Saturday, November 28, 2009

stories of the rural South in the 1930s

I just finished reading Run With the Horsemen by Ferrol Sams. It's a fictionalized coming-of-age memoir which takes place in the rural piedmont region of Georgia. Sams knew well and artfully describes the cotton farms and dirt-street towns in Depression-era hill country. He writes as the only male offspring of a white family that traces its history in back more than a century on the same land. Begun as a family story for his grandchildren, it grew into an episodic novel, the first of three. It aims to use humor in order to show the hard lives and hardened social mores of the white and black inheritors of slave traditions.

The author's protagonist, whom he calls the boy, is an undersized wise-ass and self-important twerp whose triumphs come too easily and whose pranks and practical jokes cost him beatings but no loss in self-esteem. He's a Miles Vorkosigan without the introspective awareness and its resulting ability to accurately judge the moral worth of others. He observes and reports much more than you'd expect of a boy, but his character is static; as he matures, he is unable to gain much understanding of his own worth or the worth of others. He is smart, even brilliant, but lacking in depth. He sees and seems to deplore racial injustices but is mostly blind to the ugly and destructive racial attitudes of his father. He befriends blacks but thoughtlessly betrays their trust in him. He mocks the ignorance, superstition, and vulnerability he observes in the African Americans around him and at one point calls them "Bandar-log." Like his paternalistic forebears, he steps in to make things right when, by his perception, a misfortune has caused blacks to panic, unselfconsciously asserting authority and mindlessly perpetuating a culture of superiority and subservience.

Three books I've noticed recently cover much the same ground as Sams.
They complement the photos and field notes of Dorothea Lange from her assignment in the rural farms of the North Carolina piedmont in July 1939: Farm Security Administration collection of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photos Division. (Lange's photos in this blog post all come from this collection. Click image to view full size.)

Like Mark Schultz, Sams shows the sensuous pleasures of the countryside. He has the boy riding a mule-drawn wagon full of cotton bolls being drawn to the ginning mill:
For an hour he was free to lie on his back in the softly supporting cotton and look his fill into the sky. When viewed from this position the sky was deep and benevolent and seemed to caress with blue and silver light the cruising buzzard that tensed its airborne slide through silent heights.

A few feet above the sunbaked red clay of the road, an occasional grasshopper hung suspended in warm, spiced air and chirred its Indian Summer song. When the wagon approached Peabody Creek, the tantalizing drifts from the ripe muscadines and the dank river smell of marsh vegetation mingled in the boy's nostrils with the fecund odor of the cotton. Even his fantasies were softened by the overwhelming assurance that once again nature was fulfilled in harvest, and he was well content.
The boy's station of power and wealth separates him greatly from from the poor black and white tenant and sharecrop families with whom he shares his life, yet as Lange, Hagood, Spirn, Gordon, and Schultz found, many of these destitute people shared his love of the land, his pleasure in a successful harvest, and his overall sense of well-being.

Gordon shows how Lange's photographs catch the beauty of southern countryside, but do not idealize it. Lange captured the textures of rough plank siding and log houses and barns, which, Gordon writes, seemed to have grown out of the earth like the trees. Her photographs call attention to stone chimneys, off-center and canted, and to porches at rest on stacked rocks.

She notices dirt roads which in their upward and downward curvings emerge out of the landscape as if immemorially part of it, having "emerged gradually over decades as people came and went on their daily work routes." She sees that much of this farm living takes place in open air, not just the farm chores, but much of the cooking, washing, mending, relaxing.

Gordon says in less competent hands these photographs might romanticize the hard lives and destitute economic conditions of piedmont farmers, but Lange, who recorded, "the delicate patterns in the log or board houses, the tobacco barns, the fences, the laundry on the line, the wildflowers," did not stop at this, but went on also to make a bucolic photograph which disrupted facile assumptions, "as with a sharecropper, of a class often assumed to be illiterate, sitting under a tree on his home-built chair reading a newspaper."

Lange's photo on the left has a pleasing sentimentality which by itself might convey a misleadingly romantic view of sharecropper life. The one in the middle is the newspaper-reading sharecropper relaxing on a Saturday afternoon. The one of the right shows Dorothy Lee Whitfield with her little sister Isobel. Of Dorothy Lee, Lange's field notes say: "The mother is proud of her oldest daughter who has done well at school, and 'has made A grade both years she's been going to school."

In one of the most memorable scenes in Sams's fictional memoir, he shows his nine-year-old self being taught a lesson in the confusions of empathy and condescension, sense of responsibility and sense of superiority in which he found himself immersed:
There it was all laid out. One didn't talk about being superior; one lived it. No matter how bad things were for the rural white Southerner, they had to be worse for the colored. It was simplistically tempting to attribute this condition either to divine will or natural law, and if one ever dared to consider how the Nigras felt about the situation, it was comforting to conjure up memories of laughter and joy in assurance that they were happy with their lot.

When he was nine or ten, the boy was visiting Tabitha one afternoon while she ironed clothes. He watched her substitute a cooled flatiron for a hot one sitting on the freshly whitewashed cloth before glowing hickory embers, flicking it with a spittle­moistened finger to see if it sizzled satisfactorily. Hearing the hiss of hot, heavy metal as it touched moistened linen and smelling the steam rising from iron and starched fabric, relaxed and filled with contentment, he was moved to tell her earnestly and sincerely how much he loved her. She stopped midway between fireplace and ironing board, swung around, and looked him squarely in the eye.

"You love me so much, boy, that when I die you go an say, 'She sho was faithful'?" Their glances locked for an interminable naked moment. The boy's ears rang with the dizzying silence of unseen spinning planets, and he walked home without another word being spoken. He never forgot the question, and he never forgot the look.
Tibitha is memorable partly because she's unique; the other African-Americans in the book are friendly, sometimes forthright, but never so emotionally honest as she.

In depicting relations between blacks and whites Sams usually shows the former as subservient, dissembling, and grateful for marks of recognition. There isn't an instance of a forthright tenant farmer like one, Katie Hunt, who was encountered by Mark Schultz. Schultz tells how black tenants like Katie Hunt could and sometimes did stand up to whites despite the monopoly of social, political, and judicial power wielded by the latter. He gives the following story about her: The children of sharecroppers, black and white alike, might be forced out of school and into the fields on demand from a landowner and Katie Hunt grew cotton on land she rented from a white man. Her husband Wilkens was in New York working and sending back money to help the family survive during the boll weevil years of the '30s. One day a white man rode up to her house on a horse.
He made small talk for a while and then hinted that the planter from whom she rented would like her to take her children out of summer school and set them to work poisoning the boll weevils. She answered: "He can't tell me to tell my children what to do. 'cause he isn't the daddy of nary a one of them. Everyone of them is mine and Wilkins Hunt's — their daddy." The planter, she continued, "hain't got but one child that I know of — is Sarah — and that's the onliest person he can tell to go on out there and go — is his own daughter." The man laughed and said that he was going on to the next farm. "I just told them plain out," remembered Katie Hunt; "I didn't never bite my tongue." She laughs every time she relates the story.
-- source: The rural face of White supremacy: beyond Jim Crow, by Mark Schultz (University of Illinois Press, 1705) pp 13-14.

This is the daughter of the woman who told Lange she sat in the front row of the white folks' church.

Katie Hunt didn't just have gumption. She showed the generous side of rural neighborliness, even across racial boundaries. Like the writings of Lange and Hagood, this story of Schultz's shows that on the scale of day to day personal relations race was less important than a very human fellowship:
In the 1920s a very poor white family from Winder, in north Georgia, came to Hancock to sharecrop, hoping to improve their condition. They began working on a farm adjacent to the fairly prosperous farm that the Hunts rented. When an elderly member of the white family died, they were embarrassed to host their own family for the funeral, ashamed that their miserable furnishings would reveal their lack of success. Their black neighbors heard of their plight and decided to help. Katie Hunt recalled: "We moved our furniture in their house, took the rugs off our floor, put our stove in there, along with our dining room table. Then we furnished them food for the funeral." The white family was literally borrowing symbols of economic status from their black neighbors. Although it did not protect them from all the humiliations visited on African Americans living in the plantation belt under white supremacy, their economic status certainly gave the. Hunt family an unconventional experience of the white supremacist South.
-- Source: Schultz, p 53.
Although Lange, Hagood, and Schultz show black landownership, Sams, in Horsemen gives little indication that blacks could rise above the very lowest rungs on the economic ladder.

This is Caroline Atwater, who though born a slave, together with her husband managed to buy and maintain a small farm.

Schultz tells the story of Zach Hubert who owns a bit of land and runs a store in rural Georgia. The story illustrates a difference between the relations among close neighbors and the a fine line that blacks must walk in circumstances where the hostile conditions of Jim Crow white supremacy were a much greater threat. He writes:
Zach Hubert appears to have been painfully aware that his "independent" position constantly rested on his willingness to humble himself before white neighbors. On several occasions late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth, he accepted verbal abuse from whites without responding in kind. He took care not to undercut white competitors at his grocery store. He did not demand payment from a white neighbor when the neighbor's mule trampled his corn, although that same neighbor had earlier demanded and received payment when Hubert's hogs got into his sweet potatoes. Once, when his sons sat down to dinner at the family picnic table beside a white crew that Hubert had hired to thresh his wheat, the white men left enraged. As soon as he heard of the event. Hubert immediately tracked them down to apologize and pay them extra to return. Later Hubert learned that the crew foreman was a Klan leader from Greene County and thought it likely that his house would have been burned had he not quickly assumed a submissive position. Although his lengthy obituary in the Sparta Ishmaelite suggested that he was well respected by Hancock whites, Zach Hubert's actions imply that he understood his economic security ultimately rested on his ability to reassure surrounding whites that he did not pose a challenge to their supremacy.
-- Source: Schultz: pp. 52-53
Previous posts in this series:

No comments: