Marion Post Wolcott was an American photographer who worked for Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression documenting suffering of rural America. Among many FSA images, I find Wolcott’s pictures of late 1930s particularly interesting, especially those of Ashwood Plantations, South Carolina. The picture, titled “Second and third grade children being made up for their Negro song and dance at May Day-Health Day festivities,” is disturbing. It makes me, however, think about issues of social justice; and fantasize about a one, pluralist, beloved community where all live in harmony.
Nine ten- or eleven-year old, white, southern children are gathered around their teacher. Their faces and arms are painted black. One kid is checking out her newly acquired skin tone in a mirror with a seemingly unimpressed look on her face. Blackface make up was probably essential to have a fun celebration then. This draws a picture of what society was in South Carolina in 1939. Did people then find blackface makeup a way to address issues of class and identity? Were they afraid of or threatened by black people and sought to appeal to them? Or were they, rather, completely ignorant, merely mocking black people? Undoubtedly the picture reveals how such benign festivities perpetuate and proliferate stereotypes. These kids will grow up associating exaggerated lips, cheek bones, and dark skin with black people. Furthermore, given they live on a plantation it is imperative that kids hardly know free black men or women. So, their limited, distorted worldview offers sense of superiority, authority, and power. It is through that, I think, that prejudice and racial discrimination persisted.
Although premises of FSA project are not satisfied here, it is still very relevant. I could not see suffering and deprivation in Wolcott’s picture. Absence of this, combined with cross dressing of white folks as black lead me to think that the former is thriving on the expense of the latter. Hence, suffering of black slaves in rural Ashwood Plantation is brought up in this picture. This can be attributed to either my lack of depth and artistic perception, or my analytical brilliance.
Regardless of interpretation, the picture engages me in a mental discussion about issues related to race, culture and MLK idea of a beloved community. Wolcott shows a majority trying to represent a minority through blackface make up. I believe this is inherently flawed and subjective because it is not only perpetuating stereotypes, but also the minority in question is not present. Apart from that, if the teacher was trying to acquaint her students with being black, should it not be easier if they spent time with black people. I foresee this being flawed too due to the fact that majority of black people there are slaves. But, this interaction, I firmly believe, would pave the way for future conversations and events based on mutual respect and acknowledgment of rights.
One thing I find troubling: how do reconcile different factions in society to have a strong, “beloved community”? If I want to sail in harmony with my fellow voyagers, then words such as “minority” and “majority” are to be dismissed. By definition, the word “minority” suggests that there is a majority superior and more powerful. As long as people are segregated based on their skin tone, religious and/or political beliefs we will not be able to live in harmony. A beloved community is a community attained when minorities and majorities merge to form a strong community.
 Wolcott, Marion Post. Second and third grade children being made up for their Negro song and dance at May Day-Health Day festivities. Ashwood Plantations, South Carolina. May 1939. Library of Congress, South Carolina. Web. 14 Feb 2013. < http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa2000032075/PP/>.