As I reread Lyle Saxon’s Children of Strangers (1937) for the 2016 NEH Summer Institute “Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience,” I couldn’t help but think about the idea of authenticity and reality when I came to the final section in the book. There, Flossie Smith, Adelaide Randolph’s friend, encounters the fallen Famie as she leaves Easter service with Henry Tyler. Upon first meeting Famie years earlier, Flossie celebrates the mulatto’s near whiteness and praises her beauty; however, by the end of the novel, Flossie does not even recognize Famie as she sits on the mule behind Henry Tyler.
Flossie tells her husband that she must take a picture of the “wonderful” couple. When she stops Henry Tyler, she directs him and Famie in the manner that she wants them to pose. She says, “Yes, turn the mule around a little and ask your wife to look at me . . . What’s the matter, is she shy? Lift up your head, I can’t see your face in that sunbonnet . . . Well, never mind, you’ll look coy with your head down. Maybe it will be better that way, more natural. Now, boy, you smile. Don’t look so solemn” (294). Famie does not recognize the couple as anything more than a sort of commodity, something that she can take a picture of and “cherish” in New Orleans when she wants to recall the grand life that Adelaide and Guy Randolph live on Cane River. When Harry asks her to come out of the road, Flossie wonders if she has “the grandest picture” because the couple “were so typical” (294). The novel concludes with Flossie exclaiming, “I always say that niggers are the happiest people on earth. Not a care in the world” (294). Flossie’s desire for a picture, and her assumptions about the life that Henry Tyler and Famie lead show that sees them as nothing more than an oddity, as objects that she can exploit for her own personal pleasure.
In many ways, the entirety of Saxon’s novel leads up to this point. The novel traces the story of Famie Vidal and shows her humanity, along with that of Numa, Henry Tyler, and others. In this way, Saxon counters Faulkner’s presentations of African Americans such as Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury who gets relegated to the kitchen. It would take a much longer post to tease out these aspects of the novel, and it must be said that while Saxon progresses from Faulkner in his represenation, his novel still contains some negative aspects when it comes to his representation of African Americans, mulattoes, and others.
Rather than focusing on those aspects for the rest of this post, I want to touch on the idea of the picture that Flossie takes at the end of the novel. By taking the picture, Flossie immortalizes Henry Tyler and Famie, proving they existed. However, she does not provide them any agency within the process. She directs the couple on how they should position themselves, and she snaps the picture. They become nothing more than a background, lifeless. This encounter should be read in relation to Henry Tyler’s earlier encounter with Paul Randolph in the novel.
Paul, an artist, has come home to Yucca Plantation to die. While in his cabin, he befriends Henry Tyler, but an impenetrable fence separates the two men. As they talk, Paul shows Henry a painting he has been working on. The picture shows “a stretch of cotton field, with a plow and a nigger coming along” (161). Paul tells Henry Tyler that the man in the picture is him, and Henry feels pleased, even though “Mr. Paul had put him in a picture without Henry knowing a thing about it” (161). Unlike Flossie’s picture, Paul’s shows Henry working, existing. Paul does not direct Henry, he just observes and paints what he sees.
However, even though Paul does not act the same way that Flossie does, in fact he wants to eradicate the system of share cropping, he still has a certain position in regards to Henry. Even though he does not exist as a slave, “Henry, in a sense, belonged to Mr. [Guy] Randolph just as the land did” (154). Paul’s brother, in essence, owns Henry. Paul informs Henry that he wants to take him on as a servant, and Henry agrees. Here, Paul wants to show Henry a better life, by educating him while he works as a servant. Henry agrees to do this, but before he can assume the position, Paul dies. While Paul would, no doubt, be benevolent, Henry would still exist in a state of submission to a white man.
All of this reminds me, to some extent, of Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” There, pictures play the same role, as a means of capturing, without really exploring, conditions. Unlike Flossie and Paul, though, Wangero (Dee) takes pictures of her old home to validate where she came from, to show those back at school that she made it out. She wants to highlight her own authenticity. Like Flossie, Wangero stages the pictures. She tells her mother not to get up, and “[s]he never takes a shot without making sure the house is included” (29). When a cow meanders by, she takes a picture with the cow, house, Momma, and Maggie. Wangero’s actions mirror Flossie’s in the fact that she does not necessarily want the pictures to reflect upon positively; instead, they exist as objects that do not recognize the humanity they contain. Famie and Henry Tyler become non-existent, and Wangero’s sister and mother exist as nothing more than a past, one that only serves to show where she came from.
Right now, I am working out these thoughts, but I find the use of pictures, in both texts fascinating. In both, the idea of possession and ownership continually appears. These concepts play in to the discussion of photographs and should be looked at in greater detail with these texts. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below?
Saxon, Lyle. Children of Strangers. New Orleans: Robert L. Cramer & Co., 1948. Print.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Ed. Barbara T. Christian, New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994. Print.