Book 17, pages 295-304
Since this hook was first published in Europe, I have had many inquiries from
readers about what came out of it. I sailed back to Denmark with 15,000
pictures. I was terribly disillusioned and had no confidence that anything
would come out of the photos. Yet after all the misery I had known in America,
it was luxurious to experience the security people here enjoyed in times of
recession. I suddenly realized to what a degree I had been molded by this
institutionalized security that enabled me to survive where others often could
not. I presented a slideshow in my father's church for local people. They were
shocked. Soon I had invitations from schools all over the country. A newspaper
organized tours with thousands of people lining up to see the show. The
government donated the use of a theater free of charge for a summer. A
publisher asked me to remake the show into a book - adding that it could make
me a millionaire. I therefore had a lawyer set up a foundation to ensure that
the money would be channeled into constructive programs. First I was dragged
to the international book fair in Frankfurt, "put up on the block" and sold to
several countries before I had even written the book. I still used my old
vagabond principle of "saying yes", but soon discovered that in the business
world I had to say no. The publisher wanted to sell the book to an American
publisher. This I categorically rejected. America was a holy land for me. I
wished to return as a vagabond and did not want a book to destroy my anonymity.
I wrote the book in two weeks. Annie, who often came around to visit me,
recalling how I had been completely paralyzed during our ghettoization, was
astonished seeing my sudden writing ability: "I had given up all hope that
anything creative would ever come out of you."
The first 10,000 books sold out
in two weeks. I sent a long letter to all my friends in America about the
success. Tony was so moved that he called me up crying to congratulate me. I
invited him over to help run the show and later, when a number of other blacks
joined us, we formed the work collective American Pictures. We used the show to
educate people about the increasing racism in Europe towards foreign workers,
but with the strong emotional effect the show had on Europeans, it naturally
caught the interest of the left and the Eastern bloc. Readers in Russian papers
lamented all their "stupid French gangster movies" and asked why they couldn't
see American Pictures. We felt, however, that it was our duty to clean up our
in the West - to see the beam in our own eye. Yet with our open house and
volunteers from all over the world living with us we were vulnerable to outside
influence. One West German volunteer whom we loved for his
warmth, wit and hard dedicated work turned out to be an East German spy and was
later exchanged in the big spy-swap to East Germany along with the West German
Chancellor Willie Brandt's private secretary.
The furious development transforming me in two years from vagabond to a tiny
pawn in the international power game threw me into confusion and depression. I
began to use lawyers to prevent the book, which I had come to see as a
Frankenstein monster, from being published in more countries. As a result more
than 8 years went by before I was ready to publish it in more countries -
including the U.S. What I reacted most against was the increasing realization
that it was the "system" I had been against as a vagabond which earned most on
my "story", publishers, media, transportation, lawyers, etc, while there was
hardly anything left over for the poverty projects we had set up. It is easy
for any artist to have success based on voyeurism and exploitation of the poor.
What matters is to make a success of the success: a success for the poor
themselves! This, I soon learned, is a much more difficult and long-lasting
process. I was just one more example of the sick American dream about the poor
immigrant, arriving with $40 in my pocket and "working my way from rags to
riches". No matter what the intention is of the millionaire, who sits with a
Godlike "right" to determine how to use the profit, any form of charity can
only be indulgence.
However, with the help of the many volunteers who joined
the work collective, American Pictures gradually found a somewhat responsible
path. With hardly any salary we are usually housed and fed "barefoot style" by
teachers and organizers in the countries we tour in - or even fed at home by
the many visitors coming to my apartment - so that everyone connected feels
involved in increasing the funds for the projects we started in Africa. This
has proved a rewarding way of converting guilt-inspired charity into a
commitment of genuine solidarity.
REUNION WITH AMERICA
(From a Danish newspaper article)
It is one of the most euphoric moments in my life to get back to America to
present the show. American Pictures describes the shadow-sides of the country, but, as with war
veterans, I find that it is these very sides I had first repressed, so that I
had slowly developed a rosy image of America. It is a bit terrifying how
quickly the human mind can repress the suffering, and I realize that I must get
in touch with it again in order not to lose my commitment. But the change from
vagabond to some kind of multi-national show-business man does not easily
permit that. You stand with a foot in each camp and constantly have to redefine
yourself in your new surroundings. Your sense of time is completely different.
As a vagabond in New York I could spend days or weeks waiting for Danish
friends to send me 25-Ýre coins that worked as subway tokens in order to get
around this only city in America in which you can't hitchhike. Now I gladly
pay 90 cents not to have to worry about being arrested, but the guilt and fear
still ride with me in the subway. And I still jump each time I pass a newspaper
in a garbage can although I can now afford to buy one.
The loss of the more
human side of the vagabond role seems even more sad. I now chuck the beggars a
dollar in my rush to 400 waiting students in the university, although I know it
is human togetherness the beggar needs. Where before nothing seemed more
essential than listening to people I was with in the moment, I now have a
commitment to somebody I don't even know. I choose the audience, but with some
salty remarks about the insane idea of spending $800 to fly a foreigner halfway
around the globe to show them people they can go out and see in their own town.
Yet, in my busy insensitivity I can hardly see the suffering in society any
more myself. I must bitterly admit what I always felt before, that you should
never trust a person who is inside the system about those who are pushed
outside, for they simply don't exist for him/her.
Thus what I am trying to say
may even he counterproductive. In interviews with commercial media - more
accountable to "salability" than educational content - my "message" constantly
drowns in commercials or is censored out, so people only remember the
sensational aspects of a white man "surviving in black ghettos" for five years,
etc. In other words, it plays into their racism, making the ghettos and blacks
look really dangerous. Thus the system seems to absorb my product with
One of the first shows is in Jane Fonda's home, where a
black guest turns out to he a Hollywood promoter and immediately wants to "blow
it up big". First he wants to get feedback and financial backing and invites
Marvin Gaye, Jesse Jackson, Muhammad Ali's family along with people from CBS
and NBC for a special screening. I overhear a casual remark from the NBC man:
"If we take out the leftist slant we've got a new "Roots" here," and recall the
warnings from civil rights groups in the universities: "For God's sake, don't
let the big networks buy it."
The next days I spend in air-conditioned
luxurious skyscraper offices in Beverly Hills among cigar-smoking promoters and
lawyers. They have a big map with 76 cities where they estimate the show will
"make a profit". They have already made up a list of famous film stars to he
invited to the Hollywood premiere and sit calculating with profit and loss
tables how much money they should put into P.R. All along they take it for
granted that I am interested in success and try to exploit the ambivalence and
vanity I, like most people, have in such a situation: "We'll make you a
Suddenly I realize I am being tempted to betray all the people in
the show - selling them out by making mere entertainment of them. I ask the
promoters to give me a month to get around to all the people and get their
feelings. They ask me for a meeting place in the South so they can fly a vice
president of Universal Pictures out to see the show. I tell them I will send
the address later, but am already so frightened by all the prospects that I
know I will not meet with him. While the question revolves in my head whether I
have already become a court jester of "the haves" or "the system", I take off.
Traveling around to visit my friends in a car also affects my previous vagabond
love for America, which now seems like an endless, unexciting succession of
repetitions- Burger Kings, Holiday Inns, gas stations with noise from empty TV
game shows, facades concealing equally stereotypical human types, whom I in my
auto-loneliness have no desire to contact and hardly can communicate with. Many
Europeans tell me that until they read my book they never had any desire to see
America. My intense longing hack for America, the warm feelings the word
America each time roused during my absence, are gone now that I have become
"Americanized" with a car, with motels "sanitized for your protection," with
travelers' checks and with an emotionally uncharged "benign neglect"
relationship to the people around me. I suddenly pity all those Americans who in this way have been confined from seeing the real beauty of
But the reunion with my old friends makes the first revisit a deeply emotional
experience: the mutual joy when they find themselves in the hook, their
surprise that something came out of the casual way I had photographed. If there
is electricity, they see the show in their old rotten shacks. To be able to
transport equipment worth $10,000 into the more unsafe ghetto areas, I have
dumped trash all over it, torn up the inside of the car, scraped off exterior
paint, and heat up the car.
Lecturing for two years in ignorance about how the
depicted poor would themselves perceive it, it is urgent for me to get feedback
from all the involved persons and get their approval of spending the money in
Africa. To my surprise even the children are quiet during five hours when I
nervously show it the first time for a group of welfare mothers. "Why
surprised? It is their world and future you are describing." Afterward I am
moved to tears when they all stand in silence embracing each other, and I
deeply hope the show can one day help make their future better.
For some it has become better: Virginia Pate, who had sewn quilts to prevent me
from freezing in her shack (page 34) has now received a trailer from her son in
the army. It is the fourth time I have been hack, but the first time I can
really express my gratitude when I present her a copy of the book. I spend some
days with Mary, whose house burned down, this time in her lovely 100 year old
shack with both water and electricity and a piece of land. We still have the
strong attraction toward each other and she expresses surprise, but also joy,
that I have included the firebombing in the book after the indifference of the
local police. (Later I stay with her in 1985. She is married to a white man,
who is so frightened by the earlier events that he always carries a pistol.
They feel the narrow-mindedness has gotten worse and have both lost most
of their friends and their jobs because of the marriage.)
Many of the people in the book are hard to find because their
shacks have burned down from more natural causes: "stove fires," as at Anna
King's (page 66), and Virginia
Brown's (page 24), where sparks from the stove pipe caught the cardboard walls
and severely burned the boy. The cover photo, of Martin Luther King's and
Robert Kennedy's faded dream, also burned up in flames from the stove below.
But the owners, Willie and Julia Williams are well in a nursing home, where
everyone gathers around them when they are proudly handed the book, and the
local press does a full-page story about how they ended up in a European book.
Helen Wilson (page 92) also is better off, and I managed to trace her to a
nearby town, where she now works in a meat factory.
Most of my friends, however, are worse off. The woman in Jacksonville (page
208) now lives in a wet rotten room – lonely and forsaken. Lefus Whitley (page
97) lies on the floor in his malodorous shack dead drunk. Linda's family (page
142) has disintegrated. The father lives alone in a shack. Their old shack was
torn down when a white farmer wanted the land. Having no shoes he walks
barefoot five miles every day. He is now an alcoholic and tells me about all
the happy years when the family was together. Linda's mother is mentally ill
and lives with a sister. Linda and her brother live with a foster mother so
strict that she will not let me speak with her or take her to Disney World.
(When I return in 1985 I arrive at a pool room late at night and a well-dressed
black man steps out speaking with a foreign accent: "I had a dream about you.
God has sent you. You're looking for Linda. Linda needs you." Without knowing
her or me the mysterious man takes me to a joint in a town far away. There she
is, totally wrecked by alcohol or dope. Her father had frozen to death on the
road. I am shocked and saddened, drive off' weeping for hours and sleep by the
roadside somewhere that night.)
At least five of the people have been murdered.
98-year-old Willie White, a few months after my idyllic photo (page 89), shot
his wife at the fireplace and died himself three months later from sorrow. Sam
(page 61 ) was beaten to death by police while in jail for being drunk. Daisy
Thomas, mother of the sleeping children on page 68 was murdered in a family
quarrel; Mike (page 178, right), who had stolen money from his girlfriend, was
killed by her.
Others, such as Celia whom I was so fond of when I lived with
her, have become murderers. She is now underground, impossible to find. Many others
are in prison. The marriage between Linda and Lewis (page 202) broke up when he
was sentenced to 16 years for armed robbery. And Larry, on page 249, who had
just shot his brother when I lived with him, two weeks afterward shot another
person and got 16 years before he was 16 years old. One of my dearest friends, Emely (page 129), committed suicide after a luxurious, but unhappy life with
black servants. When I arrive at the plantation home her daughter has already
heard about the show from friends on the West Coast.
The playboy millionaire
(page 130), who originally picked me up in his huge Winnebago, was so
influenced by my vagabond philosophy: "Security is being on the road with no
money," that he sold his business, drove his Jaguar out to Interstate 95,
parked it and hitch-hiked off. He ended up in Africa, where he made his first
black friend ever. His home town is 50% black. (He ended up spending seven
years on the road).
Mrs. Barnett (page 122) has already heard about the show
from Danish visitors, and when I tell her how amused Europeans are by her
remark about how she misses the slaves, she laughs and says we have no basis
for understanding it since we never had slavery. (This is not true. Danish
slavery was as cruel as American - except for one interesting point: The Danish
West Indies had forced integrated schooling to "prepare" the black children for
freedom... more than a 100 years before America.)
The banker in Alabama is even
richer now and finds a nice "date" for me to show his friendship. She invites
me to dinner in a private club on a mountain. Here the entire local elite is
present, including the mayor. It is to become the emotional climax of my first
revisit to America. During dinner I entertain my date with vagabond
experiences, which greatly amuse her, and I bring up even my worst adventures.
When I talk about the FBI's murder of my friend Popeye Jackson, however, she
suddenly tries to quiet me down, whispering: "Don't you know you're sitting
right next to the director of' the FBI. Clarence Kelley'?" My heart jumps right
up to my throat. The man at my side is actually the chief of the FBI himself.
For the next hour I am totally paralyzed with thoughts like "Did he order the
murder of Popeye? He is at any rate responsible." This same day (it now seems
almost predestined) I have bought a tape recorder and with a microphone in my
sleeve and a bit more wine I get up the courage to ask. He strongly denies the
accusation, but admits that Sara Jane Moore was a paid informer. Gradually my
feelings boil over and I shout things like "You murdered my friend Popeye!" I
realize I have
revealed too many details when in a somber tone he says, "Tell me, are you
accusing me of murder?" Frightened, I beat a retreat, but when he gets up to
talk to another FBI man in the corner, I get so scared that I persuade my date
to make it look like we're going to the washroom, after which we disappear. My
heart is pounding the rest of the night, but not for my date any more. Was it
reality or illusion? She reassures me that Kelley really is on a visit to
examine charges of police brutality against blacks. I wonder whose side he is
on, being dined by the white elite in a private club to which blacks have no
access? Again and again I hear his warm, calm, paternal voice, so convincing
that at least I believe he can't have ordered the killing. The experience of
meeting the human being behind the system, which I saw as a great conspiracy in
the bitterness after Popeye's death, is so great that I can't fall asleep that
night. A peculiar feeling of something higher up having brought us together
brings me to deep calmness and contentedness over the ring having thus closed.
Having fulfilled an inner desire to meet the human being behind the most
impenetrable of the system's facades is an experience so strong and
overwhelming that I must let this warm and amiable man answer my charges: "All
I can tell you is that it is trumped up, blown out of proportion... You must
take into consideration who makes up the FBI... look at me... could you imagine
me killing anybody'? We are human beings like you and everyone else... We can't
think of killing or giving orders for it. that you must understand... But as
you know there are a lot of people who sit and make money inventing such
stories. Yes, there are even people who make a living writing books about how
the FBI assassinates people...
FROM AMERICA TO AFRICA
In 1982 the designer of this book, Kitte Fennestad, and I went to Africa on a
government grant to see the project we had helped finance in Zimbabwe; the Nyafaru school. The school's 1200 pupils used to walk eight hours daily until
young Danish volunteers built dormitories. Zimbabwe's newspapers and radio had
announced we would visit the remote mountain school, so we got a warm reception
with speeches and a meal of fish from their new trout farm. In my own speech I
linked the problems of black America to their own building of an integrated
society, but clearly agricultural problems were more on their mind.
hitchhiked all over Zimbabwe to find other projects we could support.
Everywhere we met poor and badly dressed Danes building health clinics and
schools under hopeless conditions, often dumped in the bush with no tools to
start making bricks with the locals. Often hitchhiking all the way from
Denmark they receive only $340 a year. I envied them, but having long
questioned my own deeper drive behind American Pictures, they forced me to ask
myself if it wasn't the same Danish patronizing guilt that had driven these
young Danes down here which for instance makes Danish tourists give visits to
Harlem and San Quentin top priority on trips to America. And if so, could
anything constructive come out of such racism (p. 11) ? Capital and know-how
need to be transferred to the Third World, but what mechanism can prevent this
encounter from destroying both partners? In America it is generally accepted
that guilt is unconstructive in dealing with oppressed minorities. Not least
because we assume that our ancestors were the oppressors, not us. But is guilt
really negative when it dawns on us that we are ourselves the actual
oppressors? Guilt is one of the cements that binds us together and keeps us
human. If it occurs to you that you are doing something which is injuring
someone else, guilt compels you to do something to fix it, to repair the bond.
The failure to feel guilt is the basic flaw in the psychopath, who is capable
of committing crimes of the vilest sort without remorse or contrition. American
society seems more guilt-free than the Danish, but has it led to a more just
society? Guilty fear (the fear of being caught) rather than guilt (which
prevents you from beating up defenseless old ladies) much too often seems to
restrain Americans from crime - and vice versa lead to a strong distrust of
fellow citizens and call for law and order.
Yet Americans seem more sensitive
to guilt responses than Danes, but isn't it often as a rationalization for
non-commitment -or fear that such "weakness" may lead the victim to manipulate
you, to become "uppity"? Can guilt be used without leading to patronization and
victimization'? I cannot answer all these questions, but they must be raised.
If these young Danes were driven by guilt their actual working conditions soon
forced them either to give up or enter into more constructive relationships
with the Africans in which both partners learned from each other on even terms
- not in a one-way communication from "above". Thus - no matter how
unconstructive guilt is in a daily relationship - it is often the spark leading
you into a situation where genuine solidarity can be learned.
On the other
hand, no matter how committed and solidaric when they arrive, I soon found that
the official experts sent out by the Danish (and other) governments soon end
up, through their high salaries, in a lifestyle similar to that of the local
racist whites or the previous colonial masters, with three or four servants and
guards to protect their Volvos, TVs and whisky. Their technical expertise
can in no way make up for the destructiveness of' the racism I everywhere saw
them develop in such a paternalistic relationship.
The Danish barefoot workers told us about a project we ought to support since it fell within our requirement of self-help which can
avoid making the country dependent.. To get to Batsiranai we had to walk 20 km
through the bush. There was an incredible determination in the cooperative of 180 former freedom fighters, who had
received a huge farm from the government, and they had great future plans about
helping other Africans create for themselves more of the commercial farms which
have made Zimbabwe the only food exporting African nation. We later gave them a
tractor and farm machines and promised to invest in an irrigation system.
Americans often ask why we don't support America's poor instead. We feel it is
important that we in Europe become conscious of our responsibility towards our
former colonies. We kept our colonies out in our back yards while the USA took
them home, but the result is the same. To avoid a worldwide catastrophe in the
21st century, it is essential that we pool all resources to reverse the rapidly
increasing inequalities in the world. A harmonious integrated Zimbabwe may also
serve as an attractive model for the liberal whites in South Africa. Recently
we took a more active stance against apartheid by helping to start a nursing
school for Namibian refugees in Angola.
FINAL REMARKS, 1985
After being invited to the film festival in Cannes and Los Angeles with our new
movie adaptation of the show, I went hitch-hiking with my 2-year old son to let
him meet the people and the country I had come to love.
The 7.000 mile trip to
the old ghettos was heart warming. My son was spoiled with cookies, ice cream
and affection from the people you are now familiar with in the book. But white
America had changed. People had become more selfish without the surplus I met
in the early 70's. Not only in relation to vagabonds, but especially in an
aggravated intolerance toward the underclass. Everywhere drivers spoke a racist
language I only rarely heard on my first journey and everywhere it seemed that
my old liberal friends were now trapped in fear, looking for short-sighted
As a result, conditions of the underclass have worsened almost
everywhere which shocked me as I, through moving around in fancy university
circles, had been deceived into believing that conditions had gradually
improved. Yet in this new fear-ridden climate it is fruitless or even
detrimental to try to reconstruct in white America's mind a sense of guilt
which leads to constructive participation as it did in the Martin Luther King
era. American Pictures apparently is a powerful awareness raising tool, but
until I began to understand my Danish tendency to communicate on a level of
intense guilt and pity, it was hard for me to break through in the more
conservative colleges. Better-off blacks, long suffering from being seen as
criminals, resisted as much being seen as victims. Both views deny their
humanity and make the white feel superior.
Without fully understanding how
whites too are victimized it was sometimes hard to make students understand why
they need to care about this issue. One woman in Houston related to the
audience how her best girlfriend until fourth grade was black. Yet her parents
were instilling in her such paranoia about blacks that she started isolating
herself from her friend. She then watched how the black girl as a result of
this initial rejection from mainstream society first turned resentful and later
became a more and more angry person. Confronted with this seemingly irrational
anger, the white girl's artificial paranoia now became real, and they grew
further and further apart until they - like the rest of America - ended up in
twin societies - one locked up in uncontrollable anger, the other in
uncontrollable fear. It had given her emotional troubles and guilt feelings.
which had never healed. Fear and guilt woven together will almost inevitably
produce the opposite mix of self-hatred and hatred in the underclass. Both are
illnesses. Yet the white one is left untreated and is allowed to cripple and
kill all around, while the black one is sent to prison at the first symptoms.
At my first show for black ex-convicts in a halfway house I noticed that many
of them would leave the room and come back throughout the show. Later they said: "Hatred and self-hatred, not actual
need, made us go out and victimize people. Now we understand what brought us
here and are trying to put a lid over these feelings in order to integrate into
society. But your show suddenly rips off that lid and brings it all back. We
can't succeed if we're eaten up by anger, so it is not constructive for us.
But, please, show it to all those whites out there who gave us all this anger!"
I often hear from white spectators: "OK, I see racism is a problem, but blacks
must also do something to better themselves." These underclass convicts
demonstrate clearly that this is exactly what blacks are doing. When they
realize how destructive their illness is they are trying desperately to put a
protective shield around themselves to avoid being re-infected. Those who are
able to do it most effectively often are able to succeed in the white corporate
world. Often at too great a cost to themselves, the underclass feels.
blacks thus suffer from self-denial. A great number - especially of more
successful blacks - state that they are only able to make it through this book
with an extraordinary amount of pain. And they want to "burn it afterwards." No
matter how supportative they might be they feel that it is part of that white
social disease which never allows them to fully heal. In racism seminars on the
corporate level they will usually stick together with the white executives the
first day, but all of a sudden their suppressed anger breaks out to the
astonishment of their white companions who had always seen them as slick
well-polished "nice" blacks.
This sad situation could to a large extent be
avoided if we as whites started treating our illness. I say "we" not only
because I myself am an American now. My empathy for white America stems from
having myself experienced a growing racism over the years. I think that only a
super human being could avoid being infected in the present equilibrium. You
don't have to be white to be infected. African kids in American schools often
develop the same fear patterns when confronted with the anger of underclass
blacks. But having myself also experienced the anger and despair such racism
produces (and I am not even black has made me FEEL (what I otherwise only
intellectually would have understood) that white people must change. We are all
victims of this oppression, but to insist that we are equally powerless is a
veiled rationale for not seeing the executioner in ourselves.
When I last
visited Sandra Johnson (bottom page 205) who is one of the few of my friends in
the underclass who has "made it" and has a university degree, during the
discussion of my book I was involved in a quarrel between her and her
boyfriend, a West Indian. The Jamaican spoke to me in the usual
"pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps" condescending immigrant tone and rather
directly blamed the black Americans for not making it, being lazy, etc.
Suddenly Sandra furiously interrupted: "You West Indians will scrub floors and
do anything to make it in this country. It may be that you end up as president
of the Ford Foundation and in most black top positions around here (New York),
or as the first black movie stars (Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte) or
presidential candidates (Shirley Chisholm). But I would never for anything in
the world break my ass for the white man in order to get there. You have no
pride and even elect white prime ministers back home, who support Reagan."
Sandra revealed here perhaps the core of the problem. Civil rights leaders
continue talking about how "more jobs" will lift up the underclass, but ignore
the fact that some Americans are too proud to participate in a system on white
terms. West Indians as "free blacks" do not constantly define themselves in
relation to whites. The American underclass, on the other hand, has
internalized the oppression, and is forced to offer resistance all the time of
the kind well known during chattel slavery: "spit in the glass of water before
serving it for the slave master."
One of my black friends once took me to a
group therapy session for exposed underclass criminals, and asked them to
mention one thing they liked about themselves. Not one could come up with a
single positive thing. My friend later said, "Our internalized racism prevents
us from seeing clearly, makes us react negatively not only to whites, but to
ourselves as well. We constantly stumble in the same places where West Indians
can come in and walk erect. We jam up at job interviews, are hostile to whites,
are locked up in "get by" behavior of "shuffling", "ignorant", "cool" or
"tough", patterns imposed on us through centuries of oppression. Being daily
victims of attacks and humiliation, the re-stimulated patterns draw us to play
out these behaviors on others. Our self oppression further stimulates the
oppressive sides of whites, who are as locked up by such patterns as we are."
The vicious circle of oppression seems without end. But one thing is certain:
my friends' work is a futile uphill battle without my support as a white. We cannot, wait for the hurt we
as whites daily inflict on the underclass, the human destruction which our
"innocent" power breeds, to disappear into the blue some far-off day in the
future, when the underclass gets its possible reconstruction through some
America is hopelessly behind other nations when it comes
to "affirmative action" programs. To allow a few underclass students into
higher institutions does not affect the black/white power imbalance at all.
"Affirmative action" would be to hand over free of charge 12% of all economic
power, ownership and decision making to the black community. Unrealistic?
Perhaps in America, but then look at a capitalist country like Malaysia in
which a similar master/slave society had developed between the Chinese and the Bumiputras. Yet it took only one major riot to convince them to give more than
30% of all ownership and decision making to the slave caste, the Bumiputras,
whom the Chinese had always looked upon as incapable, lazy, unmotivated,
failing in school, etc., etc. I think Americans at least ought to study what
other countries are willing to do.
In his book "The Underclass" Ken Auletta
advocates that the underclass must go to school to learn some skills. This I
can only approve of. But when he does not simultaneously demand that the
entire white population be put in school to learn about their racism, all it
amounts to is an immense affront to the underclass yet another case of blaming
the victim. As long as we as whites are allowed to run around freely and commit
our devastating crimes on minorities, we will continue to steal their
self-worth and human dignity - and thereby destroy a part of our own humanity.
Even this book can be seen as a part of this destruction, since most blacks
indeed do not need to be confronted with the worst cases our oppression
creates. For those of them who have given up hope for change it is more
motivating to identify with blacks who have been able to succeed in spite of
the oppression than to identify with those who confirm the destructive effect
of' oppression. But is there any possibility that we as whites can become aware
of our responsibility if we are not confronted with the victims of our racism?
Although most of the photos in the book show blacks, it should now appear that
it is not a book about blacks or "black culture." It is about whites and a
white state of mind in all its present brutality.
Although - or because - racism in America is institutionalized and historically
conditioned to a higher degree than in other countries very little is done to
combat it. The blacks in our group were surprised to see the children in Danish
high schools and elementary schools being taught the works of Martin Luther
King, Malcolm X, Bobby Seale and Angela Davis. In response to the increasing
racism in the 70s toward foreign workers, education on racism has received a
high priority among Danish teachers. In America you are lucky in most white
high schools to run into a sermon by King.
Therefore it is essential that white
Americans receive intensive education on racism from the first day in school.
Many today are aware of the necessity for this and have started anti-racism
seminars. I can warmly recommend
Dr. Charles King from the
Urban Crisis Center in Atlanta, who often follows up my shows with seminars. To
see the relief and gratitude participants express afterwards is ample proof how
oppressed whites are.
If such expertise was utilized to train educators
in a great national effort I am confident that the white problem can one day be
solved. As for the issue of poverty I am of course proposing the welfare state.
Study after study shows that it is just too costly not to have welfare. A
Minnesota study recently showed that for every dollar saved on prenatal health
care you end up paying 3-4 dollars afterwards in homes for mentally retarded,
prisons etc. It is therefore my clear feeling both with racism and poverty that
Americans can solve these problems WITHOUT having to give up anything except
their stubborn and rhetorical resistance.
Now that you have this book in your hands, I hope that for you my journey was
not in vain. But I shall admit that I don't really know how best to tell you,
the American reader, about the suffering I find in America.
The more I travel there, the more I feel how different our mentalities are -
and how little I know or understand America. I know that as long as I can learn
something from you, I will continue vagabonding there. What I hate about this
book is the lack of personal touch with you preventing me from responding to
your reactions and learning from them. Without this touch all the
misunderstandings that are the result of people only seeing each other as
distant categories, nationalities, sexes and races can continue thriving. I
therefore hope that we one day will meet on a more human level - that you will
pick me up hitchhiking (no matter what shape or color I come in) just as you
are always welcome in my home or that we may meet in active struggle trying
to change the conditions which keep us separate from our fellow beings.
those of you who are on vacation in Europe, I want to mention that every night
in the summer I run American Pictures in English in a little theater in my
apartment, where I also have open house for travelers. Here you can personally
experience how blacks and whites, Palestinians and Jews, Irish Catholics and
Protestants. South Africans and Cubans, radicals and reactionaries, gays and
straights. handicapped, mentally ill, murderers and even East German spies can
live and sleep together in great harmony when outside their oppressive
My final word must be for my friends in the underclass. Lecturing around
America constantly now I am able to see most of you regularly. With some
exceptions most of you are even worse off than when I met you first. I wish the
rest of society could share the pain of coming back to Nelly (page 198), whom I
so often stayed with, only to find her evicted from her project, unable to pay
her rent of $59 a month. Now she is one of New York's growing number of
homeless. Or the pain of coming back to sharecroppers like Will (left 84) still
standing there 11 years later in the evenings after working 57 hours for $35 a
week although his "bossman" has now painted his shack white. Or the pain after
a luxury evening in a university of picking up a beat up man in the rain -he
had waited for days for a ride and a meal after having escaped a slave camp
while others only made it out on crutches after the guards broke their legs. Or
the pain of sitting in the silent shame of Gegurthas deeply religious family
and learning how she - like most sunshine stories in the book (244) - didn't make
it and now is underground. Or the pain of finding Alphonso (200) in prison
again and the family broken up. I had to smuggle part of the book into the
prison, so he could approve the text. Or the pain of not finding those 19
friends who like Alphonso's brother have been murdered.
I hope that I will
never betray the trust you have given me. It is my hope that your pictures will
inspire some social change (in the way Jacob Riis did). But let us not be
blind to the enormous forces we are up against. Several American publishers
wanted to publish this book, but none of them had a single black employee. In
order to channel the profit into the black community rather than strengthen
such institutionalized racism, I have decided to let those of you who need a
job and an income (or your children and others from the huge army of unemployed
black children) sell the book whichever way you see fit, on the street, on
campuses, or from door to door in white communities. Many of you are already
out there selling it.
When I delivered the first load of hooks to Alphonso, who
is now out of prison, I was happy to see that many of the street people on his
corner had already read his copy and especially liked "Ghetto Love". So warm
was their reception, se eager were they in helping Alphonso sell it, so large
the crowd, that several cars full of police suddenly came howling up, charged
me with "inciting a riot" and ran me right out of town. People in the Baltimore
area who want to buy the book will usually be able to find Alphonso on the
corner of Broadway and Eager. In Philadelphia you can get the hook from
Dorothy, Renee and Larry Yates, in whose house I photographed page 264, on 4225
Filbert. In Hartford, CT. from Leslie Manselle (top 171) 195 Westminster St. In
New York from Brenda Taylor (bottom right 205), 4-21 Astoria Blvd. Apt. 6E. In
South Carolina from the 104 year old Scye Franklin and daughter (72) Route 1.
Box 276, Cope. In North Carolina from Lefus Whitley, jr. (top left 242) Rt. 1,
Box 609, Middlesex.
Readers can here buy additional copies to be used for gifts and
thus help the people who helped make the book. Alphonso brought up the idea
that all of us who made such great sacrifices to compile the hook (the reader
should also know about all the fun we had together) should some day be brought
together for a big party. I love the idea. If we could get funding for a
permanent theater for the show in New York we could use the grand opening as an
occasion. In the meantime I hope that through this book I will be able to find
some of the friends I lost touch with over the years, especially the street
people with no addresses whom I all too often have had to refind in prison. No
matter what prison you may be in I will hitchhike or otherwise get to it.
With love Jacob Holdt.
© 2005 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.