S.U.N.Y. Purchase, N.Y.
We would like to thank you for your enormous and effective efforts which resulted in American Pictures. The show, workshops, and book have facilitated much thought and action on our campus in the spirit of understanding and eliminating racism. We are grateful to you for initiating this process. The critique we put forth here is to make use of our time spent thinking about your shcw. We have come up with some thoughts and ideas which may or may not prove helpful to you as you continually reassess your show. As whites in America, we are re-examining our processes and institutions in order to change the way of life which comes so automatically to us. To this end, let us tell you what worked, or didn't, and how.
We realize that poverty in the United States is often understated when compared to the grinding conditions in the "third world". Images of shacks on plantation grounds, images of R.V.s driving by bent and hungry workers, such statements helped us to identify the issue of relative poverty in our affluent society. You have helped us to understand that it must be far worse to be a poor "sacrifice" in a country where wealth, and the prestige attached to it, abound. We see that having the luxury of supporting companies such as Coca-Cola and the Federal Government makes us part and parcel of the system.
Your insight as a foreigner into the mechanics and results of our society identified the impact of a lack of social welfare policy. Identifying the fear, guilt, anger, and crime inherent in our system, and seeing the true source of those ills, narrowly capitalism, imperialism, classism, and racism will allow us to properly aim our frustrations at the creators of this "wolfish" system, instead of at the more readily attacked victims of it.
Another aspect of our society which you have pointed out to us via your relative objectivity, is the fear which affects our society so much. U.S. society is a testament to the fact that humanity does not stand up well to the extreme fear which inevitably results in hatred. We have discovered that the Japanese call us "gaijin", which means barbarian, because of the levels of violence and fear we Americans are willing to live with through the course of our lives. Identifying fear as the central motivating factor that it is in insecure American life may allow us to prevent the fear-response syndrome, when it is unnecessary. Furthermore, if we can direct fear and aggression towards those who are responsible for it, instead of each other, perhaps we can make some changes. In this way, your insight has helped us to distinguish between fear which can serve to protect us, and that irrational and reactive fear which is instilled in us by institutions trying to protect themselves. If we can continue to recognize fear-motivated actions, we can re-evaluate them and change them.
Your program offers insight into the side of American life that most people rarely come in contact with. You show audiences images of disenfranchised field workers, tenant farmers, drug addicts, and homeless people. All of these people are very real to us, but this is a factor which distinguishes some audiences from others. When viewed by an audience already inclined toward a social conscience, we feel that your approach is appropriate in placing the responsibility for further action into the individuals' hands. We believe that essentially your approach is well crafted for those individuals who are predisposed toward action. In order to act as a committed anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-sexist, or pro-humanist, the commitment must run deeper and be more permanent than a simple sense of emotional catharsis. By not attempting to serve as an easy answer to a nagging conscience, by leaving the duty of contextualizing and following up to the viewer, American Pictures serves as but one step in a long and involved effort to remedy racism. Nevertheless, this approach could be improved by the provision of suggestions and directions toward further involvement. For instance, every community has a network of social justice groups. You or your organizer-promoters could invite these groups in each town to attend the show and workshops, and to give brief introductory presentations on their own behalf, to make themselves available to audience members who wish to pursue action against racism. If this seems an organizational overburden, then even a handout list of available local groups would provide a concrete answer to the question of "what next?". Such a list could be researched and compiled in one afternoon by each organizer in each tour spot, and the additional effort would lend great permanence to your already huge achievement. The simple act of providing your tour schedule to interested viewers would allow these viewers who wish to better understand your message, the option of doing so. Only one of us was able to attend your workshops, due to schedule conflicts, and the provision of future workshop dates could have allowed all of us to solidify the experience of the show with the follow-up of the workshops. Also helpful would have been a summary handout of essential points and concepts, such as the one we have included here, which the audience could take home with them, to interact with once you have left town. The experience of your show is so overwhelming, that clear and cohesive on-the-spot analysis is difficult. Without this internalization step, the content fades. Take-home questions or summaries could act to maximize your impact even after you have gone. We believe that the responsibility for action lies with the individuals, yet you have the opportunity to open doors to these people, to provide the information and guidance which every good intention requires to become action.
We recognize that there is also another distinctly different type of audience which your show reaches. Just as there are some audience members for which the images and concepts are links in an already established chain of commitment to justice, there are also audience members to whom the images and people in your show are totally unfamiliar. Those people to whom the images are alien, who have not confronted the issues brought about by racism, are exposed to an array of negative images of people and conditions which seem to justify many prevalent stereotypes. Just as racist attitudes are perpetuated by white people's defensive mechanisms toward black people, so defensive reactions to the shocking reality in your show may serve to perpetuate a racist attitude. As long as the history books are allowed to print lies about U.S. history, whites will be allowed to think that blacks are by nature lazy, dirty, angry, and foolish. It is for this reason that those people who are unaware of historical and societal distortions should not see American Pictures without arduous preparation and contextualization. Before they see the show, an audience should feel informed and purposeful, and be prepared to deal with the issues long after American Pictures has left town. Otherwise, the show can serve to verify the abstraction with which most Americans view others' suffering. The vast majority of audiences will count your show as their sole endeavor to confront racism. In view of this, we feel you should embrace your role as the messenger, and be prepared to deal with the consequences of your message. To prevent misunderstanding and misplacing of blame, you should see that some sort of pre-show discourse takes place. This could take the form of a pre-show discussion or lecture in the classrooms, or as a segment of your introductory talk. The faculty at S.U.N.Y. Purchase were extremely supportive of your actions, and would probably be willing to devote some amount of class time to the review of a handout stating the premises of the show, or containing facts and figures revealing the institutionalized racism in U.S. Government and society. You could include facts on the family-destroying structure of the U.S. welfare programs, the statistics of black vs. white income ratios, incarceration-for-similar-crime ratios, unemployment ratios, etc. You could explain the fundamental conditions surrounding the Civil War revolt, and the post-reconstruction backlash. You could describe the devastation that the slave trade inflicted on African socio-economic development. You could point out the present discrimination which underlies property-tax-financed schooling, redistricting, redlining, and de-facto segregation. Relating these figures to the decline in U.S. productivity, the costs of jails, and the levels of anger and crime in our society, would show white Americans how top-level, institutionalized racism affects them on much more than an emotional level. In this way, your show would attain a level of relevance which could change the experience completely for those people who are most likely to misunderstand or dismiss it.
Likewise, your show and its conclusions are desperately missing a treatment of the middle class, and its relationship to the perpetuation of racist institutions. We don't have to wear a white sheet to be a part of the ongoing institutionalized oppression. In the juxtaposition of the extremely rich and the extremely poor, you missed the significance of the silent majority in between. We as a middle class are responsible for the contradictory philosophy of "bootstraps" in a society whose lifeblood is competition and exploitation. We see this irony best exemplified by Lee, the polio victim, (your words are discriminatory in themselves), who sits in front of a bank vault begging for pennies and studying, with hope, the very capitalist system which put him there. We think that this is one of the most important points of all, and the one most relevant to a middle class audience. Putting effort into recognizing this paradox of the middle class may allow us to discard the "bootstrap" mentality, and avoid the casualties it incurs.
Finally, we noticed that the homosexual relationships in your book are missing from the film. Since they are a part of your experience, why did you exclude them from your film?
Thank-you, Jacob, for your extraordinary insight and initiative in bringing us American Pictures. In light of this critique, we hope to receive a reply; a sign you got our message, and what you thought of it.
Copyright © 1997 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.