NOTE: I wrote this post for Tom Griggs at Fototazo as part of his Photographers on Photographers series. I’ve crossposted it here with his permission since it fits in with my series of posts revisiting the books I grew up with. Compared to my post on Fototazo, my post here has a few more notes and a lot more links to related material.
Through the slats of the boardwalk above, the sun shines upon the figures below, and self-imposed laws operate to segregate the people at this great city beach. Coney Island, New York.
When I was a kid—junior high and high school—I used to look through my father’s high school yearbooks. He grew up in Oakland in the late 60s. His yearbooks hinted at a very different world than what I saw in his family photos. The war stuff and the race stuff were both heavier than anything I had to deal with as a kid and suggested a different side of my dad than I’d ever known.
I’ve come to realize that I’m also unlikely to ever know this side of him. And while there are parts of our parents that we can’t ever expect to know, not many of them are so well documented as their high school years.
At the same time I was looking through yearbooks, I was also looking through my parents’ photobooks. They had what I’d consider to be the usual suspects for a liberal California couple: A few Sierra Club books,* Family of Man, America in Crisis, and Black in White America. Exactly what you’d expect from a liberal household. Yet, also not something that was common among my peer group growing up.
*Notably: This is the American Earth, The Place No One Knew, and Down the Colorado.
I’ve been looking through these photobooks again now with adult eyes. It’s interesting, I never really paid attention to the dates when I was young. I recognized, roughly, what time periods they covered but never really put together that everything was happening at the same time. Re-viewing them has helped me understand the books, and my parents, a lot better. I’m also figuring a lot out about myself in the process.
In this post, I’m looking at Leonard Freed’s Black in White America.
I even read the text this time; when I was a kid, I only looked at the photos.
Absorbing the images was enough to make me realize there was an alternate reality, and an alternate history, in my country. I grew up in the suburbs, not just without all the turmoil my father experienced in his schools, but totally insulated from it. In particular when it came to race stuff. For all the “diversity” of the Bay Area, it’s remarkable how non-diverse it really is. I grew up without having to really interact at all with black people.* As a result, most of my sense of things came from media.
*I had maybe a handful of black classmates total in my 13 years of schooling.
Black America was outside the standard story of “American” society which I learned in school.* The only time it came up was in the context of the Civil Rights Movement in The South. Freed shows how the Jim Crow South and the suburban white flight in the North resulted in parallel, oppressed societies all over the country.
*Why Cars bothers me now, especially with its romantization of a specific white-male-versioned past, and why the Green Books need to be remembered.
What’s shocking is how much of the book still feels relevant today. The struggle between choosing to submit to the politics of white respectability—with its resulting acceptance of second-class citizenship in exchange for supposed safety—and choosing the struggle for more rights even though that struggle carries greater risks. The ease at which it was possible to be, and desire to be, a white moderate.* How technology—really information (via TV in the 1960s and the internet now)—impacts society by eroding the ignorance between them. How the narrative is always blaming Black America for its ills rather than recognizing how White America created Black America to begin with.
*From Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail: “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’ great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
I can’t look at this project and think that we’ve made a lot of progress in the 45 years since it came out. Do things suck less than before? Yes. But that’s not something to be proud of.
This is another of the reasons why I have such a low tolerance for looking at photos where there’s a huge privilege difference between photographer and subject. A lot of those projects, in addition to being exploitative and boring, only serve to show our lack of progress on addressing the structural inequalities in our society. That so many also appear to have their only goal be portraying the photographer as a savior just for being there and taking the photo is even more infuriating.
Freed though is an example of how to do this kind of outsider photography really well. He’s aware of how privilege works in granting access and providing safety.* And while being close to a white-man-explains-the-world sort of thing, it’s not a quick superficial dip into the other world. No poverty or suffering just for cheap grittiness. He shows how pervasive the different world is and how it’s closely related to our own world.
*Albeit not as much safety as one might think. The ways that southern whites attempted to intimidate any out-of-town whites who fraternized with the blacks is indeed intimidating.
As per the title of the book, many of the photos include White America someplace in the frame. Maybe it’s leaking in via the television. Or through the gaps in the boardwalk overhead. Or the unplugged acquired-via-surplus refrigerator being used to store food. Or the absent landlord of the falling-apart house. Etc. Etc. The photographer, and his world, is constantly present in the photos. Despite much of the subject matter being foreign, it’s still anchored to the mainstream cultural narrative of the increased equity and comfort that occurred during 1950-60s US history.
And there is a lot of joy depicted. Weddings. Kids playing. Music. Families. Life is normal even if it is very different from the “silent majority” lifestyle that we supposedly want to return to now.* Nothing is trivialized into a cheap storyline about suffering or poverty or a lack of virtue—narratives we still hear all too often.
*Something I alluded to when looking at David Goldblatt and Ernest Cole’s work.
Looking at Freed has reminded me how of the way National Geographic in the 1980s was looking at US cities as if they were foreign countries. In the same way I’d see images from abroad, I’d also see images from our cities. Only those images didn’t inspire me to want to travel there. When I was a kid cities were scary. Not just the busyness. They just didn’t feel safe. Black America was scary and foreign to me.
I know now that part of that feeling is embedded and absorbed racism from society. I also know now that another part was the recognition that the entire system had failed there.
I look through Freed now and try to distinguish between what’s unchanged and what sucks less. I better understand the barely-contained anger and frustration I see on Black Twitter as each successive Stand Your Ground trial reëmphasizes how little society values black lives. I see how liberal whites’ insistence on being recognized for our progress as a society feels false when things are still horrible. And I wonder what kinds of things my father talks about with his classmates when he attends his High School reunion.