BOOKS Contingent Lives

Contingent Lives
Reviewed by Terry Easton

Vol. 21, No. 3, 1999 pp. 19-21

Rebecca Sharpless, Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices: Women on Texas Cotton Farms, 1900-1940, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999


Neil Foley, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997


Despite the fact that cotton production in the South has been a perennial subject of research, two recent books about cotton farming in central Texas, Rebecca Sharpless’ Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices and Neil Foley’s The White Scourge, bring attention to a Southern cotton region so far given scant review. Readers already attuned to the intricacies and iniquities of the post-Reconstruction era crop-lien system in Deep South states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Mississippi will find recognizable features in Sharpless’ and Foley’s accounts. Perhaps unrecognizable, however, will be Sharpless’ and Foley’s delineations of the unique intersections between race, class, and gender in twentieth century central Texas cotton farming. Most significant, both authors deftly illuminate the ways that the standard black and white, tenant and landowner model of Southern race and class relations fails to adequately describe the cultural milieu of King Cotton in Central Texas.

Studying nearly identical geographic regions from roughly 1900 to 1940, Sharpless and Foley document similar facts about cotton farming in central Texas. Not only had Texas become the leading cotton-producing state in the nation by 1890, but by 1920 central Texas had become a highly racially-aware, multi-ethnic region comprised of African-Americans, Anglos, Czechoslovakians, Germans, Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans of various social classes including wage laborers, sharecroppers, tenants, and landowners. Moreover, marked by significant cultural and technological change, by the early 1940s cotton farming no longer held sway for many of the Texans who had once lived and died amidst the cyclical, often desperate rhythms of cotton cultivation.

Sharpless and Foley foreground different though concomitant reasons for the cultural and technological shift in central Texas cotton farming. Sharpless illuminates how, at least for those who could afford it, beginning gradually in the 1930s and then much more rapidly in the 1940s, the increasing use of the automobile shaped the cultural changes which occured in central Texas cotton farming during the first forty years of the twentieth century. The accompanying road improvements, the pull of people to cities and nearby market centers for entertainment and commercial consumptive practices, the greater access to labor-saving urban devices such as electricity and running water, and the growth of service-sector jobs and WWII industrial employment in towns and cities spurred rural-to-urban migration.

Despite sharing these and many other factual similarities, Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices and The White Scourge differ thematically, methodologically, and stylistically. Sharpless, for example, aims to document the daily lives of cotton-farming women of the Blackland Prairie, the “funnel-shaped expanse of chocolate-covered clay” in central Texas that connects San Antonio to Sherman, Paris, and other communities just north of Dallas. Sharpless organizes Fertile Ground,

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Narrow Choices

around women’s participation in the commercial economy (as field worker), the domestic economy (as housewife), and the reproductive economy (as mother). Sharpless analyzes the physical conditions of women’s daily lives to determine how a majority of them, especially those of the poorer tenant, sharecropping, and wage laboring classes coped with, among other things, the grim, daily reality of inordinately long workdays, shoddy housing, and insufficient or unhealthy supplies of food, water, and clothing.

Farm living was particularly harsh for children, and mothers did the best they could to provide ample food, clothing, and shelter for them. Blackland Prairie native Mary Ann Collier Campbell, for example, recalls that she and her siblings did not wear shoes from the time “the mesquite tree bloomed” until “the onset of winter.” Bernice Bostick Weir remembers a specific incident in her childhood on the Prairie: “When we moved down on the creek, there wasn’t any toilet. And so I don’t know how long it was we lived there-we’d have to go out around in the bushes or a ditch or something.” Inez Folley reveals that in her childhood strenuous labor permanently damaged her back: “And we had to bring water from the tank to the hogs. My brother was five years older than I, and we’d take a big tubfull of water and I’d hold one handle and he’d hold the other and so I know that’s why I had a weak back, is because I lifted too much, too hard a load, when I was young. My back was still growing.”

In what can only be described as a cruel irony, Sharpless demonstrates how, for many, living on the nutrient-rich Blackland Prairie, a place where a one-crop export economy dependent on prices determined far away prevailed, the basic requirements of life often proved elusive. “In Hill Country,” Sharpless writes, “a Mexican family of two children and three adults lived in a smokehouse with no floor or windows.” In 1920, an African-American woman on the Prairie reported that her family had been eating only twice a day because they were trying to “stretch their meager portions of food.” According to Sharpless, even though many tenants, sharecroppers, and laborers often moved in search of a better farming situation, they frequently ended the harvest just as they had begun it: “in debt and in want.”

Using autobiographies and memoirs, oral history interviews, and contemporary reports of rural reformers, Sharpless assembles a remarkable narrative of women who frequently worked from dawn to dusk as they “pulled in double harness” (worked at home and in the fields) to make life more bearable for their families and themselves. Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices is particularly strong when Sharpless draws from the perspectives and experiences of African-American, Anglo, Czech, German, Mexican, and Mexican-American women of the landowning, tenant, sharecropping, and laboring classes to illuminate the multiple ways that the lives of Blackland Prairie cotton-farming women intersected under the constraints of Southern patriarchy, racism, and class bias. When studying, for example, the foodways, folk cultures, communal events, consumptive practices, and labor patterns of Blackland Prairie women and their families Sharpless showcases her keen ability to analyze the ways in which gender, race, ethnicity, and class inflected the real and symbolic value of mundane items such as home heating systems, window screens, privies, housewares, staple foods, soap, water, clothing, farm animals, and implements.

Because Sharpless takes advantage of the quickly-dwindling opportunity to document orally the daily lives of early twentieth century central Texas cotton-farming women, Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices is imbued with a sense of urgency. Even though the grim, often desperate lives of rural women on Texas cotton farms are portrayed rather bleakly in Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices, Sharpless writes with a sense of guarded optimism. Rather than romanticize or portray Blackland Prairie women merely as oppressed victims of Southern patriarchy and national agricultural trends, Sharpless instead shows us how they “usually worked hard, tried their best, and sometimes failed in their attempts to create comfortable lives for their families and for themselves.” Because Sharpless masterfully weaves together oral and written sources, Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices reads effortlessly and intelligently. Most readers of history, particularly those sympathetic to oral history, will readily identify Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices as an historical account of central Texas cotton farming.

Less readily recognizable as traditional history, though equally important in understanding central Texas

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cotton farming and the cultures it produced, is Neil Foley’s The White Scourge. In addition to studying nearly all of the Blackland Prairie, Foley extends the imaginary borders of central Texas to include the eastern region of Texas which connects the Prairie to Houston, and the southern region of Texas which connects the Prairie to Corpus Christi. Similarly, Foley casts a wide net as he analyzes the ebb and flow of labor markets, migration, and immigration in central Texas. Whereas Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices relies on the pedestrian, everyday language of daily life on central Texas cotton farms, The White Scourge is steeped in the language of cultural studies. Peppered with phrases such as “racial geography,” “ethnoracial status and identity,” “wages of whiteness,” and “fissuring of whiteness,” The White Scourge can be added to the expanding corpus of historical studies which aim to contextualize the social construction of “whiteness.”

Foley deploys the contemporary metaphor “agricultural ladder” to explicate the Jeffersonian yeoman ideal which asserted the belief that white, male farmhands could climb ascending rungs from hired hand to sharecropper to tenant farmer to farm owner. According to this “master trope for agrarian whiteness,” farm ownership “was both the symbol of and the passport to full citizenship in the democracy of rural America.” Of course, in a period and region invested in racial and gender inequality, Anglo men, not African-American, Mexican or Mexican-American men and women, were expected to rise to farm ownership.

As Foley demonstrates how increasingly difficult it was for anyone to attain farm ownership in the cross-cultural borderlands of central Texas, he also elucidates how movement up or down the agricultural ladder refracted deeply held personal and public convictions about race, class, and gender indentity categories. White landowners, bankers, merchants, reformers, and eugenicists, for example, disparaged white men who did not ascend the ladder, positing their inability to rise as individual failings stemming from ignorance, inefficiency, laziness, discontentness, and shiftlessness rather than local and national problems such as soil depletion, the sharp rise in land value, the high cost of credit, and the low price of cotton. Foley’s overarching thesis clearly supports the idea that in central Texas, regardless of individual traits, the opportunity for tenants, sharecroppers, and wage laborers of any race to rise up from farm laborer to farm owner sharply dwindled with each passing decade.

In 1915, white cotton farmer H. L. Cook revealed the hardscrabble life of tenant farming when he reflected on his own life as a tenant farmer: “I have lived in shacks that were not as good as the landlord’s horse stable. I have dug wells, built houses, cow lots, hogpens, corncribs, horse sheds, grubbed out patches, repaired fences, cut ditches, all without cost to the landlord . . . . Our children grew up without education; and yet we are poor . . . . I will have to spend the rest of my days with broken-down health and pain and aches . . . . Shame, Shame on a system that will allow it.”

When white men failed to ascend the agricultural ladder, their degree of whiteness and masculinity waned in the eyes of upper-echelon whites. Alternatively, in some cases sharecropping and tenant Mexicans and Mexican-Americans with “manly courage” were viewed by some labor leaders, at least minimally and for a short time, less “dark” and therefore more “white” and “masculine” when they joined unions or organized their own, voiced their outrage about unfair credit practices and exploitative recruitment policies, or refused to work or live under unjust conditions proposed by cotton growers. Mr. Hernandez, a Mexican tenant for fifteen years and an organizer for the Socialist Renters’ Union and the Land League complained: “The landlord would not let me have land for a garden. He never has built a crib or . . . let me plant feed for my teams . . . . He does not want to fix the house for me. If a child walks across the floor the whole house shakes; the wind comes through the cracks. When it rains everything gets wet.”

For Foley, the white scourge was not, as novelist Edward Everett Davis in his 1940 novel The White Scourge and contemporary reformers proposed, cotton farming or even the “worthless human silt” and “white trash” it purportedly attracted like “iron filings to a magnet.” Rather, the white scourge exemplifies the way whiteness itself became a crucible for competing claims to racialized, gendered, and classed notions of power and privilege.

Using evidence primarily from archival collections, census reports, and governmental records, Foley provocatively illuminates how interactions between Anglos, African-Americans, Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans “ruptured” the “black-white polarity” of a cross-cultural, multi-racial borderland region simultaneously Southern and Southwestern. More than mere academic jargon, Foley’s linguistic and conceptual manipulations allow us to envision the expanding parameters of Southern labor studies and social history.

Whether read separately or in tandem, The White Scourge and Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices perceptively and incisively demonstrate how, during the first forty years of the twentieth century, central Texas cotton farmers lived, in Sharpless’ words, “contingent lives.”

Terry Easton is a graduate student in American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. His primary focus is labor history.