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On "Sharecroppers"

Matthew Lessig

Sterling Brown intended to include "Sharecropper" as part of the "Cotton South" section of his collection No Hiding Place (where it appears in a slightly different version under the title "Sharecroppers"), but could not find a publisher for the manuscript. "Sharecropper" was first published in 1939 in Get Organized: Stories and Poems about Trade Union People, one in a series of "literary pamphlets . . . written for members of trade union and other progressive organizations" put out by International Publishers, a New York publishing house affiliated with the Communist Party. Though IP achieved fairly wide distribution of their publications—marketing them through "a network of left-wing and CP-related bookstores and through the movement apparatus itself" (Williams 373)—probably very few southern sharecroppers ever read or heard the poem. Many sharecroppers, white and black, could not read; of those who could, many would not have been able to afford even the ten-cent cost of a copy (most sharecroppers did their "spending" on credit at stores that were owned by their landlords and that rarely, if ever, sold any of IP’s titles). Furthermore, the two "progressive organizations" in the rural south that might have been able to smuggle copies of Get Organized to their impoverished members—the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) and the Alabama Sharecroppers’ Union—were both in disarray by 1939, in part because of their affiliations with the United Cannery, Agricultural, and Packing Workers of America (UCAPAWA), a CIO trade union.

Thus, the likely audience for Brown’s poem would have been members of urban, industrial trade unions or other progressive organizations and individuals associated with America’s cultural Left. We should, then, read Brown’s poem as speaking on behalf of southern sharecroppers in the rural south, who lived relatively distant from the centers of trade unionism, progressive politics, and literary culture in the Depression years. This is not to say that the sharecropper was a "forgotten man." By 1939, sharecropping had become a cause célèbre of Depression culture, featured in journalistic exposés, the documentary photography of the Farm Security Administration, March of Time newsreels, Hollywood films, Broadway plays, and popular novels. As part of this broader discourse, Brown’s poem draws attention to the plight of the sharecropper and tries to generate sympathy for unions in sore need of political allies and financial assistance.

In making his sharecropper a figure of interracial union solidarity, Brown dramatizes the crucial struggles of sharecropper unions in the segregated South. The very title of the poem is fraught with the complex history of race and class relations in the plantation economy. Economically and socially, the term "sharecropper" signified one of the lowest rungs on the Southern agricultural "ladder," the allegedly meritocratic hierarchy of agrarian status that rose from wagehand through sharecropper, share tenant, cash tenant, and owner. Cash tenants were essentially renters. They supplied mules and tools as well as their labor and could claim ownership of their crop. They typically owed their landlord a third of the proceeds from their cotton crop but retained more independence than sharecroppers in managing their allotted land and the right to market the cotton they raised. Sharecroppers, on the other hand, were little more than wage laborers who, at year’s end, earned half the value of the cotton they raised. They had no legal claim to this crop and were subject to greater supervision of their labor than cash tenants. Thus, tenants maintained a greater degree of autonomy and more closely resembled independent owners. As Alex Lichtenstein explains, "The further down the agricultural ladder one went, the more dependent one became upon the landlord for management, housing, tools, seed, fertilizer, mules, and everything else, and the more of the crop went to the landowner for both rent and to pay back cash advances made at the beginning of the season" (28).

Historically, sharecropping emerged during Reconstruction as a "sequel to slavery," a means of luring recently freed slaves back to laboring in the Southern cotton fields. While granting freedpeople the right to work in family units rather than gang labor, sharecropping denied their ambitions for farm ownership, for "forty acres and a mule," instead reinscribing Southern blacks into the dependent relations of (white) plantation paternalism. In a land still ideologically governed by the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent smallhold farmer, or yeoman, as the guarantor of republican freedom, farm ownership "defined the boundaries of yeoman manhood and served as the master trope of agrarian whiteness" (Foley 141). Thus, sharecroppers bore several stigmas. First, in a culture founded on white supremacy, sharecropping represented a form of agricultural labor traditionally coded as black. Second, by the Jeffersonian standard, sharecroppers represented dependent and therefore unmanly laborers rather than independent farmers. Third, working at the bottom of the agricultural ladder, sharecroppers were viewed as failed farmers, and even biologically inferior types (white and black), mere "human debris." As one 1930s visitor to the South observed, "the word sharecropper itself has come to be used as a term of contempt" (qtd. in Lichtenstein 34).

Had Brown’s poem been published in 1929, its title would have likely evoked traditional images of the South’s black "peasantry" from most readers. But by 1939, America had been scandalized by the belated recognition that over the preceding decades millions of whites had lost their farms and fallen into tenancy. Thanks to the efforts of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, the photographic images of the Farm Security Administration, novels such as Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, and numerous journalistic exposés and documentary books, the public face of the sharecropper had paled considerably and the term "sharecropper" had acquired sensational tones. Two publications, both capitalizing on the 30s vogue for confessional documentary, featured the title "I Was a Sharecropper": white novelist Harry Harrison Kroll’s 1937 autobiography and a 1939 Farm Security Administration pamphlet (with a cover photograph of what seems to be an axe-toting, white frontiersman) promoting Federal relief efforts in the rural South. By the late 1930s, the sharecropper was established in the national imagination as a contested figure of racial hybridity, class tension, and regional conflict, a figure whose homely appeals to America’s ideal of the family homestead competed with his stark display of America’s history of racial oppression and class conflict.

Dorothea Lange’s "Hoe Culture" suggests the racially unsettled and ideologically conflicted character of the sharecropper in the public imagination and the public domain. Lange’s photo, taken in Alabama in 1936 for the Farm Security Administration, presents a begrimed Southern farmer whose racial identity, thanks to Lange’s headless framing of the shot, remains tellingly ambiguous. Instead, Lange directs our gaze to her subject’s calloused hands, tattered clothes, and pre-modern tools, foregrounding the desperate poverty of Alabama’s rural proletarians while championing the quiet dignity of their farm labor. "Hoe Culture" evokes Jefferson’s famous celebration of the agrarian ideal—"Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people"—to both ennoble its subject and to indict the economic system that betrays such an American icon. As part of the public domain (FSA photographs were and are public property), "Hoe Culture" has lent itself to various racial readings. For example, the first image below (Fig. 1), taken from the Library of Congress’s "American Memory" website, shows what is arguably a dirt-covered white farmer. The second image (Fig. 2), taken from Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices (1941), significantly darkens the image. In, 12 Million Black Voices, Lange’s photograph serves as the frontispiece to Wright’s chapter on African-American history, "Our Strange Birth," graphically suggesting a point of origin for a narrative of "three hundred years of oppression in America" (Wright 11).

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Fig. 1

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Fig. 2

With this cultural history in mind, we might begin reading Brown’s poem by asking, what is the racial identity of the poem’s protagonist? The safest answer is that we can’t say for sure. Arguably, the poem’s strongest lexical indicator of race is the dialectical "dis" in its concluding lines. Though Brown is well known for his black dialect poetry, "Sharecropper" conserves black dialect for the direct discourse of its martyred hero’s dying words, thereby postponing a race conscious reading until it can be subsumed within the poem’s class conscious closing appeal. Some readers may argue that the lynch drama developed in the poem’s first stanza strongly suggests that Brown’s protagonist is black. But while black members of sharecropper unions did bear the greater part of anti-union violence, whites were commonly attacked as well. In fact, in January of 1936, Time magazine covered the story of the white minister (and union organizer) Rev. Claude Williams and his female companion, "Memphis socialite" Willie Sue Blagden, who were flogged by planter-paid thugs in eastern Arkansas while investigating the disappearance of a local black sharecropper.

Still, by trading in lynch violence, "Sharecropper" risks opening deeply rooted racial divisions at the same time that it seeks to forge interracial class bonds. Overwhelmingly, such violence in the South was perpetrated by whites on blacks in the name of white racial superiority and solidarity. The poem’s mob of landlord, sheriff, and "riff-raff," while not explicitly identified by race, conforms to the conventional white cast of Southern lynchings and suggests the brutal defense of white privilege celebrated in popular white supremacist fictions such as D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and excoriated in the era’s campaigns for Federal anti-lynching legislation. Even though Brown could presumably rely on his progressive reader’s sympathy for the anti-lynching cause, the poem’s second stanza can only counter these dramatized racial tensions with references to offstage white and black union "brothers" and with a martyr’s confidence in a brighter union future.

While the protagonist’s race may be ambiguous, every sentence of the poem makes clear his gender: Brown’s sharecropper takes his lethal beating and keeps his union secrets "like a man." In repeatedly emphasizing his hero’s manhood, Brown exploits a familiar rhetorical strategy of Southern union organizers, "disarming the racism of white workers through an appeal to the masculinity they were said to share with Blacks" (Roediger 165). I. W. W. organizers such as Covington Hall and Ed Lehman generated union solidarity between whites and blacks by "inserting gender as a middle term" between race and class (Roediger 158). As opposed to scabs and non-union workers, union members were men (regardless of race) who defended their rights and families by challenging their capitalist bosses. In the 1930s, the STFU patterned their own organizing efforts after the Wobbly model. As STFU secretary H. L. Mitchell proclaimed, "there are no ‘niggers’ and no ‘poor white trash’ in the Union. These two kinds of people are all lined up with the Planters. We have only Union men in our organization" (qtd. in Dunbar 107). In "Sharecropper," this rhetoric finds expression in the "well-armed riff-raff in the pack," who assault the hero, and in the "brushwood" that must be cleared away for the union’s "white oak" and "black-oak" to prosper. Both examples are charged with gendered values. In the first, the heroism of the lone union man confronts the cowardly lynch mob; in the second, two phallic oaks rise from the forest debris.

But with both examples class identities inform gendered values. In casting what are presumably non-union whites as feminized "riff-raff" and "brushwood," Brown draws on traditional "redneck" discourses of poor white vilification that elite whites frequently used to denigrate the character and even question the racial purity of white sharecroppers. As with the lynch drama in the first stanza, these characterizations threaten to undermine the poem’s project of forging interracial union ties by invoking traditional stereotypes of lower class whites. If the protagonist is ultimately identified as a black sharecropper, then no "manly" union whites appear in the poem, and we are left with only the forecasted and symbolic "white-oak" to represent the agency of sympathetic white sharecroppers. Like its hero, Brown’s poem will not or cannot identify the place or the identity of its white union brothers.

In negotiating the pitfalls of Southern race and class ideologies through the middle term of agrarian manhood, "Sharecropper" foregrounds another dilemma faced by those attempting to unionize farm laborers: how to reconcile industrial unionism with rural republicanism. The agrarian association of manhood and planting that informs the poem’s closing appeal to interracial collective action borrows from the yeoman ideal that underwrites the agricultural ladder and traditional Jeffersonian republicanism. According to the logic of the agricultural ladder, blacks and sharecroppers were deemed unfit for land ownership, the sine qua non of agrarian manhood and whiteness. Like the STFU, Brown’s poem tries to rearticulate agrarian manhood to an interracial ideal of union commitment. But the experience of the STFU testifies to the difficulty of divorcing manhood from land ownership. By the mid-1930s, the independent small farmer had become an anachronism in the Southern black belt, yet the family farm, grounded in the patriarchal appeal of yeoman manhood, continued to figure prominently in the union’s goals and self-definition. Despite its name, there were virtually no tenants in the STFU. Centered in the Mississippi Delta of eastern Arkansas, the STFU organized sharecroppers and day laborers working on the region’s large cotton plantations. While the postbellum capitalist transformation of the rural South had consolidated land ownership in the hands of the few and reduced the mass of rural Southerners to proletarianized farm laborers, the union’s leadership repeatedly proved unwilling to fully confront these historical changes. The STFU elided the class differences among owners, renters, and croppers by defining their membership as "working farmers," thereby representing the "aspirations of its members rather than the reality of their situation" (Foley 186).

The STFU’s desperate fidelity to the yeoman ideal also doomed the union’s short-lived affiliation with UCAPAWA. The STFU joined this Communist-led, CIO union in 1937 after much debate and soul searching. But by 1939, the STFU had left UCAPAWA. The Socialist STFU—which saw itself as a "successful combination of a union and a movement for social emancipation" (qtd. in Lichtenstein 50)—could never assimilate to what H. L. Mitchell derided as "craft unionism in the cotton fields" (qtd. in Foley 193). To some extent, these tensions represented the incompatibility of the industrial union model with the cultural and economic conditions of Southern farm workers: "STFU members remained rooted in the land, farmed on shares [rather than earning wages], met in rural churches, and never had enough cash to pay the poll tax, let alone union dues" (Lichtenstein 44). But the STFU’s dream of resuscitating the family farm—whether through private ownership or some form of voluntary collectivization—proved the ultimate sticking point: the STFU refused to follow UCAPAWA’s directive to divide itself into separate unions for sharecroppers and tenants, farm laborers and farm proprietors.

Melodramatic in action and triumphant in tone, Brown’s "Sharecropper" delivers a stirring call to arms for interracial organizing in the rural South. Yet it is also riddled with the complexities and contradictions of its subject. Despite its selective use of black dialect, "Sharecropper" demonstrates that "the option of a ‘raceless’ language was an illusory one" in the Jim Crow South, where race structured understandings of class and gender as well as determining economic and political status (Roediger 151). To speak of class or gender was also to speak of race. And vice versa, for the mutual dependency of these terms conditioned life and labor in the cotton fields.

Works Cited

Brown, Sterling A. "Sharecropper." Get Organized: Stories and Poems about Trade Union People. Ed. Alan Calmer. New York: International Publishers, 1939.

Dunbar, Anthony P. Against the Grain: Southern Radicals and Prophets, 1929-1959.   Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1981.

 Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection. 15 Dec. 1998. American Memory. Library of Congress. 11 Sept. 2001. <>.

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

Lichtenstein, Alex. "The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union: A Movement for Social  Emancipation." Introduction. Revolt among the Sharecroppers. 1936. By Howard  Kester. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1997. 15-61.

Roediger, David R. "Gaining a Hearing for Black-White Unity: Covington Hall and the  Complexities of Race, Gender and Class." Toward the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working-Class History. London: Verso, 1994.

Williams, Jim. "International Publishers." Encyclopedia of the American Left. Eds.  Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1992: 372-74.

Wright, Richard. 12 Million Black Voices. 1941. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 1988.

Copyright © 2001 by Matthew Lessig. Adapted from Black Folk/White Bondage: Race, Class and the Literature of Sharecropping, 1925-1942, a dissertation in progress.

Mark A. Sanders

The sheriff and his "well-armed riff-raff" represent the "tens" that come to reinforce white supremacy. In the tradition of Crispus Attucks McKoy and Wild Bill (both to be seen in Brown’s last collection), the Union member stands against overwhelming numbers and thus gives his life for larger and more important principles. In stating "We gonna clean out dis brushwood round here soon, / Plant de white-oak and de black-oak side by side," the Union member reveals a vision of racial solidarity that would ultimately resolve the tension of the era.

From Afro-American Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling A. Brown. Copyright © 1999 by the University of Georgia Press

Jean Wagner

Like the democratic ideal, the notion of trade-union solidarity seems unable to bring about, in the foreseeable future, a bond of brotherhood between the races. Either of these goals comes to resemble a trap that has been prepared to ensnare the black. It can lead to death; it does not enable him to live. Witness to this fact is the black hero of "Sharecroppers," shot down by his boss for refusing to reveal the names of the comrades, black and white, whom he had seen at the union meeting. As he gives up his life for his trade-union ideal, he does indeed declare his faith in interracial brotherhood -- but this, it is quite clear, will not be achieved tomorrow.

From Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

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