Op-Eds by Jim

My Cotton-Pickin Mama

June 24, 2018

It’s my mother’s 93rd birthday. I was thinking a lot about her in church today. She was 20 when I was born. I was her second child. She had four kids by the time she was twenty-four, during a period when my Air Force father was almost continually deployed to places like the wilds of Alaska and the grind of the Berlin Airlift. Her dad died when she was ten. Three of her seven siblings died during childhood, including her closest sister Eunice, who caught typhoid fever at the age of eight after drinking stagnant water from an old barrel in a neighbor’s backyard. My mom was smart but she did not have the chance to finish grade school. She worked in the fields from the age of ten.

Life was hard in East Arkansas – no social security, no Medicare, no Aid to Dependent Children, no school lunches, no Pell Grants for school, no survivor benefits for my Granny. You worked or you starved. My Dad met my Mom when she was seventeen. His greatest memory was not only of her violet-eyed beauty but that her hands were so rough from working in the fields that they felt like the bark off a tree.

All these memories came harshly back to mind this afternoon when I read an article on Yahoo.com. To quote in part:

David Bossie, a former deputy campaign manager for President Donald Trump, used a racist phrase to attack a black panelist on “Fox & Friends” on Sunday.

Bossie, president of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, ripped into Democratic strategist Joel Payne during a heated discussion about liberals’ reactions to the Trump administration’s contentious immigration policies.

“You don’t have to be a golden retriever to hear all the dog whistles coming out of the White House these days,” Payne said, accusing Trump of using racist rhetoric to rally his base around immigration.

“You’re out of your cotton-picking mind,” Bossie told Payne.

“Cotton-picking mind?” Payne responded. “Brother, let me tell you something: I got some relatives who picked cotton and I’m not going to sit here and allow you to attack me like that on TV.”

Fox News host Ed Henry apologized later in the show for Bossie’s comments. “David Bossie used a phrase that clearly offended Joel Payne and offended many others,” Henry said. “I don’t know what David meant by it. Fox News and this show, myself ― we don’t agree with that particular phrase,” he continued. “It was obviously offensive.”

Hours later, Bossie apologized on Twitter, saying he should have chosen his words “more carefully.”

So, let’s sum this up. The host did not know what Mr. Bossie meant by using the phrase “cotton picking” and indicated that he and Fox News do not agree with it. In its opening sentence on the controversy, Yahoo characterized “cotton picking” as a “racist phrase.” And now I guess the rest of us are supposed to put down “cotton picking” as a cultural no-no that cannot be uttered in public because it violates the ever-growing lexicon of political correctness.

Really? Let me offer a few thoughts.

First, “Cotton picker” has long been a common phrase in much of the South, with no racial connotations. Throughout my life it has been slung around with about the same level of camaraderie as, “hey, dude.” When I was a kid there was even a country song, mostly instrumental, called “Cotton Picker.” Another popular song, sung mostly on the white folks bandwidth, laments “Them old cotton fields back home.” The phrase “cotton picking” has been a part of normal usage for generations from white to white, as in, “you don’t know a cotton picking thing about what you’re talking about.”

Second, I don’t know Mr. Payne but if he has Southern heritage he should not feel unique, personally or as an African-American, to have “some relatives who picked cotton.”

Memo to Mr. Payne: I’m proud of my mother’s journey, Joel. Very few people in this country of any ethnic origin had it harder than my mother, and nobody complained less. And along the way, my mother picked a LOT of cotton. She also picked a lot of strawberries. And harder still for the energy it took, she chopped a lot of cotton – not many people even remember what that meant.

Nor was my mother in any way unusual for those who lived in the rural South in the post-Civil War, pre-World War Two days, either white or black. Massive poverty in the old South was not an African-American phenomenon. As I wrote in great detail in my cultural history Born Fighting, in 1936, there were 1.8 million sharecroppers in the South. And contrary to current perceptions,1.2 million of these sharecroppers were white. This is a direct mirror of the demography of the South, which was 71 percent white at the time.

The massively unfair Jim Crow laws about water fountains and seats on a bus were one thing, but economic well-being was another. From even the pre-Civil War times, the South was always a three-tiered society, with a veneer of White elites at the top manipulating less-advantaged whites and blacks against each other. According to John Hope Franklin, America’s most eminent African American historian, less than five percent of the Whites in the South owned slaves in the year the Civil War began, and fewer than 25 percent had any economic interest in slavery as an institution.

So, where does this leave us in our understanding of these critical issues after the exchanges of today?

Here’s a start: “You’re out of your cotton picking mind” may have been a veiled insult, hurled in response to Mr. Payne’s insults about the “dog whistling” verbiage of the Trump Administration. I don’t know. I did not watch the show. But “cotton picker” is hardly a racial slur. And to characterize it as such insults the struggles and the dignity of millions of White Americans whose own families endured similar hardships, many of whom are still struggling in today’s America, ignored by our country’ elites.

Here is yet another example of a blown opportunity to correct the great, ongoing disharmony in racial relations in today’s America. If they were wise, Mr. Payne, Fox News and Yahoo should all re-think their formulas. Disagreement might sell TV shows, but only well-intentioned leadership can solve problems. For decades I have sought to bring disparate racial groups together. Over the past ten years there have been insistent efforts, often based on the worst forms of self-interest and political malfeasance, to push them apart. Those of us who care will keep trying.

And Happy Birthday, Mama, you paid your price out there under the baking sun of those endless white-flecked fields. And I know you’re staring down at all this nonsense, shaking your head in heaven.

My favorite Cotton Picker.