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American Peasants

ISSUE:  Autumn 1934

Roll, Jordan, Roll. By Julia Peterkin. With photographic studies by Doris Ullman. New York: Robert 0. Ballou. $3.50. Shadmvs of the Plantation. By Charles S. Johnson. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. $2.50.

There is a legend in this country, much cultivated and widely believed by both scholars and laymen, that America has no peasantry. How, it is argued, could there be a peasant class in a country of liberty and progress, in a country where the way is open for men to rise from low to high estate, where a patent-medicine peddler’s son can become a Rockefeller or a poor-white can become a president? The eyes of the nation have been kept constantly on the few men who have succeeded in gaining wealth and power, but the more important phenomenon, a society becoming rapidly and dangerously stratified, has been comfortably overlooked.

The real existence of a peasantry is not seriously affected by the delusion that every man’s son has an equal opportunity to be rich or to be president. In those parts of the country where different races live together, there is not only a peasantry but also a rigid caste system. The most important example of this system, the one affecting the largest number of people and for the longest period of time, is the one which prevails in the South.

In describing Negro life in a South Carolina county, in “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” Mrs. Peterkin does not use the words “peasant” or “caste.” Nor does she state in so many words the important truth that this county is still a feudal domain. It is unnecessary for her to say these things to those who read with any intelligence, because they are implicit in all she says. Yet I wish she had been more explicit and that she had given a more complete view of Negro life and its similarity to that of the white peasantry.

Many of the customs and habits, much of the folklore and song which she gives are the common property of the white and Negro peasantry. The Gullah dialect of the Negroes was derived from the early English indentured servants, laborers, and artisans; and the seventeenth-century mode of English working-class speech is preserved, in a somewhat more altered form, among the lower-class whites of the South Carolina coastal region. The folk-beliefs of the Negroes were almost entirely derived from the whites and may be found in the living folklore of the white peasantry of all the southern states, from the Ozarks to the Atlantic to the Gulf. A trip through almost any isolated rural region in the South during the time of religious revivals will reveal, among the whites, types of religious thought and worship not very different from those of the Negro.

One does not search in vain to find places where the whites, like the Negroes, will carry their shoes and stockings to church or any other convivial gathering and put them on shortly before arriving. Improvidence, a passion for mean whiskey, carelessness about the parentage of one’s children, fear of the law, and the habit of living from day to day are not peculiar characteristics of the southern Negro. They belong to the lower levels of white peasantry as well.

The failure to point out these similarities inevitably tends to fix in the mind of the uninformed reader the notion that the Negro is vastly different from the white man. He is thus likely to regard a book that has, as a work both of art and of science, a really large importance, as a mere collection of quaint and curious facts and stories. Within the limits of the subject matter she has chosen to treat, Mrs. Peterkin is a superb artist, and it is extremely unfortunate that the implications of her work should not be known and understood.

To the average reader, never suspecting that the life presented here is typical of that of millions of Negroes and not so very different from that of millions of whites, the Negro will appear simply and solely as an actor in a quaint and curious comedy, which has its unfortunate and inevitably cruel aspects. Nowhere in the volume is the aesthetic calm disturbed by the suggestion that millions of white southerners also play their parts in a quaint and curious comedy, remarkably similar to that of the Negro; and that the same set of ideas, the same system of life, dominates and degrades both the white and the black peasant. Somehow, to those who know better, the quaint and curious are lost in the ignorance, poverty, and desolation of millions of underclothed, underfed, and miserably housed whites and blacks, and what first appears to be a charming variation from standard becomes a vast, cruel, and utterly stupid monotony.

The responsibility for the wrong impression that Mrs. Peterkin’s book will give to the uninitiated lies, I believe, in the traditions of the literary art that she practises. According to the canons of this tradition, the work of the artist must be “objective,” it must be the result of careful observation and faithful report, and the opinions of the artist must not be allowed to obtrude themselves into the work. But this canon is as impossible to observe in art as is the “objectivity” of the scientist in social studies; and in the arts with great frequency it has been accompanied by a most egregiously romantic coloration. The healthier and more intelligent mode of work is that of the ancient artist who did not hesitate to announce his argumentative purpose. Lucretius fought religion in every form, Virgil wrote to deify Augustus, Dante and Milton set forth the system of things human and divine and attempted to justify the ways of God to man. It is only in modern times, and after the development of “objectivity” in the mathematical and natural sciences, that the artist has set up the claim that he, too, must be “objective.” There are, of course, other traditions in art, such as the more recent one which has abandoned observation of the external world, and has chosen as its special task the reporting of the artist’s imagination. By taking no ground whatever this particular school has completely baffled and routed its adversaries. It has adopted the simple and invincible strategy of having nothing to defend.

But that art which claims to be “objective,” which attempts merely to report, is exposed to attack. It attempts to deal with facts, with the observable details of daily life. But it cannot, in the way it is practised, have the solidity and invincible quality of a frankly scientific study. Its weakness is that it apes the effort to be objective, but it rejects the only methods ever perfected to achieve any large measure of objectivity. It relies on the artist’s judgment and taste, and fails to see that these constitute a bias just as do the scientist’s assumptions. These always form a more or less subtle and poorly concealed set of notions which are called “principles” or “world-view” or “philosophy” if they are approved, and “propaganda” if they are disapproved. The artist in this tradition often refuses altogether, or uses carelessly, the serious and laborious historical and statistical disciplines of the social scientist. The results can be and often are grotesque and appalling.

It is true that many scientists are not aware of the assumptions that underlie their work; but for the average scientist this is no more necessary than for the engineer who builds a bridge to understand the political economy which makes his profession possible. The literary artist, however, is mistakenly regarded as always a philosopher, as one who knows the meaning of what he says. I have a strong suspicion that Mrs. Peterkin does know far more than she says, but that the canons of her art forbid her to abandon her “objectivity.” The result is that as an effort to inform, her work leaves much to be desired. But as pure entertainment, she can be read and enjoyed by anyone. I believe she is incapable of writing anything that is dull or uninteresting. I wish she would write a volume and tell what she really thinks about the Negro and the white man.

I cannot join in the unstinted praise which has been given to Miss Ullman’s photographs. Some of them are excellent, but too many are dark and smudgy.

In his excellent volume, “Shadows of the Plantation,” Mr. Charles S. Johnson describes the monotony of Negro life as it is in Macon County, Alabama. Mr. Johnson writes as a social scientist, giving the historic development of the present plantation system, the distribution of the population, the types of families, customs prevailing in courtship, marriage and divorce, morality, education, religion, amusements, ways of making a living, and the chances of survival. The work lacks the romantic overtones which are common to popular books on the Negro. For this reason it is not likely to be read widely. This is unfortunate, for Mr. Johnson gives a thorough and scrupulously authentic picture, and the reader would find it difficult to get a wrong impression.

The information in these volumes is indispensable to the student of the Negro. Neither volume, however, would serve well for introductory study. The Negro peasant cannot be understood without full understanding of his relation to, his similarity to and dissimilarity from, the white peasant. The two must be studied together in order to understand either of them.


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