White Angel Breadline

A few weeks ago, I went to the Oakland Museum on the weekend, and had a rewarding experience. They have spectacular revolving art shows, but also an extensive permanent collection of California art. I came across this photo, from the Great Depression, by photographer Dorothea Lange, the famous “White Angel Breadline” photo of a man desperate and hungry in a soup kitchen line in San Francisco, circa 1933.

White Angel Breadline

I stood there and was mesmerized by the photo – the subtle, yet intense emotion of this man, turning away for a moment from the others. He looks like he’s in prayer, completely broken down, and gripping the side of the fence or whatever that piece of wood is, for support. The year, 1933, either just before or just after President Roosevelt was elected. Before all the social programs were enacted — Social Security, food stamps, minimum wage laws, government spending. … I think about what I’ve seen, what I’ve experienced. The filthy greed of the rich and the distance of those who protect the rich and the 1%. The utter depths of despair of the poor and the homeless on the streets, in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, in West Oakland, East Oakland, downtown Berkeley (where I work now). I see cops busting homeless people on the streets, just for being homeless. … And then, there are the people in between, those caught half-way between heaven and hell, working class folks who can’t seem to get ahead, and who fall further and further behind, sometimes, unfortunately, the harder they try.

I know what it’s like to be unemployed, and scared and anxious to pay rent and bills. I’ve had moments when I’ve been broke, completely broke, and been hungry and relied upon the kindness of friends, family and sometimes strangers to help. I think that’s what struck me about this photo – the expression on this man’s face was one that I myself could identify with – because I’ve been there, too — and not too long ago. For we are all a community together of support, to hold each other up, and not tear each other down.