Segregation in the Great Depression
The 1930s in America were years of severe economic depression resulting in abject poverty. Some fared better than others; minority populations such as African Americans and Mexican immigrants tended to struggle the most because they already faced racial discrimination and thus had to work harder than whites to achieve the same quality of life. But no one was spared in the Great Depression.
In ‘‘Marigolds,’’ the Depression is in full swing, but Lizabeth and her family have never known anything else, ‘‘The Depression that gripped the nation was no new thing to us, for the black workers of rural Maryland had always been depressed.’’ As American society was still marked by severe racial segregation in the 1930s, one can assume that most, if not all neighbors in that Maryland steel town are African American. If so, their sufferings are similar in that jobs are difficult to come by and those that can be found do not pay well. By 1932, about half of the country’s black population was out of work. Even in cities in the North (which would include Maryland), where race relations were relatively better, some whites demanded black employees be fired from their jobs so that whites could take their place.
These dire circumstances—no work and no hope of finding any in the near future—are why Lizabeth’s father’s desperation is so particularly intense and gripping. He lives in a white society in which he can work and be productive but not really participate. His family and his ability to provide for and protect them directly influence his self-identity. His consistent failure to achieve these goals causes him to break the confines of the traditional father-as-strength and collapse into tears. This in turn frightens Lizabeth.
African Americans in the 1960s
‘‘Marigolds’’ was first published in 1969, the final year of one of the most violent and transitional decades in American history. The early years saw the organization of black activist groups whose combined efforts resulted in civil rights protests and demonstrations. The first student sit-ins took place in the South, where four states—South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi— still refused to desegregate their public schools, despite a 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
In 1963, the struggle for civil rights was deemed a moral issue by President John F. Kennedy, and he beseeched Congress to turn its focus to voting rights and integration. Protests and marches across the South and in Washington, D.C., were often reacted to with violence. Race relations were strained like never before and black civil rights activists and leaders like Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr., were assassinated. One act of violence against blacks and their supporters followed another, and before the end of the decade, both President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, would be assassinated, leaving America reeling with grief and a sense of hopelessness.
By 1969, the nation was still in an upheaval over the intensity and divisiveness of racial violence as well as the controversial war being fought in Vietnam. America was a nation divided on several levels, and it was in this social and cultural climate that Collier penned her short story. Although integration had, by this time, been federally mandated across the country and other civil and voting rights legislation had passed, America was still a segregated place, especially in urban regions and the South.
Collier lived through the Great Depression and survived the civil rights movement and its accompanying violence. Her short story harkens back nearly forty years to an era that was in many ways simpler and yet ironically similar to the tumultuous times in which she was living.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Eugenie W. Collier – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.