Tomorrow on Wednesday, October 24, 2012, I am going to go to a Virginia plantation that’s around 390 years old.  I will pick cotton for about 8 hours and hopefully it will add up to 250 pounds–an average day’s work for a 35 year old Black man, like myself, on a Southern cotton plantation.  From about 1793-1945 the cuisine of King Cotton reigned supreme across the South–from Virginia to Texas–from the Northern Neck to the eastern Gulf of Mexico, 200 frost free days a year provided for the crop that would make America filthy rich and would amount to 2/3 of our exports in the 19th century.  Cotton not only built the infrustructure of the South–along with tobacco, rice, indigo, sugarcane, hemp, corn, mining, fishing and ironworks, but it spured on the rise of the industry needed to process cotton in the North.  Many but not all of the people who held my ancestors in slavery belonged to the 3% that had 20 enslaved people or more…but we would be ignorant of larger forces and greater contexts if we didn’t remember a simple fact: slavery greased the wheels for American progress in many many insidious ways. Most textbooks talk about the closure of the slave trade in 1808.  The slave trade was greatly reduced but it was a constant right up until the Civil War.  Northern and Southern elites profitted from the trade, and the labor of enslaved people made it possible for immigrants to have jobs that were constant, viable and expanding.  The very presence of a landed, stable, unpaid underclass made the freedom of millions possible.  We often speak of a “greatest generation.”  For African Americans the massive turmoil and spiritual crimes that took place during this time period are unforgetable and should be permanently sown on our hearts.

In these days of elections frought with race and references to Loy Mauch and others who would have us downplay the seriousness of slavery and its evils, its time for me to go back into the cotton field.  No there will be no white folks whipping me or any of that.  In fact if you are a white Southerner, most of your folks were probably in those fields after the Civil War as tenant farmers and sharecroppers yourselves living a hard life of hard work and struggle.  But as much as I detest Loy Mauch and other politicians who have come out singing the praises of slavery and slaveholders rather than acknowledging America’s original sin, I think we all–need to understand the debt we owe to our Ancestors–and be not mistaken–the servants of King Cotton–are all of our Ancestors—no matter what background you are–this is about America.  America is all of us and our layered experiences.  If the textbooks are changed and the politicians and pundits change the story–we have only ourselves to blame.

For me, on an 80 degree plus day in Surry County, Virginia, I will brave sun, snakes, cotton burrs and mosquitoes to recreate a day’s labor on a cotton plantation.  I will not have the benefit of real company, and as the pictures and videos we take will show, it will be a fairly lonely exercise.  I cannot be a scholar of American slavery and African American foodways and not walk the walk..and that walk is leading me straight into a part of American history that so many would rather forget.  My food will be a piece of cornbread, a biscuit, beef bacon and water.  That’s it.  I will work for 8 hours–sun to sun–although we are being flexible about that.  I am going into the field to create a record—that in 2012, we still care, we still remember, we still understand how indebted we are to the 3.9 million antebellum enslaved people who laid a foundation-not only for wealth and progress, but also for resistance, struggle, freedom and democracy.

So about 150 years ago, my paternal grandfather’s ancestors in upcountry South Carolina and my maternal grandparents ancestors in northern, central and eastern Alabama, Tennesse and Georgia all worked and lived on cotton plantations of various sizes. By the early 19th century, cotton already accounted for over half of the United States’ exports. My Ancestors helped grow, cultivate and harvest the four million plus bales of cotton produced in 1860–or about a bale per enslaved individual living at the time. How much is a bale? About 500 pounds. A man my size and age might be expected to pick anywhere between 250-350 pounds a day…so almost a bale a day. Hence–(I’m gwine to jump down spin around, pick a bale a cotton, gwine to jump down spin around, and pick a bale a day!”) Cotton didn’t just provide fiber to overseas markets—it helped fuel the industrial revolution in the North to which new immigrants from Northern Europe would provide labor. Most Southern whites were not slaveholders, and those that did largely at smaller holdings in terms of land and workforce. However these facts may be true they exist alongside a paradox–most enslaved African Americans lived in groupings of 10-20 or more. Without this kind of population bunching, family growth and cultural formation and continuity could not have taken place making for the cohesive Black cultural identity of the plantation South. Only a quarter of all Southern slaveholders had planter status (20 or more enslaved workers) With 20 or more able bodied workers you could live the life of a middling planter. When you had about 50-100 people you were pretty rich, and with over 100–which only a select few could claim–you were unbelieveably wealthy. Going back to the 5-10 people holdings—–you can probably bet these were not all whites trying to make their way up in the world in the 1840s-1860s. Most likely these are people owned by members of the same family—-they are inheritances and traded among cousins or siblings. In these situations, landholdings might be contiguous or relatively close allowing for marriages and other kinship patterns to emerge as if they were in fact part of a larger plantation community.

Scaling “the Wall”

Admitedly, part of this journey is about breaking down, “the Wall,” the barrier of time and space that so frustrates many African Americans doing genealogical research before 1860. You have to know your families’ “owners,” including the surname, the individual property lines, the counties, their biographical data, etc. etc. You have to learn all about them in order to discern whose who in your family tree. If you are lucky you will get some legal papers—and many many were destroyed in and after the War…or you will find property or auction lists or wills. In South Carolina we belonged to the Twitty, Mungo, Reeves and Pate families of the South Carolina upcountry. In Alabama we were the property of the Bellamy, Townsend, Hancock and Hughes families. In Russell County, Alabama my great-great-great Grandfather, Captain Richard Henry Bellamy CSA, was both
my families’ slaveholder and an ancestor. In Northern Alabama, my family was owned by the Townsend brothers in Madison County, Alabama who had large cotton plantations with lots of enslaved people. In that case at least we know that my Ancestors lived on one of the two brothers large holdings (they had eight plantations). The Townsend brothers both died with the desire to liberate many of their enslaved laborers and their families.


It Sucked…

I bring all of this up because there were some very very complicated relationships going on in our history. Both my paternal grandparents came from enslaved Ancestors who were “married” in 1861. Some formal recognition was going on. And both families obtained land within years of emancipation to one generation after. This is not to say that there probably wasn’t significant brutality and oppression of my Ancestors. I think you have to be real—this was slavery, my great-great grandmother was taken advantage of against her will along with other women in my family tree–and frequently. These people didn’t get a paycheck–or an education—and didn’t have the right to vote, marry, or the right to move around as they saw fit. They had no money or property to pass down…They were legally forbidden from reading or writing and they lived lives of severe restriction and control. Family values–forget it–my Ancestors were sold away from one another without any concern for their emotions, psychological stablity, familal bond, or the decency of Spirit. As a community they were told to believe they were naturally inferior, undeserving of G-d’s love and bound for hell if they did not obey their Masters who supposedly represented G-d on earth to them as “servants.” Enslaved children saw parents whipped, ate worm and parasite infested food, went naked much of the year and some were physically or sexually abused by their owners and overseers and the patrollers who policed the Southern countryside on behalf of the planter class. Given the high volume of biracial Ancestors in my family trees some of them undoubtedly faced teasing, ostracism and likely abuse for their identities. My African ancestors arriving here against their will probably experienced unbelieveable heartache and traumatic stress in their transition to exile America. Those are the facts…

Not bitter, not angry–just telling the truth. I’m teaching about the Holocaust in Hebrew school.  How would you have me tell the story of my Ancestors in slavery if not in clear terms of “it was complicated, it was bad, it was confusing, its legacy is unending and its our history and we need to deal with it.” Nuff said. Moving on.

Cotton and Slavery’s Food Supply–A Primer

Food and slavery was colloquial and discretionary. Judging from the strange and complcated relationships had my Ancestors with their “owners,” I can guess that the relationship with the food supply was probably interesting as well. If your ancestors lived on cotton plantations in the Deep South, by 1860 they probably lived on a diet based on corn and pork in their preserved form. Corn=hominy, hominy grits, cornmeal, cornbread, hoecake/ashcake, mush, kush—a cornbread scramble made with hot pepper, fat and onions, dumplings, meal breading, cornbread/cornpone, corn liquor, and corn on the cob (green corn). Pork=salted and smoked meat, offal (the heads, feet, tails, intestines, ears and the like) were the predominant carbohydrate and protein of the Cotton Kingdom. Only occasionally would people enjoy fresh meat in other forms–beeves, sheep, goats, chicken, fish, or game. And of course there were gardens….if you were allowed to keep them. In the word of King Cotton–industrial style slavery had taken hold. Probably–and this is me guestimating here–only about 2/3 of enslaved people living under King Cotton were allowed to keep their own garden spaces in any significant way. Many enslaved people reported not being allowed to do any work or labor other than working in cotton or receiving garden truck from a large communal garden maintained by the elderly. The most commonly mentioned field crops were cabbage, cowpeas, watermelons, and sweet potatoes–often grown in their own separate fields and after that–enslaved people might grow greens gardens–usually collards and turnips—and string beans and white potatoes were usually the remaining big crops. Other foods like homegrown rice, red peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, herbs, pumpkins, okra and the like were infrequently dispersed and we should not think of them as being necessarily common. This system was not based in part on a new literature unique to the antebellum era where the management, care, and control of enslaved people was a frequent subject of agricultural and trade journals basically encouraging planters to maximize results and get more bang for their bale.

Rations of salt, molasses, coffee, white flour, orchard fruit (apples, peaches, etc.) and  on some farms, sweet potatoes, rounded out any sort of gathered wild greens and fruit and hunted and caught foods available within the plantation ecosystem. I like to describe game as usually belonging to the four food groups–including possum, squirrel, rabbit and racoon. Living in largely landlocked places, the creeks, swamps, rivers and wetlands provided various species of catfish, perch, buffalo, bream, bass, trout, gar, crawfish and freshwater clams and mussels that formed the surf to their turf. Usually those were rare protein additions to the diet.  If your ancestors were subjects of King Cotton like mine, this is probably how they ate.

Each plantation crop during slavery had its own unique food profile. Among the enslaved people of sugarcane alley and the rice coast, African, tropical American and Afro-Caribbean foods were available to round out the diet. In the old Tobacco Kingdom, personal gardens and access to Tidewater fishing grounds rich in both fresh and saltwater species, crustaceans, mollusks and reptiles were among the reasons why the Black population multiplied and reproduced at a natural rate almost incomprable with any other community of Blacks in the New world. Most enslaved workers on the sugar, coffee, rice and cotton plantations of Latin America and the Caribbean died within seven years of arrival, right up to the last days of slavery. Virginia and Maryland would lend most of their workforce to the Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri, while others would end up in Western Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. There they would join people from the Carolinas and eastern Georgia and the Lower Mississippi Valley sold across the Cotton Kingdom. When these two group merged so did their dietary practices. Rice cultivation and consumption spread from the Gullah-Geechee corridor and the Lower Mississippi Valley into the Lower South while the corn culture and turnip greens and the like dominated the Upper South.

Food tells you a lot about how we got to be how we are….In 1750 we were anywhere from 1-3 generations removed from Africa…if that…….We were not largely Afro-Christian and there were various dialects of Black English and Black French–read Gullah/Geechee, Patois, Creole, etc. In 1850 we were largely 4-5 generations removed from Africa (especially in the Upper South) while in the Lower South this number was lower owing to the late slave trade. We were largely Afro-Christian LEANING (varieties of Baptist and Methodist) with elements of folk religion and we spoke a generalized Plantation Creole English based largely on those dialects from Maryland, Virginia and upper North Carolina with inflections and loan words in the Deep South from Gullah/Geechee and Afro-Creole dialects of French in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Our music was the “Virginia music” based on gourd banjos, rattles, the bones, the fiddle, triangle and clandestine drums made from gourds, barrels, and boxes, flutes, quills and mouthbows.

How does it feel to pick cotton?

Cotton is an extremely beautiful crop in the Southern fields….it is heartbreakingly beautiful…soft, inviting, miraculous. Out an almost alien like green shell pops out a clear and delicate whiteness that soon envelops the boll’s space until the green turns to a brown husk. The field turns a blinding white–the whiteness of the link is set afire and gleams wih the sunlight until you can’t see anything else. It is repetiive, painful, and makes your back ache. Doing this alone you can understand why field hollers, the blues, and all of that music—was created to endure this mechanical, backbreaking process. And until you’ve picked cotton–you have no idea how a hoecake “should,” taste, or how far we’ve come….


1 cup of white stone-ground cornmeal

3/4 cup of boiling hot water

½ teaspoon of salt

¼ cup of lard, vegetable oil or shortening

Mix the cornmeal and salt in a bowl. Add the boiling water, stir constantly and mix it well and allow the mixture to sit for about ten minutes. Melt the frying fat in the skillet and get it hot, but do not allow it to reach smoking. Two tablespoons of batter can be scooped up to make a hoecake. Form it into a small thin pancake and add to the pan. Fry on each side 2-3 minutes until firm and lightly brown. Set on paper towels to drain then serve immediately with country bacon or soaked salt fish.

17 comments on “Why I’m Going to Pick Cotton for 8 Hours Tomorrow..and yes its 2012…

  1. Thank you for this post. Going to reread. Thank you for being real.


  2. Chanaka Emil Weerasinghe

    Great Article: I like the detail…Are you going to write about what the 8 hours were like?


  3. Jack smith

    As a former Cotten picker I want to know how much Cotten you picked in 8 hours I’m betting it was nowhere near 300 pounds tell the truth


  4. Jack smith

    It takes 1200 to 1300 pounds of seed cotton to make a ginned bale of approximately 500 lbs no man, especially a novice can pick a bale of Cotten per day maybe a week. Get you facts then publish


  5. Eddie Jones

    At age 11 the amount that I had to pick a day was 250lbs. Daddy would give me $1.00. If I picked 249 I got nothing. The amount would change every year My oldest sister could pick 400lbs a day till s
    he graduated high school.


  6. I began picking berries at age five and picking to pay for clothes when I was nine. And I am a white girl in Oregon. You are under estimating the brutal back breaking work endured by slaves. Not just as adults but as children, even very young children. Movies often shoe slave children running around playing. The work is hard and when it’s over you eat a little and sleep because tomorrow you have to do it again. I remember fooling around when I was supposed to be working and being yelled at, but slaves don’t get yelled at they get whipped. In an era when children are spanked with leather straps in white households, imagine the discipline for slave children. The violence, the death. If migrant children today are threatened with death imagine how slaves were treated in 1840. It gives me nightmares.


  7. Thank you for sharing our truth


  8. I’m gay


  9. Stories like this one are important because the history of One person is far too complex to chart with absolute exactness. The history of hundreds, millions, is simply impossible to completely master. You must collect All of the different tellings, from many sources to begin to grasp the full scope of a time, a people, a nation.
    Example – in the Carolinas and coastal states, many slaves never picked a boll of cotton in their lives, but they wore themselves out planting and harvesting and processing Rice, or Sugar Cane. Or, if skilled, they worked their lives away as carpenters, boatbuilders, sailors, stockmen.
    Schools now never miss a chance to talk about slavery and evil, brutal, wicked it was. A student hears that lesson repeated ad nauseum but can’t tell you much beyond – “Slavery was BAD.”
    The was an Economy of Slavery, the nuts and bolts of how it worked – How did you get rich running a Slave plantation?
    How did you go broke doing the same?
    What was the psychology of the Slave, the Master, the Overseer?
    There is a Logic to the whole enterprise – a healthy slave can do a lot of work, a sickly one does less, a dead one none at all.
    Encouragement, reward works far better than punishment to get the maximum from an animal much less a human.
    It is hard to do decent scholarship if only one thought is permitted – “It’s EVIL”


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