An American Story

As this is written, The Great Depression - produced by Henry Hampton's Blackside Inc., the team behind the epochal Eyes on the Prize series - has just started its four-week run on PBS. From the opening credit sequence onward, the series takes the social realism style of New Deal art as a touchstone and incorporates stills, newsreels, home movies, and other found footage to keep the picture moving along between interviews.

But the interviews themselves are the show. Whether the speakers are old-timers who were there or middle-agers speaking for their parents, the interviews manage to communicate the sense of desperation and possibility that both haunted and inspired America in those years.

The structure of the series works to enhance contemporary access to what is now, for Americans under 60, a very, very distant time. The Great Depression takes a storyteller's approach to history, moving through the decade chronologically, with emblematic tales of certain people or groups - autoworkers, politicians, sharecroppers - as the engine.

In the process The Great Depression also performs an important public service. If nothing else, it reintroduces into the arena of our common culture powerful images of ordinary, un-exotic "middle Americans" fighting for their economic and political rights and turning America around.

The series also brings back from the historical dead inspiring and pervasive images of Americans, in the midst of those very struggles, overcoming divisions of race, religion, and ethnicity. In the stories of the Bonus Army of World War I vets, the steelworkers union, and especially the bi-racial Southern Tenant Farmers Union, we see people putting aside old customs and prejudices in favor of shared ideals and shared self-interest.

This lesson from the 1930s was only deepened by the fact that a production company called Blackside Inc., using the voice of a fairly well-known African-American narrator (actor Joe Morton), was telling the Depression story. This was not the story of black America in the 1930s. It was the story of America in the 1930s, and for once that didn't mean a whitewash. The Blackside producers carefully selected visuals and interviewees that would accurately depict the ethnic mosaic of American life, and wove consideration of race, gender, and class into its telling of every story.

With The Great Depression, for the first time, before a nationwide audience, a black-led and black-identified institution stepped up to the plate and presumed to tell the American story...authoritatively and without hyphens. And the difference mattered.

UNKNOWN TO MOST Sojourners readers, I've spent about half of my time for the past four years in the 1930s, as part-time executive director of an organization called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). It is an archive and historical society founded by a few progressive historians and some of the surviving Americans who volunteered to fight against Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

The American unit that went to Spain was organized by the American Communist Party; and, whether they were Party members or not, they mostly emerged from the labor, unemployed, and student organizations led or inspired by the Communist Party in the 1930s. Their stories came through here and there in some of the episodes of The Great Depression, but, perhaps because of the complications of dealing with Communist history in the current era, they didn't loom as large in the TV series as they did in the real events of the time.

About 2,800 Americans took up arms in Spain. About one-third of them died. They went because they had a horrible vision of a world dominated by fascism. They also went because they had a beautiful countervision of a world without violence, exploitation, or poverty. Neither vision came true. The former was finally defeated on the battlefield and the latter was turned into a nightmare by the corruptions of power.

But in the interim, before those outcomes, people waging that Manichean battle did some extraordinary things. For one thing, the American unit in Spain, with volunteers from every region of the United States, was the first American military unit ever to be racially integrated.

The American volunteers fought under the command of an African-American officer, Oliver Law, of Chicago via Texas, until he was killed in battle. In Spain blacks were found at every level of rank and in every field of service. According to veterans, black and white, the color line actually disappeared from the lives of the Americans in Spain, and sometimes even slipped out of their minds for a while. Among other things, during my time of working with the ALBA I was fortunate enough to be editor of a book on this subject (African Americans in the Spanish Civil War: "This Ain't Ethiopia But It'll Do," G.K. Hall/Macmillan, 1992).

We are in a time when the experience of joblessness and economic decline is again becoming a common one across all lines of American life. Our depression of the 1990s is a slow leak instead of a big bust. But we can learn lessons by looking back at the 1930s that will help us to reinvent America again in the decades to come.

Information on using the series The Great Depression in schools or for other groups is available from PBS Video, 1-800-424-7963.

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