Them Ole Cotton Fields Back Home

The following post was written by a cousin of mine in Alabama. While his comments surprised me, as I forgot how much most upper middle class white southerners have always been disconnected from the reality, not only of slavery, but to the plight of the lowest paid workers, with little or no opportunity to escape economic enslavement, the response of his friends (some of whom are my friends, too), really amazed me:

(this post got 24 likes in the first 20 hrs after it was posted. Of course a “like” is a little harder to define than an actual comment)

“Fred”: I’m surprised at the emotions that are brought up by a simple photograph of an Alabama cotton field. Personally, I think that it may be the most powerful image of the south. To some, it symbolizes all that is evil in the perception of us by the rest of the nation. I was performing a home inspection for a black client and when her friends saw that the neighborhood bordered a cotton field, they exclaimed that they could not live in view of cotton. To the rest of us, the vast majority who have no connection whatsoever to slavery, it is more likely to remind us of the powerful impact of this commodity on our culture. It is different than any other crop in that respect. There was many a pair of shoes, coveralls and dresses provided to the rural children, once a year, by the toil of cotton farming by both black and white families. I’m proud to be from the south and to be blessed by the many things that this region offers to those who call it home, regardless of where they live.


“Callie Campbell, 11 years old, picks 75 to 125 pounds of cotton a day, and totes 50 pounds of it when sack gets full. “No, I don’t like it very much”

[Picking Cotton by Lewis W. Hine, 1916 (LOC)]



[Girls as Mill Workers by Lewis W. Hine, 1908 (LOC)]

[Delta Girl by Dorothea Lange, 1936 [cropped photo] (LOC)]


Delta Boy by Dorothea Lange, 1936 (LOC)


Five Year Old Cotton Picker by Lewis W. Hine, 1916 (LOC)

PLL: I guess it’s all in the way you perceive something!! As I passed many a cotton field while going to Auburn 48 years ago ( I know you thought I couldn’t be over 48) Right!! I always loved the seasons!! Watching it grow and be harvested!! Never did I have negative thoughts!! But I didn’t go through slavery either!!

ABT:I like that you included white families in picking cotton. My Daddy picked cotton as a child. There was a cotton field across the road from our house for many years when I was a child. I loved watching it grow & seeing the big cotton picker pick it. It amazes me to no end that many people look at the negative of things that have happened in the past instead of focusing on the positives & the future.

TJ: All about perspective: My husband picked cotton at summer’s end one year with his dad. Said it was not such a good memory. My dad picked cotton as a child but he never talks about it in a bad way- I think they were happy to be able to earn some money. My M-I-L hates the very mention of picking cotton. I remember jumping in the cotton wagons when I was a kid so I have great memories and love to see the snow white cotton fields before the large machines come through to pick it.

BR: some people want to argue about any cotton pickin thing, that happened in the past.

KM: Oh dear! I’m rolling laughing at Mrs. BR. She’s so witty!

MJ: Fred remind me to tell you my grandmother’s story about the cotton field…I remember when I was a child we were riding to Loachapoka to visit our relatives in the “country” when I was intrigued by the cotton field an actually thought it was ice cream…my uncle stopped the car and made me get out and touch it and told me some other things about that cotton field and told me that my generation was blessed that we would never have to work in a cotton field….priceless.

DR: “I never picked cotton but my mama did and my daddy did” are works in a country song that is a tale about many of us raised in the south. I abhor the thought of slavery in any manner and wish the true history of the events leading up to the civil was – slavery was only one miniscule reason for the war. When in high school, I detested history but once I didn’t “have” to study it, I fell in love with history – especially the history of the civil was years. Slavery was already on its was out before the war started. Cotton growers were fast becoming aware that it was a lot cheaper to pay a minimal wage to free workers than it was to feed, clothe, and provide medical care for not only the workers but also for their children and to provide schooling to the slaves’ children while the northern factory workers were paying minimal wages to their workers who had many deaths caused because they could not afford medical care. What infuriates me is the way every history book portrays all slave owners as mean, cruel, and sadistic. The vast majority of slave owners treated their slaves with dignity and cared for them as well as they own offspring. If a slave owner had too many slaves dying from being beaten, starved, or lack of medical care, the surrounding plantation owners would go and talk to that particular owner about his standards of care. But be that as it may, slavery was wrong, however, I never owned a slave but I was a slave – I had to pick peas, butterbeans, green beans, corn, tomatoes, and a lot of other stuff when I was young and I never got paid a dime. But I sure ate good;

MJ: Well my grandmother wasn’t a slave…I remember one day I was complaining about being “tired”…She said, honey, u don’t know tired…pick some cotton…lol…she said the “boss man” told her that if she picked so many bales he would give a heifer cow…she said she looked at that man and said, I can’t get that heifer in my suitcase…she packed up and moved up north! lol

DCW: Just think how cotton changed the economic lives of so many people and think about how many things we have thanks to cotton. And then there is that big ‘ol Boll Weevil in Enterprise, AL that changed the economic lives from cotton to peanuts…I love that story!!!

Note: I know most of these people, I am related to several. They are “good people.” I am reposting this thread, not to make fun of them, but to show the disconnect. While there are a couple of voices who seem to have a lot more nuance than the others, by and large  they see cotton as a good thing and cannot seem to grasp the “problem” some folks might have with it. As I didn’t ask anyone’s permission, I simply took the names out. MJ is the only African American and TJ’s in laws came from very modest means.

I fear this reflects a problem, especially in the 50+ set, that explains how good people, honest people, people of faith can buy into the ultra conservative “Tea Party” philosophy that leads to so much pain and suffering. If you can’t understand basic things like that Slavery was THE issue of the Civil War, like, its not about how good you treated your slaves, its about that you OWNED other humans, how can you expect to see that the poor, but black and white, as well as brown, need a hand up to be able to be everything they can be for themselves, their family, the community at large, and for our great country.

Social programs like food stamps, head start, free school lunch, needs based access to higher education and to universal healthcare as not throwing money away, they are investing in our basic future! Yet, there are still millions of Americans who see these investments as expenses that should be reduced.

Note: the photos I included show that “Conservative Values” wasnt a lot easier on poor whites. Field Work or Factory Work, it was all pretty brutal and dangerous. Being Black certainly didnt help and the connection between field work and slavery had to have been really strong the first 100 yrs after the end of the legal institution of slavery in America. And as long as we deny it was a problem and it will remain a problem today, Obama, or no Obama….


About anthonyuplandpoetwatkins born in Jackson, The United States August 04, 1959 gender male website genre Poetry, Historical Fiction influences James M. Lancaster, Brenda Black White, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Al Filreis member since March 2011 About this author edit data As one of the most public lives ever lived by a private citizen, there is little about me that isn't already available at Facebook or Shelfari and countless other places. Poet, writer, construction worker, salesman, truck driver, climber into the attics of total strangers, father and husband, and all around one of the luckiest men on the planet. My luck continued with a win in the June Goodreads Newsletter Contest! What an honor! http://anthonyuplandpoetwatkins.wordp... Additional Influences: Bob Dylan, William Faulkner, Barbara Kingsolver, Gloria Naylor, Eudora Welty
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