L.A.” by pointing out a bum on his knees. In “Shame” an old New Orleans rich guy begs his young, kept paramour for love while fighting off insistent background singers who keep repeating “Shame, shame, shame.”  In “Rednecks,” from what’s perhaps his masterwork album Good Old Boys, the chorus goes “We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks. We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground. We’re rednecks. We’re rednecks. We are keeping the n- – – – rs down.”  In “Sail Away,” he imagines a slaver trying to convince an African to get on a slave ship: “In America you get food to eat. Don’t have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet. You just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day. It’s great to be an American.”  And in “The World Isn’t Fair” he not only sums up Marxism beautifully and masterfully in just a few lines of pop doggerel but ends by talking to Marx himself: “They tried out your plan. It brought misery instead. You see how they worked it. Be glad you are dead. Just like I’m glad I’m living in the land of the free, where the rich just get richer, and the poor you don’t ever have to see.”  He also tosses off songs that become the stuff of weddings and goo goo eyes, like “Feels Like Home,” though there’s a strange darkness in the bridge, the darkness of a breaking window and a wailing siren.  Another song like it is “I Miss You,” which he wrote for his first wife after he’d married his second.  “I couldn’t think of a better way to piss off two women at once,” he once said of it.  He’s a master of songs which sound romantic, even hopeful, but are really the opposite, like “Marie.” There’s “Short People,” of course, and movie scores and songs—including Toy Story and “You’ve Got a Friend In Me”—some he’s won several Academy Awards for.  He’s one of my favorite performers as well.  I love his faux-New Orleans mush mouth singing style, and also the fact that he’s said his most important early influence was Ray Charles, one of the most important influences on my own life as well.

I could wander around quoting this and that for a long time, but all this wandering is just preparation for saying he’s also written “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do.”  As he explained in a 1994 concert in Berlin, he wanted to write an anthem like “We Are the World.” He’d get a bunch of “good celebrities” to sing along, too, but the sarcastic good fun in his explanation doesn’t quite prepare you for the song’s shock.

“I ran out on my children. I ran out on my wife. Gonna run out on you too, baby. I’ve done it all my life.”  It’s a great beginning. He tells us everyone cried the night he left—well, almost everybody.  His little boy just hangs his head.  So he puts and arm around his little shoulders, and this is what he says: “I just want you to hurt like I do.  I just want you to hurt like I do. I just want you to hurt like I do. Honest I do. Honest I do. Honest I do.”

I still feel the shock of it, even though I know it’s a put on.  It’s a perverse put on of “We Are the World” that strikes one as cruel perhaps because we suspect it might be true.  It’s an eye for an eye world. Even more sad, even more pervasive, even if it seems less threatening—it’s a hurt for hurt world.  It’s a therapy cliche that “hurt people hurt people.” But surely, we think, the hurt for hurt should be aimed at the wife he’s leaving, not the child.  Actually, though, I wouldn’t put it past us to also be aiming for those little ones who just hang their heads.

Go HERE for more reviews and commentary.

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