The assignment was to analyze any of a set of Dorothea Lange photographs and integrate course readings, given minimal information about the photographs themselves. This is the one I chose:
Here's the paper.
7 June 2007
“This is the way it is! Look at it!”
-Dorothea Lange, on the purpose of her photographs
In 1942, Dorothea Lange photographed a group of schoolgirls reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Many, if not most, of these girls are Japanese and Japanese American; several were interned in camps just days after the photograph was taken. Though Lange's official objective was to document Japanese internment for the the United States government, the images she produced tell the story of people, not federal policy. Government propaganda espoused that Japanese Americans were all untrustworthy traitors loyal to Emperor Hirohito, racializing the enemy and categorizing many U.S. citizens as anti-American. But in this photograph, Lange presents not just a face, but many faces as the objects of state violence and nationalist racism. Not all of each small subject is visible, but nearly every face is, giving the subjects the most dignity and humanity possible.
While Lange may have posed the girls and framed the shot to a extent, anyone who has ever been in a room of small children knows that it is nearly impossible to get this many kids to behave in any sort of programmed manner. Accordingly, it is reasonable to assume that the expressions on the children's faces are their own. That the children are allowed to present their own images is deeply important, and is evidence of the agency Lange affords them. It would be easy for a White, middle class woman sympathetic to the plight of interned Japanese Americans to proffer scenes of destitution, of victimhood. Instead, Lange chose to print a picture not of devastation, but of vim and character; the photograph is of active children before they learn of their impending internment, not of crying, stricken ones afterward. The agency and individuality among the subjects gives one reason to believe Lange when she claims her pictures represent absolute truths*, undoctored and without ulterior motive.
As noted in lecture, the pictured class is in the middle of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. This is apparent even without knowing beforehand—each student stands at attention with her right hand over the left side of her chest, her mouth open in speech and their upturned faces facing their right indicate a flag in the corner of the room. Most of the class are students of color, and many appear to be ethnically Japanese. The students are fairly consistent in dress, but do not wear school uniforms, so it is reasonable to interpret that the school is likely public, and from there that its student body is most likely to have come from middle and working class families. Three girls have outside coats on and have their lunch sacks in their left hands, an indication that the school day is just beginning. The students are vowing their obedience to the nation before any other school activity; the message their teachers give them is that before anything else, one must be a patriot, a loyal citizen, an obedient subject.
So the children are pledging their allegiance. Both George Balch and Francis Bellamy, leading education reformists of the late 19th century, admitted that children of this age are "too young to appreciate the full significance"i of the vow, but defended its daily recital as a means of conditioning children to grow into "feelings of love and duty for their country"ii. Significantly, both also compared the ritualization of flag worship to rote religious indoctrination, revealing the fragility of both among free-thinking society—as if without constant drilling, people would not subscribe to either organized religion or patriotism. Further, the comparison makes explicit the deification of the Nation as an imagined benefactor. Still, none of this makes the children's motivation for participating insincere. There is no malice or mockery in any of the faces in the picture, and there is nothing to suggest they are merely robotsiii following their teachers' orders, either.
To so young a child, pledging allegiance is a process of socialization; not participating could result in punishment and ostracism, but going along also has positive rewards, particularly in the form of praise from the teacher. Teachers deeply important conduits for socializing children, and for instructing what it means to be an American, especially for students with immigrant backgrounds. As O'Leary points out, educators were entrusted with the task of "converting 'deserving immigrants' into '100 percent Americans'"iv. At a historical point when educational ideology followed Thomas Jefferson's "concern that too many immigrants" would render the nation "'a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass'"v, it was no small responsibility to "Americanize the alien child"vi. By notable contrast to African Americans, the White American-defined racial hierarchy allowed Japanese Americans the mental capacity for assimilation, so educators fulfilled their patriotic duty by instilling notions of exceptionalist nationalism and patriotism in their Asian American students.
In the Lange photograph, teachers are all White, distinctly different from the racial make-up of the class. But more significant for interpretation is that all six teachers stand in the back of the room, conspicuous only through their height advantage. In removing themselves from the focus of the frame, the teachers physically distance themselves from their students, and particularly from their Japanese students, who appear to be more concentrated toward the front of the room. The teachers' position at the back seems to subvert their occupation as patriotic leaders, and in fact four of the six teachers can clearly be seen with their mouths shut: they are not reciting the pledge at all!
Moreover, the purpose of separating themselves from the Japanese American students comes into question. In one interpretation, the teachers place themselves at the back in order to foreground the children, placing their students—as the fruits of their labor—at the front and allowing them to be the center of attention. However, the idea of teacher-as-nurturer would be out of place in the 1940s, so this explanation seems unlikely. Perhaps, then, the teachers distance themselves in order to protect themselves from the harm caused by being close to Japanese American girls. The harm perceived is bimodal—teachers might fear damage to their own reputations by supporting untrustworthy "Jap" children, but on the other hand, teachers might fear harm to their own emotions by allowing a closeness that can only be ruptured by the state seizure of the young lives. The students may have been unaware of their future internment, but the teachers may not have been.
Consider the front row of girls, the three with coats on, hands over hearts, bagged lunches in tow: they are not the image of perfect citizenettes. The girl in the middle drapes her hand straight across the middle of her stomach, a weak imitation of the proper decorum of heart-covering. Note that these three wear their outdoor coats, though the other visible students sport only their school frocks: the front three have come in late, and have not had time yet to stow their lunches. Their tardiness trespasses against Balch's first element of "moral discipline and good citizenship": punctualityvii. Not all of the other students have taken off their coats, true, but these three are specifically in the front of the group, closer to the flag and the front of the room and, by logical extension, closer to the door as well.
Their expressions are likely more due to the happenstance of the shot than anything, but we can compare readings of the faces and comportment of these three girls in the first row nonetheless. The girl on the left looks quizzically at the flag, eyebrows scrunched, as if questioning the meaning of talking to a flag or declaring one's unyielding obedience to a nation-state. After all, though she is not yet interned, she has still been exposed to anti-Japanese propaganda produced by the same government to which she pledges her undying love every morning. She puzzles over the flag, trying to reconcile what she learns about her country in school with what she hears on the radio and sees in government posters on the street, and perhaps also slurs hurled at her family. On the right of the frame is her foil, a girl matching the very definition of heartfelt devotion, her hand placed in a more aesthetically pleasing heart-position, head cocked to the side, not even needing to look at the flag to espouse her devotion. The girl on the right is the embodiment of "sentimental patriotism"viii, unquestioningly obedient and emotionally moved by the recitation.
But the girl in the middle is harder to characterize. She is the least engaged with the pledge recital, her hand in a more Napoleonic position than covering her heart, looking straight into the camera. Instead of directing her attention to the flag, the emblem of the nation-state and its government, she looks straight at the viewer, the citizen-subject who composes the nation itself. She smiles, but the viewer understands that she is to be interned; she smiles, showing no resentment, but "we" have to avert our eyes because the American "we" as enfranchised citizens is complicit in her loss of childhood. By the time the photograph would have been seen by the American public, these girls would already be in horse stalls in the Mojave desert; their image a painful reminder of the brutality produced by irrational fear and political scapegoating. Worse than declaring Asians "aliens ineligible for citizenship"ix, internment—with overwhelming popular support—stripped citizens of all civil rights, all markers of citizenship, and any semblance of earned respect. This is what Lange shows 1942 America through this photograph: not the inhumanity of war, but the human faces of its targets.
iO'Leary 153, 178
iiO'Leary 153, 178
iii"Cyborg" would more accurate here than "robot", as the former term implies human-machine hybridity, while the latter indicates only machine parts, and accordingly no capacity for emotion. However, in common parlance, "robot" is a sufficient substitute and gets the point across without really necessitating this endnote.
* to clarify, I'm not saying that absolute truths exist or can be distilled. I should have been more clear here, because as it is I'm opening myself up for a huge attack regarding subjectivity.