Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Sams, Trollope, & Lange

The system of Jim Crow laws and the culture of White Supremacy in the American South flourished from the end of the nineteenth century until well into the middle of the twentieth. Based on a hugely unequal distribution of power, it was a social, political, and economic order designed to deprive an oppressed people of the most elementary human rights.*

Given its high level of violence and overt cruelty, it seems odd that this way of life might bear resemblance to the lives of the great landowners in nineteenth century England, but resemblance there nonetheless is. My source for this insight is my current read, The American Senator, by Anthony Trollope (originally published in London by Chapman and Hall in 1877 - 3v.). Trollope sympathized with landowners and generally stereotyped low-class characters as unprincipled, rude, and generally unpleasant people. However, in this novel he lets an American visitor, a member of the US Senate from the mythical state of Mikewa present a different point of view.

The Senator becomes obsessed with a legal battle between a noble lord and a poor and mean smallholder over the destruction caused by fox hunters and their prey. At one point he writes a long letter to a friend back home giving some details of this conflict. In it he explains that the ruling class is both pleasant and, in its way, honorable and he explains that the class system, as he sees it, is not simply imposed by rule of might upon those whom it exploits but is actively supported and maintained by those whom it victimizes. He writes:
The man who is born a lord and who sees a dozen serfs around him who have been born to be half-starved ploughmen, thinks that God arranged it all and that he is bound to maintain a state of things so comfortable to himself, as being God's vicegerent here on earth. But they do their work as vicegerents with an easy grace, and with sweet pleasant voices and soft movements, which almost make a man doubt whether the Almighty has not in truth intended that such injustice should be permanent. That one man should be rich and another poor is a necessity in the present imperfect state of civilisation; — but that one man should be born to be a legislator, born to have everything, born to be a tyrant, — and should think it all right, is to me miraculous. But the greatest miracle of all is that they who are not so born, who have been born to suffer the reverse side, — should also think it to be all right.
-- Chapter 29, "The Senator's Letter"

In Run with the Horsemen, Ferrol Sams, paints a similar picture. He explains how the rigid social rules of his youth were inviolable but also unspoken. He says the "absolute verity" of these rules "was reinforced by the cooperation of the blacks." And he tells how, in putting African Americans "in their place," well-off white landowners "locked themselves securely in their own place."

The etiquette of master and servant was so deeply ingrained that it was rare for people on either side to violate its strictures or even recall when it was they learned them. It seemed that what was at work was either divine will or natural law. Whites felt themselves to be naturally superior and "a feeling of superiority often breeds also a feeling of responsibility, and most whites instinctively practiced some degree of noblesse oblige. It was a rare individual, however, who learned how to separate compassion from condescension." Not too much unlike aristocratic Englishmen, upper class Southern whites learned to be polite, genteel, and refined, but, Galahad-like, they were also taught to punish any real or supposed violations of the rules and to protect white females of their class from exposure to rude behavior, unjust treatment, or any suggestion of sexual contact with black men. (Run With the Horsemen, pp. 68-70).

As a Northern visitor, Dorothea Lange was a bit like the American Senator in her observation of the tenant and sharecrop farmers in the piedmont region of North Carolina. Like him, she was eager to experience and record what might come her way and like him she was forthright in her willingness to document the bad with the good. More than he, she knew how to use her art to show the raw underside of life as experienced by a powerless and vulnerable people. Surprisingly, although she was certainly able to present the poor farmers of North Carolina as victims, she did not do so. She understood the horrendous burden endured particularly by African American families but, rather than revealing them as uniquely oppressed, she showed them side-by-side with their poor white neighbors, sharing hardships and cooperating to cope with them.

In recent blog posts I've drawn attention to the dignity, forbearance, and even contentment of the poor farm families with whom Lange met and whom she photographed. It's interested me that the photographs appear race neutral: the families seem simply to be poor people, not poor blacks or poor whites.

She could and did show racism, as in her photographs of cotton farming on the Mississippi Delta,** but in the piedmont region of North Carolina she gives us only bare hints of it.

In the following sequence, Lange shows a group of white men palling around and a lone black, seated a bit apart, not participating. The physical separation of the African American and his body language let us conclude that he excludes himself and is excluded.***

Lange's caption for the photos makes no mention of his presence; the viewer has to infer her intent to allude to a passive instance of apartheid.

{Lange's caption: Rural filling station becomes community center and general grounds for loafing. The men in baseball suits are on a local team which will play a game nearby. The team is called the Cedargrove Team. Fourth of July, Near Chapel Hill, North Carolina}

Even less overt is this sequence of photos in which the expressions and body language of the two men might seem to suggest a latent aggression. There's no presence of African Americans and no hint of racism, just an attitude of dominance.

{Lange's caption: Young North Carolinian in old Ford. He does not farm. "Works for wages." At Tuck's filling station. Person County, North Carolina}


**On this subject, see Creating Jim Crow: In-Depth Essay by Ronald L. F. Davis and the wikipedia article on Jim Crow laws.

** See working from can to can't and roughhousing for discussion of the following two photos:

{Lange's caption: A tractor pioneer of the Mississippi Delta. In 1927 he had 160 colored tenant families working his land, in 1936 he won thirty Farmall tractors and employs thirty families on day labor basis. He says, "Now I can make money. Hours are nothing to us. You can't industrialize farming. We in Mississippi know how to treat our niggers"}

{LC caption: Plantation owner. Mississippi Delta, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1936 June}
About this image Linda Gordon writes:
In one extraordinary image of a plantation owner and his croppers at a country store, Lange succeeded in replicating the power structure visually, both on the picture plane and in the three dimensions it represents. A plantation owner stands next to the porch of a Mississippi general store, dominating the image from just right of center, with one leg set aggressively on the bumper of his car, looking off to his right. Behind him are five black men, probably his share croppers, sitting and standing on the porch, in postures almost exaggeratedly unassuming, withdrawing, small, even frail by contrast with the white man. As the white man makes himself, and is made by Lange, as large as possible, so the black men are shrinking themselves. The photograph lets us see the relations of power and deference on a southern plantation. Some viewers had no trouble understanding this image as subversive. One letter to a newspaper complained that "...indicative of the agency's [FSA's] vivid pink Miss Lange's cunningly posed portrait of 'The Plantation Owner...'
-- Source: Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, by Linda Gordon

*** Lange took two other photos of this scene, both framed so that the black man did not appear. (The third is a detail.)

Linda Gordon has an anecdote about this framing and subsequent use of the images:
The [Office of War Information's] propaganda operation even used and defanged Lange’s [Farm Security Administration] work. In one case, a 1939 photograph of a typical, run-down North Carolina country store/filling station with a group of young men goofing off on the porch was transformed into a World War II poster by cropping and superimposing a message: ‘This is America…. Where a fellow can start on the home team and wind up in the big league… Where there is always room at the top for the fellow who has it on the ball….This is your America!… Keep it free!’

Lange had made five photographs of the scene, showing about a dozen figures, several in baseball uniforms, preparing to play with a local league; mugging for the camera, they began picking up and swinging one guy by his arms and legs. In the original context, these images signaled the economic backwardness, inactivity and racism of the rural South. At the far end of the porch, distinctly removed from the others, was a black man who did not participate in the roughhousing, but sat tight with a tense smile. In the poster both sides of the image were cropped, and it showed only young white men standing in manly, confident but relaxed postures, ready to play the quintessentially American game.

–- From “Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits” (2009) by Linda Gordon quoted in: What’s in a frame? (And, um, what isn’t?)

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