Tenant Farmer’s Daughter, 1936, by Walker Evans


Whenever I move, I rediscover something I love covered in dust. This time, it’s my once obsessive trove of big, heavy art books from a decade ago. I needed something desk-like to prop my laptop on my legs, and, behold, from the stacks, appeared the volume, Walker Evans – a tome to accompany the grand retrospective at the Met some 14 years ago.

As I flipped through the pages, I recalled Evans’ Depression-era project, with writer James Agee, documenting poverty in the rural South. There were the Alabama Tenant Farmer portraits of 1936, which merged with Agee’s sensual and relentlessly descriptive prose, some of which became the forgotten classic of New Journalism, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. More from the series, happily, was published last year as Cotton Tenants, by The Baffler and Melville House Books.

Here are majestic photographs of three families – despite their debilitating circumstances – clear-eyed, resilient, and direct. They are fighters.

That same day, I watched a short video, “Sarah’s Uncertain Path,” from The New York Times “Op-Doc” series about poverty in the place where I grew up, rural Missouri. But instead of sparking compassion and respect, it was quite the opposite.

A 15-year-old girl is pregnant in an undisclosed location – somewhere near Kansas City. She has a beautiful, round face and kind smile, but she constantly looks down and away from the camera. She’s one of seven kids. And her mother – a single mother, of course – fat, frizzy hair, ruddy, with no teeth aside from her canines, is shown with no dignity, mumbling under a sheepish grin.

“Do you want to be like your mom?” The Times reporter prompts Sarah.

The girl, sitting among mounds of dirty clothes, with penciled graffiti of “Sarah Loves” various boys on the walls, replies, “Um, I don’t know.”

Devoid of feeling, imbued with judgment, choreographed for derision, Sarah’s story was just the latest in the Times’ fixation on poverty porn, emphasizing condescension over compassion and resilience. This one was the white trash version.

Poverty porn assuages liberal guilt by pointing out the character flaws of those who don’t make money. The point is to pity their choices, not to respect and identify with their pain, let alone find some way to organize and connect.

A month prior, at Christmastime, it was Dasani, a 12-year-old, black, homeless girl living, ironically, in Brooklyn’s hipster Fort Greene neighborhood. The Times published a gigantic piece, some of it striking, but the narrative fell on the same theme – irresponsible mother – this time, because it’s the black version, she’s addicted to crack and wears a grill on their teeth. One of the most snickering snips of the five-part marathon is how we learn of Dasani’s namesake: Her mom, Chanel (named for the perfume), chose it when she saw a bottle of water at a store. She liked the sound. Of course, it’s a Coca-Cola product. Isn’t that sad?

The New York Times’ Poverty Porn Club could not be complete without it’s officiator, columnist Nicholas Kristoff. Darling Nicki flew to the ultimate location – Pine Ridge, South Dakota, in 2012. He said it himself in the title of his piece, “Poverty’s Poster Child” – the “child” being a Sioux reservation with 85 percent unemployment – the poorest place in the country.

Again, we hear that we must blame the poor for their circumstances – it’s a matter of broken families and drugs. He mentions an Oglala Sioux man in recovery from alcoholism, but he’s still, according to Kristoff, obese, disabled, and, therefore, hopeless. His conclusion: “My hunch is that these Indian reservations will have to shed people.”

That coming from a Harvard and Oxford alum, standing on blood-soaked ground – the locus of the Wounded Knee massacre and one of the most horrific acts of genocide ever conducted by the United States government. The hubris.

Even Timothy Egan, the Times’ Seattle correspondent, has joined the club. He recently praised, with a straight face, Bill Gates for stating that poverty would be eradicated by 2035. Gates did so at Davos, for the annual World Economic Forum. But the Forum itself released a report, with contributions from 700 experts, stating that the greatest threat to the global economy is the chasm between the very rich and the rest of us, “raising the risk of social unrest.”

I kid you not.

Back at Poverty’s Poster Child, Pine Ridge, we could learn a thing or two. In partnership with the University of Colorado and a local non-profit, the Sioux are building energy-efficient, straw-bale affordable housing, and employing people on the rez to construct them – the unemployable, the hopeless, the broken, according to Kristoff.

And, the Oglala Sioux Nation announced on February 7 that they will block the Keystone XL Pipeline if Obama approves it. A Lakota Sioux group called Moccasins on the Ground is organizing a direct-action training near Pine Ridge for those willing to stand with their nation, if push comes to shove. And if anyone is used to a shove, it’s Pine Ridge. So much for that hopeless poster child, Kristoff.

Let us now praise the infamous men, women and children, the poorest of the poor, who have nothing left to lose.

Published in the February 2014 issue of CounterPunch magazine.


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