Behind the cotton curtain

Chapter 4




On my way to Florida in the winter I discovered where this anger and hostility, which blossomed into my terrifying encounter in the Northern streets, had its roots. Few blacks today pick cotton, but nothing has shaped our relationship to blacks as much as cotton.



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 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 was invited to live with 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?



Slave driver



The tables are turned now, catch a fire
you're going to get burned now.



Every time I hear the crack of the whip
my blood run cold



I do remember on a slave ship
how they brutalized my very soul.



Today the say that we are free
only to be chained in this poverty!



Good God I think it is illiteracy
it's only a machine that makes money.



We certainly experienced the "machine" - personified in stockbrokers reading the tickertape just as a century ago they had found it their natural right to invest in human beings as private property - as more than mere paper-speculators when hour after hour the well-to-do people from up North swept past us in the cotton fields in their big motor homes and campers on their way to the sun in Florida.



Each of their rolling homes burns up as much gas in an hour as we could buy after a whole day in the cotton fields.
Why are these paper-shufflers up in New York and Massachusetts able to have these extra rolling houses when they already have huge homes and the cotton pickers do not even have a waterproof shack to live in?