Race Relations in Early Park Films

Several months ago I wrote a short blog post about the objectification of women in early park films. In addition to gender issues, many park videos also illuminate mid-century race relations in North America. One of the most blaring statements on race relations within many of these films available on YouTube and elsewhere is the absence of any POC. In my random YouTube explorations, the films that actually do include POC do so in some kind of labour capacity. The example I use in this post is a film that looks at the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in New Jersey.

The white CCC workers are repeatedly shown doing outdoor, heavy labour. Their work is characterized as important, thorough, and scientific. The narrator describes “strong young hands eager to take hold,” hands that belong to boys that enjoy renewed physical strength and increased morale.

However, around 10:50, the film cuts to a group of black CCC workers or, as the film describes them, “happy-go-lucky negro boys.” These individuals are not pictured working the land, but rather the film cuts to a scene of a jug band and dancing. This portrayal does three main things:

  1. By stating that “…inevitably when two or three of these are gathered together…,” the film denies these individuals even basic personhood.
  2. The portrayal supports the stereotype that black men are simple, lazy, and incapable of hard labour without direction. 
  3. The portrayal divorces black labour from the land. The few scenes following the band/dance scene do little to make up for this initial depiction.

This is just one example of the way in which POC are represented in early park materials. The relationship between Indigenous peoples and parks is a complex topic that deserves separate treatment, which is why I do not include any resources on this topic in the suggested readings. Do you know of any other videos, promotional materials, etc. that are readily available to the public?

Suggested Reading:

(Will add to this as I gain suggestions)

Finney, Carolyn. Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

Maher, Neil M. Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

O’Brien, William E. Landscapes of Exclusion: State Parks and Jim Crow in the American South (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015).

 

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