African American Studies 101
November 17, 2015
My cultural artifact is a photograph of an African American married couple. They were share croppers in rural Mississippi in 1937. The picture illustrates quite a scene. The couple is sitting on their porch. They both look like they didn’t want their picture taken. In-between them there is a chair falling apart. Neither of them are sitting on chairs themselves. They are both looking to their left, they look exhausted. The title of the photograph says “Negro sharecropper and wife. Mississippi. They have no tools, stock, equipment or garden” (Dorothea Lange). This photo grabbed my attention because these people are in some of the worst situations imaginable. They are African American sharecroppers in the deep south, with no means to make any crop. When you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it does. I’m also drawn to this photo because of the uncertainty of this time period for African Americans. To be a share cropper at this time meant that you were tied to the land. They cannot leave this land most likely because of the debt that comes along with taking loans at high interest rates. This picture depicts hopelessness and begs the question what’s going to happen next to these people? They could be subject to violence, forced into work or arrested. If they cannot find tools soon to produce a crop, they might have to borrow more money at at even higher interest rate.
Dorothea Lange took this photo. She was born in 1895 in Hoboken New Jersey. She took the photo when she was working for the Resettlement Administration. This administration was a “New Deal” federal agency that tried to help relocate struggling rural and urban families to planned communities. The RA quickly turned into the FSA (Farm Security Association). It was over this time she traveled rural areas and documented the poverty of the local people. When she was seven years old she contracted polio. This would change the course of her life forever. Later in her life she will go on to say “It was the most important thing that happened to me, it formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me,” (Dorothea Lange). As she was growing up she wasn’t really interested in other topics in school so she focused on her photography. She studied at Columbia University. Once 1930 hit and the depression started, she took pictures of the people in the harshest conditions. In 1935 she started working for the FSA and took this picture (Dorothea Lange Biography).
This picture was taken in 1937, this time is part of the migration period for African Americans that are moving north to escape the harsh racial climate of the south. In this time African Americans were trying to start their lives as free people. Whites saw these people as inherently under them, and wanted to keep them that way. The elite white people of the south wanted to keep them as laborers. Poorer white people saw them as competition for work. “Black Codes” and “Jim Crow” laws were in full effect. These laws limited the success African Americans could have during this time period.
During this time the “Black Codes” criminalized blacks. It was now illegal to sell goods after dark, to loiter, to spit, for speaking loudly, and even if one couldn’t prove they had a job. Also they increased penalties for crimes that used to be just misdemeanors. The “Pig Laws” now made it a five-year jail sentence for stealing a pig that was worth one dollar. During a jail sentence in the south it was likely that the people serving time would be subject to convict leasing. This is when states rent out the prisoners to private industry. The strongest prisoners get loaned out for higher prices. Once the prisoner is in the hands of the industry they can do whatever the want with them. This is possible because of how the 13th amendment was written. It specifically states that slavery is illegal except as a punishment for a crime. Now because of this loophole, African Americans are being unfairly represented in prison systems. Crime rate actually increases in the fall when it’s time to harvest cotton (Slavery by another name).
Now because African Americans are being unfairly represented in jail because of the “Black Codes”, there is a consensus going around that it was a mistake to give African Americans their freedom. Across the south they are being demonized as inherent thieves, and biologically inferior. Racial Segregation is now mandated by law because of Plessy vs. Ferguson court ruling. Whites want to remind blacks that they are subordinate.
The photo that I have chosen to write about is significant to the time period because it depicts the situation of millions of people in the south during this time. At this time four million African Americans were stuck in the south because of share cropping or some sort of debt peonage. They people that got involved in sharecropping would never get to leave, neither would any of the family members that are staying on the farm with them. Sharecropping allows people to come work on someone else’s land for a percent of the sale of the crop. In order to do this one needs to get a loan, in order to buy the necessary things to get started. The interest rates that were given to African Americans were so incredibly high, 50-90% in some cases that they could never pay it back. Often times they couldn’t even eat the crop that they were growing. This is a form of debt peonage. The effort one can put into the farm will never get them out of debt. It is a hopeless system that one cannot escape from. If someone tried to leave the farm they would be arrested and brought back to the farm in chains. Even successful African American Farmers still had to worry about white violence (Pittman).
This cultural product relates to this course very well because we have been talking about this era in class. In the past few weeks we have finished the slavery era and we are now making the connection between then and this era. “In 1900 90% of African Americans still lived in slave holding sites” (Pittman). The journey the African Americans had to endure was a long one and did not come easy. Coming into the “Reconstruction era” there was increasing uncertainty, poverty, and white violence. Slave codes turned into black codes which would turn into Jim Crow laws. All of which took freedom from African Americans. These laws were made at the fear of losing slave labor. Especially in the south the culture and economy depended on the labor of African Americans. Under Cottage tenancy one will work for rations. The quality of life in sharecropping and cottage tenancy families were low. Black men shared authority of over families with the white land owner they worked for. It was in the best interest of the land owner to have all hands in the field working in order for maximum production(Pittman).
I don’t know for certain what the lives were like for the couple in the photo, however we know that in Mississippi 1937, segregation was mandated by law, black codes and the peonage system were restricting the freedom of African Americans.
“Dorothea Lange Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <http://www.biography.com/people/dorothea-lange-9372993>.
Lange, Dorothea. Negro Sharecropper and Wife. Mississippi. They Have No Tools, Stock, Equipment, or Garden. The Library of Congress. Farm Security Administration, 1 July 1937. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <https://www.loc.gov/item/fsa2000001405/PP/>.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “African Americans and Reconstruction.” University of Washington. Savery Hall University of Washington, 5 Nov. 2015 African American Studies Class 101. Lecture.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “The Great Migration.” University of Washington. Savery Hall University of Washington, 15 Nov. 2015 African American Studies Class 101.Lecture.
Slavery by Another Name. Dir. Sam Pollard. PBS Distribution, 2012. Film.