Selective history in the “Good Ol’ Days”

“What some folks now call the ‘good old days’ we knew then as ‘these trying times.'”

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My wife spends a lot of time in second-hand stores like Goodwill looking for bargains she can repurpose to sell in her vintage and home decor shop. Often she finds unusual books, as she did a few months ago.

The 150-page volume of 200+ photos and text extols the virtues of cotton. The cotton seed, the cotton plant, planting the cotton seed, herbicides, hoeing the rows, picking the cotton, hauling it to town, the gin, baling it. It’s all here, covering many years.

Author Harris Barnes was a lifelong son of the South (Mississippi for 72 of his 87 years), WW2 vet, farm manager and photo journalist in service to King Cotton. He died six days after finishing the book below. This article is not a criticism of Harris Barnes personally, nor should be construed as such.

This article is about how insular mindsets distort the whole story.

The book captures all phases of cotton farming and much of the culture surrounding it. Barnes was effusive in his praise for the plant and the people who worked with it, especially business people, innovators, farm owners, scientists and government employees. Despite its thoroughness in these areas it is a prime example of how merely assembling facts does not guarantee the entirety of truth. The book is as segregated factually as the culture in which it is set was segregated racially.

A worker moves a bale of cotton using a cart.

A worker moves a bale of cotton using a cart.

Workers handle cotton bales in a warehouse.

Workers handle cotton bales in a warehouse.

Man, mule, cotton

A “mule boy” takes freshly picked cotton to the “weigh horse” where the poundage would be recorded.

Feed sacks

A field hand transfers cotton seeds into a bucket.

Likely a share cropper, he plowed his field by mule.

Anthony Harris plowed his field by mule. This photo is in from the 1940s.

Picking cotton.

Picking cotton.

The author was sure to point out that some share croppers were White folks.

The author was sure to point out that some share croppers were White folks, but the majority of White folks pictured in the book were managers or farm owners.

Barnes, oddly, describes this share cropper's "home" as made of 12 inch cypress board and 4 inch batten. Not mentioned is that the house did not belong to the share cropper.

Barnes, oddly, describes this share cropper’s “home” (top left) as made of 12 inch cypress board and 4 inch batten. Not mentioned is that the house would not have belonged to the share cropper.

Farmer and company owners visit Texas to see a new mode of collecting and moving cotton.

Farmer and company owners visit Texas to see a new mode of collecting and moving cotton.

If these photos were on a Public Television documentary or a historical website describing the economy of early-mid 20th century Mississippi, it would not seem odd.

If they were part of an exhibit on how the cotton economy affected rural Mississippians, it would make sense.

Or if it was a history of the Mississippi Delta, or even the travails of poor folks in the South; after all, even small-time, non-share cropping White farmers plowed with mules.

Below are the front and back covers of the book with its title The Good Ol’ Days on the Cotton Farm. The phrase “Good Ol’ Days” is repeated over and over and over in the book.

And, the book was published in 2006, not 1950 or 1860.

“Good ol’ days” for whom, exactly?

For Black people who had few options other than cotton? For those who could do no better than share cropping? For those who couldn’t have left Mississippi cotton country with a one-way bus ticket and a suitcase full of new clothes?

The back cover shows folks in fields picking cotton.

The back cover shows folks in fields working cotton.

Cover

Insulated Thinking

There is virtually nothing in the cotton economy with which the author finds fault. On page 47 he writes,

That the culture of cotton required an economy that was labor intensive during the good old days was a condition of Southern agronomic royalty never seriously questioned at the time.

Cotton was, and is, special, a perk that comes with the territory of any king! [Emphasis in original.]

Not sure how many Black kings reigned in the Delta during those days, but you could probably count them on one finger or less.

The Good Ol’ Days on the Cotton Farm detaches cotton farming from all other segments of a very complex society–not the least of which was extreme segregation–and elevates it to Mount Olympus proportions.

The Mississippi of this era was anything but “good” for Black folks. Although 42-45% of the population was Black, only 5% of those voting aged were registered. During the “Good Ol’ Days” African-Americans were not admitted into the state’s namesake university. Peonage, a form of slavery, lasted in parts of Mississippi until the 1960s. Lynching didn’t end in Mississippi officially until around 1940.

Emmett Till was murdered in 1954, sunk in the Tallahatchie River by the weight of a gin fan (the connection to cotton farming being too ironic to miss). The two White suspects were acquitted. It took thirty years and three trials for the cowardly Klansman Byron Delay Beckwith to be convicted of the 1964 murder of Medgar Evers. In 2005 when the United States Senate issued an resolution apologizing to lynching victims and their families for not enacting penal legislation decades before, 80 of 100 senators were co-sponsors. Two of the 20 who didn’t co-sponsor were Mississippi’s Trent Lott and Thad Cochran.

If we could find the field hands pictured in the pages of The Good Ol’ Days on the Cotton Farm or the children of share croppers, would they view those times as the “good ol’ days” or “these trying times”? In 2016 I find few people longing for outhouses with the Sears, Roebuck catalog or the possibility of being lynched.

Insulated thinking causes us to elevate certain things to the exclusion of others. Insulated thinking causes us to ignore the facts that would bring low what we would seek to exalt; realities that balance the tale we would otherwise tell. It is dangerous.

The Old Testament of the Bible speaks of the “sons of Issachar” who “understood the times” (1 Chronicles 12:32). Followers of Jesus cannot understand the times unless we are willing to gain all the information necessary to do so. Understanding is formed with a breadth of knowledge, not by a dearth of it. A breadth of knowledge is best gained in a wide reading, not a narrow selection of our favorite authors or articles most shared on Facebook.

Barnes’s book could have easily presented its history of cotton farming while mitigating these ugly realities with a brief, respectful mention of the state’s history throughout which cotton’s fibers are inextricably woven. Something like: “This book by no means intends to downplay the harsh social realities that often played out in Mississippi during the years covered in this book. I hope they remain in the past with only days of partnership and respect across all racial and socio-economic lines in our future.” Instead, he refers to “that beloved, bygone era” (pg. 19).

The Good Ol’ Days on the Cotton Farm is not “revisionist history” but it is startlingly selective. It demonstrates the kind of insulated thinking that can bring us perilously close to a revisionist present.

Note: All photos in this post were taken by me from the pages and covers of The Good Ol’ Days on the Cotton Farm, Copyright 2006 by Harris Barnes, printed by Walsworth Publishing Company, Marceline, MO. Photos and text in the book are by Harris Barnes.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.