The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #90399 Message #1713436
Posted By: NH Dave
08-Apr-06 - 08:16 PM
Thread Name: Origins: Pick a Bale of Cotton
Subject: RE: Pick a Bale of Cotton.
From the introductions I have heard I have always thought it a Black "Bragg Song", like John Henry, where a superhuman John was said to have beaten a steam-powered drilling machine, hand drilling with a "ten-pound singlejack hammer", a steel drill, and a shaker, a man who holds the top of the drill, and turned it a small fraction of a turn after each hammer blow, so the next blow would land on an unstruck place in the bottom of the hole.
Cotton picking was hard, hot, bent back, labor; done by the black slaves in the early 19th century. Unless you had a field with extremely prolific cotton plants, picking 500 lbs of cotton, a "standard bale" in one day, was an ideal impossibility, something to aim for. Thus a claim to be able to pick a bale of cotton would be like Paul Bunyan yoking Babe to a length of windy road and "pulling out the slack/turns" and by doing so, gained enough road to service the entire logging camp, or Pecos Bill riding a tornado to a frazzle; something impossible but still something held up as an ideal.
The fact that cotton picking was done by black slaves before our Civil War, and by people of both races, for hire, afterwards, is a matter of fact, and should not be taken as derogatory or demeaning of or to blacks. It was a fact of life, just as Irish dug many a canal, sunk many a caisson down to the rock below the surface of the river to set one of the pillars or towers for a bridge, or, along with Chinese laborers on the western half of our transcontinental railroad, laid hundreds of mile of railroad track in good and horrible weather, for poor wages. The fact that these people were "free" as in "not physically enslaved", as opposed to being limited in the type of job any of these groups of new immigrants could or were allowed to do, does not detract from their feats.
Yes, many of our southern plantation owners treated their black slaves horribly, but others treated them better and often taught them a bit of reading and simple mathematics, actions forbidden by law, to better themselves, or become more valuable to their owners and masters. Yes, slavery was an abomination, just as the segregation that took its place, and paying or treating folks differently based on their sex. What we need to remember is, it was a white man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, it was a white retired colonel from Missouri, a former slave state, who signed the bill integrating our military. It was another white, retired army General, from Texas, a slave state, who sent the federal marshals and National Guard to the Little Rock Schools so blacks could attend the same schools as the whites. And it was yet a fourth white man, from Texas, who pushed through his dream of "The Great Society" so blacks could get a fairer chance for work, schooling, and even welfare as needed.
It was a black doctor who studied and taught agriculture to the people around him to better themselves. It was a black, raised in slavery, who was freed and eventually became a member of Congress, who served the country well and by so doing, helped his people. The first black Army General, was a graduate from West Point, fifty-odd years before the military was integrated, and his son, became the second black serving line officer, serving in both the Army and Air Force General, much of his service in a segregated army air corps. He served with the "Tuskegee Airmen", a trial fighter squadron taught to fly near Tuskegee Institute, George Washington Carver's school for black youth. These black pilots, flying P-51 fighters escorted American medium and heavy bombers from Italian airfields in bombing raids over Ploiesti, in Romania, to take out German oil production, and have the distinction of never losing a bomber to fighter action during this campaign, a claim no other fighter outfit can make. The "Red Ball Express", a fast hauling logistical transport group who drove day and night to move food, equipment, and arms from Atlantic ports to front line areas, to support the Allied advance from the D-Day landings to the eventual fall of Germany, predominantly relied on black drivers and mechanics.
Blacks were unfairly oppressed during the slave days, and then as free men, all the way up to the 1960's, but by and large, given the chance to learn or serve in our military they distinguished themselves, one reason why Truman integrated the services around 1947, and Eisenhower sent Federal Marshals and Army troops into the south to enforce integrated schools. Both periods are important in their gaining their eventual freedom and the respect of their fellow men. It isn't completely over, but objecting to the singing of songs of the slave days does little to advance equality, as compared with gaining an education, and proving by one's achievements what the black people can do when allowed to try.