A Sharecropper’s Story
I suppose if I really think about it, the forces and circumstances of my life, my father’s life, my grandfather’s life and so on, were set in motion long before we were born. Of course I’m talking about the “S” word. No Black man or woman in America can have a meaningful discussion about the forces that have shaped his or her life without acknowledging the forced servitude of our forefathers.
Some of my middle class Black friends have advised me to “Let it go Jimmy. That’s history. We need to forget about it and move on with our lives.” I strongly disagree. Slavery has had a greater impact on Black folks than the Holocaust has had on the Jews. And no one would ever entertain the idea of telling the Jews to forget about the Holocaust; certainly not a Jew. And the Jews use it as an excuse to obtain a multitude of benefits in America and around the globe: like tax abatements, entitlements and reparations; none of which we have had the benefit of. Perhaps most importantly, the Jews have been successful in using the Holocaust as the foundation of their unification. Nothing solidifies a group of people more than suffering at the hands of a common enemy.
Naturally I respect the sensitivity of the Jewish issue. But the question we should ask ourselves is why their issue is so much more important than ours. From an objective standpoint, it is indisputable that several hundred years of slavery has had a much more severe impact on the American Black population than a few years of Hitler’s Holocaust. Generations of Black men and women were born into and died out of slavery. Therefore, the very essence of the Black man’s mind has been affected. The Holocaust, in contrast, did nothing to strip the Jews of their cultural identity, self concept and belief systems. It was merely a brief, albeit tragic interruption in the Jewish program which has enabled them to dominate world politics, entertainment, and economics.
Any honest economist will admit that slavery was America’s first and perhaps only economic engine. Indeed, it was so vital to America’s economic growth and stability that the Framers of the Constitution sanctioned it as a way of life – as one of those inalienable rights. In particular, the white man acknowledged that his ability to secure the “Blessings of Liberty” arose out of his ability to exploit the Black man for his labor. Put simply, the white man could not be rich unless he could force the Black man to work for free. In 1865, nearly 100 years after the Constitution was penned, the Thirteenth Amendment declared that the institution of slavery was illegal, but it did nothing to abolish it. The Amendment was passed primarily for two reasons. First, Abraham Lincoln recognized that freeing the slaves would dismantle the Confederate’s economic base. Second, President Lincoln understood that white folks were in full control over the wealth producing assets of this country. Thus, even if the slaves were released from physical bondage, they would not be able to garner the resources necessary to become economically independent – and they would continue to be relegated to laboring under slave like conditions. In other words, what good is freedom without a plot of land to grow food, and at least one cow for milk? After the Thirteenth Amendment, plantation owners circumvented, or got around the law by changing the name of slavery to sharecropping. This name change enabled whites to continue the exploitation of Blacks within the boundaries of the law. However the sinfulness of murder does not change if you call it extermination. Likewise, the wickedness of slavery does not change if you call it sharecropping.
American white folks held steadfastly to the belief that Blacks were inherently or biologically inferior to whites. And until 1954, this ridiculous belief was fully endorsed by the system. In that year the Supreme Court of the United States, through Brown v. Board of Education, decided that the practice of “separate but equal” promotes racial superiority and must be eliminated. In my opinion, integration is okay, but it is not a prerequisite for equality. Nonetheless, integration is what many Black folks cried out for. We wanted to be loved by white folks. Many of us still do. Arguably, the most important development in American race relations came through the Voting Rights Act of 1965… Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that slavery wasn’t that long ago. And it continues to have a profound effect on every aspect of American life.
My connection to slavery is through my Great Grandfather, Daddy George. Daddy George was my Great Grandfather on my father’s mother’s side. (I don’t know any of my Korean relatives. They disowned my mother for marrying a Black man.) He had a tremendous influence on the…
Sorry, my last pencil broke and I had to wait for the corrections officer to let me use the sharpener.
Okay, as I was saying, he had a tremendous influence on the psychological profile of the Garner family because he taught my grandmother. In turn, my grandmother was my father’s first teacher and the nucleus of our family until the day she passed. Although I didn’t really get to know Daddy George before he passed, I would like to share a few of the memories I have about him.
When I was a small child, my father would pack up our little family about once a month to visit Daddy George and Big Ma. They lived in an A-frame house on the lower south side of town. Rather than paint, someone nailed ordinary roofing shingles to the exterior walls of the home. This arrangement gave the house a sort of rickety makeshift appearance. The interior was furnished with old, but well kept furniture. There was always that peculiar odor associated with older people. My mom would tell me, “Don’t say anything about the smell, you get used to it.” And she was right.
Even though technology had retired coal furnaces years before we began visiting, Daddy George refused to upgrade to a forced air furnace.
“I don’t need no new furnace.” He would admonish my father in a heavy southern drawl, “I’m gone keep that there furnace till I can’t git down them steps to feed it coal. That there furnace works awful good.” Then directing his attention to Big Ma, he would solicit her approval. “Don’t it work good Myrtle?”
“Lord knows that furnace been keepin us nice and warm for many’a cold nights.” And then she would smile a very pleasant smile and fix her bangs in a girlish sort of way. It was apparent that she was proud of her husband’s intelligence and pragmatism. He would be looking at my father with an “I told you so” expression.
And he was right. The coal furnace worked just as good as a forced air furnace; perhaps even better. The only drawback was the need to feed it coal, and the fact that it deposited a thin layer of soot throughout the house.
Daddy George and Big Ma were a fine couple. The only time I ever saw them disagree was when Daddy George got drunk. He drank corn liquor and homemade wine. He bought the corn liquor from a bootlegger a few block down the street. He made the wine in plastic jugs he kept in the basement.
“Daddy George,” She would pout. “You done gone and got drunk in front of the children.”
“Woman, I done told you bout scoldin me in front of these kids! I’m a grown man! And I know how to handle myself around my kids. Now if you don’t have nothin good to say, you better git from round here.”
IF I CLOSE MY EYES, I can see him sitting in a big brown leather recliner. He’s smoking a fat cigar and watching the news. He was a good looking old man with skin like rich coffee with cream. He kept a clean shaven face and a bald head. His eyes, which were once dark brown, had turned bluish-grey and always looked sad and watery – as if he were continuously longing for a lost dream. His face was a little droopy but healthy. And he was quick witted and full of zest. He had a gentle low pitched voice that was soothing to the ear. And a thousand facial expressions that were as important to his stories as the words he spoke. He had big wrinkled hands and knuckles that looked like they had worked two lifetimes of hard labor.
On our visits he’d have on dress slacks and a freshly starched white shirt. Although I can’t recall him ever leaving the house, except maybe once, he kept his fedora on the corner of the end table, next to a black rotary phone, as if he’d either just returned or was about to depart. If anyone questioned his correctness about any topic, he would always call on Big Ma for backup. “Myrtle,” he would call out. “Tell this here fool I know what I’m talkin bout.”
“That’s right,” She would say in a matter of factly tone. “Daddy Georg wouldn’t speak on nothin he didn’t know bout.”
Otherwise, he was constantly calling on Big Ma to, “Get the phone; bring me my newspaper; change the TV; where’s my supper…”
Unlike modern day women, Big Ma was always absolutely delighted to serve her husband. She would literally spring to her feet with the enthusiasm of a young woman in love.
THEIR LIVING ROOM WAS A SMALL overstuffed rectangle. Like most homes in their neighborhood, furniture covered every wall. If I sat in Daddy George’s recliner, which was caddy cornered in the back left corner of the room, I could see an end table to my right, followed by a love seat covered in lime green fabric with evergreen designs embroidered into it. To my left was a sofa covered in the same fabric, followed by a plastic replica of a tropical tree, which covered the corner of the room. Then there was an old fashion stereo, the kind with the phonograph concealed beneath a hidden door, followed by a floor model television. It stood on four six inch legs and faced directly toward Daddy George’s recliner. A living room table sat in front of the sofa. A large plastic star with a picture of a blue eyed Jesus in its center hung on the wall. Its satellites were smaller stars with candle holders in their center. The other notable item was a black and white photograph of Daddy George and Big Ma. It was perched on the television. He was dressed like a mobster in a dark heavy wool suit with a smart fedora. His shoes were wingtips and he sported a neat mustache. She wore a light colored cotton dress with ruffles around the collar and sleeves. It reached a few inches below her knees and exposed dark stockings. They seemed thick, like she wore socks beneath them. Her feet were tucked into a pair of low rising boots with short heals. Her waistline was thin and her curvy figure could not be concealed by the dress. Her hair was long, black and silky. I think she must have been mixed with Native American or something. This picture was his gateway into his past. I would sit on the sofa next to his recliner. My feet barely reached the edge of the seat. He would light up a long fat cigar and start talking in his melodic voice about how beautiful Big Ma was. “Myrtle sho was fine,” He would start. “And I wasn’t no less handsome. Ain’t that right?”
“Yes Sir, Big Ma sho was fine and you sho was handsome.” I would say playfully, mimicking his southern drawl.
“I remember when I was a little boy like you.” He would say, turning his body toward me and crossing his legs like a gentleman.
“You were little like me?” And I would scoot as close to him as I could.
“I sho was, it was a long time ago, a real long time ago, but I was little just like you. My daddy was a sharecropper way down in Mississippi.”
“What’s a sharecropper?” I would ask playfully.
“A sharecropper is someone who works on a plantation fo a white man, ceptin he can’t up and quit when he gits ready.”
Big Ma would emerge from the kitchen wiping her hands on a checkered apron and say, “Well I declare! Daddy George, don’t you go scarin that boy with all them stories bout the big bad white-man. Lot’s a things done changed since you was a little boy.”
“Woman, ain’t nothin changed round here and ain’t nothin changed in Mississippi! Now I done told you to git from round here if you ain’t tryin to be helpful.”
“Anyway,” He continued. “A sharecropper is someone who works on a plantation fo the white-man, ceptin he can’t up an quit when he gets ready.”
“What’s a plantation?”
“A plantation’s like a great big farm.”
“Oh yea, we had… I mean they had cows, chickens, pigs, oxen, donkeys, even some horses.”
“Why couldn’t you quit?”
“Ya couldn’t quit cause you was always owin the white-man a whole lotta money. And it was against the law to quit lessen you paid him first. But would ya please hold on to your questions till I finish my story. At this rate we might be here till supper time.”
“Yes sir.” And I would rub my hands together in anticipation.
“Good. Now my daddy started takin me out in them fields with him…”
“Cotton fields. Fields far and wide as you could see in every direction. Now he started takin me out in them fields as soon as I started walkin. He says he was gettin me ready to be a good worker for the masser.”
“That’s what we called the plantation owners back then; the Masser… MmmHmm, sho did. Now we did all different sorts of work on that plantation, but mostly I remember we picked cotton. I’ll never foget the burnin blisters on my hands and feet and the scorchin hot summer days. You see, we worked from cane-to-can’t. That means we was out in them fields from the time you cane see to the time ya can’t see. Anyway, older I got, you see, I started noticing that my daddy…well, my family was po. I mean dirt po! And it was sorta confusin cause I knowed my daddy was a hard workin man. Matter fact, I knowed it cause most of the time he was working, I was workin right along side his knee. Now I ain’t gone tell no tales, we was all eatin real good every night.”
“What were you eating?”
“Let’s see…we was eatin chittlins, cracklin bread, collards and mustards, hog mogs; all real food too, not like this northern garbage ya’ll been eatin. Now like I was sayin, we was po. We lived in a two room shanty and I ain’t never even seen a new pair of shoes, let alone owned a pair. That’s why (and he would point to his dress shoes, which were next to his feet) I likes to keep me some nice new shoes. Anyway, when I got big enough, mmmm, I say bout ten or eleven, my daddy says to me, (boy, it’s about time you started earnin yo keep round here, you’se been eatin like you’se a grown man, so ya may as well start workin like one. Besides, masser done told me it’s time you get to workin.) And daddy sho was right, I had been eatin real good, but far as I knew, I had already been working fo my daddy, so workin for the masser didn’t seem like no problem to me. And I was glad to be able to earn my keep cause daddy already learned me that a man’s gotta earn his keep to be a man. Well I started workin the same day, but this time things was a whole lot different than they was when daddy carried me to work. Mainly cause I wasn’t workin next to daddy. Can you believe the masser done went and put me in a whole nother part of the plantation? But I was still workin from cane-to-can’t. And it might’a just been inside my head, but the work sho seemed a lot harder since the masser took me away from my daddy. You know what I mean to say; everything seems so much harder when the white man says you gotta do it. Anyway, after a few summers of cookin my body in the scorchin sun like a piece of bacon, and never havin no money or nothin to sho for my work, ceptin somethin to eat, I figured workin in them cotton fields wasn’t no good for me. So, one mornin before sun rise, it was a cool morning after a hot and sticky night, and wasn’t nobody stirrin round but me, I went to my daddy’s bed, shook him by the shoulder and says to him, (Daddy, this here workin for the masser in them fields, this ain’t no good idea fo me. I ain’t never got no money, no shoes, and the work is too hard. I got blisters on my hands and feet, my back’s always hurtin, and it be so hot out there in them fields that I feels like a piece of cracklin fryin in a pan of hot grease.)
My daddy was still half sleep, but he looked at me outta one eye, like he knowed I was commin. Then he sucked his lips and said, (Son, I got two things for ya. One, don’t you ever wake me up early in the mornin talkin like you done gone crazy and two, we got’s to work round here, and ain’t nothin we can do bout it.) Then momma looks over daddy’s shoulder and says, (Son, this here is how Black folks makes a livin. Ain’t ya glad we gotta roof over our heads and always got somethin good to eat. Ain’t we been eatin cracklin, cornbread, and collards most every night for supper.) Then daddy says, (Ain’t no choice anyways. Masser says ya gotta work to help us pay down some of them bills. Ya know we been shoppin at the masser’s store when we ain’t been workin, so we owe the masser an awful lot’a money.) Then momma says, (How you think we been eatin so good when we ain’t been in them fields. We all got’s to work round here. Now go an git ready for work!)
Well, I heard every word they said, and they sho was right, we had been eatin awful good; even when we wasn’t workin, and I never knowed how we was doin it till they told me. Masser had been carryin us all along; but I still wasn’t happy bout it. I didn’t like them fields no better than a mouse like to play with a cat. And somethin seemed awful suspicious bout us only bein able to eat. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I was preciative to be eatin an all, but I knowed there musta been more to life than just eatin. But I didn’t say nothing bout what I was thinking. Daddy would’a cused me of back talkin and given me the back of his hand. So I just kept on workin from cane-to-can’t.
But one day toward the end of the summer, I couldn’t take it no mo. I mean, I was sick’n tired of goin ta work in them fields. So I decided I was gone run off. I figured my workin didn’t pay fo nothing but food, cause all we was doin was workin and eaten, so if I was to run off, wouldn’t be no loss to the family. I mean, the bills would come out the same cause if I was gone, I wouldn’t be eatin or workin.
So early one morning before sunrise, I gathered all my personals in an old bag and set out for the train station. I heard Negros was doin real good up north and that’s where I was headed. I was gone make a better life for me and come back fo the family later. I had been secretly savin for a train ticket. Kept my money in a special pouch I made out of a piece of a potato sack. And I didn’t have no idea zackly where I was headed, I just knowed I was headed up north.
Well if I didn’t have bad luck I wouldn’t have no luck at all. When I walked into the train station can you guess who was standin round with his hands in his pockets, looking like he was waitin fo me…The Masser! And you should’a seen the look on his face; he turned red as a sun ripened tomata, face, hands and everything. I guess he spected I was runnin off cause’a my bag, so he walks over to me real fast and grabs my arm with one of his red hands and says to me, (Nigga boy, just where the hell do you think you’re goin. Yo daddy’ll be so shamed of you for this. If yo daddy wasn’t such a good nigga, I’d do somethin awful terrible to you, somethin you wouldn’t never forget!) I could’a broke loose and run, but I was so shamed, and felt like I was already caught, so I told him, (I ain’t goin nowhere masser, I just walkin round.) We both knowed I was lyin. Next thing I knowed, he was snatchin and draggin me over to his car, then he carries me back to daddy, who wasn’t in them fields cause he was lookin round fo me. The whole thing was interestin cause I ain’t never been in no car. Ya always remember the first time ya been in a car. Anyway, soon as we pull up, the masser says to me, (Me and yo daddy gone have ta teach yo black ass a lesson boy. You know you can’t be runnin off like that. Yo daddy owes me a whole lotta money. And you got a legal duty to help him pay me back. How you think ya’ll been eatin so good? Do you know I could report you and yo daddy to the Sherriff for this. Then you niggers wouldn’t be runnin nowhere.)
When we git out the car, my daddy whispers to the masser, (Let me take care of this here situation masser. I’ll teach George a real good lesson.) I knowed daddy was tryin to protect me, but the masser wasn’t hearin it. Instead, he looks at daddy with eyes so sharp and evil they could’a split him in two. Then my daddy looks down and says, (But I know you can teach him a better lesson than me.) Momma; well, she was there too, but she stayed quiet as a mouse. I guess she wasn’t takin no chance on not eatin good. Anyway, me and masser loads up in the front seat, daddy loads into the back seat, and we drive on over to the masser’s house. He lived in a huge white mansion with about a thousand windows. We go round back and masser strips off my shirt and ties my hands round a pole bout big and round as a telephone pole. I suppose that’s all that pole was used fo cause I couldn’t see no other reason fo it. Masser takes off a big ol fat leather belt and starts to terrin into my back. Swingin and swingin till he was sweatin just like a fat red pig. Matter a fact, I still got scars on my back to prove it.
Now while he’s whippin me, I feel my change pouch come lose and slide down my pant leg. I tried to cover it with my foot but masser had already seen it. And once he seen it I knowed it wasn’t no doubt bout me tryin to scape up north. Masser bends down to pick it up, walks over to my daddy and starts sayin something real low and mean. Daddy was just nodden up and down and looked so shamed that I started feelin shamed. Next thing I knowed, the masser hands daddy his belt and daddy walks over to me. I was confused at first, cause that’s my daddy, but then daddy starts to whippin me just bout the same as the masser, maybe even a little wurse.
“Did it hurt?”
“Hurt like a million bees stingin all at once. But you know what, that there whippin didn’t do nothing but make me hate them fields even wurse. Next time I got the chance, I was gone run again. Well, the next time came the very next summer. I did zackly the same thing, only this time, masser wasn’t at the train station. I bought me a ticket up north and bounced around for a while before I landed right here in Youngstown, Ohio. It ain’t zactly a big city, like New York or Chicago, but it suits me just fine. I met Myrtle when I got here; her folks set me up with a good payin respectable job collectin rubbish, and I been doin more than just eatin ever since.” He smiled with pride.
“Daddy George?” I asked. “Do you ever want to go back down south to see your family?”
“I sho do miss’em,” And his wrinkled skin would form into a frown. “Think about’em most every day, but I ain’t never goin back down south! Many’a Sundays them white folks would git together and hang somethin black, even if it wasn’t nothin but a cat! No way! I ain’t goin back down south for nothin in the world!”
“Well I declare!” Big Ma would suddenly exclaim, standing with her hands on her hips as though she had been waiting for Daddy George to finish. “Don’t you be tellin that boy them stories like that. Times done changed since then and ain’t no use for them stories.”
“Well if things done changed so much I wish you would tell me why Herman-Jean almost got lynched when that white girl kissed him in school. The whole family had to go up to the school to stop it. And he ain’t been back to school since.”
“Herman-Jean?” I inquired.
“That’s right; yo daddy Herman-Jean.”
“Daddy George,” Big Ma would demand. “You stop that right now, Jimmy don’t need to be knowin bout all that.”
“Well then ya better mind ya own business and let me mind mine. Else I gotta whole lot more stories to tell than that one.” And then directing his attention to me, “Ain’t nothin changed round here but the date!”
“Why did the white people want to hang something black?” I asked.
“Cause them white folks hate Black folks the way a dog hates a cat, or a cat hates a mouse. So you stay far away from them white folks cause they don’t mean you no good. Do you hear me boy?”