Dismayed at having revealed my own presumption, I pressed him further, “Do you not know any working class blacks who moved south?”
“I heard that Ford and General Motors are both building large factories here in the South,” he replied. “I’m sure that eventually there will be job opportunities for people like that. A few years ago. Lockheed built a factory in Georgia, and hired thousands of employees. But it wasn’t long before things went sour, and they had to let a lot of those employees go. I suppose that among those hired there were some blacks from up north, but…”
Not only Atlanta, but many other cities in the south too are pushing for industrialization as an escape from the poverty created by an over-reliance on agriculture. Factories are being built along their peripheries, and the cities themselves are growing at an amazing rate. But the demand for factory laborers is more than satisfied by people coming from rural agricultural areas. Truly lacking are white-collar workers, a shortage caused by the low educational standards of the South. The resulting situation is an ideal one for people like Mr. Lincoln.
Even in Atlanta, the number of unemployed black people was visible. The black communities that I walked through were strictly demarcated from the white areas, and were filled with men wandering aimlessly among dilapidated houses. Asking Mr. Lincoln what he thought of that, he replied, “Well, that is certainly an issue that we need to deal with. But why do you want to photograph that? Not all black people are like that, you know. A lot of us are living good lives,” he laughed.
I didn’t doubt that middle-class blacks were happy. But I wasn’t interested in those with position and wealth, those living in a state of emotional security. “I want to know people with problems,” I said. “As a photographer, I want to stand on the side of people being oppressed.” As a Japanese person, it made me embarrassed to say such grandiose things. But using English I can express myself in ways I otherwise wouldn’t.
Mr. Lincoln nodded in understanding, and promised to ask around. When I visited his office the following day, however, he greeted me with an apology. “I wasn’t able to come up with anyone. Maybe I’ll have some data for you in a few years?”
Compared to other cities in the south, much of Atlanta’s black residential areas were made up of apartment complexes. Only Atlanta had the feeling of a big city, with the possible exception of New Orleans, a popular tourist destination. I found it easy to take photographs there, thanks to the kindness of the people and the cheerfulness of the children. The black areas of Atlanta presented a solid community. While there was none of the beauty displayed by the rows of houses in the suburbs, also missing was their sense of exclusion and isolation. My photographs instead show openness and humanity.
The Deep Wounds of Slavery
I found it very difficult to understand Southern accents. On top of that, many of the young children and less educated people I spoke to used a black dialect. I photographed a mother and her daughter sitting on their porch in Birmingham, Alabama. The mother in particular had a very strong accent that I found difficult to understand. Her daughter, a college student, acted as an interpreter. The mother was a teacher in a public elementary school. All of the students in her class were black, so her accent didn’t cause a problem. When I asked about her husband, she told her daughter to explain.
“She’s divorced. We think he’s somewhere up north, probably. He went up north when I was a kid, and never came back,” she murmured.
In the August issue of the monthly U.S. magazine Ebony—the “Black Women” issue—I read some interesting statistics. According to Ebony, 51% of black women aged 25 to 45 are divorced, separated, or unmarried. The majority of those women have children. This rate of separation among black couples has a history reaching back to the age of slavery.
Slaves were strictly a production resource, requiring regular replenishment. Of course slaves had children among themselves, but those children fathered by white masters were also born into slavery. Women were forced to raise their children as a valuable commodity, so children stayed close to their mothers, even as their fathers were sold off. Slave women received particular attention and care, since they produced and maintained a valuable resource, much in the manner of prize livestock. Treating them as they pleased, the white masters disregarded slaves’ personal relationships. A slave woman’s husband could do nothing but look the other way.
In this way white owners robbed a black man of his role as father, protector, or provider, destroying their pride and status. Forced into a situation of fundamental hopelessness, it was the woman who became the head of the household.
Down to the present, blacks still face severe challenges resulting from the destruction of the family under slavery.
A Dialogue is a collection of talks between author James Baldwin and poet Nikki Giovanni. Much of their discussion is an examination of the psychological conflict between black men and women.
Photographing black areas in the cities and suburbs of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, northern Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana, the most striking thing was the clear demarcation between the residential areas of whites and blacks. Not only in the north but also here in the south, blacks and whites got along amazingly well in the downtown areas of the small towns that I visited. It was hard to believe that it wasn’t much more than just ten years ago that one could see “Whites Only” signs displayed at the entrance to restaurants, and that racist terrorism and lynchings were common. Where they lived, however, was another story. With the exception of a few middle-class neighborhoods, blacks and whites lived in different areas. I was told that if blacks move into a white area, the whites would move away, afraid that their home values would be reduced and the environment of the neighborhood worsened.
In Southern towns I visited black residential areas had houses so large I couldn’t imagine how many rooms they contained. Multiple families often lived in these homes, which were often in a state of disrepair and peeling paint.