Poverty and Literature 2017

The Promised Land (1991) Nicholas Lemann



Clarksdale (3-58)

1. The Mechanical Cotton Picker (3-7) October 1944

Why was the invention of the mechanical cotton picker truly historic?

"In an hour, a good field hand could pick twenty pounds of cotton; each mechanical picker, in an hour, picked as much as a thousand pounds- two bales." (5)

"The invention of the cotton picker was crucial to the great migration by blacks from the Southern countryside to the cities of the South, the West, and the North. Between 1910 and 1970, six and a half million black Americans moved from the South to the North; five million of them moved after 1940, during the time of the mechanization of  cotton farming. In 1970, when the migration ended, black America was only half Southern, and less than a quarter rural; 'urban' had become a euphemism for 'black'. The black migration was one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history..." (6)

"The great black migration made race a national issue in the second half of the century- an integral part of the politics, the social thought, and the organization of ordinary life in the United States." (7)

2. Sharecropping (7-21)

The Work  (7-8)

Describe the real work a cotton picker did:

Sun up to sunset... $2.00 per hundred pounds... Hunched over all day, avoiding thorny stems, A good picker like Ruby could pick two hundred pounds a day. (8)vs. 75 cents an hour working in a laundry, factory or restaurant in Chicago

Ruby's Family History (9)

So, why hasn't she moved to Chicago already? (sketchy family life...see 8-9)

The Delta (9-11)

Why is the Delta the richest natural cotton-farming land in the United States? (91-10)
Why was it the last land in the South to be settled and cultivated? (10)
When did the cotton industry peak in the South? (1929)

The Institution of Segregation (1875-90) (11-14)

What is the Racist Myth about the origins of sharecropping? (11-12)
What about forty acres and a mule? (12)
What were the real origins of sharecropping? (12-13)

  • black sharecroppers were not citizens.
  • blacks were forced into sharecropping violently by white militias... (race riot of 1875: Encounter on Sunflower Bridge: "Don't shoot those negroes, boys, we need cotton pickers." (14))...
  • blacks were prevented from voting by force, and over twenty years Jim Crow laws codified segregation 

Cotton Crash (1920) (15)

When did the Great Depression come to the Mississippi Delta?

  •  When the price of cotton fell from $1.00 a pound to 10 cents a pound.

The Lure of Job-Rich Chicago (16)

  •  population rises from 44,000 in 1910 to 234,000 by 1930

Plantation Economy (17-20)

How did the owners cheat the sharecroppers who worked the land? (the furnish, seed money, taking up, interest rates the settle.... (18))
What recourse did sharecroppers have when they believed that he had been cheated? (19)

  • None. Legal recourse was reserved for citizens
  • but they could 'slip off' to another plantation. (20)

What psychological impact did sharecropping have on black families?

  •  Either there was a conspiracy to keep you down, or the white explanation was right : you were inferior and incapable.

3. Ruby's Story from 1916-1938 (21-24) (Think to yourself about why Lemann chose to focus upon Ruby Daniels as the representative of millions.)

Describe Ruby's childhood, teenage and early adult years:

  • (constant movement, father ran off, flood, in the fields by age 12, move, death of mother (age 14), The Great Depression: 'the panic crash', hard poverty, move, sexual abuse by planter (age 19), move, marriage #1 to W. D. (age 20), then he and Ruby get land from New Deal Tenant Purchase Program, but it is flooded out, move to town
  • 1937 Ruby meets her father for the first time; W.D. gets a job with the W.P.A.

4. Racist Attitudes about Sharecroppers (24-28)

How did whites explain the chaotic nature of the sharecropper family?

  • Blacks are emotionally unstable, childlike people for whom 'life is a long moral holiday'... Whites had to care for blacks because they were incapable of responsibility... financial dealings, legal negotiations, education were useless..(24-25)

How were sexual taboos essential to maintaining the economic system of sharecropping?

  • Whites also believed that blacks possessed a powerful uncontrollable sexuality and they used this belief to justify rough treatment. Social segregation was therefore necessary to prevent the possibility of a black man impregnating a white woman. (27). Their theory was 'proven' by pointing to uncontrolled aspects of black plantation life: short lived marriages, illegitimate children, wild church services, Saturday night juke parties.

5. Sociological Studies of the Sharecropper Family (28-32)

Studies of sharecropper society by Northern intellectuals all rejected the idea of black inferiority but they agreed that family life among sharecroppers was different from the ordinary family life of the rest of the country. (29)

  • Charles S. Johnson (1934): "Sex as such appears to be a thing apart from marriage." (29) 
  • Arthur Raper (1936): illegitimacy rates made more children dependent on one parent. (29)
  • Powdermaker (1934) "the typical Negro family throughout the South is matriarchal and elastic.".. high illegitimacy rates....
  • They all assumed that they were seeing the continuation of a pattern of family life that began during slavery.

Today's scholars:

  •  Herbert Gutman rejects the idea that black family life was incapacitated by slavery.  first marriages of life long duration were the rule during slavery, but during sharecropping they became the exception.
  • Dollard: the system inculcated dependency in sharecroppers.
  • Johnson: extreme isolation allowed unique moral codes to develop (31)

Lemann's Thesis: (31)

  •  "It is clear that whatever the cause of its different-ness, black sharecropper society on the eve of the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker was the equivalent of big-city ghetto society in many ways. It was the national center of illegitimate childbearing and of the female-headed family. It had the worst public education system in the country, the one whose students were most likely to leave school before finishing and most likely to be illiterate even if they did finish. It had an extremely high rate of violent crime... Sexually transmitted diseases and substance abuse were nationally known as special problems of the black rural South..." (31)

6. Ruby's Clarksdale Family Disintegrates (1938-44) (32-38)

How do Ruby's attitudes towards marriage confirm Lemann's thesis (surprise?)

  • Distinction in her mind between marriage and family: the constant no-goodness of black men, their drinking, violence, infidelity and unreliability, are related in her mind to constant poverty.
  • Underneath the disorganization that outsiders saw was an extended-family system of real strength... (33)

What kind of humiliations and threats of violence did Ruby cope with while living in segregated Clarksdale? (pp. 34-36)

What was the attitude of black middle class towards poor blacks?

  • Middle class blacks who had been able to obtain preaching or teaching jobs segregated themselves from the black poor. Distinct neighborhoods grew up within the black areas of towns.

What was Ruby’s situation in Clarksdale when she had her first two children?

What happened to her twin sister Ruth when she moved to Chicago?

Why does Ruby start thinking seriously of moving to Chicago?

7. To Move to Chicago? (40-46)

Describe some of the stories that Clarksdale residents heard about how life was different in Chicago. (pp. 40-42)

Find on the internet and play a song by Muddy Waters-- the most famous resident of Clarksdale to hit it big in Chicago. (p.42)

George Hicks (41-44) son of burial insurance agent, witnesses the racial harrasment of his father and uncle, initial ambition to be a teacher until the lure of Chicago takes hold.

Bennie Gooden: (44-45) ambitious, middle class black has goals of becoming a teacher, graduates from high school and goes to Jackson State,, but the experience of being cheated and then getting over gnaws at him....

Why did Aaron Henry decide to stay? (p. 46)
 father learns shoe making trade at Tuskeegee... as a teen he join the NAACP after a beating.... joins army in 1943.... after the war he decides to stay in Clarksdale and lead NAACP chapter.

Explain the differences between W.E.B. DuBois' strategy and Booker Washington's strategy to advance the lives of black folk.

Booker Washington's strategy: accept denial of civil rights and 2nd class status.... earn independence as a yeoman farmer or small businessman.... economic self-reliance and eventual wealth will bring whites to respect you and offer you political rights.

W.E.B. DuBois' strategy: talented tenth, civil rights struggle

8. White Efforts to Block Emigration End (1940-46) (47-52)

How did whites try to block black emigration north in the years before WWII? (pp. 47-48)

The Decision to Automate

White planters had begun to soften their treatment of sharecroppers, even hearing grievances, in an effort to stanch the flow of cotton pickers, but when news got out of the successful demonstration of a mechanical picker, their attitudes changed very quickly. The fear of an incipient civil rights movement (particularly a campain to give blacks voting rights) moved the owners to push as many ex-workers as possible off the plantation. (48)

Beyond the invention of the mechanical cotton picker, what political reasons made whites switch their positions on black emigration north? (pp. 48-49)

David Cohn's prediction (1947)

"Five million people will be removed from the land within the next few years. They must go somewhere. But where? They must do something. But what? They must be housed. But where is the housing? Most of this group are farm Negroes totally unprepared for urban, industrial life. How will they be industrially absorbed? What will be the effect of throwing them upon the labor market? What will be their reception at the hands of white an Negro workers whose jobs and wages they threaten?.... What will the effect be on race relations in the United States? Will the Negro problem be transferred from the south to other parts of the country who have hitherto only been carping critics of the South?.... There is an enormous tragedy in the making unless the United States acts, and acts promptly, upon a problem that affects millions of people and the whole social structure of the nation." (51)

Richard Wright's warning (1941)

"Perhaps never in history has a more utterly unprepared folk wanted to go to the city; we were barely born as a folk when we headed for the tall and sprawling centers of steel and stone. We, who were landless upon the land; we, who had barely managed to live in family groups; we, who needed the ritual and guidance of institutions to hold our atomized lives together in lines of purpose; we, who had know only relationships to people not relationships to things; we, who had had our personalities blasted with two hundred years of slavery and had been turned loose to shift for ourselves-- we were such a folk as this when we moved into a world that was destined to test all we were, that threw us into the scales of competition to weigh our mettle." (52)

9. Ruby Moves to Chicago (1946) (52-53)

Why did Ruby ultimately decide to move to Chicago?
What kind of life did she find for herself and her children when she moved to Chicago?

Ruby gives up on Kermit Butler and leaves her son Kermit as a 'gift child' for friends in Memphis before moving to Chicago permanently. She moves into a kitchenette apartment in the same neighborhood in which Wright will set Native Son. Kitchenettes were one or two room flats (chopped out of larger apartments) equipped with an ice box and a hot plate. Poor rural blacks new to Chicago frequently found this was the only accommodation they could afford because demand for apartments had pushed the market sky high.But Ruby was happy because she quickly found a janatorial job paying her more than forty dollars a week, more money than she could make in three weeks as a sharecropper.

10. Uless Carter Moves to Chicago (1942) (53-58)

What made Uless Carter give up on sharecropping and move to Chicago?

Uless Carter came from a disciplined and hard working farming family. They supplied their own equipment and mules and therefore received a 3/4 share on the cotton they grew and worked hard to earn the money to buy their own land. But the unfairness of the system cheated them out of what they deserved. Eventually, it became clear to Uless that he would never get ahead if he stayed in the South where whites were permitted not only to humiliate blacks but to cheat them of their rightful deserts. He left for Chicago in 1942.