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"Why do you say `Yes, Suh' to him, Papa?" l asked. "I'm supposed to, Son," he replied as he walked on ahead.
Son of Mississippi Sharecroppers
Andrew L. Jordan, my father, was the fourth of five seedlings that sprang from the union of Cleveland and Elizabeth Jordan. Daddy was born in the land of the Mississippi River, which snakes through a rich Delta soil. He was mired in the ugliness of a southern philosophy according to which white skin was supreme and black skin inferior. He languished in a land of lily-white magnolias where for centuries blacks had had no freedom. It was a mesmerizing place that nourished the roots of people who endured years of injustice. My family was born in the most racist state in the union.
The Charles Whitington plantation in Rising Sun County, where Daddy was raised, is right outside Greenwood, Mississippi. The little town of Greenwood is located in Leflore County, which was named after a French/Choctaw Indian chieftain named Greenwood Leflore. By the 1900s, Greenwood had become an important Delta town known for its long-staple cotton market. The county's population was almost two-thirds Negro and poor. The Jordan family was among them.
In 1937, Daddy was a six-year-old colored boy. Large for his age, he was already struggling to pull more than he weighed through the fields of King Cotton. One hot sweaty day, he innocently asked his father why he had answered "yes, sir" to a white boy not older than about thirteen, a nasty-tempered kid, who didn't know better than to wipesnot on the sleeves of his ragged blue shirt. The reply my grandfather gave him—"I'm supposed to, Son"—only intensified the negative self-image that had been growing in my father.
Papa had plowed almost five rows of cotton in the ninety-degree weather. You could see the heat waves dancing in space, and occasionally a wisp of wind would twist itself from the heated dust, blowing the sweaty mule smell right into my nose.
I could tell very easily that it was getting close to lunchtime, even though we had no watch from which to tell time. The old mule that Papa had named Old Gray had begun to disobey him.
"Well, Son, it's about time to take Old Gray to the barn to be fed," Papa said as he brought the mule to a halt. Then he walked behind Old Gray and unhooked him from the plow. I started to help.
"No, Son, your Papa will do it; you might get hurt," he added softly as he patted my eager hands away.
My father and I talked very little while en route to the barn. The heat seemed to have absorbed all the vigor from him. But Old Gray had to be fed and watered first. That was part of the plantation rule. While Old Gray was eating and kicking up his heels, Papa and I sat in the quiet shade of the big white barn. He offered me some water from the tin bucket I had brought for him to quench his thirst. For our lunch, we ate a couple ears of corn apiece.
Then Papa rested against the barn wall. Routinely he took out his little Old Testament Bible from his sweaty overall pocket and read aloud a passage or two. As he read the Bible, I could see signs of fatigue in his eyes, but the determination to read out-weighed his exhaustion. He read silently for about a half-hour, then the whistle blew. It was one o'clock. Slowly Papa rose from the shady corner, picking up the bridle as he attempted to elevate his tired body to an upright position. Only he found he was almost too weak to stand. When he had steadied himself, we walked out to the big white barn gate. He rested his heavy hand on ray little boy shoulder. Almost immediately Old Gray saw him coming and began circling around the other mules in an effort to conceal his identity. After chasing the mule for at least ten minutes, Papa was able to subdue him. Once old Gray was cornered, he would surrender rather easily. But always he would give Papa a chase.
Papa had returned to the field ready to resume work, when his bossman's son came up on horseback.
"Boy, did you take Old Gray to the barn?" He asked Papa this while sitting tall on a big reddish-brown horse.
"Yes, Sub, Mr. Charles, Old Gray done eat," my father answered him with a tired voice as sweat dropped musically down his back, retracing the sweaty streaked lines of his blue work shirt.
"Is that boy any good, Cleve?" Young Mr. Charles had made reference to me.
"Yes, Suh, he a fine boy, Boss," my father answered to him.
The bossman's son looked at me as though he was thinking, "I'll work the hell out of him in a few years." I looked only at Papa, who was hitching Old Gray back up to the plow. I didn't like that white boy.
My father, however, learned to be thankful for his life in those days of growing up in Mississippi with his brothers. Clevester, the oldest, was the handsome one who escaped Jim Crow after World War II. Will was considered the "crazy" brother, having once been shipped to a mental hospital in Jackson for shock treatment because he had dared to slap a white man four times, each blow coming after the man got up off the ground and called him "nigger." My father came to realize that, even though his stomach was growling with emptiness while he and his brothers slept in a crowded bed, at least all of them were there and not hanging by the noose of a rope that was too short. Along with his younger brother, David, and his sister, Viola, he learned that the length of a black man's life in Mississippi was at the whim of a white man.
For years, Daddy witnessed his father, a medium-built, dark-skinned, Bible scripture-spouting man, and then his older brothers sharecrop land they didn't own and would never own. Before too long, he found himself standing in a sea of cotton.
At seven years old, Daddy was required to labor in the fields, and he began to feel stagnated by the endless acres of cotton. His full lips would protrude with indignation, and his dark, brooding eyes would repeatedly question the manhood of black fathers who were turned into stuttering idiots by redneck overseers barely able to read a newspaper.
The fact that his family remained so poor perplexed my father. It didn't make sense to him when his father, whose back ached at the beginning of the day and who by nightfall would be bent over in painful contortions, worked so hard. He soon learned that carrying the cross of racism was taking a toll on his father's body and his mother's, too, as it had across the generations, and that the legacy of being a sharecropper was probably the only inheritance his father would leave the children.
When Daddy was a boy, of course, he didn't just work in the cotton fields and learn to resent white folks. He and his siblings had many wonderful childhood experiences. The members of their close-knit family were teasing characters who loved to joke with one another. They would talk for hours around the dinner table or compete with the crickets out on the porch under a blanket of stars.
On many evenings, colored neighbors with children in tow would seek their company, and, on holidays, would share a potluck dinner. And yearly the Jordan family would plant a big vegetable garden, then harvest from it as they needed to, in between times of gathering the cotton. Surplus from the garden would be shared with half-hungry and grateful neighbors.
The family would walk to church together on Sundays, because they had no other way of getting there. On the dirt road, they would meet other colored folks who needed some good gospel as well. They could have stayed home; Granddaddy Jordan knew the Bible backwards and forwards, and he could preach just as well as any man of God. Besides, he gave a sermon every day, rain or shine, through good times as well as bad.
After supper Daddy and a brother or two would walk for a couple of miles up the road to play with the other colored children, who lived in shacks like their own. The boys would fish until they got tired of it or had caught all that their families could eat; then, if it was hot enough, they would jump into the water and swim, laugh, and clown around. On summer afternoons, they would run races barefooted, rolling old tires along the dirt road. Their hands would beat the tires, "splaat, splaat," and clay-like dust would fly into their faces and hair, making muddy streaks across their shirtless bodies. By the end of the day they would be much too dirty to enter the house. Then Grandmama Jordan would insist that Daddy and his brothers take a hot bath outside in the big tin tub with Palmolive soap. They would have to be quick about their bathing as they fought the mosquitoes.
During the hunting season, Daddy, his brothers, and their father hunted with sticks that had rocks tied to the ends. With these weapons they knocked silly or killed plenty of rabbits and pheasants. Wild rabbit in a bed of rice, smothered in gravy, with mustard greens and yams was one of Daddy's favorite meals.
Fall of that year was bad, and it was difficult to gather all that was planted. We barely were able to gather our corn and potatoes before winter. Many plantations weren't able to gather all the cotton. Lucky for us, we were always among those who finished because Papa was determined to maintain his reputation as a good working nigger who got his work done on time. We made twenty-five bales of cotton that year. A bale of cotton consists of thirteen hundred pounds with seeds included, depending upon what kind of cotton was being gathered. There are two types of cotton, short-staple and long-staple. If we used short-staple cotton it would only take 1,300 pounds, but if we were using long-staple, it would take 1,500 pounds of cotton to make a bale. Long-staple was more acceptable.
Usually after harvest, we would kill hogs; they were to substitute for our lack of money to buy food. From the hogs we got lard, crackling, and meat. There was no sense in expecting much money from the cotton we had made, because usually we would end up owing the white man anyway.
There was never a definite date set for settlement. However, we could usually expect it before Christmas, like two or three days before. This was done to keep the tenants from borrowing money for Christmas. Customarily around the middle of December black people would start hanging around the store hoping to overhear something about when the settlement date was going to be.
"Good morning, Brother Jordan," said an old friend of Papa's who happened to be passing the house one afternoon.
"Have you heard anything about when the man is gone settle?" He asked this while leaning on the picket fence.
"Jack, I ain't heard nothin'," replied my father in exasperation as he walked toward him. "I guess the bossman will settle with us colored people next week," he added.
Talk like that would go on for weeks until eventually something would happen. Sooner or later a Negro might be sitting around the plantation store, and overhear the man say when he was going to settle, or maybe the man would just come in and settle with him and tell him to spread the word among the other niggers that settlement would be the following day.
On Settlement Day the sharecroppers would get what the white man gave them without any questions asked and walk out pretending to be satisfied. If they showed any dissatisfaction, they were usually asked to move for fear they would spoil the rest of the niggers.
There was one Negro called J. T. who always got paid in one dollar bills and a lot of change money. He couldn't count money. To make him think that he had gotten a lot of money for his year's work, his bossman would pay him in that manner. Usually it would not be more than a hundred dollars.
My father received his settlement early one morning in December. He was among the first to get his money. I rode my bike up to the store in time to see a lot of sad faces. Papa's was one of those faces, and he was also bitter about his outcome. We had made twenty-five bales of cotton that year, but Papa had gotten only three hundred dollars for all the work we had done. There were others who had made more cotton then us and had not cleared a cent, and there were others who had made more and cleared similar amounts. One family had made forty-five bales of cotton and gathered all of it with their children half-eating. This family cleared only five hundred dollars. This was the Miller family. They would always make a little more money than the rest of the black people.
All week long my mother had sat around the house with my sister and brothers, waiting to learn what the year's work had earned for us. As I rode the bike that five of us children shared, I listened to my father talking to himself, as he walked from the plantation store, counting over and over the three hundred dollars he had received for all of our bard work. I heard him say, "It's better den nothin'. We den't get nothin' last year."
Apparently, after my father had thought over the fact that he had received some money, he felt that somehow he had progressed. Papa was now looking kind of relieved. He was even beginning to smile as he neared the house. I had never before had any money, but I was mad as hell because he had received such a small amount. Papa, on the other hand, seemed to have become satisfied as he walked along the dusty road, not saying a word to me, only talking to himself.
We were within a half-mile of the house when Mama spotted us and came hurriedly to meet us. She met us about half the distance with a big broad smile on her magnificent face.
"What did we get this year?" she asked with a fixed smile on her face, only to have it fade away with the anticipation of a long unfulfilled dream.
"Beth," Papa said, "we cleared three hundred dollars." He always called her Beth instead of Elizabeth.
Mama tried hard to be nice by pretending that she was pleased. But because she had been disappointed so many times before, it was impossible for her to conceal her true feelings. She called Papa "Cleve." Only before it had been with a subordinate demeanor because she always felt that it was the man's duty to front the hardships.
"Cleve ... is that really all we got?"
Mama asked this with signs of tears accumulating in her dark troubled eyes. My father dropped his head as though he was less than a man, as though he hadn't lived up to the expectations of his family.
Lifting his head with inferiority, he said, "Yes. Beth, we only got three hundred dollars for all that work."
My mother couldn't hold her tears any longer. They began to spill down her face, in spite of her previous attempts to keep them concealed from us.
"I'll not farm anymore, Cleve. I can make that much money doing anything," she solemnly proclaimed.
Mama then turned and walked back into our three-room shack—a home that seemed to engulf what little spirit and hope we had left. She would tell the rest of the family. Papa, looking helpless, walked away in the direction of the wood pile. He muttered under his breath, "The Lord will make a way."
Papa had great faith. Perhaps that is what kept him going and what kept us believing in him for so many years. My mother didn't farm anymore after that year. She did domestic work from that day on.
The next year came and went swiftly, leaving us and many like us with less than what the white man's dog could eat. We had no money. We had only aching bones from hard work over the summer, and from the fall and winter, that always found us gathering the white man's cotton for the white man's bank account.
There was one year—I believe Daddy was about ten years old—when the bossman must have earned a fortune.
When I walked into the house, Mama and Papa were sitting at the kitchen table counting money. They were happy, for it was a lot of money. It was more money than I had ever seen. And as far as I knew, it was more money than they had ever seen.
"Hi, Mama. Hi, Papa," I said pulling up a chair on the opposite side of the table. Both of them spoke to me without turning their heads the least bit from the pile of money. As he counted the last twenty-dollar bill, I heard Papa say, "Six hundred."
"How much did you count, Beth?" They were counting in separate piles.
Mama finished her pile and said, "I have four hundred twenty-five dollars, Cleve."
"We hare cleared a thousand dollars and more," I said to myself, not realizing I had spoken loud enough for anyone to hear.
"Yes, Son, we did well this year." Papa was smiling with joy.
But Papa had deliberately chosen not to think about the forty-five bales of cotton we had made, and the two thousand dollars short of what we should hare gotten. They originally had figured we should have cleared thirty-five hundred dollars after all expenses were paid to our part. By not borrowing any money that year and not using any extra rations, my parents had tried to make sure the bossman wouldn't he able to say expenses had eaten up the profits. But nobody ever got what be or she thought they should have gotten. Papa and Mama were pleased so I made myself pleased as well, and so did all of us.
Most of the sharecropping the Jordan family did was on the Charles Whitington plantation. When the planting and harvesting there were accomplished as scheduled or sooner, they were loaned to the Malouf plantation. Old Man Malouf was a descendent of Arabs, so he wasn't an acceptable part of the white supremacist social order either. Nevertheless, the Maloufs were and still are one of the wealthiest families in Mississippi. When my grandmother stopped laboring in the cotton fields, she went to work as a maid in their hotel in Greenwood.
Experiences like my grandparents' were echoed thousands of times throughout the South by other disenfranchised Negro sharecroppers. White sharecroppers were also cheated. Although they made considerably more than Negroes, they still did not receive what they actually earned while getting those red necks in the sweltering heat. Of course, as long as those running the system could keep poor whites believing that the reason they were not prosperous was because niggers worked like grub worms during a drought, then the landowners would be the ones to benefit. And the poor whites could take comfort in the fact that it was always possible to whip together a lynch mob.
|Ch. 1||Son of Mississippi Sharecroppers||2|
|Ch. 2||Fear and Discrimination||14|
|Ch. 3||Mama's Plantation||30|
|Ch. 4||A Colored Soldier||50|
|Ch. 5||A Lynching in Money, Mississippi||66|
|Ch. 6||Five Little Girls||78|
|Ch. 7||Granddaddy Jordan during the Struggle||100|
|Ch. 8||A Teacher Takes a Stand||112|
|Ch. 9||The Death of a Leader||134|
|Ch. 10||Blackballed in Mississippi||144|
|Ch. 11||The Last Summer||158|
|Ch. 12||Moving to Ohio||180|
|Ch. 13||A Schoolteacher||200|