Searching for Black America

by Kei Orihara

Originally published in Ryudo Monthly, March, 1978
English translation by Tony Gonzalez

At 6 p.m. on August 2, 1977, I boarded a Greyhound bus leaving Philadelphia, heading south. I awoke the next morning to a window filled with a landscape of red dirt and cotton fields stretching to the horizon. Oak trees stretched their branches over poor farming homes, as if nature was trying to softly embrace the families inside. I was just starting on the second month of my bus tour through the United States.

I arrived in Atlanta at 3 p.m. the following day, excited about beginning my photo tour of the Deep South. I was traveling to the South because I wanted to photograph black people. I wanted to photograph America, but an America that I didn’t know. The black people I had seen in photographs and movies mostly lived in urban ghettos in large cities in the North and West. They had all been defeated by — perhaps incorporated into — the realities of urban life.

But I had heard in recent years that many blacks were returning to live in the South. Most blacks living in the industrial cities of the North were originally from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and other southern states. Many had moved to the North with dreams of finding work and escaping discrimination. With the end of slavery in 1863 came the end of reliable food and shelter for many who remained in the South, which in turn forced them into a difficult life as sharecroppers for whites. The mechanization of farming after World War II forced millions to move to the industrial areas of the North.

Relocating to the north in pursuit of freedom, equality, and work, most blacks found only unreliable work and low wages. They lived in small, dirty, over-priced rented dwellings. Their children attended poorly equipped, low performing schools. Conditions in such communities inevitably encouraged the evils of crime and drug addiction to rise and flourish. Just as hope once pointed the way northward, did it now lead them south again? Was the situation desperate enough to warrant this return to persistent poverty and discrimination? I hoped to answer these questions as I photographed the new life in the old South.