Foreword

Book pages 11-14

There is naturally also racism in Denmark - first and foremost towards foreign workers and Greenlanders, especially now, as a result of the current economic crisis. Though I have gradually learned that I, like all other people, am a product of my environment, this of course doesn't mean that all Danes share the opinions of this book. In fact the original edition was meant as a very strong attack on parts of Danish policy, where I used the bogey of America to point out where certain tendencies in Denmark could lead if we don't change our political course in time. But even with this strong critique of Danish conditions, many elementary schools there have bought the book as a classroom text and the four-hour multi-media show has become a yearly recurrent event in Danish high schools.

The difference between the Danish and the American points of view comes out most clearly in a couple of key sentences I hear again and again in the two countries. In the early 70's I felt myself extremely drawn to the American hippies, but when I constantly heard them fall back on a sentence I heard throughout the rest of the population - "I just want to have a good time" - I knew how far I stood from them. For the corresponding Danish sentence is "Hvor har vi det dog godt herhjemme" - a strong conscience-stricken expression ("How good we (unfairly) have it here at home (in Denmark).") Such collective guilt about having it too good in comparison with the poor countries hardly exists in the States, while you sometimes get the impression that Scandinavians feel personally guilty for all the crimes in the world. The two expressions are directly reflected in our differing foreign policies, as Scandinavia has often given support to liberation movements in the same countries where America for purely egoistic and commercial reasons supports repressive regimes.

 

A part of this (in comparison to America) rather strong social awareness no doubt stems from the way Danes bring up children. We socialize children by bringing about guilt instead of using force. Since this is also the Jewish way of bringing up children it could explain the relatively strong Jewish American engagement in social issues and civil rights movements - and that I as a Dane often felt more in harmony with the Jews I met than with other white Americans. But to bring up children to feel strongly connected with their surroundings and actuated by guilt also has an unhappy side effect which is demonstrated in a higher suicide rate. In Denmark it is very common to commit suicide to hurt others with guilt feelings. Hardly anybody in the American army would dream of committing suicide because they feel wronged by their commander, but such tactics are common in Denmark. That it has nothing to do with the welfare state, as popular American theory has it, can be seen from the very low suicide rate in Norway's welfare state. Probably nothing is more misunderstood in America than this welfare system. Magazines like Time regularly call it "socialism," although our countries are just as capitalist as the US in terms of private ownership. A welfare state can maybe just be characterized as a more intelligent form of capitalism, giving the inhabitants so much security that they can walk the streets without fear, look into store windows without iron bars, get on the bus, get change back, and not sit on either hard plastic seats or slashed upholstery, and walk into any bank in the country and cash a check, to mention just a few of the things shocked Northern Europeans find they cannot do in America. American media often go out of their way to show the huge economic cost of the welfare state, such as people being mistakenly taxed up to 110% of their income (which however doesn't prevent the average working class Dane from taking a yearly 5-week paid vacation - (the norm in most of Europe) - in Africa, Sri Lanka, Cuba, or the Mediterranean.) I will here in this book mostly concentrate on pointing out the alarming human costs involved in not having a welfare state though I in no way claim that a welfare state alone will solve the race problem in America. But it would alleviate the suffering of those most hurt. It is nevertheless necessary to point out that Danish social training combined with a feeling of distance from the problems may make Danes much more sympathetic to suffering and helplessness than to rage and resistance, which require not a guilt response (which comes from a psychological position "above" the victim) but solidarity - genuine identification with the group. Thus this guilt-ridden, if relatively strong, social awareness easily becomes condescending and paternalistic. Black Americans especially are very sensitive to this form of racism, which I can in no way say I am free from. What interested me most throughout my travels was human weakness and failure, both as a result of and as an indicator of social oppression. Certainly it is true that most blacks do not live like those in the book, but without understanding those who are too weak to effectively struggle against their oppression I have found it futile - at least photographically - to convey to a white audience how devastating and destructive racism is.
 

Still I will not hesitate to point out that in the description of the people I met in my travels the book is a totally dishonest piece of work. By choosing to show only the side of people which relates to the subject matter of the book I indeed make them very one-dimensional. I personally know so many other sides of them and it saddens me to see many of best friends being reduced to such narrow roles. Moreover, vagabond sociology is of extremely questionable value as it may only be a certain type of people in any group who gives you shelter. Even though I visited thousands of American homes, my personal involvement with people and constant survival struggle did not always give the intellectual distancing necessary for sociological generalizations. When I nevertheless take the liberty of making sweeping generalizations in the book, it is more as a foreign traveler than as a sociologist: the type of primitive generalizations most foreigners make upon visiting a new country. You see a breadline of people in a communist country and immediately draw conclusions about that system. Such generalizations can at times be eye-openers to one side of the truth, but they can also be dangerous. When like me you come from a society with no recent colonial background (unlike England and France) it may make you see certain aspects of black/white relations more clearly, having not yet developed a master-race mentality (although the influence of American media might be rapidly changing this Scandinavian aspect). But at the same time you are totally unaware of the racist stereotyping concerned people in such societies constantly try to avoid. As a Scandinavian you find it shocking to meet the high crime rate in the black community, or are amazed at the apparent contradiction of finding so many Cadillacs in the poorest part of the ghetto. But as a black or liberal white American you tend to overlook or downplay these aspects, well aware of how they have been used maliciously against the black race as a whole throughout history. So with my tendency as a foreigner to call a watermelon a watermelon no matter who eats it, many blacks will thus react to this book in a negative way. Furthermore they know the content of the book all too well and do not necessarily wish to be reminded of it again. As an oppressed race struggling against a negative image they have an enormous need for positive reinforcement. As a vagabond I only had a little contact with the "black bourgeoisie," who as a rule did not show me the same hospitality as the underclass.

One better-off black couple in Alabama picked me up one day and were going to take me home, but when I showed them my pictures of the sufferings I had seen in the underclass I was let off with the words, "Don't you see anything positive in black people?" I quite simply didn't understand them then and was just as hurt as they since I felt that my photos clearly showed blacks as oppressed rather than incompetent - a positive view of them and a negative view of their society, the way I had been brought up to see "social losers." Ironically, these are the same words you hear when white Americans are exposed to my book in Europe: "Doesn't he see anything positive in America?" Its subject doesn't exist within that ideal picture they are brought up to have of America. That it exists subconsciously is shown by one of the first things they usually say in Scandinavia: "How nice it is to be able to walk safely in the streets." While Americans sometimes almost proudly admit crime and violence are problems at home, most would not admit the most important principle that violence is directly the result of poverty, which in turn is directly the result of individuals (and consequently society) not caring about those less well-off than themselves. Of this violence I can certainly speak from experience. To travel in a country which like America is founded on colonial violence inevitably becomes an experience characterized by violence. The miracle of my survival I owe to my stubborn belief in the words of Jose Marti which helped me out of the following situations: four times I was attacked by robbers with guns (but managed in three cases to make good friends with them and be invited home, by pulling out my hidden beard; if you can make attackers laugh with you as equal human beings it is almost impossible for them to work themselves up again afterward to the position of executioners from which they can victimize you), twice I was attacked by men with knives, twice the police in fear pulled their guns on me, several times I was surrounded by angry blacks in dark alleys and only a hairbreadth from being killed, once I was ambushed by the Klan, several times bullets were whistling around me in street shoot-outs, as well as at Wounded Knee, twice I was arrested by the FBI.

I arrived in San Francisco with $40 which lasted for five years. My travel expenses were therefore around $8 per year. In Canada I had bought a sleeping bag and trained in sleeping outdoors on the ground. During all my vagabonding in the US I never slept outside and never got to use the sleeping bag (which I soon sold for lack of money) due to American hospitality. I doubt that there is any other country in the world where I could arrive with only $40 and travel for five years entirely as a result of people's hospitality and generosity. I have stayed in 434 homes scattered in 48 states. I have hitch-hiked 113,750 miles - or four times around the globe. This doesn't include the number of miles I hitch-hiked in cities, where I hardly ever took buses. One reason I traveled so much was that I only had a tourist visa. Therefore I had to travel every three months to the American consulates in Canada or Mexico City in order to have my visa renewed. (This was also possible in the Immigration offices in most big American cities, but there it cost $10, which I rarely had.) The only problem was getting into America again, as the border police usually don't let longhaired hitchhikers in without money. I solved the problem by borrowing a bank account from Canadian friends and borrowing a Cadillac on the Canadian side of the border which I filled up with Jesus literature. Dressed in my short-hair wig, white shirt and a tie covering up my long beard I usually slipped across the border with no problems, after which American friends drove the car back. This perhaps sounds like a troublesome way to stay in the US - millions of foreigners certainly live underground with few problems - but it must be remembered that it was necessary for me to have my papers in order at all times, since as a hitch-hiker I was stopped by police and checked on their computers at least three times a day. This is to the vagabond's advantage, since drivers then never have to fear picking up a wanted criminal. With a tourist visa I also couldn't take any work. A single time in New York I did get free lodgings and a small amount of pocket money for working in a folk club called the Gaslight as a doorman. I had to throw out drunken Negroes and other undesirables, but by mistake one day I threw out Bob Dylan who had walked in without paying the cover charge. So I was on the road again. Almost all my film was thus financed by selling blood plasma twice weekly for $5 each time. First they took the whole blood out, centrifuged it, kept the plasma and injected the red blood cells again, then repeated the process. It took four hours. Here in the blood banks I met many of the poorest people I got to live with. But in 1974I had my financial breakthrough, when an elderly woman gave me $70 to drive her car down to Florida. I used the money to make prints from some of my best slides so I had something to show people. From that moment I started getting frequent small gifts of money from people, $5 or $10 and in one case even $30 from a wealthy woman in Boston. As it finally turned more and more into a project about the black underclass I imagined I would end up giving my photos to the Schomberg collection in Harlem, which has hardly anything on present-day poverty.

Instead, the tragic circumstances under which I left the United States led to the photos being used in this book. Since the US, as a relatively young and immensely complex nation, has a strong identity-seeking need, causing foreigners to be constantly asked about their impressions of the country and creating great interest in the opinions of foreign writers such as de Tocqueville, Gunnar Myrdal, and Jean Revel, perhaps Americans also will find a vagabond's opinions worth looking at. A university researcher in Pennsylvania made a comparative study of all the countries in the world using social, economic, health, and even climatic factors, and came to the conclusion that Denmark was the best country in the world to live in and the USA number 42. For my own part the human factors are so overwhelming that they more than make up for the social and economic factors concerning the States as a place I would want to live. It will always remain my other native land. But if you love a country, you can't just leave it to destroy itself. Therefore when I mention sever-al times in the book how Denmark has tried to solve certain problems (although similar comparisons could have been made to the welfare states in other northern European countries), it is to let Americans know what other countries are doing for their worst-off citizens in the hope of inspiring solutions to American problems.

Whether or not the book can do that, I hope that, if nothing else, it will be inspiring for vagabonds and stimulate others to begin vagabonding. In America there has been a long vagabond tradition, which in recent years has been rapidly on the decline as a result of fear and distrust. I hope that the book will make young Americans rediscover their fantastic country - not as a series of post. cards seen from sterile campers, but through being together with their beautiful fellow citizens. Especially I hope that it will get some of the millions of young unemployed people in Europe as well as America to start vagabonding in order to study the society which has made them unemployed. To be a vagabond - contrary to popular belief - is the very opposite of being a parasite. Not only do you voluntarily withdraw from the labor force, allowing the few available jobs to go to those whose need is greater than your own - especially older workers, who tend to disintegrate without their job identity - but the vagabond also withdraws from any claim to welfare or unemployment benefits from fellow citizens. But most importantly, vagabonding is capable of fulfilling a vital role within modern society: attending to the emotional needs of the poor and the lonely.

Yet I hope that the book will inspire you who are more well-off to invite home every single one of the vagabonds you see and to pick up all hitch-hikers. Yes, this is naturally only a beginning, but if people do not even manage to stop for that human being who stands out there on the roadside asking for help, how is it then possible to imagine that they will ever be capable of being human toward the ghettos or the Third World? There is no excuse for not doing it. As a vagabond you soon discover that the worst thing is not your fear of other people, but other people's fear of you. When you have seen drivers' fear of you as a vagabond you begin to under-stand for instance how difficult it must be to be black in a white society. Your own fear of people can be overcome, because it is irrational and unfounded in reality, but you are powerless in the face of other people's fear of you: it immediately locks you up in a ghetto. Therefore start small. Invite every single hitch-hiker or tourist home, not to speak of others who have a need for a roof over their heads or human togetherness. You will discover that they are far more interesting than books like this one. And if you already have all your floor space filled up or for other reasons are not able to have them staying with you, then please send them to me.

Jacob Holdt
Gernersgade 63
1319 Copenhagen K
Denmark
phone 45-33-12 44 12

 

 

Copyright 2005 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.

 

Previous Home alt="Next"
    introduction
the show
the photos
the reviews
booking
Racism
home
Jacob Holdt