Enough to Live On

Music in Paint: Jacksonville, Florida Negro Federal Gallery, circa 1935 Photo from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs
Music in Paint: Jacksonville, Florida Negro Federal Gallery, circa 1935
Photo from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs

by Alex Symington…….

I recently watched a first-rate documentary about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Crash of ’29 and the inception and successful creation of the Works Progress Administration, better know as the WPA. “Enough To Live On: The Arts of the WPA” written, directed and narrated by Michael Maglaras and partner Terri Templeton is a lovingly crafted, historically significant work of art in its own right. Most Americans are aware of the ambitious effort by our federal government to employ Americans during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, however “Enough to Live On” takes us a bit further into the role art played in our recovery as a nation and makes clear the essential nature of art for a society/culture to maintain intellectual curiosity and a political vibrancy. Suffering staggering unemployment with a national population a little more than a third of what it is today and with 1300 bank failures by 1931 and more failing every day, the future was decidedly bleak.

President Herbert Hoover preceded FDR and was in office when the crash of ‘29 occurred and was pitifully uninspiring and ineffective in handling the crisis. Under Hoover’s watch the tragic “Bonus Army” debacle took place in the spring and summer of 1932. 43,000 souls marched on Washington, D.C., 17,000 World War I veterans, their families, and affiliated groups demanded the payments promised them at the end of the war. “Payment” for their service came in the form of Hoover sending in Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur commanding infantry and cavalry supported by six tanks and violently disbanding the marchers, burning their “tent city” and sending them packing with nothing to show for their trouble. Two veterans were shot and killed by the nation they had fought to protect.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated incumbent Hoover in 1932. FDR and his administration felt strongly the responsibility to get people back to work as quickly as humanly possible to not only provide much needed income for American families for food and shelter, but also to prevent the kind of violence and that comes on the heels of starvation and frustration with government.

FDR tasked his trusted advisor, Harry Hopkins to create a federally funded program to get people back to work and Hopkins’ creation was the WPA. Jobs to replant trees in national parks and construction of federal roadways and buildings were a sensible start on the road to recovery. A much smaller element of the WPA was the “Federal Project Number One” with a very small percentage of the overall WPA budget dedicated to employing artists, musicians, writers and actors. This drive to include art and artists in the WPA was thanks in great part to Elinor Roosevelt, the influential powerhouse and wife of FDR.

So much is packed into this film! It informs and enlightens, but at the same time raises many questions relevant to our society today. Shouldn’t we address the glaring failure of unregulated private industry to safeguard the economy to avoid crashing it into a brick wall ala 1929? Shouldn’t our veterans be rewarded for their sacrifice and not be allowed to suffer when they return home? Shouldn’t we ruminate on and discuss the importance of art and how it separates thriving civilized societies from the dull unimaginative dystopian existence?

Shouldn’t we acknowledge the glorious contributions of black artists to the WPA and, in spite of systemic repression, how the African American artist’s work is entwined and inseparable with America’s great art, music and theater as a whole? To address that question, “Enough To Live On: The Arts of The WPA” began with African American poet, Langston Hughes’ reading his poem that goes directly to the heart of being black in America:

“I, TOO”

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

Langston Hughes worked as a busboy at the Wardman Park hotel in Washington, D. C. and as the film maker points out, Hughes had the “temerity” to leave his poems next to well known and successful poet, Vachel Lindsay’s breakfast plate. Lindsay was duly impressed and Hughes went on to greatness and became a contributor in the newly formed Federal Writer’s Project, one of the four artistic off-shoots of the WPA.

Painter and muralist, Aaron Douglas of “Harlem Renaissance” fame painted his masterpiece “Aspects of Negro Life” and several other paintings and murals while employed by the WPA. “Aspects…” was commissioned to be shown in the New York Public Library. Douglas artistically brought to America’s attention a different perspective on the history of being black in America. “Aspects of Negro Life” is four large panels depicting African beginnings, life in the American South and the exclusively Americentric black music scene. Douglas and others of the “Harlem Renaissance” made it their mission to educate America and reveal the heretofore unknown artistic contributions of African American artists and the participation and importance of African Americans to the history of the United States. Little was known on the subject of “Black History” before this time. As actor, Morgan Freeman emphatically remarked, “There is no “Black History”, there is only American History” and as such all participants should be acknowledged.

The crushing poverty created by a shameless, rapacious Wall Street did not discriminate. Both Black and White America were profoundly hurt, however conventionally the African American was the first fired and last hired, feeling that hurt just that much more. The WPA was more than ambitious and more than successful in that it not only employed Americans in dire straits it created an environment for American art and artists to thrive. “Enough To Live On” is a wonderful celebration of America, her people and her possibilities.

Note: “Enough To Live On: The Arts of The WPA” is available on Amazon.

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12 thoughts on “Enough to Live On

  1. Footnote: It may also interest my Key West friends to know the WPA was responsible for rescuing our fair island city. The Florida Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) was confounded by the financial problems of Key West and there was talk of relocating Key Westers to Tampa and razing the island for lack of means to live by. Eighty percent unemployment was probably one of the worst rates in the entire country. In 1934 The Relief Administration decided to rescue the city and the people of Key West by bringing a new, non-manufacturing means of livelihood to Key West, namely, the tourist business. Julius Stone, FERA administrator wrote, “The natural assets of the city — its delightful, equable climate, its historical background and indigenous architecture, its intangible charm, the beauty of the tropical foliage, to mention but a few — seem to justify the experiment.” Thank you FDR and The New Deal. Thank you WPA and Julius Stone. Think of this as you enjoy the Fantasy Fest Parade and this wacky weekend in paradise!


  2. I started to respond to Mr. Symington last article on socialism, but declined on the basis that any corrective prose I offered would be duly ignored and chastised by the neo-liberal author and his acolytes. But this latest offering by Professor Symington and his revisionist history cannot go unheeded.

    Let’s begin by noting that FDR was a racist and anti-Semite. In 1920 while on the board at Harvard, he openly campaigned for and achieved, quotas for the admittance of Jews. While president, he did nothing to desegregate the military, eliminate the poll tax, or even to pass anti-lynching legislation. Also, the new social security system excluded jobs that were traditionally held by Black Americans, thus eliminating them from the program. In The New Deal, so revered by Prof. Symington, Black Americans were systematically excluded from jobs, and if they were fortunate enough to get a job, were paid at a lower rate than their white counterpart. Some 500,000 Black Americans lost their jobs as they were unable to meet the minimum wage dictum imposed by the New Deal.

    FDR, “man of the people” was a patrician who attended Grote and Harvard. He identified with the class of people we now call the 1%, and his ideology and loyalty was firmly planted in the aristocracy. His first response after taking office was to help the banks.

    The impetus of the New Deal was to stave off the threat of revolution; altruism played no part in the inspiration of the program(s). The communist and socialist parties were very popular and the ruling class truly feared that an uprising would displace their preferred occupancy in the system they had built for themselves.
    In actuality, the benefits of the New Deal were a minimal exercise in social control, and mitigated to the lowest result that executed the elites plan of muting the voices of discontent. In fact, after FDR was re-elected to his second term, 400,000 people were immediately laid off and tossed back on the employment rolls. Even at the apex of the programs, only about 1/3 of the unemployed were provided jobs, and at such low wages that strikes were rampant. FDR’s, “man of the people” response? Why to call out the National Guard for repression. When local police would shoot down the hapless strikers, FDR repeatedly ignored calls for intervention.

    The New Deal, was a shell of what it could have been. But then again, it was never supposed to be a panacea for those unfortunate souls left destitute by the rapacious dictum’s of the rich. Like everything else, the depression was a calculated power and wealth grab, and the New Deal was an exercise in social control and a ramp up for war production. As for FDR, he has been christened in the same mythology of “great men” as Lincoln, Washington, Ford, Rockefeller, Kennedy, and Reagan, whose true history is that of tyranny and murder, and stooge/puppet for those that really pull the strings of power.

    Mr. Symington, an educated man such as yourself, is better than this.

    1. Keysbum, Yes, FDR was prejudiced in many ways. And, oh, yeah, Jefferson owned slaves, etc. But each man, for his time in history, was progressive. If either one of them lived today, they’d be far out on the left. It is very rare for anyone to completely escape the time they live in, so your comment in this sense is not all that relevant. And, say what you want about the New Deal, and regardless of its motivation, it was a dynamic new concept. Remember, for many well to do people in the pre-Depression capitalist world, poverty was simply a natural part of the eco-system. Hoover and his crowd believed that, and they are still around today (Cruz, even Ryan). Look, all governments have repressive qualities. FDR was no saint, but he was not the devil either. ciao, PCM

        1. Mr. Wankajam, I’ll vote for her, but only because the other side is horrifying. As a good progressive I’d prefer Bernie, or, even better, something like Podemos in Spain. I’ll post something about them soon. ciao, PCM

      1. a man of his time?? are you serious? you and FDR were on the planet in the same year! you make it sound like he was from the antebellum south! you really need to put down the grade school history books and examine the new deal for what it was; social control, business consolidation, and, as usual, a money maker for his class. in no way was FDR a champion of the people and the pernicious policies of the new deal prove it. i will leave it to you to research it for yourself.

        1. Dear keysbum,

          That logic, or lack of it, would make me a contemporary of Adolf Hitler.
          Who knew?
          And, both you and I, using the same criteria, are contemporaries of various serial killers.
          You’re such a funny man.

          sincerely, pip

          1. of course, “pip,” the contextual reference of my comment sailed right over your head. i would expect nothing less.

            oh, speaking of heads, when I made the comment that you should shake the sand out of your hair, it was before I saw your profile picture clearly….. sorry.

            get your buddy shaquille to explain the time reference to you. that is, after he gets Mr. Grapel to explain it to him.

            sincerely, keys

  3. Alex, Just as a footnote to your footnote, almost all the mahogany trees planted downtown were done so by the WPA, as well as the old Post Office. With regard to government funding of art, it is good in the sense that much really good art, art that blazes new trails, etc., is not always commercial and can get some impetus from a non commercial source like government. The pitfall is to not let government be too active in this sense because many times it has a political message it wants to deliver. Many totalitarian governments have used art in this way. For the most part, government involvement is good … to a certain extent. Thanks for another good article, I look forward to your stuff. ciao, Jerome

  4. Thank you, Alex. This is beautifully done.

    When enabled by goodwill
    a government can cohere society
    to the benefit of every member,
    but only if those members
    are not consumed by divisive hate
    as many members currently are.

    A WPA today could repair the infrastructure,
    which would pay for itself through growth,
    [as did the original WPA].

    This, if not blocked by hateful ignorance
    and ideological demagoguery
    as per the traitorous Norquist Tea Party
    and an un-American portion of the media
    which profits from spreading paranoia.

    We lack truth. We lack justice.
    And especially – We lack goodwill.

    Let alone, do we have the courage to recognize our bigotry!

    Note: I’m confident the intent of Grover and his followers
    is not to damage our nation, but that Is their end result.
    Hence, they Are traitors to our national interest. Also,
    may of his ‘followers’ are indeed spreading hate.

    [all IMO] :hmm: pip

    Note: I of course saw the negative screed by keysbum.
    realizing something he didn’t think to consider. Maybe some, or even all, of the things he said about the Roosevelts and their wealthy contemporaries is true. Never-the-less it would be a narrow-minded “rewriting of history” to delete all of the good they did, especially the New Deal. If only the new billionaire class were so caring of their fellow man.

  5. Alex,

    I love your essay. Beautifully written, magnificently informative. Outstanding work of art.

    Veterans were charged and killed by their own kind, at the order of their commander-in-chief, under the hand of a west point graduate.

    As you know, our theater company over the last 45 years has concentrated upon the artistic creations of African-American writers, actors/actresses & poets. A plethora of wisdom and inspiration.

    I sincerely appreciate your extraordinary presentation. Thank you.

    Blessings & Respect

  6. Keysbum, Actually, I think he died just before I was born. And, from a sociological point of view, much has changed in America since his time on this Earth. Now, one thing I do remember is segregation. I was sure on the planet for that. And Keysbum, much of what you say cannot be cast aside, but the idea was not to destroy the capitalist system but to save it, which meant a more benign way of seeing all of society. If capitalism is to work at all, the more people that can do well under it is how it functions the best. Was FDR a knight in shining armor? Of course not, but he did move humanity forward some with his work. ciao, PCM

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