Snapshots of the Cotton South

Listen, you drawing men
I want a picture of a starving black
I want a picture of a starving white
Show them bitterly fighting down on the dark soil
Let their faces be lit by hate
Above there will stand
The rich plantation owner, holder of the land
A whip in his red fist
Show his pockets bulging with dollars spilled
From the ragged trousers of the fighting men
And I shall call it
“Portrait of the Cotton South.”

Co’n pone, collard greens, side meat
Sluggish sorghun and fat yams
Don’t care who eats them.
The popping bolls of cotton
Whiter than the snobbish face
Of the plantation owner’s wife
Never shrink in horror
At the touch of black cropper’s hands.
And when the weevils march
They send no advance guard
Spying at doors, windows
Reporting back
“This is a privileged place
We shall pass it by
We want only nigger cotton.”
Speeding in a streamlined racing car
Or hobbling on ancient crutches
Sniffs at the colour line;
Starvation, privation, disease, disaster
Likewise embarass Social Tradition
By indiscriminately picking victims
Instead of arranging
Black folk later–
But otherwise
Life officially flows
In separate channels.

Chisel your own statue of God.
Have him blonde as a Viking king
A celestial czar of race separation
Roping off a jim crow section
On the low lying outskirts of heaven
Hard by the platinum railroad tracks
Where there will dwell for eternity
Good darkies inferiority-conscious
Of their brothers and sisters
In the Methodist Episcopal Church, South
Have him a dealer of vengeance
Punishing in hell’s hot fires
Lynchers, quick trigger sheriffs,
Conniving land owners, slave driving overseers
While today’s black Christians
Look down on their endless torture
Then travel the golden streets of paradise
To the biggest mansions
In the best districts
And there feast themselves
On milk and honey
As say the preachers
In the little colored churches.
Of course
There is no intermingling socially
Between the races
Such is absolutely unthinkable
Oh my yes
At regular intervals
The wife of Mobtown’s mayor
Sees an Atlanta specialist
For syphilis contracted from her husband
Who got it from their young mulatto cook
Who was infected by the chief of police
Who received it from his washerwoman
Who was made diseased by the shiftless son
Of the section’s richest planter
One night before
He led the pack that hanged
The black bastard who broke into
A farm woman’s bedroom–
As was mentioned before
There is no intermingling socially….

Neither Socialist nor Communist lingers here
The Southern Tenant Farmers Union
Is officially a Grave Menace
Here we have Democracy at its best
Amid “native American”
“Bedrock of the nation”
Untouched by “The Foreign Element”
They have “Rugged Individualism”
“Any man may be President”
“Equality of Opportunity”
Which, translated, means
The rich men grow richer
Big planters get bigger
Controlling the land and the towns
Ruling their puppet officials
Feeding white croppers and tenant farmers
Banquets of race hate for the soul
Sparse crumbs for their thin bodies
The feast of animosity
Will dull their minds
To their own plight
So the starving po’ whites
Contemptuous of neighboring blacks
Filled with their pale superiority
Live in rotting cabins
Dirt floored and dirty
Happy hunting ground of hookworm and vermin
Overrun with scrawny children
Poverty sleeping on the front stoop
Enslaved on islands of rundown clay
And to the planter-owned commissaries;
Dying, then dumped into the grinning graves
Their worm-picked bones resting silently
In a white burial ground
Separated even in death
As were their fathers before them.

No matter what the cost in taxes
Sacrificed by penniless croppers
Unmissed by money-grabbing land owners
There must be separate accommodations
And public institutions
For each race.
Impoverished white schools
Loosing tidewaters
Of anti-Negro propaganda
While the fallen-in buildings
For black children
Have courses in Manual Arts,
Writing, and a little figuring
In between cotton picking and sowing
And of course
Care must be taken
By public officials
Not to make the jails too strong
And thus inconvenience
The hungry lynchers.
There are some who say
Voteless blacks never get
A proportionate return of taxes paid
But since so many
Land in the hoosegow
On copyrighted charges
And the county pays their keep
In stockade, on chain gang,
They really use their share
Of public funds–
The arithmetic and logic
Are indisputable.

At sunrise
Into the broad fields they go–
Cropper, tenant, day laborer
Black and white–
Leaving behind
Shacks of logs and planks.
Arching their crooked backs
Slowly, like long mistreated cats,
They throttle the living cotton,
Hustle it, dead and grayish white,
Into the gaping sacks
Portable tombs
For the soft body
Of the South’s Greatest Industry–
While, nearby
Overseers stand
Throttling the living souls
Of the broken workers
Choking their spirit
Worn out and useless
They are crammed into
The waiting earth–
Another industry
Of the Cotton South.

Well, you remakers of America
You apostles of Social Change
Here is pregnant soil
Here are grass roots of a nation.
But the crop they grow is Hate and Poverty.
By themselves they will make no change
Black men lack the guts
Po’ whites have no the brains
And the big land owners want Things As They Are.
You disciples of Progress
Of the Advancing Onward
Communist, Socialist, Democrat, Republican
See today’s picture—
It is not beautiful to look upon.
Meanwhile paint pots drip over
There is fresh canvas for the asking.
Will you say,
“But that is not my affair”
Or will you mould this section
So its portrait will fit
In the sunlit hall
Of Ideal America?

This morning’s post brought my ordered copy of The Poetry of Black America (mine a sturdy hardback ex-San Antonio Public Library one) wherein I read this work of Frank Marshall Davis, who I am pleased to discover was another fine poet from my native Kansas. It’s an effective polemic with some vivid imagery, a match for Marion Post Wolcott’s unsparing “snapshots”.

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