I spent some time this morning looking at a slide show of photos from the 1930s. Most of the work in this collection was of African Americans. Having taught about The Great Depression many times, I'm familiar with many of the books and photos from that crucial time period.
Visual literacy is a subject that always played a role in the curriculum I created. Who doesn't love to look at pictures. Granted, there are historical photo essays that are difficult to look at, but in the long run, they are, in my view, always worthwhile.
One particular photo caught my attention.
This picture of a man walking up stairs to the segregated section of a movie theater wouldn't leave me alone. As I've often done, I asked myself what I see first... and then what? There is an artistic symmetry to the photo; a dualism from black and white to shadow and light, to have and have very little. Lots of symbolism too. The clock the Dr. Pepper message and of course the ladder that appears under the price of admission to the "colored"section of the theater.
That section would have been the balcony. From there I wonder what films the good people of this little town had seen at this theater. Since the photo dates to the 30s, there is a good chance that some of the most popular films of the era where shown. If so, then they no doubt saw films that were characteristic of hard times. Films that showed a better world, a world where want wasn't so extreme. The era produced many of those. Maybe they saw King Kong. The beast that humanity eventually conquers serves to provide additional symbolic comfort for those who feared even more than fear itself.
Sitting in that darkened balcony, what must have gone through the minds of that audience? If they were fortunate enough to purchase 10 cents worth of escapism, what reality did they exit the theater to?
I suppose I could do the research and answer some of my questions, but right now, I prefer to simply wonder. I'm curious too, if in this segregated movie theater, some of the short films and advertisements directed at a Black audience were shown. Maybe there were separate days/nights when Black folks could sit in any part of the theater. Maybe not. Occasionally, the old films surface locked away in a warehouse, for decades, and sometimes restored to once again reveal so much of our history. For now, we do have some of these wonderful photos (sad and alarming as some may be) that still have the power to open up the imagination.