Poverty and Literature 2019

The Promised Land (1991) Nicholas Lemann


"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)

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)

  • W. E. B. DuBois, in The Souls of Blakc Folk (1903): " In too many cases family quarrels, a roving spirit, a rival suitor, or perhaps more frequently the hopeless battle to support a family, lead to separation, and a broken household is the result." (32-33)
  • E. Franklin Frazier,  "Nearly four-fifths of these unmarried mothers were born in the South and over a half of them had been in Chicago less than five years....they were replicating the pattern they had known in the South." (1920's)
  • John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1932) the system inculcated dependency in sharecroppers. "The furnish system is a kind of permanent dole which appeals to the pleasure principle and relieves the Negro of responsibility and the necessity of forethought . . . . One can think of the lower-class Negroes as bribed and drugged by this system." (33)
  • Charles S. Johnson (1934) Shadow of the Plantation (1934 )"Sex as such appears to be a thing apart from marriage." (29)...."...there is more illegitimacy  among the Negro  group and consequently more children dependent on one parent." (30) Extreme isolation allowed unique moral codes to develop (31)...  "This group... has taken form... outside the dominant current of the American culture....The very fact of this cultural difference presents the danger of social disorganization in any sudden attempt to introduce new modes of living and conceptions of values." (31)
  • Hortense Powdermaker (1934) "the typical Negro family throughout the South is matriarchal and elastic." (29)  "Perhaps the most severe result of denying respect to an individual is the insidious effect on his self-esteem. Few can long resist self-doubt in the face of constant belittling and humiliation at the hands of others."... "the high rate of violent crime among sharecroppers on the custom by which white law enforcement officials regarded blacks as living  "outside the law."  (31)
  • Arthur Raper Preface to Peasantry (1936): illegitimacy rates made more children dependent on one parent. (29)
  • Gunnar MyrdalAn American Dilemma (1940's)  the "extremely high illegitimacy" among blacks in the South-- 16 per cent of births to blacks-- were out of wedlock, a ratio eight times that of whites" (30)

More recent scholarship:

  • Herbert Gutman in The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (1976) 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.

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: in 1933, the six states with the highest murder rates were all in the South, and most of the murders were black-on-black. Sexually transmitted disease and substance abuse were nationally known as special problems of the black rural South; home-brew whiskey was much more physically perilous than crack cocaine is today, if less addictive, and David Cohn reported that blacks were using cocaine in the towns of the Delta before World War II." (31)" (31)

6. Ruby in Clarksdale vs. Black Middle Class  (1938-44) (32-41)

How do Ruby's attitudes towards marriage confirm Lemann's thesis (surprise?) (32-34)

  • 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)
  • "I know I don't have what other people have-- money, cars-- but I never felt lower than other people." (34)

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

  • "there weren't any careers open to her except the cotton fields and domestic work. The pay was so low that every respectable white family in the Delta-- even schoolteachers' and mail carriers' families-- had at least one full-time servant..." (34)
  • When Ruby was growing up, she was taught to look up to white people, not to hate them. White people ran everything. They lived well. If you were black, you had to get things from white people. Rebellion against segregation was fruitless, so it was for Ruby a subject dealt with in whispers and private feelings. (34)
  • In daily life, any resentment that blacks felt for whites was usually kept hidden under a mask of slightly uncomprehending servility that black people knew fit whites' basic picture of them. (36)
  • Black men were terrorized by accusations of inappropriate flirtation with white women and even attempted rape. The concequences frequently included lynching.  The Emmett Till case in 1955 is the most famous example of a teenage boy murdered for saying, "Hey, baby." to a white woman.
  • Bessie Smith, the great singer who died after a car accident outside Clarksdale in 1937, had been refused admission to the county hospital on grounds of her race, at a time when she could still have been saved.

What was the experience of middle class blacks like in Clarksdale?

  • 15 percent of the black population was middle class. In Clarksdale middle class blacks lived seperately from poor blacks: Roundyard vs. Brickyard. 
  • "Most of the high school-- and college-educated black people in Clarksdale were in teaching-- "preach, teach, or farm" was the slogan that summarized the black career options" (38)
  • "Any black people who had managed to accumulate some money took pains not to put it on display, because it was easy enough for someone deemed a rich, uppity n-word" (36)

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

  • In Clarksdale, all blacks lived on the east side of the railroad tracks, and all whites on the west side, but distinct neighborhoods grew up within the black areas of towns. Middle class blacks who had been able to obtain preaching or teaching jobs segregated themselves from the black poor. (37)
  • "The catechism of the defenders of segregation ran this way: illegitimate childbearing, the short duration of romantic liaisons, and the constant domestic violence among the sharecroppers and poor blacks in town clearly demonstrated that blacks were sexually uncontrollable." (37)
  • The main losers from legal segregation were not the black poor but the black middle class, whose members were educated enough to get good jobs but were denied them by law and by custom. The poor blacks' way of life, in other words, caused the middle-class blacks to suffer the humiliation and economic loss that went with second-class citizenship." (38)  

What was Ruby’s situation in Clarksdale when she gave birth to her first two children?

  • "In 1940 Aunt Ceatrice left her husband and moved to the town of Massillon, Ohio, where  some friends  of  the  family were  living. There she met a man from Mississippi named Ulysses Wilkes, and to­gether they moved to Chicago." (39)
  • "In 1941, Ruby's husband, W.D. Daniels, was inducted into the Army and left Clarksdale for what was sure to be a long time. Ruby then met and fell in love with a married man named Kermit Butler. Kermit had a good job, driving an ambulance for the Century funeral home in Clarksdale....Even though he was married, Kermit Butler was able to give Ruby a nicer life than she had ever known. Ruby fell in love with Kermit in a way she never had with W.D. Daniels." (39-40)
  • "In 1942 Ruby gave birth to a son named George, after her grandfather, George Hopkins, and the next year she had another son named Kermit after Kermit Butler." (40)

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

  • In 1944 Ruby's twin sister Ruth left her husband and moved to Massillon, Ohio.
  • She lived a much faster life than Ruby-- as Ruby puts it, "it was just party, party, dance and frolic." She drank too much, usually potent and impure home-brew corn liquor. In Massillon Ruth had a miscarriage and never recovered from it. She died in May 1951 at the age of twenty-eight (40)

Why does Ruby start thinking seriously of moving to Chicago?

  • "The network of relatives that had sustained Ruby up through adulthood was pretty well gone now. George Hopkins had died in 1944. Her closest kin now was Ceatrice, and Ceatrice was in Chicago. Kermit Butler, despite having had two children with Ruby, was showing no inclination to leave his wife, and that took a lot of the gloss off their romance, to Ruby's way of thinking. Ruby began seriously to consider making the move to Chicago herself." (40)

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)

  • Relatives who had moved to Chicago would return to Clarksdale driving a Cadillac and hop out in a new business suit!
  • You could find a job in Chicago in a matter of hours: an immediate quadrupling of income, at least, simply by relocating to a place that was only a long day's journey away. (42)
  • In Chicago, the migrants said, a black person could go anywhere, and could vote, and was not required to step off the sidewalk so that whites could pass, and was not called "boy," and did not have to sit in the back of the bus. (41)
  • 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)
What experiences finally convinced George Hicks and Bennie Gooden to leave Clarksdale for Chicago?
  • George Hicks, the son of burial insurance agent, witnessed the racial harrasment of his father and uncle. The Emmett Till case of his teenage years: the school principal harrassing black boys waalking past municipal swimming pool.(44) George's initial ambition was to be a teacher until the lure of Chicago takes hold after a two-week visit to the city in 1947. (42-44) 
  • Bennie Gooden: an 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. (44-45)
Why did Aaron Henry decide to stay? (p. 46)
  • Aaron's father learns shoe making trade at Booker Washington's Tuskeegee Institute. "Half of Booker T. Washington's program for black America took, and half didn't: the family believed in becoming economically self-sufficient-- especially because sharecropping was the alternative-- but not in keeping quiet about segregation."  (46)
  • As a teen he joined the NAACP after being beaten by the police for riding his bike by the municipal pool.
  • Aaron Henry joined the Army in 1943 and served first in a segregated unit, then in an experimental integrated one in Hawai
  • He became a protege of Dr. T. R. M. Howard, an eminent figure who practiced surgery at the Taborian Hospital in Mound Bayou and was a leader of the state chapter of the NAACP. (47)
  • After years of working after school in a drugstore he decided to become a pharmacist. He got his degree at Xavier University, a black school in New Orleans, and came home to Clarksdale in 1950 where he woulld lead the local  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.... achieve economic self-reliance. Eventual wealth will bring whites to respect you and offer you political rights.
  • W.E.B. DuBois' strategy: the talented tenth of black population should assimilate into white culture by achiving a great education and working twice as hard as any white to prove equality. Then they should demand the end to segregation and wage a civil rights struggle through the court system and eventually demand the right to vote.

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)

  • White planters had begun to soften their treatment of sharecroppers, even hearing grievances, in an effort to stanch the flow of cotton pickers, but they balked at the extensive list submitted by blacks: No good jobs, Cheating at the settle, Lynchings. Being denied the courtesy titles of "Mister" and "Missus." Poor schools, No hospitals, No sidewalks, gutters, or garbage collection in the black neighborhoods. (49)

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

  • The Decision to Automate: 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 mounted by black GI's veterans of WWII) moved the owners to push as many ex-workers as possible off the plantation. (49)

David Cohn's prediction (1947) (51)

  • "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) (52)

  • "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.