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Sharecropping

A practice that emerged following the emancipation of African-


American slaves, sharecropping came to define the method of land
lease that would eventually become a new form of slavery.
Without land of their own, many blacks were drawn into schemes
where they worked a portion of the land owned by whites for a
share of the profit from the crops. They would get all the seeds,
food, and equipment they needed from the company store, which
allowed them to run a tab throughout the year and to settle up once
the crops, usually cotton, were gathered. When accounting time
came, the black farmer was always a few dollars short of what he
owed the landowner, so he invariably began the new year with a
deficit. As that deficit grew, he found it impossible to escape from
his situation by legal means. The hard, backbreaking work led to
stooped, physically destroyed, and mentally blighted black people
who could seldom envision escape for themselves or their children;
their lives were an endless round of poor diet, fickle weather, and
the unbeatable figures at the company store. Those with courage to
match their imaginations escaped under cover of darkness to the
North, that fabled land of opportunity.

As a theme in literature, sharecropping stretches from the late


nineteenth century into the contemporary era. Charles W. Chesnutt
would write in The Wife of His Youth and Other stories of the
Color Line (1900) as well as in his novels of the convict lease
system that imprisoned black men in the same manner as
sharecropping. Jailed on false charges of vagrancy, these men
would in turn be hired out as cheap labor to local whites. This new
prison environment was practically inescapable. Sterling Brown
would paint equally vivid pictures of the inability of sharecroppers
to escape their plight and of their paltry efforts to make do with
what they had. His collection of poems, Southern Road (1932),
documents the lives of rural blacks tied to unyielding soil and
uncompromising landowners.

Sharecropping as an impetus to migrate north occurs in some of


the works of Richard Wright and John O. Killens. A different kind
of freedom is suggested in "A Summer Tragedy" (1933), a short
story by Arna Bontemps, where a defeated elderly couple simply
get into their car and drive into a river. The story therefore captures
the spirit of despair that informs a lot of Wright's works. For most
of the characters in his Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), freedom is
not something they can begin to visualize. Many of the characters
in Ernest Gaines's works find themselves locked onto the
Louisiana plantations where they were born, their futures dictated
by local whites. Set from the 1940s to the 1970s, Gaines's works
illustrate that not much had changed for black people in some parts
of the South.

Alice Walker's characters would find sharecropping equally


inescapable in The Third Life Of Grange Copeland (1970). Grange
finally manages to steal away under cover of darkness, but his son
Brownfield allows himself to become so damaged by the system
that he kills his wife. Walker, born to sharecroppers in Eatonton,
Georgia, drew upon firsthand knowledge of this practice when she
wrote her novel.

In another literary portrait from this period, Jean Wheeler Smith's


"Frankie Mae" (1968), a young girl who has learned rudimentary
math skills finds that she is no match for the figures at the
company store. When at thirteen Frankie Mae questions Mr. White
Junior's addition, the landowner barely restrains himself from
shooting her and her father. He sends her away with these words:
"Long as you live, bitch, I'm gonna be right and you gonna be
wrong. Now get your black ass outta here." This defeat leads to
Frankie Mae's realization that education can never provide the way
out of her family's predicament. She gives up school and slumps
into the destructive existence that sharecropping engendered. At
fifteen she has her first child; by nineteen she has three more. She
dies giving birth to her fifth child. Several years after Frankie
Mae's death, her father, inspired by the civil rights movement,
works for change by going on strike against Mr. White Junior.

Sharecropping reflected the power and ownership whites wielded


over black people in spite of the Emancipation Proclamation.
African-American writers have used this theme to texture their
portraits of Southern culture, to perpetuate the cultural myth (or
warning) of the South as a place of death for black people, and to
enhance their portraits of the realities of African-American life.

http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/brown/sharecropping.htm

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