Reckoning Race in Eudora Welty’s Photographs

by James McWilliams

Two portraits; two men. Both are from 1930s Mississippi. The men are situated together, photos 22 and 23, both from Eudora Welty’s only published book of photographs, simply titled Photographs. If you could put a frame around both images it would be the Jim Crow South.

The image to the left is of an older, stout black man with a white moustache that droops around his mouth. He sits on a bench in a cluttered work yard in Grenada County. It looks to be the end of the workday. A small chicken darts past his left knee. Two large melons rest at his right, almost out of the frame. The man’s posture shifts, leans back, and his expression, assured but quizzical, darts over his left shoulder, as if responding to a call from elsewhere. His right hand relaxes. His left hand, in motion, blurs with movement. His eyes are dark and deep set. He answers to others. But he knows who he is.

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The other photo, the one on the right, is of a taut wisp of a white man about the same age. He also sits on a bench, but he’s inside a neatly kept shop in Rankin County, just down the road. A soft light enters a large window to his left. It illuminates the silky flip of white hair on the imposing forehead of a man whose posture declares: “country store owner.” He is dignified and stern, not elegant, but proud, sporting a tie knotted tight that contrasts with his counterpart’s flopped open collar. The white man sits upright and compact, legs firmly crossed, his right hand crossing over to rest on his left thigh. The other hand is on one of two melons that are also to the right of the frame. His icy eyes almost glare, his thin lips set tightly between ears so large, if they flapped, he might drift out the window. Behind him: a calendar, a phone; and to his left, above: a rack of ripe, fat bananas. He answers to no one but himself. The heritage he has inherited assures it. His hands hold that tension.

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Eudora Welty’s photographs thrive on this kind of clever juxtaposition. And you have to look the right way, for the right amount of time, to get it. Glance and turn the page, and it’s easy to miss the fuller picture. It’s likely that the first thing we see, despite scores of other details characterizing and surrounding the men, are the obvious marker of skin color: black, white. But put the obvious on hold for a moment and look harder and with more patience. Do this and a more complicated story emerges. At the other end of this engagement — for me it took three mornings of close looking to see it — you realize that race is being more than presented as a fact. It’s being reckoned with as a phenomenon subject to the Faulknerian flow of historical time.

Consider the melons. These were melons that were grown, transported, weighed, priced, and placed on sale in a shop one county over. They survived to be quite large, oblong, elliptical, and thick skinned. The Mississippi supply chain, starting in Mississippi soil, roughed them up, knocked them around. The juxtaposition becomes, for those who look expansively, a locus of social and economic exchange. These pictures represent the alpha and omega of an economic chain, one in which both of these men have offered their hands in very different ways. They remind us that the rural economy of the South is a hive that buzzes, in this case, to keep melons in stock for locals to slice up as they celebrate independence.

But in that hive black and white interact. This is something too easily forgotten about the segregated South: more than in the North, blacks and whites, as the historian C. Vann Woodward long noted, were in each other’s business. Not on fair terms, of course. In this case, it seems indisputable that the black man grew the melons and the white man put them up for sale. This quiet but surely brutal hierarchy is not questioned by Welty so much as coldly stated. This is a fact as persistent as floods and the boll weevil.

Still, albeit veiled, there are emotions in the hive, emotions that come from interactions. And they can run counter to historical tropes. The black man is perhaps less openly composed — as in less formally self-presented — because he did the messy work of growing the melons. He’s a producer and he’s tired. The white man is on the border of smug because he’s selling them for a profit the black man won’t see. The black man might seem less composed but . . .well, back to those hands.

They’re at ease in the honesty of a day’s work. The white man’s hands, by contrast, are the hands of an anxious patriarch. They want to relax but they can’t; they cringe, ready to point, or, if need be, fight. They suggest he knows what’s coming; that the tide of the past is about to break a social levee. The black man’s hands look ready to wave, pat you on the back, reach in a pocket and flip a coin, do a trick. The white man’s are guilty, nervous, ready to build higher barriers.

There’s density of meaning in gray space between black and white. The calendar and phone dominate the storeowner’s life while the bananas hanging to his left are notable for ripening. They are reminders that time is money. The window of opportunity is bright and brief and the pressure of a hundred years of insecure control of black labor is about to blow from his big dainty head. As for the black man, the phone and calendar are replaced by potted plants that grow meanderingly, liberally, on a shelf in an open shed in the space around him. His outdoor setting is more capacious and airy whereas the white man’s seems to close in on him. If the wind blows, one space will hum with soft music and maybe the patter of rain; the other will still yield to the eternal, ceaseless ticking of a clock.

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Race matters. It always does. It must. But these photos ask us to see race in a larger context. Welty gravitated to black subjects more than white ones not out of some sort of crude voyeurism into black lives — although sometimes she flirts with that insulting boundary. She did so because those lives, when it came to creating the culture of the South, were simply more interesting to her. And because they were more interesting to her, she used her lens to make them more interesting to us. At least in the way she presents black lives, they appear more engaged, more emotionally expressive, more communal, more eager to connect, more resilient. More full of life. Which is not to deny suffering, but to see the resilience it requires. Black lives, in Welty’s lens, are more.

The faces and bodies of these men hold more history in them than history per se. No book, not even Woodward’s The Burden of Southern History, can crank open the past in ways that this white subject, with a tense hand on a melon, seems to want to keep under wraps, closed and hard like the book they threw at blacks for stealing melons from the master, the landowner, the storefront manager, the past. This is black and white. And it’s so much more.

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