Prof. Richard Johnson
HSTAA 101 AF
9 March 2004
A Standard Attitude towards Slavery and the Depression
Two very noteworthy eras in American history are that of slavery and the Great Depression. It was during these two times that America was at some of its lowest points. Two books concerning these times both rely on the personal and collective nature of stories told by people living during these times. Written concerning her families history involving slavery was Pauli Murray’s Proud Shoes. Studs Terkel took a different approach in his book Hard Times, featuring a collection of tales told by those who lived during the Great Depression. Murray’s book, as it was written from the perspective of a single person, featured a narrower view of history compared to the many personal accounts in Hard Times. Hard Time’s collection of stories from people who lived during the Great Depression concerned topics that everyone thought they were on an expert on, but had no real evidence to back themselves up with. The amount of opinion included in both of the books heavily influences how readers understand the history of the books, but more specifically peoples standard of living, being how well they lived during the years these books cover. In knowing the standard of living one is able to understand whether or not they were “well-off,” based on the standard of others. It is because of these possibly narrow and opinionated views presented by both of these books that false perceptions can be created concerning what the time was really like. During the times both of these books cover African-Americans were generally equal to that of white men and women in terms of the struggles they were experiencing in their lives. However, it was the overall low standard of living for the majority of African-Americans that produced lives for them that were mostly without problems that white men and women experienced. The majority were not on the same level as their white counterparts during slavery, which led to the forming of an attitude about how they should lead their lives. This relieved them of the majority of the anxiety and problems that existed during the Great Depression. Opinion affects history, and because of the opinion in these books, it led to how readers interpret the characters standard of living, and thus their historical accurateness
In terms of looking at these books as historical evidence, it is required that we know that facts are sound, stories are true, and that there is a limited amount of bias placed on the editing and telling of these facts and stories. However, in Murray’s book not all the facts and stories may be true completely. She wrote the book Proud Shoes based on stories she heard from her aunts, what she knew from her mother, and research she did concerning her family history. As she tells through her introduction to the book:
Proud Shoes is not fiction, although in a few instances I took liberties and drew conclusions which the facts seemed to justify. It is an attempt to give a coherent account of my forebears, based on tales told to me and facts discovered in my search of the historical record. (Murray xxi)
Murray most likely researched a lot of her family history to learn enough to write the book, but with this research she took liberties in what really happened. In taking liberties with anything it introduces a margin of error, and requires any fact that is presented be analyzed before accepting it as fact. Many times throughout the book Murray describes how a particular character was feeling, despite never having been there, and most likely only relying on partial stories from her mother and aunts. One such example was Miss Mary Ruffin Smith analyzing the situation concerning Sidney Smith’s daughter, and that daughter being a Smith:
The whole thing fell on her shoulders because Harriet was her servant. She was too valuable to get rid of and, besides, the damage was already done. What was o be done with her little bastard? Put it in the slave quarters, of course, and try to live it down…. Try as she might to avoid the truth, it struck her with shattering clarity that this was Sidney’s child, a Smith! (46)
Obviously she did not know what exactly what was going on inside Mary Ruffin’s head, and her real thoughts quite possibly could have been different. Yet Murray places emphasis on what Miss Mary Ruffin Smith is thinking, having Miss Mary become passionate in her proclaiming, “a Smith!” While not largely changing the course of her family in the book, information like this does create a very narrow view of what the history really was like. Added up throughout the book, small little thoughts and tidbits of information can add up to a lot of significant historical information, which was left up to Murray’s discretion.
The format of the book Hard Times creates an even large possibility for small scale errors to occur. Similar to Murray’s book, Terkel acknowledges the possibility of facts being incorrect, starting off his book with “A Personal Memoir” stating:
This is a memory book, rather than one of hard fact and precise statistic. In recalling an epoch, some thirty, forty years ago, my colleagues experienced pain, in some instances; exhilaration, in others. Often it was a fusing of both. (3).
In terms of its use as a historical resource, Hard Times presents its readers with what it describes as a memory book, instead of facts. In having so many stories told by such a large amount of people, the individual facts can not all be considered right for lack of an efficient way to check. Furthermore, as interviews, these stories do not necessarily reflect the order, or exact statements made by individuals. Through these hundreds of interviews, Terkel was at the discretion as to what went in the book, and what didn’t, effectively altering what readers came to understand after reading these stories. These interviews were probably also not conducted during the years of the Depression, considering the book was written in the 1970s. This could cause a problem historically as when people look back on their lives they usually do not remember exactly the way things were. No one wants to remember the bad times, but it is possible in the case of the Great Depression that with all the bad stories it created, they might have just glossed over some of theirs, simply saying it was bad without truly thinking back as to what it was really like for them. Like all words “bad,” is subjective, and what one person may have thought was horrendous, might have been normal, or far from that much different before the depression. This could easily be the case with African-Americans, who had different standards than whites.
The opinions and facts presented in each of these books all add up to how the readers perceive the books. One such possible interpretation readers could get concerns what the standard of living for these characters would be. The standard of living is what allows people to understand what a time was really like, describing what the standard was for how people lived. Each of these books introduced some opinion and possible inaccuracies into their history however, and when they introduce opinion into it, the amount that they can be trusted begins to slowly diminish. In Proud Shoes Murray mentions that she at the time was very proud of her family heritage, being able to say about African-Americans at the time that “if one couldn’t fall back on the amount of white blood he had in him, as Grandmother did, he’d rely on a free parent or free grandparent. And I could talk of free great-grandparents, something truly to be proud of in those times” (56). Murray makes the point that the pride that ran through her family because of her heritage was strong. However, this pride felt by her family was something of an anomaly, and not likely the standard for everyone else. The majority of African-Americans at this time did not have this pride. In reading statements such as these people are not truly able to find what the standard of living was because it is clouded too heavily by opinion. As an African-American family Murray knew that few were as free as her family, and that many had to fall back on other facts in order to even themselves out with other white men and women in their minds. Another example concerns one Peggy Terry, who was quoted as saying “I didn’t like black people. In fact, I hated ‘em. If they just shipped ‘em all out, I don’t think it woulda bothered me” (Terkel 48). Later in reflection she responded by saying, “After I was up here for a while and I saw how poor white people were treated, poor white southerners, they were treated just as badly as black people are. I think maybe that just crystallized the whole thing” (Terkel 49). People of that time had very strong opinions about what they thought of the black family, or what it did for example, but this did not alter what their actual standard of living was.
Besides this perception of how some might find the standard of living to be, African-Americans seemed to have less problems because of their standard of living during these times compared to others. This is despite the fact that they had the same problems as everyone else that they were wrestling with. It was quoted in the book Hard Times in a story told by an African American man that:
The Negro was born in depression. It didn’t mean too much to him, The Great American Depression, as you call it. There was no such thing. The best he could be is a janitor or a porter or shoeshine boy. It only became official when it hit the white man. If you can tell me the difference between the depression today, and the Depression of 1932 for a black man, I’d like to know it. (Terkel 82).
As demonstrated through Murray’s book, this particular African-American knew what it was like to live below that of white folks, and because of living like this, was better able to handle the situation, unlike rich white people jumping out windows because they lost their millions. In fact, in Terkel’s book there is a story of a black man who was considered to be very different from most African-Americans at the time, and how this ultimately led to his undoing:
I remember a friend of mine, he didn’t know he was a Negro. I mean he acted like he never knew it. He got tied downtown with some stock. He blew about twenty thousand. He came home and drank a bottle of poison. A bottle of iodine or something like that. It was a rarity to hear a Negro killing himself over a financial situation. He might have killed himself over some woman. Or getting in a fight. But when it came to the financial end of it, there were so few who had anything. (Laughs.) (Terkel 83).
African-Americans, because of their time being slaves, were still very much growing and trying to gain ground financially after becoming free. During the time of the depression this set them apart from everyone else, so thus they felt less of a pop when the economy sank. Robin Langston from Terkel’s Hard Times was quoted as saying “I guess there must have been ten white families within fifty feet of us. I remember feeding snotty-nosed white kids. It was the Depression because no white and no blacks were working. The whites not working made it official. Father and mother did that thing out of the goodness of their hearts” (Terkel 90). African-Americans were used to having to support themselves, having such ideas as in Murray’s book of relying of free grandparents to give them pride in their lives. Not all blacks at this time completely struggled, as mentioned above, but others actually made profits. One man was said to have traveled around to poolrooms, making bets with white patrons and collecting the cash to help support himself (Terkel 83). In Murray’s book it can be found that the life of blacks because of slavery them more immune to difficulty. They had freedom in their family, and on Murray’s mothers side, there existed a relationship between blacks and whites that transcended the normal slave/master relationships at the time. Murray may have painted a picture that is probably far from what the majority of blacks at this time experienced, but it still shows that African-Americans were able to survive, despite the problems presented by the slave era. She acknowledges that she was able to gloat about how free her family was compared to others who were just getting started. African-Americans were not what everyone thought them to be, and because of their struggles this possibly allowed them to cope better with the problems of the depression. The white men and women as from the slavery era were used to being above everyone else, now they were brought down to the same level as everyone else and they had no one else to kick. They had nothing that made them better than anyone else. African-American men and women were used to living at this level, and thus were not as easily affected by it. It was this level that they were brought into, and the level they grew accustomed to living at, despite whatever the current white standard of living was.
Both Murray and Terkel are strong in each of their books in being able to present their ideas in a way that makes readers involved in the lives of the real-life characters presented. Information is presented in a living and breathing way as to incite this involvement in the stories. It is this information that they are conveying to their readers however that ends up affecting what people perceive to be true or not. There is no doubt that the Great Depression was bad for a great deal many of people, just as Pauli Murray’s family history most likely was not normal for the vast majority of African-Americans at this time. However, it was this standard of living that other African-Americans fell into because of slavery, thus making it easier for them to cope with problems compared to their white counterparts.
Murray, Pauli. Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
Terkel, Studs. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. New York: The New Press, 2000.