12 Million Black Voices

I have never considered myself a racist. But following the global outcry after the shocking police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020 I now understand that position is inadequate. In ‘The Racial Healing Handbook’ Dr Anneliese A. Singh suggests that simply saying you aren’t a racist isn’t enough to start healing from racism. I need to become an anti-racist, a term she defines as:

The term “antiracist” refers to people who are actively seeking not only to raise their consciousness about race and racism, but also to take action when they see racial power inequities in everyday life (1).

Singh lists ways of becoming a white anti-racist. The most relevant of which to me she describes as:

Understand and begin to take responsibility for your power and privilege as part of the white group – such as acknowledging the historical roots of White Supremacy and knowing that the White privilege you have as a result of that history is a real thing (1).

This small project is part of my on-going research into these historical roots as illustrated in early to mid-20th-century American photo books.

12 Million Black Voices

The seminal 1941 book ’12 Million Black Voices’ was written by Richard Wright. It features images taken by Roy Stryker’s Farm Securities Administration photographers in 1930s America.

The full title of the book is ’12 Million Black Voices. A folk history of the Negro in the United States’.

I thought long and hard about the appropriateness, as a white privileged person, of referring to the N-word. Writing in The Atlantic, Columbia University Professor, John McWhorter, suggests that it’s sparing use in the context of an educational discussion is not inappropriate (2). My own view is this. Wright’s 1941 book deals with the difficult topic of slavery and it’s consequences for Black Americans. Wright’s words and the photographs expose the appalling conditions and disgraceful treatment suffered by Black Ameican at the hands of White Supremacists. More than any book I have seen it offers me an insight into that horrifying world. Perhaps I am mistaken but I believe that facing the word helps me BEGIN to understand the lives of the people involved. But I do acknowledge that its use may be upsetting and offensive to many people. And to them, I apologise.

Richard Wright’s text graphically explains the issues faced. For my own future reference I will detail a few of the most illuminating passages.

Wright talks about his people’s birth into slavery:

We millions of black folk who live in this land were born into western civilisation of a weird and paradoxical birth. The lean, tall, blond men of England, Holland, and Denmark, the dark, short, nervous men of France, Spain, and Portugal, men whose blue and gray and brown eyes glinted with the light of the future, denied our human personalities, tour us from our native soil, weighted our legs with chains, stacked us like cord-wood in the foul holes of clipper ships, dragged us across thousands of miles of ocean, and hurled us into another land, strange and hostile, where for a second time we felt the slow, painful process of a new birth amid conditions harsh and raw (3:12).

Wright describes the use of the N-Word as a psychological island:

The word ‘Negro’, the term by which, orally or in print, we black folk in the United States are usually designated, is not really a name at all nor a description, but a psychological island whose objective form is the most unanimous fiat in all American history; a fiat buttressed by popular and national tradition, and written down in many state and city statutes; a fiat which artificially and arbitrarily defines, regulates, and limits in scope of meaning the vital contours of our lives, and the lives of our children and our children’s children.

This island, within whose confines we live, is anchored in the feelings of millions of people, and is situated in the midst of the sea of white faces we meet each day; and, by and large, as 300 years of time has born our nation into the 20th century, it’s rocky boundaries have remained unyielding to the waves of our hope that dash against it.

The steep cliffs of this island are manifest, on the whole, in the conduct of whites toward us hour by hour, a conduct which tells us that we possess no rights commanding respect, that we have no claim to pursue happiness in our own fashion, that our progress towards civilisation constitutes an insult, that our behaviour must be kept firmly within an orbit branded as inferior, that we must be compelled to labour at the behest of others, that as a group we are owned by the whites, and that manliness on our part warrants instant reprisal.

300 years are a long time for millions of folk like us to be held in such subjection, so long a time that perhaps scores of years will have to pass before we shall be able to express what this slavery has done to us, for our personalities are still numb from its long shocks; and, as the numbness leaves our souls, we shall yet have to feel and give utterance to the full pain we shall inherit (3:30-31.

On the effects of emancipation Wright says:

When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, there were some 4,000,000 of us black folk stranded and bewildered upon the land which we had tilled under compulsion for two and a half centuries. Sundered suddenly from the only relationship with western civilisation we had been allowed to form since our captivity, our personalities blighted by 250 years of servitude, and eager to hold our wives and husbands and children together in family units, some of us turned back to the same Lords of the Land who had held us as slaves and begged for work, resorted to their advice; and there began for us a new kind of bondage: sharecropping (3:35-36).

Use of Photgraphs

The book contains some 84 photographs curated/edited/directed by Edwin Rosskam (1903-1985), all bar a small handful come from the FSA. The photographers involved include Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Russell Lee. Wright credits Roy Stryker of the FSA for his ‘never-failing interest, courtesy, and cooperation’. But in an interview, Rosskam gives an insight into the creation of the book, which apparently was his idea rather than Wright. Rosskam says:

Later I talked to him (Wright) – photographs were then still something kind of startling and new and exciting, and then I got him excited. I personally don’t think he could have done a better job on the text – I’m fond of this text. The book was exciting in one sense that I was off the staff (of the FSA) at that point and I got Roy (Stryker) to allow Russell (Lee – another FSA photographer) to come out to do the end of the migration on the N-Word part of Chicago (the book plots the Black African migration from slavery to the migration to larger US cities). We had a fascinating three weeks there. Dick Wright really knew that stuff cold; he knew where everybody was, and he knew everybody in the N-Word world of Chicago. And I don’t know if many white men had the opportunity to see it the way we saw it. Man, that was an experience. We did everything from the undertaker to the gangster (4).

Russell Lee. ‘Mother and children, Chicago. FSA


(1) Singh, A., 2019. WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE ANTIRACIST?. [online] New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Available at: <https://nmaahc.si.edu/sites/default/files/downloads/resources/racialhealinghandbook_p87to94.pdf> [Accessed 12 September 2020].

(32) McWhorter, J., 2019. The Idea That Whites Can’t Refer to the N-Word. The Atlantic, [online] Available at: <https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/08/whites-refer-to-the-n-word/596872/> [Accessed 12 September 2020].

(3) WRIGHT, R., 1941. 12 MILLION BLACK VOICES. Brattleboro, Vermont: ECHO POINT Books & MEDIA.

(4) Rosskam, E., 1965. Oral history interview with Edwin and Louise Rosskam, 1965 August 3. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, [online] Available at: <https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-edwin-and-louise-rosskam-13112#transcript> [Accessed 12 September 2020].

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