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Books: The Heart of Darkness

5 minute read
Paul Gray


by THEODORE ROSENGARTEN 561 pages. Knopf. $10.

Only an accident saved this astonishing narrative from oblivion. In 1969, Theodore Rosengarten, a young Amherst graduate, and a friend were doing research on a sharecroppers’ union that surfaced briefly in Alabama during the Depression. Visiting the state, they stumbled across Nate Shaw, then 84, a onetime union member who had served twelve years in prison for resisting the trumped-up confiscation of a neighbor’s property back in 1932. A single question, “Why did you join the union?” spurred the black man into an eight-hour answer. More than 120 hours of taped reminiscences eventually followed. As Shaw poured out his life, he and Rosengarten quite literally made history.

Not, it must be added, history in the ordinary sense. “Nate Shaw” is a pseudonym, as are almost all the proper names in the book. The privacy of relatives and survivors (Shaw died in 1973) remains intact. Tukabahchee County, Ala., is as fictive as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha —and, where it really matters, as real. For Nate Shaw was a formidable bearer of memories. Illiterate, denied even the semblance of an education, he had nowhere to file the details of his life but in his head. Once dropped, the baggage of the past is lost forever. So Shaw held on to everything.

The memories were often harsh. The son of a shiftless, intemperate father, Shaw began tending the hardscrabble Alabama soil almost as soon as he could walk. When he was not plowing or picking cotton, he cut and hauled timber, hacked out railroad crossties, carved ax handles, wove baskets. At 21 he married, left his servitude to his father and entered another. Few economic systems can have been as cruelly deceptive as the one saddled on black Southern sharecroppers. They leased their land from whites, who also paid for the “furnishin’ “—feed, fertilizer, tools—they needed to farm. At harvesttime sharecroppers regularly found all their crop payments flowing back into white hands. Thanks to tricky mortgages, their personal possessions often went as well.

Troubles did not end with race. As Shaw notes, “All God’s dangers ain’t a white man.” There was also the unyielding soil and unpredictable weather, the boll weevil, illness and wild fluctuations in the all-important price of cotton. “It’s a market price,” Shaw explains, “and it’s set before you ever try to sell your cotton, and it’s set probably before you gin your cotton and before you gather it or grow it or even plant your seed.” During Shaw’s prime farming years (roughly 1906 to 1932), cotton brought as little as a nickel and as much as 40¢ a pound.

Two Cars. Shaw threw unstinting labor against these odds and almost won. By the late ’20s, he was supporting his wife, nine surviving children and a nephew in something very close to style. An image drawn from these times captures a rural American dream: “O, it was a beautiful tree, right to the northwest side of my car shed, two-car shed; had that ’26 Ford and that ’28 Chevrolet stationed close to that plum tree.” Such prosperity was Shaw’s undoing. Local whites “didn’t like to see a nigger with too much.” The sharecroppers’ union told blacks that they could some day run their own affairs, and Shaw joined. But a white landowner coveted what Shaw had, and the future was too slow in coming to help. Shaw tried—and failed—to stop sheriffs deputies from stripping a neighbor as they planned to strip him. His reward was prison and, afterward, a world whose pace was faster than his steps.

Miraculously, this man’s wrenching tale sings of life’s pleasures: honest work, the rhythm of seasons, the love of relatives and friends, the stubborn persistence of hope when it should have vanished. The Southern black dialect has chiefly been trivialized through minstrelsy or strained through literate translators. Shaw’s unlettered language shames past caricatures; it is a marvel of utility, supple enough to take what the world offers each day and make it new. When he speaks of “the fall of the year,” he is not reading from a calendar but describing what he has seen in the fields. Similes are there to surprise and delight: a mule is “pretty as a peeled onion,” a group of children is “raggedy as a can of kraut.”

His tale has weight because his life and history intersected. Although he stayed behind, Nate Shaw watched the migration of blacks away from the rural South and into the factories and cities of the North. As intimately as anybody has, he tells why they left. But All God’s Dangers is most valuable for its picture of pure courage. Knowing he was ridiculed and despised, aware that whites would frustrate his plans, Shaw simply went ahead, surrounded by a shell of pride. He wonders where this grit came from, recognizes that his nature welled up from something deeper than race or family. He describes his own “dear brother” as “hush-mouthed. He made up his mind that he weren’t goin’ to have anything, and after that, why, nothin’ could hurt him.”

That was not Nate’s way. Faulkner’s celebrated epitaph for all the blacks in The Sound and the Fury was “They endured.” Nate Shaw did more than that.

Paul Gray

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