Plantation Pictures: I. Certain Northern Notions

[THIS is a gloomy picture, and not the bright one we should like to publish. It is printed as a rudely awakening account of conditions which point to schools and more schools as the single road to salvation. It deals with extreme conditions, but it is the honest recital of a man born to other surroundings, who has not inherited an understanding of the negro, yet has studied him at first hand, in the section where the problem is singularly perplexing, and, to a not unsympathetic stranger, often seems quite hopeless. Our readers must remember that Mississippi is far beyond the extreme limit of the meliorative influence of Hampton and Tuskegee, and that the negroes here described are practically all tenant farm-hands. — THE EDITOR.]

I

IN this paper it is my purpose neither to run down nor to boost up the negro. My only hope is to give a true picture of what I see with my own eyes on my own plantation. I am not here speaking of the negro in general, but of my little family of tenants in particular. It should also be kept in mind that I am not so much concerned with the old-time darkey as with the younger negroes. Many learned to love the old-time negro, so humble, so courteous, and, many times, so faithful. But he is gone, and it is well; for were not his virtues those of a slave? And slavery is not a thing to love.

Let me say a few words about some of the common misconceptions of the Northerner. The first of them is that the negro is overworked. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of downright hard work, no negro that I have yet come in contact with in these parts knows anything. Rather than put his shoulder to the wheel, he will eat a straight diet of cracked corn, baked into bread with no seasoning save salt; he will go about in cold and rain, with barely enough dirty rags to conceal his nakedness; and he will live in a filthy hut that offers scarcely more shelter than a hogpen. And all this while his white landlord pleads with him to work, at good wages.

All told, throughout the year, the average tenant of my plantation works from ninety to one hundred and twenty days. And such work! moping — dragging — trifling! No Yankee farmer in Illinois would tolerate it for a moment. About ten acres of corn and six of cotton is his capacity. Of course, if his family is large, he can handle more. He has no garden to speak of, no meadow, no potato-patch, no poultry; and all this for the simple reason that he is too shiftless and indolent to care for such. One to three cows and a calf or two, together with his mule or work-horse and half a dozen ‘pine-rooter’ pigs, constitute his live-stock. So we see that almost no time is required for care of his stock. In winter, his cows, hogs, horses, and mule are turned out, to live or die. One wonders how he ever reached such consummate skill in killing time.

Regular, methodic work is utterly beyond any negro I have yet had on my plantation. At no price can any of my negroes be hired to work, rain or shine, hot or cold, for, say, ninety consecutive days. To be sure, many of them, if on the verge of starvation, and if the wage is sufficiently high, will promise and begin. But a week or ten days at the outset is the limit. In all likelihood, at the end of three days they will begin to play ’possum: they will have urgent business in town, or dangerous illness will be scented across the creek. Invariably, they will invent some smooth lie, on the strength of which they hope to get their pay in advance. They will need medicine, or the family will need meal, or they will have a pressing debt which they must pay before they can go on with their work. Always they practise a low, barbarous cunning. They will deceive you when it cannot possibly be of any advantage to them to do it.

But to get back to the matter of wage-hands — I have had day wagehands begin to whine for their day’s wage before the afternoon was half gone. Once a negro is paid in advance, I would like to see the man who can get a passable day’s work out of him in three days’ endeavor. None of my neighbors can do it, and it is needless to say that more authority than I possess is needed to do it. If I come down on him too hard, he slips out from under me, ‘snucks off,’ as he says, to the branch, for a drink, and then skulks to his cabin or the woods.

With all my efforts in the past four years I have failed to get an honest, fair, square day’s work for an honest wage. Leave him for half an hour, and, as surely as the sun shines, he will sit down on you. To send him to the field alone is beyond the most exalted hope of your Southerner; as well send a five-year-old child. Not one fieldhand have I had that I could trust.

In times of pressing need, our road commissioner has offered double wages for a day’s work, but he tells me that this does no good; for the negro will then work but half as much. If a negro wants a pistol, a pair of shoes, a saddle, or a rifle, he will work long enough to earn money with which to buy the coveted article. Once it is bought, he is then and there done with work for a long time to come. If he wants a quarter or half a dollar for his lodge dues, he will come and work just long enough to earn this, but not an hour longer.

A few times I have been foolish enough to employ negroes without the ready cash with which to make immediate settlement on completion of the work. In such cases they will hound one to distraction. I have been awakened in the middle of the night by negroes to whom I owed a quarter. Many times I have been awakened an hour before sun-up by creditors to whom lowed a dime. I have purposely put off men to whom lowed a dollar, to see how many times they would come for it. One old fellow came eleven times, and each time it cost him half a day and the invention of a new chain of lies. He might have earned five and a half dollars while hounding me for one.

I am told that, in parts of Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana, and in the more fertile parts of my own state, fieldhands are bound by contracts that virtually amount to peonage. If one jumps his contract, he is brought back by force — not the force of law, however, but that of his employer’s buggywhip. Beyond doubt, such inhuman methods are practised, or have been practised until quite recently. I am also fully aware that shameful horsewhippings with a buggy whip or trace have been resorted to in some places as a means of forcing a negro to work, once he was in the field. But this was before the late war and the great exodus of negroes to the North. Whether this is still the practice on large plantations, I cannot say. At no time since we have owned this plantation, — that is, in the past ten years, — has it been practised in this part of the state — Central Mississippi. I have my first negro-flogging to see, and I suspect that I shall never see it. Neither do planters in these parts bring back their runaway negroes wit h whip and pistol, or in any other way. I have known several negroes to sneak off in the middle of the cotton season; but none of the landlords sought to bring them back, although the negroes owed them considerable sums of money which had been spent for provisions, and notwithstanding the fact that the runaways’ cotton would be lost for want of labor.

II

A second misconception of the Yankee is that the negro is woefully cowed and maltreated in general. Not in this part of the state. There are a score of lawyers in Canton, our county seat, to defend him at law and uphold his rights. If it were not for the white bosses, the negroes would suffer immensely more than they do at present. It is to his white boss that the negro goes when in need of a physician. If I do not guarantee the local physician his fee, he will not visit the negroes on my place, for they would invariably seek some loophole of escape when his bills were presented. It is the white man who must arbitrate differences, protect one negro from other negroes, protect his crop from poor white farmers and pilfering negroes, supply ready cash to him for a multiplicity of exigencies which flash up during the year — aid in the erection of churches, in case of fire (which, let me say, is very frequent), give provisions and household necessities; of course, erect a new house; and, last of all, give advice each and every day in the year. Never a day passes without some negro coming for advice, and many times it must be given before he comes. When in trouble at the courthouse, that is, when sued or arrested, he goes to his white man; when starvation kicks so hard that he must seek work, he again goes to his white man; and lastly, when he wants credit he always goes to his landlord or some white man — and credit he must always have. If Uncle Albert has a balance of two hundred dollars, or four hundred for that matter, in the fall, when settlements are made, he will spend it in the most childish way imaginable, as will nine out of ten of my negroes. It will last only a few weeks. If I give him two months’ provisions in one lot, he will carry the greater part of them to the neighborhood girls, or sell them and spend the money. I have known him to come for a sack of flour, and carry it off to a mulatto girl, and the next day come back to me with a chain of cunning lies, on the strength of which he hoped to get more flour.

A plantation negro must have a stipulated allowance handed out weekly, or, in some cases, monthly. It must be charged against his future crop. The negroes themselves are the authors of the slavish credit system of the South. Foresight, as a white man practises it, is no virtue of theirs. No negro with whom I have come in contact in the past four years, with the exception of Uncle Charlie, has the power to save. Only in rare cases do we find fieldnegroes who can do this, and they very frequently become landowners. The average negro is in this matter, as he is in hundreds of others, like a child that has been freely pampered and coddled.

The now appeals more to a field negro than the to-morrow. Nothing can hold him if he wants to walk about, as he says, visit the neighborhood girls, or just bask in the sun. Hundreds of big stout men can be seen on the streets of the county seat and of the numerous villages throughout the county, each and every day, Sunday excepted. And all these idle, pilfering negroes are hopelessly in debt. The landlord’s corn rots in the field, his silo remains unfilled, his meadow wasting, and not a man can be hired. I pastured my meadow this year (1919), because I knew I could not hire a single man to help me put it up. Yet it is the landlord or some other white man who must advance the provisions regularly each year. It hardly looks as if the negro got the worst of it.

In some ways the negro is shamefully mistreated — mistreated through leniency. Ironclad laws and strict enforcement, such as some of them knew in the army, would be a blessing to the poor, improvident, suffering negro. Yet I know of no part of the United States where the laws are looser than here in Mississippi. The negro does almost as he likes, a few crimes of violence excepted.

It was once my good fortune to live for a short time in Regina, Saskatchewan. I was filled with admiration of the laws and of their enforcement, and of the respect of the people for law. I have often thought that, if we had a fewlabor laws in operation down here in my corner of the South, things would take on a different color. In the county in which I live no one even knows what a labor law is. To force a negro to work is utterly beyond their most exalted hope. They let starvation do this.

We should remember also that this leniency is practised in relation to their crimes as well as their shiftlessness. In November, 1919, Sandy, a young negro of this plantation, shot and killed Frankie, a young negro woman, the mother and sole support of three little girls. Sandy was fined one hundred dollars and sentenced to thirty days’ work on the streets of the county seat; but, on reconsideration, his sentence was commuted to seven days. Last winter (1918), Joshua Nichols waylaid and shot through the legs a harmless old mulatto, beat him over the head with a pistol, and left him to die in a chilling winter storm. For this atrocious crime, Joshua was given three years on the state farm.

For stealing, the penalty is very slight, generally nothing at all; for perjury, wife-beating, fighting, desertion of family, seduction of negro girls and women, generally nothing whatever is done in such out-of-the-way sections as this in which I live. Only in case of the gravest crimes does the law extend to such outlying districts as mine.

In another sense, the negro is gravely mistreated — through the efforts to get control of the money he makes from his crop. Very frequently the landlords lay out some bait to catch the negro’s money. This, together with the widespread indifference of the white man toward the negroes’ school, I consider among the worst charges against him in his relations with the negroes of to-day.

III

A third erroneous notion is that the negro is habitually good-natured and kind. I am told by aged Southerners that, during slavery, and for a number of years after the war, the meekness and lack of resentment of the negro toward the white man was proverbial. This is all changed with the younger generation. The average field negro of to-day is likely to be something of a brute in his own family, and sullen and surly in his relations with his own people, and with his landlord. It was only a few days ago that Bertha, a negro woman who lives just across the road from me, whipped her ten-year-old son to death. Down on the ground she held him, and with a doubled ploughline (small cotton rope) she beat and beat. Within an hour after the last whipping the boy died in a nervous fit. I was not at home when it happened; but my mother relates the case in much detail, having gone twice that day and stopped the woman from whipping her child.

My reader may ask why I did not prosecute her. I could not. Fifty negroes would have appeared in court to swear that she never touched the child, to say nothing of her white boss, who might likewise have sworn for her. Here again it is the landlord’s greed for a few paltry dollars that determines his conduct. She would not even have gone to jail, for her white man would have put up a thousand-dollar bond for her, and thus have saved her little crop and secured his rent fee of seventy-five or a hundred dollars. And here again the white man mistreats the negro by upholding him in his crimes.

Not a few times have I seen such attempted prosecutions come to naught. Perjury is no crime down here, and a negro will swear to anything under heaven if he thinks it to his advantage. A lawsuit with a plantation negro is an impossibility. Also, it must be remembered that little interest is awakened at the county seat by such crimes.

The question naturally presents itself: what do we see when we hold Bertha’s atrocious crime up to the light? I should answer, paroxysms of unrestrained rage. None of the negroes on my plantation try to restrain themselves in many instances where a white man thinks restraint imperious. Bertha was furiously mad, mad beyond any hint of restraint. Her fury had to spend itself, and it did.

We should not, however, say that the negro is unrestrained in all things, as so many casual observers do. The point is that he thinks self-restraint necessary only under very few circumstances.

As the women are often cruel to their children, so are their men often cruel to them. The negro woman gets her full quota of whippings. She must obey her man, or, as he says, ‘ take the timber.’ And such despotic authority as he exercises! If she wishes to go across the plantation on a neighborly visit, she must seek his permission. I have seen Bertha’s husband, Bavon, follow her about their premises, carrying a hickory stick, and swearing he would whip her if she did not do thus and so; and he did it, too. And still more brutal is the treatment of the old and feeble men and women who are beyond work. They too must ‘mind.’ Not long ago, I asked Uncle Will, an old, feeble tenant of mine, how he managed to live harmoniously with his aged and feeble mother, since her mind had failed and she had become so childish. His answer was ready. ‘Mr. Snyders, I’ze hab ter whip her; she just hab ter be fetched down.’ Likewise do they whip the insane. Since I came down, two negro girls in this neighborhood have gone insane. The parents of both girls whip them shamefully, saying they are too ‘hard-headed.’

Not only is our negro cruel in a direct way: he is cruel indirectly, as well. For example, Uncle Handy recently dug and sold most, if not all, of the potatoes his feeble old Martha raised. This was the only vegetable they cultivated during the year, and of course was much needed. Aunt Martha managed to raise some forty chickens — a very rare and remarkable thing. Handy sold the last one of them. He will spend every cent of the money from these sales on himself. I heard only a few days ago that he had set his mind on selling his hogs, thus depriving his family of their winter’s meat. Yet my reader should not forget that it was feeble old Martha and a fourteen-year-old girl who put out and cultivated the whole of Handy’s corn and cotton. Handy boasts that he turned not a shovelful of dirt during the year, and I think he is honest in his boast, for, so far as I know, he has not worked a single day during the year. Even if he does not sell his winter’s meat, once it is butchered, cured, and put away, he will carry the key of the meat-box; his family will have meat only at his pleasure. Just so they act in hundreds of instances; a generous deed, judged by our standards of culture, one seldom sees in a field negro.

Let me give a few more examples of negro customs, which seem to us cruelly selfish, but which a negro thinks nothing about. During the first year of the influenza epidemic, my man, John Bradshaw, a widower without children, was taken ill while visiting some relatives three or four miles away. Word came to John that the neighborhood hogs, which are always turned out to range where they will in the winter, were destroying his baled cotton. John then sent word to his nearest neighbor, who lived no more than a stone’s throw from the old stable in which John had stored his cotton, asking him to go out and nail up the door. Not a foot would that neighbor stir. ‘ Was n’t my cotton; ain’t my fault if de hogs eat hit up.’ A few months later the only cow of an old invalid negro, who lives about a quarter of a mile from John’s cabin, got tangled up in the briars within fifty yards of John’s front door. Do you think John would go out and release that cow, or even tell his neighbor about her? Not he. She died in his own door-yard.

Jealousy is a common variety of the negro’s selfishness. Last winter (19181919) I bought rubber boots for Uncle Albert and George, paying for the boots myself and giving the negroes an opportunity to work for me and return the purchase price. Robert, my old widower, wanted boots, but he had good shoes, so I thought he might work for his five dollars before I sent for the boots. This he would not do, offering one smooth lie and then another by way of excuse. Not until late in the spring did I learn of the refusal to work. A fit of rage opened the gates of his mind, and he told me that I had bought boots for the other negroes, and had let them wear them while working out the purchase price; but as I had refused to do as much for him, he thought his rights neglected. Needless to say, he waded through the snow and slush all winter rather than curb his child-like jealousy.

IV

A fourth misconception of the Northerner is that the negro can be readily taught. After reaching maturity, he is well-nigh hopeless. Experience seems to teach him almost nothing. For example, he will buy a horse, starve it, run it, overwork it, and expose it to the storms of winter. It gets poor, weak, and, in a few months, dies. He sees his white man’s horse well-kept and serviceable for a number of years. Yet, neither by his own experience, by observation of his landlord’s methods, nor by any process of reasoning on the part of his white man, can he be brought to see that his method is wrong. Obstinately set in his ways, and fearful of any change, he offers a problem that certainly is difficult of solution. He farms his little patch of land precisely as his parents and grandparents did; his children grow up in a striking likeness of himself; custom rules with an iron hand.

A reasoning man lays aside the conclusions of his ancestors and seeks conclusions from the facts before him. But this is not the way of primitive man. He reverses the process by holding fast to all the traditions handed down by his ancestors, and fails to draw inferences from the existing facts before him. It is the hand of the past that stands in the way of logical conclusions in my dusky brothers. My man, George, will under no condition carry fresh meat while riding his mare, saying it invariably causes her to lose her colt. I tell him that I have often carried fresh meat while riding my saddle mares; but, of course, to no avail. My assertions meet a long line of traditions, and traditions are not easily overcome. When a new condition presents itself, my negroes seem to go backward and associate it with whatever of personal and traditional experience they may have. To make of a man a reasoning being is to overcome the traditional associations of his mind.

V

Although my Northern friends believe our Southern negroes to be maltreated, cowed, and overworked, yet they also believe them to be cheerful, contented, and happy. A strange paradox seems this last of the misconceptions of which I shall speak. First, let me remind my reader that this is a land of barren hills and worn-out bottoms. The negroes in these parts farm land that was exhausted of anything like fertility forty years ago. Ten to fifteen bushels of corn is a good yield. Even in these days of high prices, eighty to a hundred dollars is an average allowance for six months’ provisions for a family of three or four. This is only fifteen to eighteen dollars per month. During my first year, not a few of the old and feeble begged at my door for meat-rinds. But however near the verge of starvation, they will not cultivate a garden, care for poultry, preserve vegetables or wild fruits, or milk a cow with anything like regularity.

They are almost invariably debt-ridden. I have but one on my place who does not have to be supplied with provisions. This is a land of deeds of trust.

Everything the negro owns must be put up with the landlord, merchant, or banker, as security for his provisions. And the provisions are nearly always doled out in small allowances — a little sugar, a few pounds of lard compound, a few cans of green coffee, and now and then a five-pound piece of salt pork, are all the negro may hope for.

Notoriously poor, debt-ridden, underfed — yes, this is right; now add to this the darkness of densest ignorance. No Northerner who has not studied conditions in the South, or among primitive people elsewhere, can by the wildest flights of imagination conceive an idea of the enormity of the negro’s ignorance. Of all the negroes on this place, I think of but one who can read and write. And writing among the educated runs something like this: ‘Hab yar pol shar har’ (Have your plough sharpened here). I happened to notice this on the side of a little blacksmith shop the other day. Few of them can add, subtract, or multiply. None of them know how old they are, and few know where they were born.

The average plantation negro knows almost nothing about the care of his body. He eats at any hour of the day or night, and when he eats, he gorges until it hurts. He is a fiend for snuff and cigarettes, and always has a mania for whiskey. His sleep is irregular, and his clothing almost never sufficient to protect him from rain and cold. He knows nothing of drugs. About a month ago, one of the negroes on my own plantation gave birth to a child. The custom is to summon no physician unless things go badly. Well, she did not recover as readily as she should; so about a week after the child was born, the doctor was summoned. He left some camphor with the instructions, ‘Add a few drops of camphor to half a glass of water and take every three hours.’ The girl thought it read, ‘Add a few drops of water to half a glass of camphor.’ She took a few doses according to this theory, and died from the effects.

The negro’s ignorance of the outside world is that of a little child. Cotton they believe to grow the world over. Washington and Florida, Maine and California, are only other Mississippis. To talk to them about the outside world is to talk in a foreign language, for about it they know nothing whatsoever.

Likewise are they ignorant of measurement. Throughout the whole of their lives my tenants have been renters, yet none of them can measure off an acre of land. None of them know how many acres they rent. They would not believe me if I told them. Last fall, Robert Southerland wanted to rent just forty acres, even. I offered him a piece of land which measured exactly eighty acres, but ‘Hit hain’t half ’nuff, boss.’ A negro knows his boundary as such and such a ditch, a big elm tree, or a sassafras thicket. But more than this he neither knows nor cares to know.

Again, the younger negroes are ignorant of the mechanical arts. They can neither mend their shoes with any degree of neatness, build a passable fireplace, nor repair or replace a broken spring in a pistol. About the history of the United States, none of them, old or young, know anything. No negro on this place can tell me one thing about George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, or Abraham Lincoln.

Now, add to the negro’s poverty, his debts, and his ignorance another common burden, that of being filthy, and we have, in a vague way, a picture of the happy negro in the sunny South! How filthy he is, no Northerner can imagine. His bedclothes he will use for months, and even years, without washing, and this in a notoriously sweaty climate, where both whites and blacks are liquefied daily for six months in the year. The dogs, chickens, hogs, and myriads of flies come and go about the house at their leisure. Very likely a sow or two and the smaller pigs will sleep under the house; for a certainty the dogs will. Such filth as may be found in negro cabins, I have nowhere seen the like of.

So we see that, from our standard, he lives a wretched life. But from his standard it is different. We must not think that he feels the weight of his ignorance, poverty, and squalor, as he would had he ever known anything different, or as a cultured person, be he black or white, would feel it. A field negro lives in a kind of perpetual doze, a dreamy haze. He is never very anxious for anything. I know of nothing that will stir him up to any marked degree except whiskey and a revival. Of the former he gets none, save a little moonshine, and the latter comes but once a year and lasts but a week or two. So his life moves on, year after year, with the greatest uniformity. Nothing disturbs for any length of time the uniform and listless torpor of his existence. The climate is a kind of natural anæsthetic to all kinds of acute pain. Life moves at a low pressure; at times the wheels can barely be seen to turn. Add to this his inevitable cigarette and omnipresent snuff, and some idea may be had of the sluggishness of a plantation negro.

To the average white man, the mind of a field negro seems to be a strange mixture of callousness and stagnancy. Of spiritual suffering he knows little. If his children die, he soon forgets it. Life is held cheap. Of all the graves in the old graveyard here on my plantation, only one is marked with headand foot-stone. There is not a single monument in the graveyard. Ask any of my negroes where his departed ones are buried, and he can only answer, Ou der somewha; I’ze da kna just wha.’ His sorrows soon slip away, and for his pleasures he never gets very anxious. Despondency is not for him; he is too indifferent to life for this. Suicide one never hears of in these parts; I know of not a single case. His wife may leave him and go to St. Louis with a neighbor’s son; his children may die of neglect, exposure, or disease; yet all this will not sadden his days. Like all primitive peoples, he cries and moans dreadfully for a few days, or weeks at most, then takes up with another mate and goes on reproducing his kind.

He is never long detached from life — a few days, or weeks, at most, cover the period of mourning. No catastrophe, however great, can long estrange him from his fellows. A negro hermit I have never seen. Solitude is unknown to any negro with whom I have yet become acquainted. He always wants to go, as he says, in a crowd.

So it behooves us to consider the mind of the negro, as well as his environment, before we say he is happy or miserable. Possibly he is neither happy nor miserable, as we conceive happiness and misery. He is primitive. We do not bemoan ourselves about the misery of the primitive Indians, and they live much like our primitive negroes. Yet somehow or other my Northern friends arc given to a long tale of woe about the poor negro. The truth is that his conditions are those of the primitive man, with a good deal of the white man’s civilization mixed in.