American Gothic

You’ve got to be taught

To hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught

From year to year,

It’s got to be drummed

In your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Oscar Hammerstein II from the musical South Pacific

One might start with the term Racist, or Eugenicist, or Sectarianist, or Fascist, or any number of collective nouns for groups of people who set themselves apart from ‘others’; to distinguish themselves from differences they either cannot comprehend or decide are of a caste that does not conform to their narrower view of their social norm. Those who place themselves on pedestals.

I wasn’t aware of them when I was young, and I don’t really know when I became fully aware of them. My father hadn’t pronounced on them until there was a family issue that brought a lot of the questions associated with tolerance to the fore. This separateness that creates divisions on the basis of differences have always tended to suggest to me the need for power and control, mixed with fear. These distinctions between various peoples that are amplified seem too often to be derived from a very narrow, if not singular sources; Le Pen, Stalin, Mussolini, Luther, either of the two leaders of the monotheistic religions. The list is long and loathsome and it doesn’t appear to me to be shrinking, rather the reverse.

I have vacillated in the apportionment of blame between the notion of innocent misunderstanding and intolerance, between the understandable uncertainties of the unknown to full bore bigotry. At the one end of the spectrum there are those questions regarding customs and practices that are alien; these questions which are preyed upon by those that seek power, fuelling these fears to fan the flame and igniting bigotry where once was just ignorance. I’m not excusing those that follow those despotic leaders that ply their rhetoric, but had it not been for those that sought their access to power and wealth through the weaknesses of many then I wonder if the suffering and injustices would have occurred as many times as it has. And, who knows, were it not for those few words that my father delivered, those many years ago, I too may have been suckered into the embrace of those who seem to provide easy answers to difficult questions.

Gordon Parks’ ‘American Gothic’

American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942 (gelatin silver print)”

Parks, Gordon (1912 – 2006)

“Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington… Bridgeman

This photograph, one of the very first Parks took after being contracted by the Farm Security Administration just happens also to be his most famous. The symbolism of the black woman, with the tools of not only her trade, but also of her position in American society. The ‘Stars and Stripes’ behind and above her, seemingly adding it’s seal of approval on the state of affairs, enshrining her role. This image has rightly been seen as a herald of the position of African Americans at this time. Parks, in the capital of “The Free World” whose constitution enshrined the freedom of all it’s citizens who had had a bitter civil war to free the slaves, found that he had to enter hotels by the back door, that segregation was the norm’.

Man walking away from Broom, Washington D.C. Roy DeCarava 1975. From his book Roy DeCarava ‘Photographs’ published 1981

This photograph by Roy DeCarava some thirty-three years later in the same city shows again an African American with a broom. It’s allegorical content suggests the degree of change in the life of these who once were slaves – the progress made in over three decades. This man has decided to walk away from his broom – though seemingly after he has swept up – but his position in society is still manifestly evident. He is on the ground floor, perhaps even subterranean; each progression to a better life is via a climb yet to be made; he may rest but he will surely have to work hard to raise himself in this society. The next level has further stairs and effort to be expended before he reaches any better place let alone the vantage point from where we are situated, looking down on him.

That photography has been used to both illuminate the viewer to the views of both sides of the racism divide does not legitimize nor demonise the use of a camera and photography. The camera is a mere tool, much like the broom in the above photographers, and can be used to deliver the intent of the photographer. The broom however can be both utilitarian and emblematic as both these images show. Shackled and unburdened, much in the same way that subjugated workers have been depicted in the fight against poverty and class, these twin images are equally powerful. Whilst thirty years isn’t long in terms of the struggle for emancipation, already several centuries old, it’s proximity to contemporary events is a sharp reminder of the distance still to travel. The Americans have elected a non-white person to the White House as “President of the Free World”, but with something like 60% of of the prison population either African American or Hispanic, one ponders on the notion of free – see here. Progress is being made, painfully slow in some areas in the West, whilst other territories seem to be on the decline. The current economic climate will fuel the debates on the questions of immigration, on colour and their twin effects on the ‘well-being’ of the ‘natural’ citizens on whichever country they inhabit. I am always surprised at the irony of these positions especially in the USA given their treatment of the native Americans.

My own Damascus moment occurred from when my father made his proclamation, one so startlingly and unequivocally stark that my mind was set from then on. His views on race had never been aired before, his views on socialism were clear – his support for the class struggle had been stated many times. His statement on colour had the benefit of brevity it was clear and concise; on the matter of one of my sister’s romantic involvement with a chap of West Indian descent – he would personally set all the ‘blacks’ up against a wall and shoot them all. She was fourteen.

Because my father hadn’t spoken previously about his views on race, I wasn’t aware not only that my he had these views, but whatever thoughts I had were fixed from that moment and that if he had ever thought to try and teach me, he was bound to fail, as he had failed me on so many other issues. Oscar Hammerstein’s words have more than a ring of truth about them, I can’t believe that prejudice is a naturally occurring phenomena,that it is hereditary; these thoughts must be implanted. Galton’s work in the nineteenth century to typecast peoples into racial stereotypes did inform vast swathes of peoples in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; this work was used to educate successive generations from the Nazis to the National Front about the supposed inadequacies and malevolence of difference; it will take a herculean effort to right those wrongs. I feel though the weight of a guilty conscience on my shoulders. I feel that because I took a contrarion’s position to that of my Father’s and also those of mine and successive generations that have that prejudice, that I share that blame on their behalf. I find it difficult to shake off that feeling, as much as I feel the blame for child abuse and the way in which women have been treated – but more on that later in the course. Looking back on my childhood it is now difficult to believe how institutionalised the racism was, and, sadly, how indeed it still is.

 

p.s. update after I found this image and piece by the photographer Alicia Bruce which I think is an interesting take

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7 thoughts on “American Gothic

  1. I do believe that prejudice is a naturally occurring phenomenon in the sense that it’s one of the (many) exaggerated forms of our brain’s need to make sense of all the stimuli that bombards it constantly. ‘Them and Us’ is one of the outcomes in all its manifestations exacerbated as it is by ‘nurture’. What always amazes me is that education doesn’t seem to make a difference. I could say more but I’d go on and on! I’ve often looked back and been pleased that my parents were so unprejudiced even though they were of that earlier generation born just after World War I.

  2. I’m struggling with your concept of prejudice being a naturally occurring event. I appreciate the ‘them and us’ notion that you draw on for the proposition, but do you have any references to support it as I would dearly like to understand how we [as a race] can be friendly or hateful to others purely on the basis of their colour?

  3. Thanks for the link Catherine. I won’t be adding to the book pile [just yet]: looking at the review Allport suggests that categorising helps to assimilate differentials, but why would that necessarily engender intolerance? I have read most of the work by Primo Levi and his compassion towards the people that found his presence on this earth to be against their religious and humanitarian convictions is something that I would find impossible to emulate I am sure.

  4. Pingback: You got eyes. The Americans by Robert Frank | John Umney – Gesture and Meaning

  5. Pingback: Gordon Parks – A Harlem Family | John Umney - Gesture and Meaning

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