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Maxwell: Reality and fantasy in the cotton fields

Workers hoe a cotton field in Greene County, Ga., in 1941. Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson said he never saw the mistreatment of any black person.

Workers hoe a cotton field in Greene County, Ga., in 1941. Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson said he never saw the mistreatment of any black person.

Duck Dynasty, the so-called reality show on A&E, is not on my menu of TV watching. In recent weeks, though, I've learned a lot about the show because of comments that Phil Robertson, the cast's patriarch, made during an interview with GQ magazine that led to his suspension from the show. • Here's what Robertson said about African-Americans: "I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field. … They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' — not a word! … Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues."

Remember that Robertson, born in 1946, is referring to the days of Jim Crow — when benighted Southern society was racially segregated by court order — in and around the town of West Monroe, La., not too far from the Mississippi state line.

I'm not going to call Robertson a liar because it's possible that he worked alongside a specific, isolated group of blacks. If Robertson is telling the truth, it means that he was, and is, extraordinarily ignorant.

The blacks with whom Robertson worked would've been of two groups: those who remained silent out of raw fear of white people, and those who, while being appropriately cautious, were intellectual and sly.

Blacks in the first group, being genuinely scared, would never complain about "those doggone white people" in the presence of Robertson, who was, in his own words, "white trash." Blacks feared Robertson's class of white men who could be violent and that such whites — toting dog-eared Bibles — operated on a code of secrecy and silence. Blacks knew also that no court at any level would take their word over that of a white man.

And, yes, these blacks pretended to be happy to circumvent white wrath, not endangering themselves, their livelihoods and the welfare of families. If Robertson were intelligent, he would've known that these cotton-hoeing blacks sang their work and gospel songs and remained politically quiet because they were afraid to speak truthfully.

The other group of Robertson's "singing and happy" blacks exemplified the advice of the narrator's grandfather in Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

On his deathbed, the former slave gave the following advice to the narrator's father on how to protect himself while taking everything he could from whites: "Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion's mouth. I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open."

Over time, blacks — who may have worked alongside Robertson — realized that to gain legal and individual freedom and self-respect, they had to let go of that tired old wisdom in Invisible Man. They had to overcome the old fears and abandon the obsequiousness, remaking their identities, thus changing their relationship with whites, especially the racists.

Disappointingly for Robertson and others of his ilk, leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers ushered in the civil rights movement, when Jim Crow laws were wiped off the books and when President Lyndon Johnson fully embraced the concept that people should be treated with dignity.

Finally, I was born into a farmworker family in 1945. My relatives and other black farmhands throughout the South were not part of the happy lot Phil Robertson imagined. I know; we discussed our condition, the back-breaking work. We were treated worse than animals. We hated the likes of Robertson.

Many nights we fantasized about how to get even with our abusers, but we never did anything beyond crowd into a bus at first light and return to the fields.

Robertson and those rallying around him should know that many blacks saw them then and see them now as evildoers.

Maxwell: Reality and fantasy in the cotton fields 12/27/13 [Last modified: Friday, December 27, 2013 3:00pm]
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