The literature of this unit has been about the lives of individuals and groups, fictional and real, but the power dynamics and the effects of those dynamics have been relatively constant across the body of works we have used. Within the literature we have read and groups of people we have studied this unit, people of higher classes retain more power. For the purposes of this argument, power us defined as the ability to control one’s own actions (i.e. have agency) and property with a limited amount of difficulty or public resistance. This sort of power grants greater freedom to those who retain power and almost imprisons those who do not retain power.
Groups in which there is a vast difference between the lowest and highest classes best exemplify the dynamics of power. The strongest examples of the higher classes retaining more power can be found among the African American community. People of the highest class were able to retain much power and in many ways have a life almost identical (if not completely identical) to that of their white counterparts, but people of the lower/lowest class (i.e. sharecroppers, etc.) retained virtually no power whatsoever. Foley does an excellent job of illustrating this fact for the lower classes, but the discussion of the upper class is outside the scope of his book. For this reason, this argument can be seen as an extension of the explanation of power that he gives. Foley writes, “Instead of paying sharecroppers in wages, however, owners sold the cotton at the end of the harvest and paid them one-half of the proceeds of the sale, minus any debts the sharecroppers owed for the supplies… They owned no tools or work animals, which the owner supplied” (Foley, 10). This meant that sharecroppers had little control over their income and even less control over the property in their possession, since it commonly was not actually theirs. This translates into a lack of power retention. The tenant farmers were not in a position that was much better. Their power was also very limited and the power that was exuded over them by the landowners, though not as severe as that exuded over sharecroppers, was great. Tenants owned their own tools, animals, and plows (Foley, 10), but still worked land that they did not own and did not receive all of the profits from the cotton they grew. In chapter 5, Foley regales the story of George Rhodes who was a tenant farmer and was “‘stopped’ by Taft management when he attempted to gin his cotton at the independent gin of Dale Walker, although the Walker gin charged slightly more than the Taft Ranch gin” (Foley, 124). Because the tenants could not use their money the way they wanted or use the facilities they wanted, they retained very little power.
The power that was retained by the middle class (whether lower-middle class or upper-middle class) was enormous. Many of them were able to live their lives largely as they pleased, even through the Great Depression. Although an African American entertainer’s income would have been considered middle or lower-middle class before the Depression, there was the possibility that they could remain in work through the Depression. Little Brother Montgomery was one such man. In Hard Times, he says he “was making a dollar a night on Sunday nights. And a spaghetti dinner. Playing house rent parties. On a Saturday night, I was playing for $3. No supper there… Tuesday night, I was playing for $2. My weeks were filled with two, three dollars a night… Monday night, that was the biggest night I had. $4” (Terkel, 377). Although the wages were not high, he was one of very few men (especially African American men) who was able to retain a job and thus self-sufficiency and power through the Depression. He had a place to live, food to eat, and could spend the money he earned as he pleased which was more than most people (including many whites) could say at that time. That meant that he had more power than many at the time. The power of the upper-middle class was even greater. In Nella Larson’s Passing, Irene could not have done many of the things she did if she were not upper-middle class. She could not have passed as well as she did because she would not have been dressed or behaved in a manner that would have allowed it. She could not have paid the taxi or gone to the white restaurant for tea after almost fainting (Larson, 8) if she had not been upper-middle class. In all likelihood, the cab driver would not have been as concerned with her if she looked like a middle class African American woman rather than an upper-middle class white woman. While her light skin gave her power, her class gave her more power because it made her light skin more convincing. Furthermore, the upper-middle class was able to be a part of clubs like the Negro Welfare League, which allowed for a great power in that it functioned just as the clubs and societies of whites and even attracted whites to its events. The ability to do that gave great power; especially whenthose whites were important men like Hugh Wentworth (Larson, 49-56). Being able to choose to be a part of a respected society and interact with important people freely fulfills every part of the definition of power. Although Larson’s novella is fictional, reflects the lives of people who lived in the twenties.
Power also functioned on a basis of class among whites, though the divisions were not always as extreme. Foley makes it clear that white tenant farmers experienced many of the same things that the African American tenant famers did. In fact, after the explanation of George Rhodes’ experience with the Taft company, he explains that when a white tenant tried to do the same thing, “the company ‘got rid of him’” (Foley, 124). He also explains that Walker (the man who owned the gin) was unable to get a loan for a gin he opened in Portland because the superintendent of the Taft Ranch, Joseph Green, was “a member of the Board of directors of the First National Bank of Gregory” (Foley, 126) and the bank itself was owned by some of the principle stockholders of the Taft Ranch…” (Foley, 126). This meant that the upper class whites retained power over the whites of lower classes in addition to their power over African Americans. Walker and others were unable to control their own property and actions without the upper classes interfering. In fact, the upper class held enough power that they could limit the economic competition within a community. Foley alludes to, but does not fully explore the extent of this power. The fact that the upper class was able to limit not only the actions, but the economic well-being of the lower class meant that they had retained power and reduced the power of the lower class.
This sort of power continued through the Great Depression. In “A Personal Memoir,” Terkel describes the hotel his parents operated, the Wells-Grand. All of the boarders paid their rent weekly before the Great Depression, but after the Depression, his mother kept some people on the books even when they were not able to pay. The ability to do that came from the fact that she (or at least the hotel’s owner) was of a higher class. Mrs. Radnor in “Matewan” could not have done this at her boarding house because she was of a lower class and thus did not have the power (control over her actions and property) that Terkel’s mother did. This was compounded by the fact that her house was technically owned by the company, so they could do as they pleased with it (as the company men did). This meant that not only did she not have much power, but that the power she did have was further decreased upon the arrival of the company men. Although Radnor was also fictional, her story reflected that of real people, as did Irene’s.
The one group that this would seem to apply less to is Mexicans and Mexican Americans. They were newer immigrants and commonly on similar class levels. However, class made a difference here as well. Mexican Americans had a higher likelihood of being tenants than Mexican immigrants did, but this was still not common (Foley, 10). The difference in class here came from the fact that Mexican Americans were able to claim to be American. This not only gave them a better place as far as class, but gave them the ability to lobby the government to decrease immigration and thus increase their status further (Foley, 8). This meant that they were not only increasing their power but through increasing their power, decreasing the power of the lower classes of Mexicans (newer immigrants and migrant workers) further. Thus, the idea that the upper class retained power and thus freedom and the lower class did not retain as much (and even lost) power which essentially imprisoned them, held true here as well.
Although these examples mix reality and fiction, all are based in reality and represent true experiences. Furthermore, the mix of sources allows for extension of this argument about power that Foley alludes to but does not fully make. The argument that more power is retained by the upper classes than the lower classes, and that power retained gives freedom whereas those with less power are almost imprisoned becomes clear and can be seen as the logical extension of Foley’s argument in The White Scourge.