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