The Family of Man

The Family of Man was my first holy book.  It was big and heavy, as one expects holy books to be, but with very few words. Instead it was filled with photographs from an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.  Nestled into the corner of the couch in the living room, I would lift it onto my lap and then carefully open it, always starting at the beginning.

The first picture to capture my attention was a girl resting face down on a lush forest floor, her nude body white against the dark pattern of leaves and ferns. How would it feel to lie naked on the earth like that? And was it okay for me to just look at her? Next came a couple entwined in each others arms under the words of someone named James Joyce, which began with “…and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes…” Intriguing, vaguely unsettling, and definitely too mysterious for an eight year old to understand! I moved on.

There followed page after page of photographs of people from all over the world – images of birth, death, love, anger, hunger, hopelessness, prayer, play, work, family, celebration… the common experiences of being human. As I took in each image, and the next, and the next, wonder, fear, curiosity, disgust, and delight moved through me in a rich compelling mix.  I was being invited to feel a part of something so big and so beyond my experience, it left me trembling.

Ground-breaking photographic exhibit for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1955

I can still see many of those images in my mind fifty years later. The Depression-era photo of a  skinny, craggy-faced woman, dark eyes staring into space as though there is nothing for her in this world.  In  one from Bechuanaland – now Botswanna – the village elder’s eyes are alight, hands raised like the claws of a great beast he may be invoking for the delighted circle of men, woman and children around him, the power of word and gesture holding the them all in imagination and place.  Each time I opened The Family of Man,  I knew I would be affected by a mystery I could feel in my body.

Several years ago, I picked up a copy of the book and, looking through it again, felt how strongly the images were still imprinted in me. But with my new-found awareness of such things, I also noticed that the number of photos representing the human family were not at all in proportion to the peoples of the races and countries of the world. Sixty-seven percent of the photos are of white people, 33% people of other races, and 1% racially mixed groups. Representing the continents, 48% are from North America, 26% from Europe, 16.5% from Asia (including the Middle East), 5% from Africa, 2% from South America, and o.5% from Australia. (Thanks to my niece and historical researcher Celerah Hewes-Rutledge for these calculations.)

I mention this not to diminish the power of the Family of Man, but to note that for many reasons, some having to do with colonization and white supremacy, including poverty and lack of access to technology, images of white people dominate this view of the human family. And I am guessing a large proportion of the photographers were also white, although Edward Steichen says in his introduction: “Over two million photographs from every corner of the earth have come to us – from individuals, collections and files. We screened them until we had ten thousand. Then came the almost unbearable task of reducing these to 503 photographs from 68 countries. The photographers who took them – 273 men and women – are amateurs and professionals, famed and unknown.”

Looking back, I can’t find a defining moment when I realized I was “white” and other people were another “race.” I grew up in Burlington, Vermont, a very white city in a very white state.  In my liberal, intellectual, middle-class household, there were no racial slurs or jokes.  We were brought up to believe that everyone was “created equal” even if some were poor and some were rich or lived in different countries or believed in different religions. The Family of Man definitely expressed my parents’ values, echoed by Edward Steichen – “a passionate spirit of devoted love and faith in man.”

What was invisible in the midst of this deeply humanistic sentiment was the predominantly white frame through which the pictures were taken, chosen, and viewed. As an eight-year-old white child looking at this book, I’m sure some part of me was noting people who “looked like me” and people who looked different, although that wasn’t my conscious experience. Indeed, the most important thing was the deep and heartfelt connection with people that the book fostered in me. But at the same time, on another level that also had consequences, I was learning to be white.

What about you?
What images do you have from childhood about the make-up of the human family?
What filter or lens was there on your view of “humanity” and your place in it?

For a current attempt to depict “the family of man,” check out 100 People: A World Portrait. Based on statistics “If the world were 100 people…” this global educational project engages children around the world in creating a new portrait of the 7 billion people on planet earth.

For an in-depth study of the original exhibit and its influence worldwide, check out Picturing an Exhibition: The Family of Man and 1950s America by Eric J. Sandeen.

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10 Responses to The Family of Man

  1. Michaela McCormick says:

    As a kid, I lived on the edge of a black ghetto and went to a school with many black kids, and a few Hispanics who were the most invisible to me. But my immediate neighbors were practically all white, and my teachers were all white. All my text books were filled exclusively with pictures of white people, like “Dick and Jane.” The “purist” or “holiest” place in my life was my church where everyone was white, and of course, my “savior” was white. In that church, I never heard any reference to non-white people, even though there were many blacks in our community and, in the 1950’s, the civil rights movement, led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a huge presence in the South. On television, which we first got in the early 50’s, all the stars, heroes, and main characters were white. If we saw a black or brown face, it was that of an African “savage,” or at best, the slightly slow, inarticulate, and/or bumbling sidekick of the white hero, like Tonto with the Lone Ranger or the Cisco Kid’s sidekick whose name I have conveniently forgotten. (It’s interesting, too, that the apparently Mexican Cisco Kid was played by a very white man who, unlike his sidekick, spoke very good English without a Spanish accent.) I don’t remember ever seeing any reports on the civil rights movement on TV, even though the Supreme Court’s momentous decision to desegregate the public schools came in 1954 and Rosa Parks sparked the game-changing Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. All the movies I went to see at the local theatre, mostly Westerns which often included savage Indians as the enemy, had white heroes. Practically every human image around me, certainly the ones most often repeated, were white, like me. I could envision myself in the most attractive, respected, and authoritative roles in my world.

  2. Katharine says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I don’t watch much TV but I was in an airport and CNN was playing nonstop (with no ‘off’ button) recently, so I was a captive audience to the media for the first time in a while. The reporters were interviewing people in Baltimore about the protests and I couldn’t help but notice how slanted the coverage was, how they focused on sound bites rather than meaningful complexity, and how it felt like the news was aimed at a white audience.

    And then one of my friends forwarded me a “cute” article about a police officer pulling over a toddler in a toy car. Both the officer and the kid are white, and yet the tone of the article seems to be that it’s just about a cute “regular human interaction.”
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/30/cop-pulls-over-toddler-louisville_n_7181500.html

    The more I realize how much the media affects our perceptions of the world, the more inclined I feel to support initiatives and startups like Ideal Impact (http://www.idealimpact.org and https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/ideal-impact-the-1st-news-based-social-impact-app), a media startup that focuses on telling stories that matter.

  3. Ben says:

    I grew up in a mostly white suburb called Newport Beach (the real OC). Diversity became part of the curriculum sometime in junior high and only rather briefly. I can remember only one class that explicitly talked about race, where we watched Roots, and talked about black history for a few weeks in February. I recall the timbre of those conversations was about paying homage to and thinking the right things about black people, who deserve respect and admiration because of all the things they have gone through. If you’re reading this, you probably know how packed that recollection is with privilege, supremacy and ignorance.There was also nothing mentioned about racism post-civil rights movement. But the thing that I’m interested in talking about is actually a little bit different.

    There were astonishingly few black people there at the time (in the 90s). There were two I knew of in a school of six grades and over one thousand children. But there were a lot of Latino kids. Not many of them went to my school, though some dozens did. But in southern california there’s Latino people and communities from diverse backgrounds. In Newport children see families working in service and labor industries that serves wealthy suburban residents (mostly white). People from these families tend to live further inland, closer to LA and in a couple of nearby cities that folks from the wealthy suburb I lived in would openly fret about driving through or spending time in. It was too dangerous, they’d say, and never say much else.

    There was a complete invisibility of this entire group of people in our educational system. The majority of our educational resources where either 90% white (books with white characters, posters with mostly white people, etc.) or depictions of people of color that seemed oddly disconnected from the day-to-day. It felt like another world where people of color lived exotic or idealized lives, that bore little resemblance the city in which we lived. Kids would get teased very often at the school, with Latino, middle eastern and Jewish kids getting racial slurs heaved at them sometimes and I never once saw a teacher or adult intervene. The school eventually got sued by the ACLU for allowing hate-based bullying when a child repeatedly showed administration the anti-gay death-threats she was getting via social media and they refused to help. There was a change in principle and some mandated training, but I’m afraid I don’t know much else.

    I grew up in a middle class home that had my white nuclear family and somewhat more mixed-race extended family in it (maternal grandmother’s children all lived in the same home – she had immigrated from Iran – my mother was the oldest but had me quite young). So, we had a lot of Persian images, materials, friends and family, but otherwise the same kind of material that we had at school. Later, some fantastic teachers helped point that out and I’m still very early on in my journey of unlearning oppression and doing anti-racism work with myself, but getting a lot from it.

    Your article was very insightful and powerful. Thank you.

  4. Susan says:

    I didn’t really think in terms of race as a child, and I wasn’t really forced to do so by my parents. I remember my dad (racist though he was) talking about how, as an 8yo in a very large family during the Depression, he had the task of earning 15 cents every day to buy a box of oatmeal for the next morning’s breakfast. One of the things he did was to pick wild blueberries and try to sell them door-to-door. He told us the white women shooed him away and slammed the door, but the women in the “colored” neighborhood bought something if they could, and offered him a drink of water or a bit to eat if they couldn’t. So even though we didn’t live in the US very much, I knew there were different colors of Americans, and I knew the brown ones were nicer to children. In Morocco our primary caretaker was a woman named Sherifa who lived with us during the week and went home to her mother and her own child in the medina on the weekend. It was Sherifa we went to with our scrapes and bruises, and when we wanted something to eat. Sherifa had a brother who was a little older than the kids in my family, and even though he didn’t speak much English and we didn’t speak much Arabic, we were playmates. There was no question whether he was allowed in our house; of course he was. I guess looking back on it, maybe without realizing it I took advantage of white privilege in Morocco. I was never afraid to speak to or to ask help from the Moroccan women and men who worked on base, while I might be shy or afraid to speak to white strangers. Was this white privilege, or just my belief that brown people were more likely to be kind and nurturing? I truly don’t know the answer to this.
    When we moved back to the States I was nine years old. A man in my grandparents’ neighborhood said to me, “Tell me the truth, what are them A-Rabs really like?” I was totally confused by his question, though I could tell he wanted to hear something shocking, or at least negative. I realized it wouldn’t sit well to him tell they were nicer than white people, so I just said, “They’re just regular people.” He gave me a look that said he didn’t believe that for a minute, but even at my young age, I guess I was developing disdain for people who had never lived anyplace but where they were born. I knew I understood more about the world that than this fellow did, even though I was just a child.

  5. Mollie C says:

    Thank you for this post, and articulating the layers of complexity in even (what seems to be from what you describe) well intentioned white attempts to bring positive messages to the world about our common human experience. It makes me question the complexity of my well intended actions in the world as a white woman who has been working to extricate the many layers of racism and white supremacist training within me for years now. How much harm to I create in my attempts to bring about positive change due to the way I approach what I do, or do not see; so steeped in my unconscious whiteness? I also think about my role as the mother of two young (4 and 7 year old) biracial (African American and white) sons and my attempts to protect them from so many subconscious messages that they take in every day. My children do not watch TV, movies, or play video games, and I think about their books and toys very carefully. This makes me weird or extreme to many I interact with, including people in my own family. It is for the reasons that you write about in your post, that I have made this decision. I know everyday they are forming their sense of what it means to be boys of color, “brown” boys like their dad (“not like you, mama”) that they were able to articulate starting at around age 3, based on what they take in though the images and people around them. How am I, in my simultaneous whiteness and pure intentions as their loving mother, unconsciously contributing to their understanding of themselves as less valued, “othered”, oppressed, abnormal, and/or unseen, members of the “human family”?

  6. Elena says:

    I remember being similarly mesmerized by a children’s book called “People” that from what I remember was an educational book about how people are all different/the same. I don’t want to say that it was intended for white folks because I don’t have access to it now, but I kind of think that it was. From what I remember (and that’s the most important thing because it’s my experience), people from other countries were often represented in their traditional clothing. So all representations of Africans were of people in their traditional indigenous clothing and even Europeans were wearing traditional clothing that one might see at a Ren Faire. I remember asking my dad if people really dressed like THAT in France and my dad said no, but maybe they did about 100 years ago. This had me very confused because the Americans (who were white) were represented wearing clothing that would have been normal in the 90s–tee-shirt and jeans–and yet everyone else was wearing this traditional stuff. It’s interesting to look back on this; I wonder why the author chose to represent people from other countries in traditional clothing. For me it had an exoticizing effect and reinforced my idea that Americans were white. I also grew up in such a white area that I could afford to hold that belief for a long time.
    I’m also realizing how basically everything from my childhood reinforced my racism. Pocahontas (one of my favorite movies) is about a white man coming and being educated by a beautiful native woman and eventually saving the day. Tarzan, Babar the Elephant, Aladdin, and so many more things that I haven’t even given thought to all created and reinforced my stereotypes. So much UNtraining to do!

    • JanetC says:

      Isn’t it amazing how much conditioning you see when you look back on these childhood artifacts with new eyes? So many subtle and not-so-subtle messages. And when it’s a favorite movie or story, it can be kind of heartbreaking.

  7. Tara I. says:

    Last night I watched part of the documentary film, The Corporation, and had a shocking moment (well, there are many shocking moments, but there is one that was especially impactful and relates here). One speaker describes how a huge percentage of the people that run corporations are wealthy white men, but that the majority of the people in the world are (1) not white; (2) working poor; and (3) women. Those demographic facts are not what shocked me. What shocked me was that in that moment I realized how I have unconsciously taken on the idea that the majority of people who run corporations (which exert untold global influence) represent a kind of NORMALCY. Shown in the light of day, I could feel the complete absurdity of that idea and yet I could also feel how pervasive it is in the world I have grown up in. I would venture to say that 99% of the people I have ever known hold that same unconscious perception. We call people of color and women “minorities” but that is patently false in terms of facts. It is true in terms of the impacts of racism and sexism but not (as the term implies) the numbers. I am stunned at the perniciousness of the ways in which (in an oppressive system) a factual minority (in this case, white wealthy men) are turned into the IDEA of a majority norm.

    • JanetC says:

      Thanks, Tara! You’re touching on one of the most powerful aspects of privilege — to define the terms of accepted norms — what is considered “normal” or “right” or even “civilized.” Poet and activist Audre Lorde talks about the “mythic norm” of what an American is: “usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure.” It would be interesting to take each one of these factors and get the real numbers!

  8. r says:

    Wow, Janet, that post was powerful. I clicked the link you gave and checked out the statistics, and it leaves me less sad than culpable. This is not the world I want, given the statistics. What to do about it is what there is to mull over–but spend less time mulling and more time doing something about!

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