Tuesday, December 01, 2009

a people bound up

Dorothea Lange was quick to recognize the differences between the destitute farm families whom she photographed in the American West and Southwest and those whom she photographed in the South.1 They all worked the land but in the western parts of the country, they were displaced from their homes. In the South most had been born within a few miles of where she found them; they saw themselves as, and in fact were, bound to the land by preference and longstanding tradition. In the piedmont region of North Carolina the farm families she photographed were none of them well off and most had scant hope of improving their lot. Many recognized, as one told her, that more money could be made in other rural counties and the great urban areas of the North, but it wasn't a matter of money.

One Southern farmer told Lange felt comfortable where he was: When you are born in the hills, he said, you're just born in the hills, and you want to stay there. He and his friends thought it was "a pretty good place they were in, don't have to buy much groceries, only salt, sugar, baking soda, coffee. They didn't have much money, but they were getting along and they didn't have to worry about anything being stolen. There wasn't anything to steal."2

The author of a book on the difficulties faced particularly by African American families in this place and time quotes a black head of family as saying: "Nobody had no money. But then, you didn't need a whole lot of money." He said people bartered for what they couldn't grow or make and often heard the statement "folks just helped each other out." A woman in a crop sharing family told him "we gave back and forth." A small landowner told him neighbors would share milk with someone whose cow had gone dry, knowing they too might soon be dependent on community assistance. A white sharecropper stated that "friendship was better than money."3

The first photo shows the tenant farmer who said his family didn't have much money nor need much. The second one shows Caroline Atwater. She and her husband owned a few acres which they farmed. Their very old house had hardwood shingles on its roof and mud-chinked siding; it also boasted the well by which she's standing, a convenience that most tenant and sharecrop farms did not possess. The third photo shows a tobacco plant, source of what cash the piedmont farmers might earn. This one has been left to flower so its seeds can be harvested for next year's planting.4

The following photos show something of the gently rolling piedmont land itself. Both images show the same mostly fallow fields. Lange took the first of them in July 1939 and wrote: "In background is a sweet potato patch with a Negro man chopping. Could hear the sound of the hoe on the small rocks in the soil. Up the hill is the log and frame house the family live in. Steep rocky drive up hill from highway to owner's house and passed it along a single track to Negro house in background." The second photo comes from Anne Whiston Spirn, one of Lange's biographers, who returned to the place in 2007 to see whether she could find people and places from Lange's visit 57 years before.5

Lange understood the rootedness of the piedmont farm families she photographed. Years later, when her son Daniel remarked that in the South she had encountered a social order which exerted a tenacious hold on the people who lived under it, she agreed. The people and their culture were tightly intertwined. She said, "I couldn't pry the two apart .... Earlier, I'd gotten at people through the ways they'd been torn loose, but now I had to get at them through the ways they were bound up."6

Lange's photos and the field notes that she and accompanying researchers made show an admirable people: uncomplaining, hard-working, competent, and conscientious; taking unspoken pleasure in the simplicities of daily existence, sharing hardships with equanimity, imbued with a cooperative spirit, and upholding deeply-felt religious and moral values. The exploitation of some landowners and distain of many town dwellers, brought out resentment but not abasement. The ones whom Lange spoke with were dignified, free of hypocrisy. If Lange encountered the South's "deceit, dissembling, evasion, artifice, fraud, and outright lying" (in Ferrol Sams's words), she did not record it.7



1 Lange took this photo of displaced farmers in Sacramento in November 1936.

{LC caption: Destitute family. American River camp, Sacramento, California. Five children, aged two to seventeen years}

Compare it with this July 1939 photo of the Whitfield family posing at the back of their sharecrop house. Note their chickens and the comforting smoke from the meal being cooked on their stove inside.

{LC caption: Tobacco sharecroppers and family at back of their house. Person County, North Carolina}

Compare also with this contented African American family on the front porch of their tenant house on a Saturday afternoon.

{LC caption: Negro tenant family}

and with this family with its trailing farm dog.

{LC caption: Colored sharecropper and his children about to leave home through the pine woods after their morning work at the tobacco farm stringing and putting up tobacco. Shoofly, Granville County, North Carolina}

2 wasn't anything to steal

3 The Rural Face of White Supremacy; Beyond Jim Crow by Mark Schultz (University of Illinois Press, 2007); see better than money

4 Unless otherwise stated, all photos come from the Farm Security Administration collection of the Library of Congress Prints and Photos Division. Click image to view full size.

5 Spirn's photo comes from her blog: Anne Whiston Spirn. Her biography of Lange is Daring to look: Dorothea Lange's photographs and reports from the field.

6 Daniel Dixon, quoted in Howard M. Levin and Katherine Northrup, eds., Dorothea Lange: Farm Security Administration Photographs, 1935-1939 (Glencoe, Illinois: Text-Fiche Press, 1980), 39.

7 Ferrol Sams, Run With the Horsemen, p. 53. With respect to the wives, Margaret Jarman Hagood, one of the researchers who accompanied Lange in July 1939, concurred with her:
The woes of lower-class life in the rural South were readily apparent, but the tenant women displayed great resilience in confronting them. Hagood's research revealed few "tobacco road"-style degenerates. Instead, the overwhelming majority of those whom she interviewed were competent, conscientious individuals who took pride in their roles as mothers and as co-laborers with their spouses in crop production. Although they unanimously professed allegiance to patriarchal values--including, most notably, the man's right to "tote the pocketbook"--the tenant wives were frequently knowledgeable about the details of family finances and often seemed to exercise equal power in the marriage relationship with their mates. According to Hagood, shared hardships molded a cooperative spirit that markedly reduced "friction and irritability" between the sexes (p. 169). The women's resentments and antagonisms tended to focus, not on husbands or even on local landowners, but instead on snobbish townsfolk and on an economic system that, in the tenants' opinion, favored urban interests at the expense of agriculture. "None of the wives appeared to be neurotic," Hagood reported; "none claimed to be misunderstood" (p. 169).
-- from a review of Hagood's Mothers of the South: Portraiture of the White Tenant Farm Woman (University of North Carolina Press, 1939)

Mark Schultz, author of The Rural Face of White Supremacy; Beyond Jim Crow quotes an African American named Willie Butts who was in his teens during the decade of 1930s. Butts said he would occasionally have enough money to pay admission to the movie theater in a nearby town. Schultz writes: 'He remembered that the 1930s newsreels preceding the main feature sometimes showed clips of city folks lined up with cups in their hands waiting for doughnuts and coffee. Years later he recollected, "I thought we were rich."'

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