The Man’s Cotton
“Sometimes you got to hurt something to help something. Sometimes you have to plow under one thing in order for something else to grow.”
Bloodline by Ernest Gaines is one of my favorite literary masterpieces. His work has inspired my writing and my art for over the past 32 years. I have read almost every book he has written. Gaines gave me such great insight into the life on the plantations, and about sharecropping following the reconstruction of America after the Civil War.
I once read a book by Earl Ofari Hutchinson called, “The Mugging of Black America” that discussed the colonization of Blacks during and after the reconstruction period. The evils of slavery followed them back to the land they were set free on. They became sharecroppers. The Jim Crow laws sanctioned the arrest and injustices of many Blacks causing them to work off debts, offenses, and incarceration for trumped up charges. This colonization created a systematic recycling of poverty down South. Sharecropping was a fancy name for the new plantation life.
Many Blacks found themselves generation after generation inheriting the hatred, discrimination, and disenfranchisement in American life. The vulnerability of Blacks being set free from slavery without any assistance or formal organized national help in recovery, created century long problems. Many organized efforts were not funded or sustained to be effective.
The reconstruction of America was the rebuilding of White wealth. The “40 Acres and a Mule” idea first presented by General Sherman was never fulfilled by the US government in totality. Sherman created this proposal for Blacks to receive land and a mule in Georgia after his victorious march. There was great opposition. Also the change in presidency following Lincoln’s assassination, further the delay of true reconstruction. Andrew Johnson did not agree with Lincoln’s position on equality and a united states. His policy destroyed any attempt at disassembling racism. There was great resistance to giving a better life than slavery to Blacks. There were over 44,000+ that did receive land assistance. However many of these farmers’ land was taken away, or lost through the system.
The Jim Crow laws of 1876 were designed to keep Blacks behind the starting line in America’s economy. Land ownership worldwide has always equaled power. The ownership of land for Blacks, if the contract for land had been fulfilled, would have empowered the Black community. The state of Black America today in crisis might look a lot different if true provision and equality had been put in place.
Sharecroppers across America White, Native American, and Black have diverse stories of their conditions on the new plantation. Whites, Blacks, and Native Americans who were poor during the reconstruction experienced the despair of poverty from this lifestyle. For Blacks and Native Americans the degrees of injustice was more deeply felt and destructive. Many Black families struggled for education, good health care, food, and shelter. The sharecropping lifestyle was hard work with very little pay. For many they owed the landlords great debts that were rigged to keep them from ever paying them off. It was set up for a new system of slavery. Keeping constant alcohol, drugs, and crime in Black communities ensured the returning of guaranteed workers. Many men would get arrested and have to pay off their debt by working more years on the land. The chain gangs that existed during this time were geared toward keeping warm bodies working the land also.
The economy in America today still reflects the struggle of having enough to pay off your bills and live comfortably. The modern-day sharecroppers sitting in corporate America, sometimes behind cubicles are trying to make life work with just enough to get by, paycheck to paycheck. Our fields have become the stone, brick, and steel buildings of prosperity of the wealthy, and rich in America.
The lifestyle of sharecropping was engraved in poverty. It made sure those victimized by the plantation would stay on the plantation. Many had to escape late at night to avoid retaliation from land owners. The land owners kept false books on the tenants to ensure that the records showed a constant unbalanced state of payment. A state of financial bondage that was very difficult to break free from. In the meanwhile, Blacks were met with lynching, murders, killings, and racism throughout the South. It was very hard life.
I honor those who survived to live and tell the truth about the great reconstruction’s effects on the Black family. There was no great reward or privileges in sharecropping. You and your children worked the earth for almost nothing. The Mississippi Delta was the King of cotton during slavery. Following slavery it still became key in cotton production. It also became a brutal place for Blacks to live and die. The White man’s cotton has been the Black man’s burden.
On our blog we will post more about the lifestyle of sharecropping in America. It was not that long ago that it was key factor of labor for Blacks in America. The effects of it can still be seen in the American landscape. The effects it had on the generations before and the ones to come who will be birthed from that poverty and racism on the new plantations. Recently the Black farmers won the lawsuit against America for 1.15 billion dollars for discrimination by the US Department of Agriculture. They still have not been paid what is due. When America will justice be served? http://www.Blacksfarmers.org/news.html
I have created works of art from old photos of Black life and Black history. I will always paint sharecroppers and the lynchings that took place throughout the land. I hope to create art that conveys the stories about the Black hands that dug into the earth and looked to the skies for mercy. Their story is a part of my story. Their voice in my art… is my passion.
The white fields of cotton have reaped the souls of Black men and Black women. It is through God’s grace that they walked, ran, leaped, and flew away. Some left in wooden boxes. And there are those who left who became historical legends in the Black community. We are because of all, all, all of them….
Also an Interview with Gaines on “A Lesson Before Dying”