Jacob Riis’ Photographs were shocking and moving, as they displayed an unfiltered version of America’s past. Many times, we choose to tell our American story through the eyes of American exceptionalism; a “city on the hill” built by hardworking people. But the way that we built our infrastructure wasn’t so honorable because, in fact, it was built on the backs of the poor, working class.
I found this photo particularly striking because we see a laborer in a poverty, displayed in the most unfiltered way. We see a tired and unhappy laborer. The caption tells us that this is where he lives and we are to infer that the belongings around him are all that he has. He is truly impoverished. He seems to be without access to showers or a way to clean himself, he is without a proper bed and seems only to have the clothes on his back. In this way, at least in my opinion, he is being denied basic rights.
What was most striking to me was the caption. The caption read “In sleeping quarters, Rivington Street Dump”. I had studied the picture first, trying to understand what was being portrayed until the caption caught my eye. I realized that not only is he living in extreme poverty, but he is living in a dump. I assumed he was living in a basement or out of a small room, when he doesn’t really have a “real” home. So then I went back to the picture and studied his face and that is where I found the true narrative. He is a poor, working class man. He looks tired and despondent, reflecting the feelings of other working class members as well. He is without a home, and seems to be, without a family.
Fredrick Douglas said that, sadly, his story wasn’t unique. In the same way, this laborer’s story is not unique in that many other working class people struggled in poverty and struggle. And that is precisely the type of American History that we often leave out.
Riis, Jacob. In Sleeping Quarters, Rivington Street Dump. N.d. How the Other Half Lives, n.p.
Eventually, wartime brought about the need for the draft, “I ended up actually experiencing going through the draft after college, my number came up, it was a lottery…”, which required him to go in for a physical before being officially drafted. Like many other men, he reluctantly attended. He, however, was excused from the draft due to a high school basketball knee injury. “…and [I] felt actually quite relieved that I wasn’t then eligible to go off to war but also felt the inequity of it–that some people had to go [and] others had to go or chose not to.” Those who did not have the same luck were so enraged that they burned their draft cards (a criminal offense).
Wartime had a significant impact on my father as he became increasingly dissatisfied with the government’s role in Vietnam. “There were a lot of photographs and news stories of some of the damage being done by the war effort–memorable photographs of villagers fleeing Napalm Bombs. He was deeply upset by the American Government’s “misguided effort”. His parents, although they disagreed with him, accepted his decision to protest and were respectful of his opinion on war.
At age 21, my father was trying to decide on a career after majoring in Political Science at the University of New Hampshire. His original interests were to pursue a governmental position or a social work career. In disgust of the American government in wartime, he decided he never wanted to pursue a governmental position. While he was still deciding what he really wanted to pursue career-wise, he began a carpentry career which he held for 10 years until he attended Virginia Commonwealth University to pursue a social work career which ironically lead him to a local government position as a social work administrator.