Friday, January 30, 2009

Them Old Cotton Fields Back Home

Ever since Barack Obama defeated John McCain for the presidential election in November, much has been made - and rightly so - of what Obama’s election represents in the African-American Community.
It is perfectly right and proper that all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity, acknowledge this milestone. But in the innocent telling of the story, there have been some omissions that warrant some attention.
The primary misconception, at least among the current generation, is that only African slaves picked cotton in the Deep South.
This would have been news to a lot of folks of an earlier generation. My folks, Fred and Mattie Jewel, would have been greatly surprised to know this, in fact.
Both grew up in the cotton fields of Tippah County, Mississippi. My mother, in particular, remembered those days - and not with affection.
“People talk about the good old days,’’ she once told me. “Well, they weren’t good old days to me. We worked like dogs We had to.’’
My maternal grandmother died in 1929, leaving my grandfather to raise six daughters and a cotton crop even as The Great Depression descended to knock the bottom out of the cotton market.
Decades later, my mother marveled at how they managed to survive.
Among her earliest memories was the day she went with her father to the cotton gin. My mother was 5 years old at the time, and when their mule-drawn wagon arrived with its crop, my mother proudly informed the cotton gin manager, “I picked 50 whole pounds of cotton, all by myself.’’
The manager brought her into his little office, pretended to study her small, wiry frame and pronounced, ‘’I reckon you don't weigh no more than 50 pounds yourself,’’ he said. “Well, we have a rule here that any child who picks her weight in cotton gets this.’’
He held out his hand and opened his palm to reveal a small gold bracelet.
It was the first piece of jewelry my mother ever owned.
“I couldn’t wear it from taking it off and looking at it,’’ my mother recalled more than 70 years later. “I’d hold it up to the light and just look at it and look at it.’’
Granted, the hardships my mother endured pall in comparison to the plight of the African-American slaves. But the hardships of people like my mother - poor white cotton farmers - should not be forgotten.
During the past 15 years of living first in northern California and now in Arizona, the picture of the Antebellum South I often encounter is the notion that there were just two kinds of people there - wealthy, pampered white plantation owners who devoted themselves to the pursuit of pleasure and poor Black slaves, who did all the work.
But the truth reveals that the vast majority of Southern whites were poor farmers. In fact, the slave economy of the South effectively prevented the emergence of a meaningful white middle class.
The “slave-ocracy’’ of the South oppressed the slave and poor white farmer alike, if not to the same degree.
One of the many tragedies of the Civil War was that it was those poor white farmers who paid most dearly in the wrong and failed cause of the Confederacy. Duped and incited by the small, elite and politically powerful Southern leaders, it was these poor white men who fought and died for a cause that only served to confine them to poverty.
So it is worth noting, I think, to acknowledge that the grim realities of the cotton field was not limited to the slave. Just one full generation removed from the cotton fields, I have a far more direct and personal connection to that part of American history than our 44th president.
With all due respect, the heritage of the cotton field is not reserved exclusively for African-Americans.
It is my heritage, too, and I see no good reason to give it up.


sfrazier said...

I too am a descendant of poor white farmers from Mississippi. My grandmother told stories of her father as a sharecropper and how she went to work at the age of 11 doing laundry and ironing for a wealthy family. My grandfather was never schooled past the 5th grade because he was needed to help the family eat.

gempix said...

I agree with you. The fact that there were millions of poor white farmers and sharecroppers in the south should not be forgotten. As you say, their suffering was not as great as that of the slaves, but, suffer they did. My great-grandfather, who was a farmer in Tennessee, chose to enlist in the Union army when the civil war started. I suspect that his reasoning was just as you describe. The majority of Southern whites were suppressed by the Southern elite. Once the Civil War ended, my great-grandfather moved his family to Kansas. I believe that the reason for this move was that he and his kind were not appreciated in the deep South of that era.
Interstingly, a very distant cousin of mine, whose ancestors sided with the South, insists on calling the Civil War "The War Of Northern Aggression".

Sandra said...

I cannot say it any more eloquently. I have been longing to leave a record of the lives of farming families who were not slaves, not share-croppers and not wealthy. It is their fortitude, their determination how they managed that is so inspiring. Since you have a journalism background I hope you are planning to use your skills to document these lives so that their legacy is not lost in the written history of the American story.