There is no particular narrative accompanying Burt Glinn's pictures of the welcoming parade held in 1951 to honor General Douglas MacArthur in New York. It is easy to learn online that the event was one of the major ticker tape parades of the time honoring a returning national hero. The selection of pictures showcased on the website of a prominent photo agency reproduces it in line with documentary portrayals of patriotic displays of the time. There is one picture, however, which breaks through the boundaries of this series. Who are these people? Why were they there and what did they aim to achieve? The questions may not arise in this particular order, but there is one thing so obvious that it immediately stands out: Where are the men?
In order to decipher the truth of the photograph, I wanted to know the answers, beginning with the very first question: Who were these people? As I began my research, I was hoping to find something which would bring me closer to the persons depicted. However, I was unable to find many details in articles or other online sources and I had no opportunity to search locally, which inspired in me a more contextualized way of thinking. I tried to find out more about possible situations and started focusing my questions more actively on the circumstances rather than the persons: What was actually there?
Thus, I searched (not in this particular order) for information regarding time period, place, ticker tape parades, places, politicians, military figures, local committees, personalities, groups, photographers, photographic archives, immigration, articles on events and population, wars, military draft, general conscription, clothes, hairstyles, family models, colonies, minorities, invisibility, oral history, industrial development, women's emancipation and the civil rights movement.
There are always many layers to a picture, I believe, and a picture has a right to all of them, or at least to as many as possible. Beyond the legend of a photograph which defines the surface and thus the context, behind the initial appearances one notices at the first glance, there are always further layers to be explored. Summing them all up, we investigate our gaze by asking: What do we see?
At the first glance I see three women marching with banners and a message. There is the one in the middle, somewhat behind the two figures in front, with a pearl necklace and a popular hairstyle of the fifties immediately capturing my attention: my first impression of her is that she looks sort of fashionable. At the second glance I notice three more women, two of them holding flags, the foremost woman wearing a headscarf – and am I seeing this right? with a men's coat on? – is not fully captured in the image. At the end I notice the left hand of the seventh one, possibly an elderly, heavy set woman, but only a couple of days later will I pay attention to her. I've seen the picture so often now that I am almost sure: if I only could see this last woman I would be significantly closer to knowing who these women are and why were they there.
Thus, I see seven women in the picture marching with banners, flags, a coat and a message, the logical formula of which can be described as follows:
IF We are Americans
AND The Gypsies are loyal Americans
THEN We, the (American) Gypsies are loyal Americans.
There is a strong self-assertion and the simultaneous appearance of past and present in these first two sentences, I feel. How to interpret them, and why is a single sentence, possibly the third one, not enough?
We are Americans affirms that we are in the right place and we have the right to be there. I cannot stop thinking of Kilomba's spatial politics, according to which We are Americans means being placed not outside but inside the Nation. It also might be an answer to the questioning gaze people are often confronted with when they are considered »foreigners«.
The Gypsies are loyal Americans involves for me the possibility of all those decades of invisibility during which mainstream society did not see, or even notice, Roma as loyal citizens – and generally as citizens.
The words in the sentences appear to have been written in two different colors, probably red and blue. If we read the ones written in the same color together, then the message comes out as follows:
The loyal Americans and We are Gypsies are Americans.
Two identities appear in parallel here, in a relationship where the right to citizenship is accentuated and needs to show.
Yet the figures of the women look differently present in the picture. Their right to be there was granted by the men, both white and non-white, albeit for different reasons. The permitting authorities were surely the organizers and city celebrities marching ahead in one of the pictures in the series, the police standing in the background behind the women securing the fence and, figuratively, the coat itself worn by one of the women in the picture.
From the perspective of a mainstream American of this period, the popular ticker tape parades were a great show, a time to demonstrate patriotic fervor. There was thus a huge event to be organized for a homecoming military hero, with various groups performing. In addition to baton twirling and marching bands, there were, according to this particular series of pictures, majorettes, Native Americans in clothes imitating tradition and this group of women appearing as participants of the show. And then we see a message within this framework more than likely not planned as part of the show, or at least not by the organizers: a message addressed to the crowd, the returning general himself and last but not least to all of them and us who have seen it.
As the face of the woman who is wearing that coat was not fully captured, we only see her figure, and one tends to overlook the whole figure, including the clothing. At first glance I was not sure – indeed, I am not sure even now – what kind of coat it was, but because of the shape and the probable location of the buttonhole, it always reminded me of a men's jacket: in the context of the flags and the parade for a returning military figure, sometimes I even thought it was a uniform.
However, seen as a men's coat, it might be one of the most important components of the picture, as it is itself the living presence of the men: of a husband, a son, a father or a brother who – and at this point without knowing the exact details, there could be more alternatives – either served in the army himself, or who thought that going along with the country's rules and laws would allow one to be seen, to be regarded as a citizen.
The question remains, however, and a new question arises: where are the men and why does this particular woman wear a men's coat? Since it is obviously not cold – the other women are not wearing similar items – I would venture to say that the coat must have a symbolic meaning. It may enable its owner (who was hindered from participating in the march for some reason) to be seen, or perhaps enables someone's efforts and theories to be represented in that historic moment.
Since the woman is presumably wearing that coat in public deliberately, she must have been very aware of its presence (as she holds it with her hands) and the other women do not pay the coat any undue attention, its symbolic statement seems to be understood by all. The photographer, however, was primarily focused on the writing on the writing on the hand held signs and captured this message only in the background.
I think the women, or at least one of them, must have been a public figure of the time in the community, or they were at least related to some public figure. Various sources (both images and texts) of that time mention Steve Kaslov or Lolya, a local representative of the Roma in New York during the 1930s. Kaslov promoted Americanization and welfare rights, he was the president of a Roma Association (a not-for-profit-organization in New Jersey), he had contact with Roma and non-Roma and influenced the communities. His wife, Pupa, is also alluded to as a trustee of the above-mentioned organization and depicted in several photographs. As Steve Kaslov was a public figure and had a certain public influence, I believe the photograph has to do with the Americanization efforts that he represented.
I do not say that the coat belonged to him: Kaslov died two years before the photograph was taken and I seriously doubt anyone would have worn the jacket of a dead man. It was more likely to belong to a living person who had been drafted and served in the military. But Kaslov's political and social program and the parallel tendencies in New York of that time – such as the incipient African American Civil Rights Movement – may have led the way and enabled this message.
Thus, the protagonists of the image were granted the right to appear in public and they lived with it and the attention they were given. These women stood up for themselves and their families, positioning themselves in the political climate of the time, claiming equality and – today also in Azoulay's sense – citizenship. Why are they still there, I ask myself, without their contribution to the history of the civil rights movement – then or now – being noticed?