Archive for December 29th, 2015

Freedom 1

by Sam Juliano

Fannie Lou Hamer is an obscure name when one chronicles the forerunners of the civil rights movement in an elementary school classroom.  Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks have been the subject of picture books, biographies and historical surveys, but other figures have been lamentably relegated to either scant discussion or footnote status.  Carole Boston Weatherford and Ekua Holmes’ Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement fills a vital gap in the literature with a work heavily indebted to Hamer’s own diaries.  Weatherford’s spirited free verse poetry is presented in twenty-two titled pieces that tell the story of a courageous woman who was to become one of the civil rights movement’s most renowned adherents.  Like virtually all African Americans who were born during first decades of the twentieth century Hamer was born into squalor, the last of twenty children born to sharecroppers living in the Mississippi Delta, a place says Weatherford  where the soil was as rich as black folks was poor, where cotton was king and Jim Crow the law.  Hamer’s birth resulted in a fifty dollar dividend to her parents for “producing a future field hand.”  The symbolically titled “Delta Blues” paints a picture of the most demanding kind of physical labor in the hundred degree cotton fields from dawn till dusk.  One can recall Big Sam in Gone with the Wind announcing to the workers as darkness sets in at Tara: “It’s quittin’ time!”  Indeed, the author relates Hamer’s recollections as a situation without an alternative as factories were new then, and not present in Sunflower County.  Sharecropping was a gentler name for slavery,  and Frances gets to the crux of the situation when she sizes up the situation of the blacks never gaining enough money for their share of the crop to pay for necessities borrowed from the owners when she laments Black people work so hard, and we ain’t got nothin’ to show for it.   The cotton field workers picked fifteen tons of cotton a season and incurred cut knuckles and wrists from dried bristles, yet there was no end in site, and no chance for relocation, an option available for the Dust Bowler Oakies in the 1930’s.

Weatherford relates stories about Hamer’s mother spoiling her because she was the youngest, among other examples making her sisters and brother give her piggyback rides (though she says she weighed more than some of them) and averted a spanking from Dad for spilled a pot of boiled rice, due to Mama’s intervention.  In the verse titled “My Mother Taught Me” Weatherford poignantly asserts that the Mom “wore rags patched by rags” so her children could look passably dressed. Frances observed at that time that whites “had food, clothes, everything” while blacks often went hungry and wished Why wasn’t I white, so that we could have some food?  The mother is undaunted and develops self-esteemed among her children, obtaining a black doll for Frances, and tells her that black is beautiful.  The four month school year (December through March) allowed only the time of the year the children weren’t needed in the fields.  The squalor was related in uncompromising terms: (more…)

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