To: Detroit/Seattle Workers' Voice mailing list
July 14, 2018
RE: The real story of sharecropping in the South

What does All God's Dangers tell us about black history?

by Tim Hall, Detroit Workers’ Voice

All God’s Dangers is the fascinating life story of Nate Shaw, a black working man in rural Alabama during the deepest nadir of civil rights for black people in the first decades of the 20th century. The book uses “Ned Green” as a pseudonym for Shaw, a pseudonym that was necessary in the 60s and early 70s, when this book was created.

Nate was a sharecropper for most of his life, cultivating farms owned by white people and receiving only a minimal share of the crop he worked each year. Shaw’s life is narrated through tape recordings made by 60’s scholar Theodore Rosengarten. There may be no more thorough description of the life of sharecroppers available anywhere.

Dangers is not just a description of the savage exploitation of Shaw and others, but also a tale of rebellion. Living under extreme conditions, Shaw resisted the exploiters all his life. In the early 30s, Shaw and his sharecropper friends accepted the help of Communist Party (then still a revolutionary party) organizers and began building a defense organization, the Alabama Sharecroppers’ Union. This led to an armed conflict in which the sharecroppers fought the sheriff’s deputies. Three black sharecroppers were killed and Shaw went to prison for 12 years. This struggle was fairly well-known at the time and is narrated in the eloquent poem by John Beecher, “In Egypt Land.”

Dangers is excellent reading for anyone interested in the real conditions of black laborers’ life in Alabama and the Old South during the worst years since slavery. But a contemporary reading of the book offers more. In 2000 a white Alabama reporter, Douglas A. Blackmon, produced a book, Slavery by Another Name, based on county-by-county research, that detailed widespread actual slavery, actual buying and selling of black human beings, from the end of the Civil War right up to World War II. (See DSWV list item for Feb. 9, 2018) Nate Shaw’s story is contemporary with this continued slavery, which affected most of the rural counties of Alabama, Georgia and elsewhere in the former Confederacy. And reading All God’s Dangers in this light shows just how close to full chattel slavery the so-called “free” African American remained for up to 100 years after 1865. Southern rural blacks, the majority of the black population at the time, had one foot in sharecropping and the other foot still in slavery, like Brer Rabbit stuck to the tar baby.

Slavery by Another Name describes the actual continuing slavery; All God’s Dangers provides a deeper look into sharecropping and exposes how sharecroppers always teetered on the very edge of the seizure of the entire product of their labor, in other words, on the edge of an abyss leading to complete domination by the white bosses, an abyss they often fell into. Nate Shaw’s entire working life was an endless battle to avoid falling into that abyss and he and his comrades waged their armed battle directly to prevent it.

The semi-feudal, landlord-dominated sharecropping system in the Jim Crow South is well-known in general. One of the most stark depictions of it is given by Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins in his heart-rending song, “Tom Moore’s Farm”:

I got a telegram this mornin’
Said my wife is dead
He (Moore) said, “You got to plow a ridge!”
That white man said, “It’s rainin’
An I’m way behin’.
I might let you bury that woman, Sam,
One of these ol dinner-times!”
I tol him, “No, Mr. Moore! Somebody’s got to go!”
He said, “If you ain’t able to plow, Sam,
Reach out an grab you a hoe!”

This lyric was created, at least partly, by Lightnin’ in the mid-20th century. The lyric shows that the cropper not only had to work his “shared” land but was also obligated to work the white boss’s land as well, and was so controlled that he was not permitted to leave for a deep family crisis. This is much closer to chattel slavery than is generally known.

What Dangers brings to the fore is that the black croppers lived in constant danger of being completely expropriated, robbed of their entire crop and even of their personal possessions, by the white landlords. This was so common it even had a name – “cleaned up” – among the croppers. Nate Shaw’s father experienced it twice and the danger of it, like a ravenous wolf, barked at Shaw’s heels for his entire working life. When the cropper signed his agreement with the boss, it gave the boss the right, under certain conditions determined by the boss alone, not only to take the entire crop of the laborers but also whatever implements and farm animals that the cropper’s family possessed. The landlord also pressured the cropper’s wife to sign an additional agreement; this gave the landlord the right to seize all the family’s personal possessions, from cooking utensils to bedclothes and clothing. Nate Shaw told his wife not to sign this agreement. It was not easy to say no to a rich white landlord in those days, but she never signed.

So Nate Shaw’s life was a bitter struggle not to be robbed of the entire product of his life’s work. Shaw was a very good farmer and worker and he managed to acquire good mules and eventually even a car, but this accumulation only stimulated the jealousy and greed of neighboring white landlords. So getting “cleaned out” loomed ever more over his head.

The Civil War had destroyed publicly admitted slavery, but clandestine slavery and near-slavery still remained. The northern politicians, except for a handful of radicals, abandoned the “freedmen” and gave nearly the whole victory right back to the former slave-owners. Forty acres and a mule never materialized; in fact, personal liberty was under constant threat and was lost for many, and outright destitution constantly threatened.

It was to take Nate Shaw’s crop and possessions and those of a friend that the deputies approached his friend’s farm that day in 1932. It was known that Shaw’s farm was next. Shaw and others defended themselves and their life’s work with arms. Though he then spent 12 years in prison, Shaw’s spirit never broke; he used his farm expertise and indomitable energy to defend himself in prison. And when Shaw came out, his sons still farmed the land and had improved his family’s conditions.

The fact that sharecropping in the Jim Crow South was so close to actual slavery is not generally known. Taken together with the revelations of actual slavery by Blackmon’s book, the oppression of southern blacks was deeper than supposed, even by people strongly sympathetic to the black liberation struggle.

If one adds to this southern picture the knowledge that through the rest of the country, north, midwest and west, black folks were massively and violently ethnically cleansed from hundreds of towns and counties from 1880 until 1968, barred from the growing suburbs after World War II, and driven into crowded ghettos in the cities, one sees a far more brutal and suppressive history than commonly known.

Seen in the light of today’s mass incarceration of black and brown men and women, the brutal police murders of unarmed blacks and other people of color, and the emergence of a new level of outright racism, with an openly racist President and an open white supremacist movement, a new re-writing of black history and a re-orientation of black and working-class struggle is needed. Slavery never died until World War II. Outright expropriation of the “free” black population accompanied it and continued until cotton production became mechanized in the 70’s and 80’s.. Imprisonment, official expression of contempt for blacks and outright murder continue.

Meanwhile, the mass of working people of all backgrounds are being crushed more and more. Only a recognition of the depth of black oppression, historically and present, and of the weight being placed on all working people, can lay the basis for a united struggle simultaneously directed against white supremacy and capitalist class exploitation. <>d

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Posted on July 15, 2018
Some typos have been corrected.