The cotton fields

Book pages 23-25

On my way to Florida in the winter I accidentally discovered where this fear and hostility, which blossomed into my terrifying encounter in the Northern streets, had its roots.

Meeting those still trapped behind the cotton curtain in the midst of an affluent society seemed so surreal that I immediately felt thrown back in history — smothered by the cotton whose white tyranny once shrouded all black life in the South.

When I worked in the cotton fields I soon discovered that reality looked quite different from historical pictures and caricatures I remembered of smiling, almost childishly happy cotton pickers.

The smiles in this picture were in fact the only ones I saw in the cotton plantations, when one of the pickers couldn't figure out how my camera functioned.


It took me a long time to overcome their hostility and fear of me as a white, but in the end I managed to get permission to live with some of them in return for giving them all the cotton I picked.

Though I toiled from morning to night and was aching all over, I never succeeded in picking more than four dollars worth a day. The others were more experienced and could make over six dollars a day.

We worked on a piecework basis and were paid four cents a pound. The white landowner then resold it on the market for 72 cents a pound. Even after expenses for fertilizer and machinery were subtracted, I soon began to understand how the landlord could afford to live in a big white mansion while his black pickers must live in shacks.

At quitting time the son of the landlord arrived to weigh the cotton and pay us on the spot. We were tired and exhausted and there was no joy at receiving the money, which hardly stretched to pay for the kerosene for the lamp at home in the shack, which probably was not bigger or better than the ones the slaves originally lived in.

How can these people be called free, when everything around them reminds them of the old master/slave relationship?



Copyright 2005 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.


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