Much Needed Perspective From a Daughter of Sharecroppers


"I had a good momma and daddy," Dottie tells me, referring to those better known to a wider world as George and Annie Mae Gudger, heads of one sharecropping family profiled in the American classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee, with iconic photos by Walker Evans--such as this one of Dottie's mother. "We didn't have much, but what we had was made honest. I know people today couldn't work like they did."

Contemplating Agee's description of the work ethic required from the beloved subjects of his book, simply for their survival, I have to agree with her.

"It is for the clothing, and for the food, and for the shelter, by these to sustain their lives, that they work. Into this work and need, their minds, their spirits, and their strength are so steadily and intensely drawn that during such time as they are not at work, life exists for them scarcely more clearly or in more variance and seizure and appetite than it does for the more simply organized among the animals and for the plants."

With brain rot induced by MTV, an allure to laziness engendered by love of video games, ambition driven by materialist trappings, acceptance of a yoke of debt in exchange for a sleek car, over-priced shoes, designer clothes, or a TV screen bigger and flatter than the rough wooden table the Gudger family would have crowded around to take the sustenance needed to give them strength to work, in order to earn to earn more sustenance, today's younger generations have yet to grapple with how bad the economy really could get. "If the recession got as bad as the Great Depression, I really think these kids today might starve. They never had to learn how to work hard," Dottie says.

I don't admit to Dottie how sheepish and somewhat ashamed I feel during our conversation, reflecting back on the one time in my life I spent time working in a field. The summer of my 13th year I stayed with relatives in central Ohio. When my Aunt Beth saw a classified ad for a local farm in the newspaper, she asked if I'd like to earn a little extra spending money picking blueberries. With visions of new clothes breakdancing in my head, I set an early alarm so my aunt could drop me off at the farm by 7 am.

I picked and picked and picked, crouched under a canopy of branches to shelter myself from the sun, working to perfect the technique of pulling an entire cluster off the bush without crushing a single blueberry. With the morning sun just beginning to emanate a kind of heat foretelling the coming of a scorching afternoon, I proudly presented my first full bucket of blueberries to the field foreman just before 11 am.

"Good work," he said. "You've earned three dollars and sixty-seven cents."

After nearly four hours crawling through the field, sweat drenched my hair; dark brown mud painted my long pants and tennis shoes; purple stains speckled my face and covered my fingers; scratches marked jagged red scrawls across my hands and face; my back and neck ached from the hours hunched under the bushes. I'd never known such exhaustion. The only reason I had no thoughts of hunger was because I'd eaten every blueberry accidentally crushed by the clumsiness of my inexperienced fingers. All that work wouldn't even buy me a McDonald's super-value meal. "This is bullshit," I thought, abandoning my bucket by a truck and sneaking away from the farm so none of the other workers would see me giving up.

I walked about a mile to the nearest payphone and called my grandmother to come pick me up. The rest of the afternoon I spent lounging on her couch in the air conditioning, watching MTV and nursing wounds aggravated in their seriousness by my own perception of the hardship I'd endured during four hours in the field.

Dottie considers herself fortunate to have never had to pick cotton with the rest of her family. Despite the portrayal of her father as a strict taskmaster in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, George Gudger was sensitive to the fears of his youngest child. "Daddy wouldn't let me work in the fields," Dottie explains. "All my life I had a deathly fear of caterpillars. Can't stand the thought of them."

Dottie's talk quickens as she even thinks about caterpillars; I scribble almost incomprehensible notes to keep up with her: "If there's a caterpillar on the porch, I won't go outside. If they're in a tree in my yard, I'd want the tree cut down. I won't even grow a pecan tree. Caterpillars like the pecans. Seeing caterpillar webs in the branches is enough to make me sick. I don't like snakes, but I'd rather a snake crawl across my foot than a caterpillar."

She doesn't know where her phobia of caterpillars came from, but the proliferation of the fat green, brown and black armyworms that love to munch leaves of cotton plants made the fields a source of terror for her. Her daddy didn't make her face the caterpillars in the fields, but that doesn't mean she sat around the house while the rest of the family worked. Laundry, cleaning, preparing food--Dottie had plenty to do in helping keep up the household during her formative years.

This admirably dedicated work ethic instilled by her parents during childhood has stayed with her throughout her life. Now well into her 60s, Dottie finds it difficult to NOT work. She's currently nursing a wrenched back, the result of rearranging and cleaning up her front porch--against doctor's orders.

After recent surgery for a slipped disc, Dottie's doctor demanded that she take it easy until he determined that her back had healed enough for her to resume normal activities. "But I can't just sit around," she says. The porch has gotten too cluttered for her liking; there is gardening to do; the elephant ears are growing out of control, choking out other plants in her landscaping. "I can't just stop because my back hurts. I have to keep working."

NOTE: Keep an eye out for more about my visit in Moundville, AL in a forthcoming issue of The Atlantic magazine.