The Great Migration by Jacob Lawrence

"57. The female worker was also one of the last groups to leave the South"

"3.  In every town Negroes were leaving by the hundreds to go North and enter into Northern industry."

"9. Another great ravager of the rops was the boll weevil."

The Work of Jacob Lawrence, the Artist

In 1940, after having applied for and won a fellowship for $1500 from the Rosenwald Foundation, Jacob Lawrence begun what was to be a series of "forty to fifty" panels on the "Great Negro Migration."  He researched his subject at the Schomburg Collection and completed it with 60 panels in 1941.  Two museums jointly purchased the works in the winter of 1941-1942 with the even numbered panels going to the Museum of Modern Art and the odd numbers to the the Phillips. Jacob Lawrence was then 24 years old.  My captions are taken from Peter T. Nesbit and Michelle DuBois' Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings, and Murals (1935-1999) A Catalogue Raisonne, University of Washington Press, Seattle and London in association with the Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonne Project, Seattle 2000. http://www.jacoblawrence.org.
There isn't much on this website at this time.  but they promise more in the near future.  I am assuming its current state may be due to changes in the Lawrence and Knight estate and their foundation. 

The Migration of the Negro by Jacob Lawrence

All 1941 casein tempera on hardboard (60 panels) 12 x 18 inches. The Phillips Collection, Washington,D.C. (odd numbered panels) and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (even numbered panels.

"1. During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes"

"15. Another cause was lynching.  It was found that where there had been a lynching, the people who were reluctant to leave at first left immediately after this."

"11. In many places, because of the war, food had doubled in price."

"45. They arrived in Pittsburgh, one of the great industrial centers of the North in large numbers."

"49.  They also found discrimination in the North although it was much different from that which they had known in the South."

"58. In the North the Negro had better educational facilities."

The Great Depression

Several years ago I discovered that Blackside had done another masterful documentary right after Eyes on the Prize: The Great Depression.  It is a seven hour treatment of The Great Depression which is stunning for its inclusion of everything I ever wanted to know as a black woman and a feminist about The Great Depression.  I still have the seven videos and look at them as often as I can to refresh my memory concerning this history.  As I am refining my materials on this period in history, I went to find out what there was about this historic series online.  I was unpleasantly surprised to find that there is barely a sign that this definitive documentary was ever made.

Why would this be?  I am eager to have an answer to this question. In the meanwhile, I would like to venture two possible theories, and perhaps they are both true.  The first of these is to make the observation that there is a tendency in the televisual world for output to always seek the lowest common denominator.  When anything really wonderful is produced-- unless the immediate popular response to it is positively overwhelming (say like John Lennon or Michael Jackson or Marilyn Monroe or some such phoenix), one can with fair certainty expect that in a very short period of time it is going to be almost impossible to find the product in the marketplace. 

The other theory is more paranoid:  isn't it just about what you would expect that the true history of the Depression would be the lost history in the very country in which there has been total idiocy and amnesia about how money and markets and poverty works.  Speaking of which, Blackside also produced another stunning series--which I also got from them on that occasion-- America's War on Poverty (1995).  It is an unusual thing indeed when documentary footage (essentially a montage of photographs, film, music, interviews and other forms of visual and audio evidence) can actually compete with print between covers in terms of communicating the basics of what everybody who cares about the planet needs to know.  

As a totally print based person who is nonetheless trying to make the necessary adjustments to the new century, almost every time I would recommend book research over video or Internet research.  But in this particular case of the Blackside documentaries, speaking as a lifelong generalist, I would say it is actually safe to use this material as an introduction to what every American needs to know about "The Great Depression" and "The War on Poverty" --two really critical topics for comprehending anything at all about blues people, the African American oral tradition or African American visual culture.  Let's face it.  You are never going to be able to read all the books you need to read to know all you need to know.  So why not cram in a little more with documentary?  But the trick is to not waste your time on bad documentary.  And as it turns out, that is a trick indeed because there is a lot of very very bad documentary. 

For more on the films of Blackside, go to Movie Talk at http://www.michelemovietalk.blogspot.com


Manhole Covers and The Man Who Lived Underground

Did some research on manhole images and came up with these stairs leading down to the Viennese sewer used in Orson Welles' The Third Man.  Apparently it is possible to arrange to tour the sewers in Vienna today, as opposed to the layout of the sewers in Wright's story.  It may be that these older cities in Europe and elsewhere have much more elaborate sewers, and or they may have sewers that become obsolete and therefore make good places to tour.  This one is certainly beautiful.

This is a shot of the manhole cover in Vienna, the same one used in The Third Man with the various leafs of the cover open.

This is the same manhole but closed.  If you wish to see the way the manhole figures in Welles' film, there is a clip on UTube linked via some of the sewer research sites.  This connection to Welles is interesting because it was he who directed the stage version of Wright's first novel Native Son.  Wright's story was published in 1942 several years prior to the making of The Third Man, which was very "noir," or in other word filled with night time images and expressive of cynical views concerning the possibilities for urban modern life.  On the other hand, so was "The Man Who Lived Underground."  But now we are crossing over into Movie Talk, which belongs on another blog.

It seems as though American manholes are somewhat less elaborate, although no less beautiful.  This is a lovely one in Minnesota.

This is a manhole in Washington, D.C. Couldn't find any in New York for some reason but there is a Manhole Group on Flickr with millions of images so its out there.  Have seen enough to guess that manholes are a fascinating topic, on their own merits.

The Man Who Lived Underground

Today school really went the way it should with two classes
discussing The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright.

I see the story as a metaphorical somewhat surreal treatment of the New York City  sewage
system as an allegory of modern urban culture.  The story is obviously influenced by Dostoevsky's Underground Man, concerned with some of the same issues of alienation and injustice in an urban bureaucracy although Dostoevsky's Underground Man isn't actually underground and he also has an obviously repugnant personality.  It is less clear in that story that the UM's condition isn't his own fault.  Yet his problems are structural as well, built into a bureaucracy which forms the outer layers of a hierarchy in which the Czar and his family are at the summit.  Conditions in Russia at that point might be considered predictive of the subsequent Russian Revolution, although the Revolution which actually followed many decades later did little to make things better for the not well connected individual.

Whereas in Wright's story,   you can readily imagine that much of the hero's problems stem from his race as black but he is also poor and friendless, marginal in terms of caste as well as present condition, which he has in common with Dostoevsky's hero.  Where he differs is that he is running from the police who have beaten him into confessing to a crime he didn't commit when he sees a manhole that has popped slightly off its fitting.  He flees down under the manhole cover to find himself in the sewer systems of New York.  He narrowly escapes
being flushed and finds a series of hidden tunnels that allow him to
peak into the world's of a nearby church and  a nearby jewelry store.
He steps in and out of these worlds and has some impact on what
happens there. He robs a safe full of money and returns to see the
custodian being tortured by the same police who beat him in an
attempt to extract a confession from the custodian who did nothing.

Later our underground man is stamping diamonds he stole into
the ground and papering the wall with the money, which has become
meaningless to him.  Finally, he becomes so disoriented that he
transcends his physical hindrances and begins to believe that he knows
the secret truth which he now wants to share with the church members,
who ejects him because he is so filthy. 

Suddenly he realizes that who he really needs to talk to is the police who beat him. Not clear how long he's been underground but it takes a while for them to remember
him and what crime they associated him with. They have since found
someone else to take the rap. He begins to tell them about the money
and tries to lead them back down into the sewer to show them the
money and diamonds whereupon one of the police shoots him. The other
police man asks him why he shot him to which his partner answers, when
they get like that, you have to shoot them. He falls down into the
sewer and is pushed down the drain into the flow of water, and to his death presumably.

Wright's story is littered with obvious symbols--money, a dead baby, the police, the sewer itself.  But I suppose it is also significant where you are personally when you read this story.  The first time I read it was maybe 20 years ago and at that time I think I imagined that the sewer to be more like the subways, and was less preoccupied by the idea of the hero standing in untreated sewage, or that there were cave-like pockets in the wall, or the relative probability of his being able to see into businesses on the streets above.
Since it is an allegory about truth and freedom, you see your own life
reflected in it, certainly the life of the city.

So the discussions among the master's student was wonderful and
helpful to me because I found myself constantly comparing his
treatment of the sewers to how I imagined the subways. I googled
sewer and found some materials on sewer systems and manholes, and some
stuff on combined sewer and rain water drainage systems.

As some of my students mentioned, homeless people live in the subway
system.  Reference: The Mole People.


Further having looked into some various sources
National Geographic's New York Underground Site.

 Ideally, there was once the notion that waste disposal should go in a cesspool in the backyard, and then the British began with the flush toilets (in order to perpetuate the bourgeois notion that some people didn't actually have waste), which multiplied the volume of waste exponentially.

In the time that Wright is writing about specifically this would have begun to be a deep but largely concealed problem resulting in much untreated sewage going into the rivers around New York, rivers that poor children swam in.  More than likely there were dead animals if not a dead baby or two.

Later in the M.A. class we got into a discussion of revolutionary times, and whether or not the 1850s were inherently revolutionary in Russia and what that might mean. 
I wanted to stress that there had been little freedom for the poor people of the world at this time, even when there was revolutionary fervor as there would be in the French Revolution and the American Revolution (and much much later in the Russian Revolution). The serfs who were nominally freed from serfdom were far from free. They were peasants, which has nothing to do with a state of freedom, however you may definite it.  

Even the ideologues of the Russian revolution saw the peasant as hopeless. Their vision was for the elevation of the proletariat (urban workers) not the peasant. The Russian Revolution largely continued the exploitation of the peasant class as did every previous regime. There has never been much freedom for those who are tied to the land, which seems to me a great shame since our need for the fruits of the earth is likely to continue forever. Can such need co-exist with freedom?  What is freedom?  I think perhaps freedom is being a child but I don't know.

Anyway it was interesting.


FSA Color Photographs

Marion Post Wolcott, "Bayou Bourbeau plantation, a Farm Security Adminstration Cooperative," Vicinity of Natchitoches, Louisiana, August 1940, Reproduction from color slide, LC-USF351-93, LC DIG-fsac-1a34354, FSA/OWI Collection Prints and Photograph Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.


Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963)
The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Faith Ringgold's Illustrations for MLK Letter (1963) (http://www.faithringgold.blogspot.com/2007/07/car-service.html)


Concerning Zora Neale Hurston and Mules and Men

Since I have had the pleasure of teaching classes entirely devoted to the works of Zora Neale Hurston, I have a pretty good collection of her writings and writings about her.

My favorite in regard to the anthropological or ethnographic writings is The Library of America volume, Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings--Mules and Men, Tell My Horse, Dust Tracks on a Road and Selected Articles because it includes a pretty thorough selection of her nonfiction writings in a fairly compact and light weight package.  It also includes some helpful supporting materials by Professor Cheryl Wall, including a biblography, an introduction and a useful chronology.  This chronology includes much of the information concerning Hurston's life that she chose never to reveal, such as her marriages, her real birth place and her real birth date in 1891 in Notasulga, Macon County, Alabama, which she wrote about only in fictional terms in her first novel Jonah's Gourdvine (1934).

There have been a great many revelations concerning Hurston's life since her celebrated rediscovery by the womanist writer Alice Walker in her first collection of essays, In Search of Her Mother's Gardens in the late 70s, beginning with the revelation that she had died unknown and in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida in 1961.

In this class we will focus on the significance of her combination of anthropology and fiction in Mules and Men (1935) and other work in which she renders her many hours of folktale and folk music gathering in Florida into a seamless narrative centered around a single trip, which begins in Eatonville, Florida and ends in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The book includes musical scores, recipes, spells, sermons, and tales of a vast description, as well as descriptions of the series of characters who provide the information.  For the most part, they convey themselves in a form of an African American dialect completely unique to Hurston, significantly departing from years of the conventional use of dialect in American literature designed mostly to imply the innate inferiority of African American speech.  

The simultaneous unreality and reality of this series of narratives, including that of Hurston herself who writes in flawless standard english, is woven together in a manner unlike almost any literary narrative before or since.  So much so that we can only guess at the reality of many things in this compendium.  We now know that Hurston had written many of these stories down in a previous form in 1927 recently rediscovered and published as Let Every Tongue Confess edited and introduced by Carla Kaplan but it had not been published, perhaps in part because it had been too clinical and straightfoward for Lippincott's taste.  Also godmother Charlotte Mason, who helped to sponsor the trip, kept a tight rein on Hurston's appearances in print. In Every Tongue's Gotta Confess, many of the same or similar tales we find in Mules and Men had been set down in sections designated by type along with an inventory of the informants, their ages, educational levels and birth places.  For me, this early work in 1927 (found in someone's papers all these years later) functions as a key to much of Hurston's subsequent writings across genre, from her letters (also edited by Kaplan) to her plays (all deposited with the Library of Congress and available on line), her short stories, her essays, novels and folklore collections.  In 1927, she was struggling for transparency in her collecting whereas by 1935, she had completely given up on any kind of straightforward presentation.  Of course she was actually 44 years old by then and knew better. 

As such, Mules and Men (1935) is a consummate act of storytelling and as is the case when one witnesses most canonical literary storytelling sessions, those of us who care are left wondering about many things, including what is finally the ultimate difference between the real and the unreal.  As many critics have pointed out, 1935 was a difficult year for black folks in the South.  Perhaps there is not enough sign of that in Mules and Men.  Perhaps there is more sign than we thought.

My approach to it in the classroom has simply been to work towards identifying its composite elements and leave the conclusions to the student's own predilection because I see and hear more and more every time I turn to it.  There is a page I found this time on the web which seems interested in many of the very elements I have found so intriguing since my first introduction to Mules and Men by my teacher Mark Mirksy at CCNY in 1971.

It is located at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA01/Grand-Jean/Hurston/Chapters/siteintroduction.html

and it is composed of a series of essays focused on Mules and Men and its unique ability to shed light on Hurston's unusual approach to almost everything, in particular African American folklore and vernacular culture.  There is little doubt that the inscrutability of the construction and methodology of Mules and Men can shed a lot of light on how Hurston was able to make a way out of no way.  In particular her fondness for the "lies" of her native Eatonville and African American folk culture.  It may also be the case that her empathy for the "folk furthest down" contributed to her own eventual invisibility and lack of success. 

ZORA IS MY NAME (DVD 1990 Edition), a staged version of Hurston's work, is available through Amazon for $17.99 and some kind of free shipping I never seem to get.  The abridged audio-tape of MULES AND MEN (2 cassette sets) by Ruby Dee is also available via Amazon used or second hand for as little as a $1.  I recommend that everybody get these before they are gone!