“These people are not hand-picked failures. They are the human materials cruelly dislocated by the processes of human erosion. They have been scattered like the shavings from a clean-cutting plane, or like the dust of their farms, literally blown out.” – American Studies at the University of Virginia online
In the 1930s, times were a’changing, and no one knew what the future held. Industrialization started about a hundred years prior and had vastly changed the lifestyle, work, and even the ecology of America and its people. This rapid exhaustion of resources, the eradication of buffalo and other large beasts, the erosion of natural waterways and soil degradation from money-grubbing landowners that had either bought the land for pennies from conquered natives, inherited it from family, or were the banks lending money to these wealthy individuals to proliferate the business model. This unsustainable practice led to the American people to downsize and prioritize around incredible feats of inhumanity. Entire people and cultures were sloughed off like old skin “scattered like… dust” (p135), and Dorothea Lange wondered if these eroded humans even felt human, or just the dust they were being beaten into. The cotton picking had only gotten worse, making it difficult for these people to cling to life. Yet people, being people, clung to their humanity, “their clothes, abused, are neatly patched”. However, Dorothea is part of a community that distrusts the government that created the system that enslaved them and the Jim Crow laws that continued to oppress them, when she said “if you don’t have to go to the government man about what bread you eat, I like it better.” (p. 135).
During the great migration out west to California, much of the minority population ended up in life-threatening jobs with little pay, but working in the shipyards in California “beats the WPA”. (Lange and Taylor, p130). They had the resolve and strength to brave their destitute circumstances beyond their control. They yearned for economic independence as their freedom, as Lange explained to Taylor, “…if I could get me a piece of land, I’d go to diggin’ it with my hands’ we could work… we would.” Yet even when the harsh reality around them had a severe imbalance between available work and the demand for it, they still did not appreciate relief. There had been too many hands before them taking their piece of it before it finally got to them.
Was this cause of hopelessness? Is this stubborn stand against feeling so desperately helpless, to refuse to accept government relief, their last hope at still feeling like an empowered human being? As long as they work for their own food, they have no conceded defeat. This came up in previous literature, namely A Cool Million, where his infallible optimism in satire of the American Dream does reveal one thing. Our hero in that story never puts his head down. “Dignity”, is what writers for Exodus called it. A dignity that shines through brave photographs of dying men, when thriving in life is not possible. A dignity that drives man to help man, to brave the coldest nights, to retain resolve when the system continues to harass you, when the police make nuisance instead of conveniently dying in a hole. When all hope is lost, what else is there, when God has fled? Is dignity the next best fuel for survival?