The Negro tenant farmer is the descendant of the slave. For generations, he has lived in mortal fear of the white boss in the cotton country. He has seen his women violated and his children humiliated. He himself has been discriminated against, cheated, whipped, and held forcibly in an inferior position. Every white face he sees is a reminder of his brother's mutilation, burning, and death at the stake. He has no recourse at law, because he is denied the right of trial by his peers. The Negro tenant farmer on a plantation is still a slave (Caldwell 11).
Being black in America has never been easy. In the Depression, being black meant disproportionate unemployment and under-employment, residential crowding, disenfranchisement, and fewer public services. It also meant violence -- especially in the form of lynchings across the South. In the House of Representatives, the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) won passage of a federal anti-lynching law three times (1922, 1937, 1940), but each time it died in the Senate (see Kyvig 97+). In a time of stress, blacks -- always an easy target -- were handy scapegoats.
The system of sharecropping was essentially a feudal order. Rent was paid by part (usually half) of the harvest. Tenants were expected to purchase anything they might need at the plantation store, where the had credit. Often they were charged the weekly limit whether they purchased goods amounting to the total or not. Somehow, most sharecroppers were kept in debt, and thus kept on the land. (Caldwell 11+; Raper 63+; et al.)
The depression made the situation worse; the New Deal tried to make it better. It was with Franklin D. Roosevelt that the black vote began to swing from the Republicans, the party of Lincoln and Emancipation, to the Democrats, the party of the New Deal. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt listened to and recognized black needs and the growing strength of the black vote; FDR listened to Eleanor. But many black activists felt that the New Deal did not sufficiently respond to the needs of African-Americans.
And what response was offered was not without its racist connotations. On paper and in photographs, blacks were portrayed as deserving of aid at least in part, if not entirely, because they could not help themselves. Not merely that they were victims of the system (although they were), but that they were somehow inferior -- less intelligent, perhaps -- than white folks.
The caption which Caldwell and Bourke-White composed for the image of a black man laying upon tobacco leaves, apparently what he himself seems to be thinking, reads: "The auction-boss talks so fast a colored man can't hardly ever tell how much his tobacco crop sells for."
The image of African-Americans we see in the photography of Margaret Bourke-White is not unlike that of other Depression-era photographers. Government-sponsored projects produced similar results:
Bureau of Agriculture Economics.
Ben Shahn, Farm Security Administration.
In all of the enduring images, these Negroes are not inferior in a bad way, of course, they're just simple folk.
|| They sit by the river, they rustle up bait, they work in the fields. They are good Negroes, the kind that tip their hats to passing white folk and always say "yessuh" and "nosuh" at the appropriate time. They cannot afford to be bad niggers. They deserve our pity but also our help -- paternalism at its best.
You Have Seen Their Faces
FrontpageWhy photography?Margaret Bourke-White
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