Cotton Farmers and Racism
When I reviewed James Agee’s Cotton Farmers in CounterPunch a few months ago (July 5-7), I received an email from a reader who recommended that I read John H. Hayes’ recently-published Abanda, which is concerned with the same topic except that it’s a novel instead of non-fiction. The three families described in Cotton Farmers are white, with only a passing reference to black families at the end of the book, though Agee indicates that their situations are worse. This is what we observe in Hayes’ compact and subtle narrative, which focuses on the lives of two ten-year-old boys (one white and one black) in rural Alabama during World War II. Hayes held an endowed chair of theology at Emory University for many years; his background has clearly influenced the novel’s ethical context without becoming didactic or preachy.
The boys—Josh, who is white, and Albert, who is black—are inseparable, no doubt because their fathers are sharecroppers working the land for the same landlord, Mr. Green. Both families are poor—perhaps the only leveling factor in Hayes’ story. The boys attend separate, segregated schools, both in the fifth grade. In an early incident that spells out the total permutation of racism in the boys’ lives, we observe Josh entering Albert’s house, though Albert is not permitted to enter Josh’s. Otherwise, they are like “two pods in a pea,” as a black minister refers to them late in the story after Albert’s older brother has been killed in the war.
At the funeral, the minister makes one of the novel’s few racial statements: “Darrell quit school when he was sixteen. I tried to get him to stay in school, but he said he didn’t see how it would hep him none. He tried to get a job but couldn’t find none. He tried to join the military, but they wont take him till the war broke out. Hits a shame it took the war to
give him a chance at making somptin out of his life. Maybe he owed his chance to the Japanese more than to the Americans.” The quotation refers to the status of African-American solders in World War II—not sent to the front to fight, but kept in menial jobs, such as stevedores, cooks, and worse.
Josh is the only white person to attend Darrell’s funeral, though the mothers of the two ten-year-olds are quite close to one another. That is not true of their fathers, even though both men work together during the harvest season when
cotton is picked. The novel describes the cycle of planting through harvesting in incredible detail. Guess whose cotton is picked first? There is one other connection between the boys’ fathers: Josh’s father, Will, and Albert’s father, John Eddie, are joined together by the illegal liquor the latter brews. The problem is that John Eddie sells the stuff, while Will drinks too much and is known in the community as a drunk.
It’s the liquor that flips the lives of the two boys upside-down. Shortly after the harvest season (when the two men have worked together), there’s a disagreement between the two over some money. Josh’s father, who is drunk, shoots Albert’s father, point blank. John Eddie dies soon afterwards. There’s a trial, of course, but the jury is composed of twelve white men. It’s not very difficult to predict the result. The prosecutor even brings up Eleanor Roosevelt in his attack on John Eddie, singling her out as a member of the NAACP, a “pro-communist, anti-American organization,” implying that all blacks share these beliefs. The fact that her husband is President of the United States and a Democrat apparently is of no significance in the South. The rest of the brief novel is devoted to restoring the trust of the two boys in one another, no easy task given the situation of Albert’s family. With no adult male to work the farm, Mr. Green sees no reason to keep them on his land. And that final incident in the plot jerks the reader back to another awareness of the precariousness of all sharecroppers (cotton farmers) under such a vile form of servitude.
Abanda is not without its weaknesses. The opening chapters are somewhat belabored, the prose heavy, the dialect burdensome. But all that quickly changes as Hayes introduces additional characters and evidence of careful plotting as if it took him a while to hit his stride. But this is the author’s first novel, after a distinguished career in the academy. Ideally, James Agee’s Cotton Farmers and John H. Hayes’ Abanda should be read back-to-back: first the sociological context of Capitalism’s contemptible disguise of slavery. And then the reality.
John H. Hayes’ Abanda
Wipf and Stock, 149 pp., $17.10.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.