Sooo…I heard about this rancher who was angry about not being able to graze on “his land,” (Let’s ask the Shoshone, Ute and Paiute and other First Nations about that claim…) and I was really disturbed that someone with some sort of ancestral or historical connection might lose their land or ties or livelihood–you know I kinda get passionate about that kinda stuff. I actually felt sorry for him–or at least based on first impressions I felt some sort of kinship or empathy. More details, came, I felt less sorry, but still intrigued by what this story meant for what American democracy means to different types of people and why they get passionate about the nature of being an American and their idea of freedom. After all, it was just Passover…I’ve had eight days to think about what freedom means and how glad I am not to be enslaved. (Wait–I do that for a living…Thank G-d, I just don’t eat matzah every day to buffer the claim.)
Today I was sent an article about some comments Mr. Bundy made. Why is the rancher different from all other ranchers? Apparently, he longs for the bad old days just like some other folks I’ve written about here.
As reported by Adam Nagourney:
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.
“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
I just turned 37. I learned to pick cotton. I pick cotton every year if possible to remind me that my father and grandfather picked cotton, so did at least four generations before him. The only reason we stopped picking cotton through the 1970’s was the expansion of the mechanical cotton picker, first introduced in the late 1940’s–which hastened the second Great Migration. I’ve written extensively about the experience of picking cotton on this blog. It has a lot to do with food and how people were nutritionally, intellectually, spiritually and politically malnourished all in service to the King. I’m not nearsighted enough to claim that it was only African Americans who suffered from their service to his Majesty. Poor whites knew the life as well–especially after 1870–but certainly Black history was irrevocably changed when the American economy was kept in boom thanks to its exports of enslaved grown(free labor) cotton. The whip and the lash help subsidize further industrialization of the North, mass European immigration, and from these consequences and others–came the push West as the East burst with mass population growth.
What Mr. Bundy fails to understand is basic history. Without a moral imagination, immoral fantasies of humans managed like animals bloom. Cotton fever was responsible for the long term destabilization of the Black families of which Mr. Bundy feigns mused interest. During the antebellum period–an enslaved Black person–especially a male–could expect to be sold at least once or twice in a lifetime. Although we haven’t verified it yet–we found a bill of sale for a “Negro” named Wash and his brother William on the steps of the Lancaster County, SC courthouse just before the Civil War. The Wash described may have been my own great-great-great grandfather and his brother. Washington was the great-great or great-great-great grandson of a man brought from central Ghana in the 1700’s–stripped of his name at Charleston harbor.
The Cotton Kingdom mandated illiteracy on pain of the whip or sale or death. The Cotton Kingdom said enslaved people could and should get by with less than more–so the three M’s came to dominate the diet–corn meal, salt meat and molasses. Pellagra and other diseases and deficiencies ran rampant and human beings were bred like cattle for sale. Is this the golden age Mr. Bundy speaks of? Would that have been better for America in the long run?
We lost our culture. Our G-d. Our names. Our ability to aspire to be anything more than what custom, convention and law allowed. We certainly developed soul cooking and spirituals that wrench the heart and blues and the rudiments of jazz America’s only indigenous art forms. And yet we also developed a passion for resistance. We left the grip of slavery and married legally in droves. We built houses of worship. We struggled to vote. Our children need to know this so that they know the debt that was paid for them–just as I had to learn the debt that was paid for me. I am not a culinary historian or cultural historian because its a hobby–I do this so I can tell the whole story–to contextualize it and make it real–to let the Ancestors know they have not been forgotten, to let the elders know the future is in good hands, to let the young ones know how far we have come and how far we have to go.
I will never forget the day I laid eyes upon my great-grandfather’s “x” mark. You see Mr. Bundy, unlike you, Great Grandpa Will couldn’t read and write–he was purposely under-educated. Great Grandpa Will was threatened with the lynch mob’s noose many a time, because he dared to dream beyond the Cotton Jail that you suggested might be better for us. Grandpa Will in 1912 went from being a sharecropper–a slave by another name–to being a landowning farmer–100 acres…Much like you he knew that the one who has land has power over their own destiny. That’s why my initial impulse was to feel sympathy or feel connection. However I can see now that Mr. Bundy doesn’t need that from me.
Grandpa Will couldn’t write his own name on the deed, but damned if he didn’t write an “x” mark signifying that the Twitty family now had some of the very land that they were forced to work for generations. When I see comments like Mr. Bundy’s I am not angry nor bitter. I am emboldened to continue my work to see that food becomes a message of cultural and social justice for all–and to let every American and every other human know that my Ancestor’s story is a beacon of hope for all who as the Passover Haggadah says–“hunger for freedom.” Getting out of the Cotton Jail inspired Grandpa Will’s son, and that inspired my Father, and it inspires me. In fact, without Grandpa Will I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog post right now.
What I resent the most is that his comments seek to further divide our beleaguered Southern family. Being from off…Mr. Bundy is not one of “us,” the sons and daughters of the South and it’s legacy. I refuse to lay the blame or brunt of his comments on anyone else but him. This week I met with a scholar-ranger whose ancestors lived in the same Virginia county as mine during slavery. He was white, I am Black. We both care about our history–family, cultural, American, Southern–history. We care about each other’s history and learning from each other. Not one of Mr. Bundy’s ill-informed history lesson will change my commitment to working with all Southerners towards our family reunion.
Best assured Mr. Bundy, on your best day, you could never be a “Negro” like Grandpa Will.
It takes soul to be superbad.