Whitewashing the Great Depression

How the preeminent photographic record of the period excluded people of color from the nation’s self-image

By Sarah Boxer, The Atlantic,

December 2020 Issue

A Japanese mother and daughter, farmworkers in California, photographed in 1937 by Dorothea Lange (Library of Congress)

Quick, name one iconic Depression-era portrait each by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Russell Lee. My guess is that you’d choose Lange’s Migrant Mother, a portrait of Florence Owens Thompson and her children taken in Nipomo, California, in 1936. For Evans, you’d probably pick a 1936 portrait of tight-lipped Allie Mae Burroughs standing before the wall of her family’s cabin in Hale County, Alabama. For Lee, you might draw a blank, but you’d likely recognize his 1937 group portrait Saturday Night in a Saloon, showing four drinkers in Craigville, Minnesota. (It was used in the opening sequence of the TV show Cheers.)

What’s my point? Each of the subjects in each of these pictures, produced by Farm Security Administration photographers, appears to be white. 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 one sense, the lack of diversity in classic FSA photographs comes as little surprise: The country was roughly 90 percent white during the Depression, and the FSA represented Black people in proportion to their share of the population. Yet overall representation is surely only part of the story, given that the FSA was supposed to be chronicling hardship among farmworkers. During the Depression, Black Americans made up more than half of the country’s tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and farmworkers in the South. In 1932, when a quarter of white Americans were unemployed, half of Black Americans were. “In some Northern cities, whites called for African Americans to be fired from any jobs as long as there were whites out of work,” according to the Library of Congress’s website for teachers. And Black sharecroppers were often forced out of work by white ones. “No group was harder hit than African Americans…”

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