Book pages 3-10
"You must have faith in the best of man and distrust the worst. If not, the worst will prevail."
Jose Marti (19th Century poet and freedom fighter)
"We know now that there is no way out; that the system that was the evil offspring of public neglect and private greed has come to stay, a storm-centre of our civilization. Nothing is left but to make the best of a bad bargain. "If it shall appear that the suffering and the sins of the "other half," and the evil they breed are but as a just punishment upon the community that gave it no other choice, it will be because that is the truth."
The quote above is from Jacob A. Riis' book How the Other Half Lives, which I found by chance in the summer of 1975 when I dropped into a bookstore in San Francisco. I had never heard of Jacob Riis before. The book made such a strong impression on me that I decided to steal it - which says a bit about my economic situation at the time. (If any of you looking at this are just as down and out, naturally I will understand if you decide to steal my book. Stealing is not a good thing, but we all ought to try it once in our lives in order to get a bit of understanding for and solidarity with those who are forced into that way of life.)
Nobody is born a vagabond and it was a long series of circumstances that led me to such a happy state. I was born in a little country the size of Massachusetts. Together with Sweden, Denmark has for many years had a reputation for being one of the most liberal countries in the world. I grew up in the Western, more conservative, and formerly very poor part of Denmark from which thousands emigrated to America at the turn of the century. My father is a minister in a little village. For generations the firstborn son in the family has been named Jacob Holdt and has been a minister, so it was always in the air that that was to be my destiny too. My grandmother was the spiritual head of the family, who let no chance go by to tell me about the religious achievements of the family and make me aware of my duty. Through all the years I vagabonded in America I continually got letters from her about how I soon would have gathered worldly experiences enough to be able to come home and begin the study of theology.
A very great part of the reason I continued vagabonding and imagined I would do it the rest of my life was the fear of returning home to eight years of dry Latin and Greek. Let me just explain here for American readers that the church in Denmark is nationalized and ministers are employed by the state. Since very few people go to church, the ministers' role tends to be more like that of a social worker caring for the elderly, sick, and troubled. The rhetoric of "personal salvation, which I found rampant in American churches, is to a large degree unheard of in Danish churches. When I left church on Sundays in my childhood, my eyes would usually fall on a great beautiful portrait of a black woman across from the church. It was the only advertisement in the little village - the trademark for Denmark's biggest business, the cooperative store "Brugsen." When I have since thought of the enormous influence white advertising in America has had on the white as well as the black psyche, I can't avoid reflecting that this one-sided advertising must have had some effect on my later involvement in black issues. In the village elementary school we wrote reports on the apartheid system in South Africa and the black struggle in America long before the height of the civil rights movement. We were jubilant on the day South Africa's prime minister was shot, but our teacher pointed out that this would not solve the problems there, and in high school, when Martin Luther King became our hero, I, at least, was strongly affected by his philosophy of nonviolence. From my astonishment that the white church in both America and South Africa was hostile to blacks, I was not far from rebellion against my father's church. When the congregation at one point during the Biafra famine decided to spend several hundred thousand kroner to build a tower on our village church, I was so outraged that in the dead of night before Easter morning I painted over the entire church with huge biblical quotations about how you shouldn't build temples for God when your neighbor is suffering here on earth. My father's reaction took me by surprise. He was so furious that without a word he drove me out to the highway, where I was asked to hitch-hike off. During the next half year we were not on speaking terms. Perhaps this was the start of my career as a vagabond.
I had at any rate not much
of a choice. I had been kicked out after two years in high school and
had been fired from several jobs. I was considered the black sheep of
the family. Even the army had kicked me out. I had always wanted to join
the Royal Danish Palace Guard, being deep down inside very conservative
and even a member of the Conservative Party. But the very first day
my company had target practice I ran into problems. We were asked to shoot
at a target in the shape of a man, but it was absolutely
impossible for me to get myself to shoot at anything even resembling a
human being, so I refused point blank. To avoid. having to shoot again,
I pretended to be sick and limped around on one leg. I was sent to examinations
in various hospitals and walked with crutches for eight months before
they kicked me out. Great was my surprise when the mailman half a year
later knocked at my door with $2,000 in compensation for having suffered
in the army.
When I think back to the feelings I had then, I find it interesting that it was a young American I had staying with me who opened my eyes to the injustices of the Vietnam war and got me involved in opposing it, although during the whole time I was involved it was mainly out of a deep moral indignation. I did not see the Vietnam war as a product of any system, but merely as an unfortunate digression for democracy. Thus I remained a member of Conservative Youth and did not see anything inconsistent in that, just as I always felt irritated about the red banners in the demonstrations "because it would make people think we were communists."
I worked on the Canadian farm for a year along with a young leftist Argentinean who got me interested in Latin America. I therefore decided to travel down there just for adventure. To get to Latin America I had to pass through the USA. Canadians had told me many frightening stories about how dangerous it was to hitch-hike in the US, but I nevertheless decided to make the attempt. I took my savings from my work on the farm and hitched down to the border, crossing at Port Huron, a little town in Michigan. I was terrified. I saw a man walk down the street with a hunting rifle and perceived violent vibrations everywhere. The young people in town said that the police would beat me up if I hitch-hiked. I have since returned to this town and see it today as one of the most peaceful in America, but I have met many other young foreign visitors who have had the same terrifying first meeting with the violent American society until they got used to it and in the end no longer perceived "the violence in people's eyes" as a sensitive Frenchman expressed it to me. I was so shocked that I took the bus to Detroit in the belief that it would be easier to hitch-hike from there. But that was only going from the frying pan into the fire. I got off the bus at night thinking I was in a great metropolitan city of millions with just as much nightlife as in European cities and when I couldn't see a soul around I asked for directions "to downtown." A news vendor answered with surprise, "You are downtown," and then told me that people simply didn't dare to walk outside at night. I was again so terrified that I ended up buying a ticket all the way to Chicago. The first young long-haired guy I talked to in the bus station in the morning told me that he had just gotten out of jail for hitch-hiking and that Chicago's cops had the reputation of being the worst to hitch-hikers. And had I been thinking of hitching through the South? I must be kidding. This up here was nothing compared to the South. I was now so despairing that after a day in the city I went to a church to get help. I hadn't enough money for a bus all the way through the US, and Chicago seemed such a terrible, inhuman, cold city that it gave me no desire to see more of America.
But later in the evening a young black writer, Waltdenia Lewis, started chatting with me in a coffee shop. She invited me to come and stay in her mother's house in a black middle class area of South Chicago. Here I spent a fantastic week with her and her friends - a week which meant a decisive turn for my relationship to America, which in spite of my early school teachings I had perceived as a boring white middle class country. That my first American home was a black home, which gave me warmth and encouragement in the midst of my freezing despair, was no doubt a great part of the reason I didn't immediately turn my back on America. Waltdenia and her friends introduced me to black culture in such an infectious way that I had to come back. They drove me everywhere and told me about the conditions of blacks in that most segregated of all American cities. They communicated in a language which I could hardly understand then, but which, with its almost singing, constantly joking soprano tone, I found fantastically rich.
Without knowing it they also gave me a gift which was to be my admission card not only to black homes, but everywhere in society. One day when braiding their hair they insisted on braiding my beard, which had gotten fairly long. They made a bet that I wouldn't dare to walk around a whole day in Chicago with a braided beard. I was terribly shy and ashamed of myself looking so foolish, but soon I discovered that this city which I had perceived as cold and misanthropic suddenly began to open up. People would smile at me or sometimes react negatively, but at any rate open up whereby contact is possible - the contact which is essential for the vagabond. Therefore the beard stayed braided, and without it this book would not have been made - if only because it several times helped save my life.
I decided to find another way to Latin America and went back to Canada, where I hitch-hiked to Vancouver and down to San Francisco. It was as far as I got. As soon as I met the American youth there I fell in love with them and let them carry me away. Some Vietnam veterans invited me to go with them to the big anti-war demonstrations in Washington. That was in April 1971. There were one million demonstrators and a solidarity and atmosphere which made a deep impression on me. I saw hundreds of Vietnam veterans, many of them crippled, throwing their military medals up against Congress. It was then, moved to tears, that I realized this was no time for adventuring in Latin America, but that I had to give support to these people in some way. And for the next year I had little time for anything but rushing from demonstration to demonstration all over the country. I quickly overcame my fear of hitch-hiking, which seemed so ridiculous compared to what these Vietnam veterans had gone through, although I did take the precaution of wearing a shorthair wig at first, as it was then still common to shoot down people with long hair. I had seven such deaths confirmed personally - two of them sons of families I stayed with. (I myself only had beer bottles thrown at me from car windows, in addition to numerous fines and warnings from police who in several states consistently throw hitch-hikers in jail.) Gradually as I began to meet the ordinary population, I discovered how few of them actually supported the Vietnam war. I therefore began to ask myself what it was that allowed this war to rage on. Everywhere I met an openness to my point of view about Vietnam which I had never experienced among the fossilized Danes, as I began to think of them. I started to feel that while the disaster for the Americans was that they had not been informed about Vietnam by their one-sided press, which had in turn been misled by the government; the disaster in Europe was that the Europeans simply did not want to listen to other views than those they already had. Whether this impression was reasonable or not, it was nevertheless what made me love the Americans.
Working with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War helped to politicize me and I came to strongly oppose what we called the "system." I got into circles, both black and white, which did not shrink from using violent methods and for a while I went through a period of questioning whether the use of such counter-violence was justified. I mention later in the book how Wounded Knee was a turning point which made me a strong advocate of non-violence - not least for practical reasons, since I have never been able to kill a fly. Yet after Wounded Knee I made a more serious attempt at going to Latin America and when I saw conditions in Guatemala - the hunger, the child funerals, and the brutal American installed military dictatorship's repression of the Indians - I was so embittered that I hitch-hiked around in the mountains hoping to join the guerrillas. I didn't manage to find them. Instead I was constantly stopped by machinegun-toting soldiers and interrogated. One time a branch tore my wig off and all my hair fell out right next to them - luckily without their noticing it.
Somewhere in the jungle I read an issue of Time which said that big demonstrations were anticipated at the upcoming Republican convention, particularly by the Vietnam veterans. As I had become enormously bitter toward Nixon for his support of Guatemala's bloody regime, I decided that I had to support my friends in Miami. I tried to get there on a banana boat, but in vain. There were only six days till the convention. Hitch-hiking back to Guatemala City, up through Mexico and across Texas and the South, I arrived just in time. This was one of the biggest psychic leaps I ever made, for a few days after having left the Indians' straw huts I managed to get to live in the headquarters of Nixon himself, the Fontainebleau, by disguising myself as a Republican delegate, with shorthair wig, tie, etc. A delegate let me share her room. Here I spent a couple of days in the company of the Nixon family and notorious Republicans such as John Wayne and Ronald Reagan. I felt strongly drawn to their warm personalities and I couldn't help asking John Wayne his opinion of the time we stopped his film "The Green Berets" from showing in Denmark. Reagan I was much less interested in. I perceived him as an extremist demagogue and outsider without any chances. When he claimed that America had the best medical care in the world I knew he was lying. I had already seen plenty of suffering and unhealthy people in America.
Still, I tried to the best of my ability to live myself into the Republican thought-world and my view became affected to such a degree that when I stood at the window of my room on the 12th floor I could not help looking at the thousands of demonstrators below as dirty hippies and lazy bums. I had no desire to sleep outside with them in the Flamingo Park. But entirely Republican I must not have looked, for I ended up being arrested and interrogated four times by the Secret Service. One time they sent a bomb squad up to my room to dismantle a gadget which turned out to be my ancient flash being recharged. Another time when I had been out with the demonstrators, and afterwards hid behind a bush to change to my shorthair wig and Republican outfit again, an agent hiding behind another bush called for reinforcements on his radio and a whole squad of agents came running and seized me. Their leader thought I was a "Bolshevik." The fourth time I was seized I had managed to slip inside the convention center itself through waves of teargas during Nixon's speech. It was the plan that an Australian journalist and I should unfold an enormous banner with something like "Nixon napalms babies" in front of Nixon, the world press, and the thousands of delegates. In my bitterness after the experience of Guatemala I felt this would be a worthy way to get at Nixon and wind up my USA journey. But as soon as the Australian reached under his shirt to fish out the banner - shakingly nervous as we both were - he was attacked by a whole flock of Secret Service men. I hurried as discreetly as I could away from the spot and up on the viewing stands under the huge American flags. But several delegates pointed me out to the agents. I ran behind the flags where there was a fairly free passage all the way down to the exit at the other end of the convention hall. I thought I had a great lead, but in running I started a several hundred yards long wave in the gigantic flags which the agents could follow with their eyes and walky-talkies, with the result that a great reception committee greeted me warmly when I emerged from behind the Stars and Stripes at the other end. However, nobody could prove that I had been with the Australian, so after a long interrogation I was released and avoided deportation. I was, however, deported from Nixon's headquarters, but I considered it a great moral victory that I first managed to make good friends with one of the agents who said that he "understood" me. Such good friends that when months later I stood on the viewing stands on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to see Nixon's second inauguration and the grey flannel suited agents with their paranoid eyes advanced in front of the motorcade, one of them suddenly jumped up and waved when he saw me in the crowd. I had succeeded in penetrating the secret police's grey anonymity.
In the beginning I had such negative feelings about Denmark that I had completely broken off all communication, but when I again started relating to my father I urged him to use many of the experiences I wrote about in his church, and a good dialogue emerged in which he sent me tapes of his sermons. My parents sent over a camera for my birthday so that I could "prove" the many shocking things I wrote about. It was a cheap half-frame camera that didn't demand much skill from one who had never photographed before. In Wounded Knee the camera was damaged and it was almost a year before I could afford the money to get it repaired. So I got hold of a used Canon Dial, with which almost all the pictures in this book were taken. The first couple of years I traveled rather at random. It was during these years I learned how many lonely and lost souls there are in our society, as it was almost always them I ended up with. They needed someone who would listen to them. I felt like some kind of wandering social worker and the photography was only a secondary preoccupation for me - a kind of diary to remember the people who came to mean something to me.
Often I spent days with a lonesome person listening, and the more I learned about their frustrations, the more I began to think about the society which had brought them into this situation. Many of these relationships were sexual in origin. It was often as if you had to pass such a threshold to reach the intimacy that lets you open up to each other. Americans are very sexually aggressive, both men and women, but I love them for that aggressiveness, because whatever else, it creates possibilities for human contact, whereas in Europe, for example, a man can easily travel without getting to know a single person. Certainly it could be a little irritating and exhausting, with my inability to say no, when I would get three rides with homosexuals in a row (the 25 miles between Winston-Salem and Greensboro thus once took a whole day) or even worse three religious lifts with three different sermons. I have sat praying with people all over America, but it could be a bit comical when in the course of one day I would have to pray to Jehovah in one home in the morning, later chant "Nam myo ho rengay kyo" in a Buddhist home, and in the evening kneel to Allah in a Black Muslim home. I always did what people told me to do and am therefore certain that I am in good standing with all the Gods. But when I was in a rush I often made a big detour around the thick Bible belt in eastern Tennessee, which almost always sent me to the "Kingdom of Heaven" instead of my destination. Occasionally I experienced the most surprising combinations of aggressiveness. In Texas I stayed with a Catholic priest whom I first had to pray with and who afterwards turned out to be gay. Critics will find a lot to accuse this book of, but it will certainly not be possible to criticize me for not having been completely open to Americans. I tried always to immerse myself completely into people's ways of thinking, though one night I had a narrow escape. I had been sitting and praying for hours in a church in Mississippi with two women, both of them holding my hands. As always I tried the best I could to open myself up completely. They were convinced that I could be "saved" and that I would be able to "accept Jesus," and they had a love and intensity in their eyes stronger than any I had ever seen, so suddenly my head started swimming and I really began to feel that I might see Jesus. Then I started to resist tooth and nail. I sat and whispered to myself, "No, you must not flee it all now. You must believe in people. You must believe in people. You must... " I succeeded in rescuing myself from being saved, but the dilemma I had found myself in was constantly a burning actuality for me. If I was to believe in people then I also had to have faith in what these two women were telling me. From then on I was more aware that to believe in people I always had to believe in the totality of the people I met. The argument I used that night was: "They don't let blacks into their church." Without that they would perhaps have "saved" me, but I did not have the heart to tell them that, as I liked them very much.
Although eleven o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, I constantly came to these white churches as I loved to see these racists from their best side which usually flourishes toward guests right after the service. From the moment when I began to see the sum of human suffering, the term "the system" which I had learned from the demonstrators, became practical for me, for as a vagabond you cannot survive without seeing people themselves as without sin. Otherwise you would soon be eaten up inside by hatred and thereby close yourself off from the world around you. It was nevertheless hard to avoid identifying myself more strongly with certain social groups than with others. Especially with the underclass whom in my wanderings for food and housing I constantly encountered. Without money and education I was myself a social loser and therefore naturally got in touch with these street and night people. Since I always tried to believe that what comes out of people's mouths is the truth - especially with angry desperate people - I could not help being startled at hearing apparently absurd utterances from people in the black underclass, like "Hey, man, this ain't nothing but slavery."
A great deal of my journey was therefore guided by my increasing curiosity to find out whether there could reasonably be said to exist a kind of slavery in the midst of the apparently free and mobile American system. Some of the conclusions I came to I have gathered in this book. Almost everything in the book is based on personal experiences. Therefore there will probably be many misinterpretations in the book, which experts and scholars will be able to pounce on. The book with its emotional statements ought to be experienced for what it is: a travel book. It is a book for the broad masses I met as a traveler and its truth does not go deeper than the verbal utterances you hear in the underclass - which nevertheless are true for those pushed out of the system. As I could almost never concentrate on reading as a vagabond, only a very little derives from books. Even the statistics are picked up from garbage cans (from which I usually fished the excellent New York Times). I have, however, in this updated version written especially for Americans, checked some of my sources on the topic. Furthermore, I have learned from the audiences of the original slideshow (which the book is based on) in both Europe and America, and I have included photos and experiences from my later vagabondings in the States.
However, I want to stress that this book can in no way stand alone. To obtain a complete impression of the Afro-American situation you must do other reading. If you do not intend to do that, blacks will be better off if you don't touch this book. It is, and can only be, a vagabond's impressions, and must on no account be considered the statement of an expert. The only thing one may call me an expert on is vagabonding, which is something you can't learn from books. In the last few years I have seen a severe deterioration of conditions for the black underclass and the late 1980's will most likely look even worse than the picture the book gives. It is worth mentioning that the shock I convey here at my meeting with American poverty is based on the underclass in its best years ever - the time right after the gains of the Civil Rights movement had been instituted and before Reagan's cutbacks had taken effect.
I have often been criticized in America for not mentioning these gains. That I do not is partly because I take it for granted that everybody has heard about this now historical period in school and partly because I had not myself seen conditions before that time enabling me to compare. But it is difficult for me to imagine that conditions can have been much worse before my arrival. When conditions are as hopelessly desperate as I experienced them, dwelling on the big gains of the past can easily serve as an excuse for not doing anything about the problems today. Dostoyevsky once said that you can get an impression of a society's character by entering its prisons. Whether you can also judge a social system by entering its ghettos must be up to the reader to decide. I just don't think one can claim to be "objective" if one does not continuously see a society from the viewpoint of those worst off. Those journalists who try to balance the viewpoint of the rich with that of the poor have already accepted this lopsided distribution of wealth and justified it and are therefore themselves a part of the oppression. They can therefore not claim to be historically objective. History has almost always proven the worst-off right; there are not many today who will not admit that it was right of the radicals of years ago (the abolitionists) not to try to balance the point of view of the slave master with that of the slave - even when a majority of the slaves in the eyes of whites looked "happy." This worm's eye view is however not only a vagabond perspective, but also to some extent a traditional Scandinavian perspective. In Denmark, which has given support to many liberation movements in the Third World, the traditional social ideal is a country where "few have too much and fewer too little." The photos in this book of broken and apathetic people generate in the average Dane a strong feeling of sympathy and in many an automatic indignation against that society which has caused such human oppression.
see the faces in this book they intuitively know that they are not the
faces of a free society. Most Americans to whom I showed the book, however,
leafed through it quickly with a feeling of distaste and automatically
put the blame on the victims themselves. The same difference in attitude
is behind the criticism I often get in America, that I present the black
underclass as "powerless victims." When that underclass generation
after generation has constituted a permanent component of society - even
in the boom of the 60's - then they are, as a matter of fact "powerless
victims" of a system not designed to give the weakest a chance. The
lack of social understanding of which Scandinavians often accuse Americans
is most clearly shown in their eternal pointing to some individual who
worked his way up from poverty as proof that there is possibility of opportunity
for the group, while they are blind to how the group as a whole is shut
out from opportunity. Knowing how differently Americans will see these
photos I can't help having uneasy feelings about publishing them in America.
They could simply serve to reinforce racist attitudes toward the underclass
there, since the feeling that it is "society's fault" if a group
of people can't fit in (and that therefore society ought to change continually
to be in harmony with human beings) seems to be on a decline in the conservative
wave in the States.