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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Exhibition on human migration and refugees at the Phillips Collection

Friday night Pam and I met my art history class to see an exhibition titled "The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement. "The class is on art and war, so the exhibition was an appropriate assignment since many people have been uprooted from their homes by warfare although economic and environmental factors have also been important in creating refugees.

The exhibit consists of paintings, photographs, sculptures, films, and videos and was too much to fully take in during the time we were there. Even so, what we saw has given me plenty to think about since. Apparently the other students felt much the same because we spent an hour in class yesterday discussing the exhibit. I shared with the class my thoughts on the part that made the biggest impression on me--the inclusion of Dorothea Lange's photos taken during the Great Depression.

"Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange

I've felt that the antipathy towards immigration was largely a result of xenophobia, racism, and perceived economic threat. What was so striking about Lange's photos is that the people who fled the Great Plains for California during the 1930's were largely native-born Protestants whose families had been in the country for generations. I know from John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, which is considered an accurate portrayal, that they encountered hostility from Californians, generally people from the same ethnic stock, when they arrived. "An Okie used to mean you were from Oklahoma," one of Steinbeck's characters said, "Now it means you're scum." Obviously, racism and xenophobia can be ruled out as causes for this antagonism, and it's hard to lay the blame purely on competition for jobs since the migrants took the lowest paying jobs as agricultural workers, jobs that most Anglo-Californians spurned.

From the class discussion that followed, I conclude that it seems to be a common human reaction to object to the arrival of newcomers, whatever their ethnic composition. The professor pointed out that when Germany was reunited at the end of the Cold War, West Germans complained about East Germans. I later recalled being part of a merger between two large American corporations where the employees of one of the legacy companies complained about the employees of the other legacy company. We were all American businessmen, but those from the other company became "the others," just as foreign as if they had arrived from another world.


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