Sharecropping
or debt slavery?


Book pages 86-89



Later I visited this tenant farmer living close by. Both he and his wife were 78 years old and should have stopped working years ago. But he said to me: "I have to work until I drop dead in the fields. Last year my wife got heart trouble so now I must do the work by myself."

Twice a year he walked to the local store to buy a bit of flour and a little sugar. That's all he ever bought. I asked what they got to eat for breakfast. He answered: "A glass of tea and a little turnip greens." What then for lunch, I asked. "Just turnip greens," he answered. – And what then for supper? "Mostly turnip greens" was the reply.

My attempts to find out about conditions for these sharecroppers ran into an almost impenetrable wall of fear and intimidation. I had imagined that this fear was entirely historically conditioned until one night after a visit to such a sharecropper, on my 10-mile walk down a dead end road to my shack, I was suddenly "ambushed" by a pickup truck with headlights turned on me and guns sticking out. I managed to talk my way out of this situation, but little by little I realized that such intimidation was deeply rooted in the violent system of peonage, which traditionally has prevented sharecroppers and farm workers from fleeing their "debt" by the use of beatings, jailings, and murder.

During World War II (in which the U.S.A. was hailed as the Land of Liberty) the U.S. Justice Department admitted that "there are more Negroes held by these debt slavers than were actually owned as slaves before the Civil War."

Yet the Justice Department did nothing to prosecute these slave owners, who even traded and sold the peons to each other. Although there were an increasing number of peonage cases in the 1970's, it is only a few that end up in court; and only the most cruel, such as a case in 1980 where a planter chained his workers to prevent their escape, reach the press (and the American public).

The more I began to penetrate this undercurrent of dread and terror, the more I began to feel that the first part of this century has had a far more violent influence on the black psyche than the probably more paternalistic antebellum slavery.

I began to feel poles apart from the common white ignorance which seems forever unable to understand why their own white ancestors could "make it" in a short time while the blacks in 100 years of "freedom" had been "incapable of making it."

This banker, who is a recent beneficiary of this violent ignorance, had unknowingly fit one more piece for me into the pattern of hunger and dread I saw in the rural underclass.

In most places in the Western world the economic system is so complicated that its inner dynamics are hard to grasp. But in a few places the system is so simplified in its process of exploitation that it is easy to see where, for instance, this banker's mink fur is coming from.

The only thing the bank man could not buy for money was real happiness. I saw again and again that the upper class is compelled to substitute whiskey and tranquilizers for happiness.

 

Copyright 2005 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.

 

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