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Nate took off his hat and sat down with us by the fireplace. We asked him right off

why he joined the union. He didn't respond directly; rather, he "interpreted" the

question and began, "I was haulin a load of hay out of Apafalya one day--" and

continued uninterrupted for eight hours. He recounted dealings with landlords,

bankers, fertilizer agents, mule traders, gin operators, sheriffs, and judges . . .

 

 

All God's Dangers

The Life of Nate Shaw

By Theodore Rosengarten

 

Preface by Theodore Rosengarten

 

This big book is the autobiography of an illiterate man. It is the story of a black tenant farmer from east-central Alabama who grew up in the society of former slaves and slaveholders and reached maturity during the advent of segregation law. For years he labored "under many rulings, just like the other Negro, that I knowed was injurious to man and displeasin to God and still I had to fall back.:

One morning in December, 1932, Nate Shaw faced a crowd of deputy sheriffs sent to confiscate a neighbor's livestock. he knew they would be be after his, next. Burdened by the indignities of overturning "this southern way of life," Shaw stood his ground.

I met Nate Shaw in January, 1969. he had just turned eighty-four years old. I had come to Tukabahchee County with a friend who was investigating a defunct organization called the Alabama Sharecroppers Union. We had learned that a survivor was living near Pottsdown, some twenty miles south of the county seat, where we'd been sifting through trial dossiers and newspaper files in the courthouse basement. one icy morning we set out to find him.

The road from Beaufort to Pottsdown rolls and winds through piney woods country. Nate Shaw lives just below the foothills where the lowlands begin. We hunted for his house along the asphalt byroads until we came across a mailbox with the name Shaw in bold letters. A woman stepped out onto the porch of a tin-roofed cabin and, seeing us hesitate, called us to come in.

Her name is Winnie Shaw and she is the wife of Nate's half-brother TJ. She is a spare-built, walnut-colored woman with wide-set eyes and a girlish face. She said she was seventy-three years old but she looked much younger. We were already into the front room of her house before we introduced ourselves. we explained that we were students from Massachusetts and that we'd come to Alabama to study this union.

TJ walked in. He had been overhauling one of his machines--winter work when he heard our car drive up in his yard. Winnie told him, "They want to see Nate." TJ walked out again and across the road to Nate's house. TJ completely filled the doorway walking in and out. He is six and a half feet tall when he stands straight. but sixty-five seasons of picking cotton have given him a stoop from the hips, so that standing still he resembles a man leaning on a long-handled hoe.

He came back with Nate, who had been feeding his mule--one of the last mules  in the settlement. Nate is six inches shorter than TJ and a shade lighter, though both are dark men. He is trim and square-shouldered; he has a small, fine hand and high Indian cheekbones and brow. We shook hands and he announced that he was always glad to welcome "his people."

He knew why we had come by our appearance: young, white, polite, frightened, northern. People who looked like us had worked on voter registration drives, marched in Selma and Montgomery, rode those freedom buses across the Mason-Dixon line. He had seen "us" on television and it didn't surprise him to see us now because this was his movement and he knew a lot about it; he had been active in it before we were born. Raising his right hand to God, he swore there was no "get-back" in him: he was standing where he stood in '32.

Nate took off his hat and sat down with us by the fireplace. We asked him right off why he joined the union. He didn't respond directly; rather, he "interpreted" the question and began, "I was haulin a load of hay out of Apafalya one day--" and continued uninterrupted for eight hours. He recounted dealings with landlords, bankers, fertilizer agents, mule traders, gin operators, sheriffs, and judges--stories of the social relations of the cotton system. by evening, the fire had risen and died and risen again and our question was answered.

TJ turned on the electric light, a single high-watt bulb suspended in the center of the room. We talked some more with the Shaws about how we planned to use the information Nate had just given us. They were glad to help us, they said, and if our "report" reached other people who found their lives instructive, they would be gratified. We thanked them for being so kind and for taking us into their confidence and, promising to return, we left. . . .

*   *   *   *   *

Beginning with his recollections of the first time his father hired him out to work for a white man, in 1904, Shaw recalled events and relationships according to the year, as though he had kept a mental journal. Thus we would spend one session covering 1904 and 1905, pick up at 1906 and so on. Once he married and left his father's house and had his own crop, each harvest completed both his work cycle and the perimeter of his experiences for that year.

 

For each place he farmed I asked about the quality and extent of the land, changes in the technology of farming, the size of his crops and the prices they brought him, his contracts and relationships with white people at every stage of the crop, the growth of his family and the division of labor within it, and how he felt about all that.

Shaw told me how he moved from farm to farm seeking good land and the freedom to work it to its potential.

By raising all his foodstuffs and hauling lumber while his older boys worked the farm, he became self-sufficient. At every step along the way he faced a challenge to his independence. landlords tried to swindle him, merchants turned him out, neighbors despised his success. in spite of their schemes and in spite of the perils inherent to cotton farming, he prevailed.

When we came up to the crucial events of the thirties the sessions turned into heated dialogues. I pressed Shaw for his motivations and challenged him to justify himself. here, I want to make my sympathies clear. Nate Shaw was--and is--a hero to me. I think he did the right thing when he joined the Sharecroppers Union and fought off the deputy sheriffs, though, of course, I had nothing to lose by his actions. My questions must unavoidably have expressed this but they did not, I believe, change the substance of his responses.

Our sessions dealing with the prison years were more even-tempered, just as Shaw had had to keep cool to live out his sentence. I asked him about conditions at each of the three prison camps in which he served. he answered with stories about his work life and his relations with prison officials and fellow convicts. During these years, his wife Hannah and son Vernon presided over his family and property. His mules died, his automobile ran down, but he forced himself not to think about it.

Shaw was fifty-nine years old when he came home from prison. The years following his release were the most painful for him to talk about. For in his struggle to reclaim a portion of his former status he faced insuperable barriers--his age, poverty, and obsolete skills. Again, my questions pursued him from farm to farm. I asked him about the issues foremost in his mind--his new relationships with his children and, after the death of Hannah [his wife], with his second wife, Josie, the social and economic changes that directly affected him, his family, and his race; and still, his stand that morning in December 1932, against the forces of injustice. . . .

*   *   *   *   *

After working with Shaw I began making the rounds of his children. They had, of course, their own views of what he had done. They knew I had been attracted to him because of his connection with the Sharecroppers union, and while they acknowledged his courage they were invariably critical of his stand. For they had lost their father for twelve years and watched the task of raising a large family during hard times take its physical toll on his mother.

The ambition that drove Shaw to prosperity also led him to his "trouble." Rosa Louise, his youngest daughter, calls his drive "the white man in him." She means that her father demanded as much for himself and his family as the white man demanded for his own, and when he got it he wouldn't let it go without a fight.

Shaw was, without question, a hard worker and a great provider, unrivaled in his settlement. One could be guilty, however, in the eyes of the settlement and before God, of excessive zeal in the pursuit of a good life and excessive pride in attaining it. Righteousness consisted in not having so much that it hurts to lose it. This notion appears to cater to landlords, merchants, bankers, and furnishing agents by discouraging resistance or ambition on the part of their farmer-debtors.

But people who live by it achieved a measure of autonomy. Shaw describes his brother Peter as a man with just this spirit in him: "He made up his mind that he weren't goin to have anything and after that, why, nothin could hurt him." Two of Peter's sons who migrated to Detroit after the Second World War say their father decided he never would own an automobile, an electric stove, or other trappings. He could have raised larger crops than he did, on larger debts, but he chose to live plainly, avoid commercial contact with white people, and not work himself to death.

Under a system that deprived farmers of sovereignty over their crops and severely limited their social and political liberties, such self-restraint was one way a man could control the course of his own life.

Nate shaw's spirit led him on a different course. To his children he felt obliged to leave an inheritance--mules, tools, wagons, etc.--that they could use to earn a living. And to his race he wanted to set an example. he was, for instance, one of the first black farmers to buy an automobile. "There's a heap of my race," he says, "didn't believe their color should have a car, believed what the white man wanted em to believe."

Shaw's defiance peaked in the face of imminent foreclosure. When he walked out on his "mission" he had no definite plan for a new world; he just couldn't endure the old order.

Was this an impulsive act of bravery? Did Shaw miscalculate the support his union could deliver? Did he know that organizers of the union belonged to the Communist Party? And if he did know, did it matter to him? There are no easy answers.

Shaw admits he learned little about the origins of the union. he was less concerned with where it came from than with its spirit, which he recognized as his own. Nor were the details of its program essential, for he knew that even the most meager demand black tenant farmers could make undermined the white man's prerogative upon which the whole system rested.

While Shaw occupies the foreground of his stage he makes no claim for the uniqueness of his struggle. On the contrary, he is careful to stress the social position each actor represents. The opposition between him and his landlord, for example, which culminates in the confrontation with the deputies, is historically significant because it is common.

*   *   *   *   *

When Shaw came home from prison many people he had known were gone. Some were living in the north, some in nearby counties, and some had died. There were other important changes. the federal government had stepped into agriculture and guaranteed small farmers, even sharecroppers, the right to sell their own cotton. Local textile mills had begun hiring blacks for the most menial jobs, thereby opening an alternative to the farm.

 

Farming itself had become more complex and prohibitive to an uneducated man: you had to fill out forms and participate in government programs; to ensure an adequate yield you had to buy imported seeds, new fertilizers, insect poisons, and weed killers; tractors, too, were coming into style. Nate Shaw was a mule farmer in a tractor world. The most meaningful and exciting episode of his life was behind him. It had given him a standard to judge human conduct; it put all of his skirmishes in perspective. But history seemed to have made a great leap over the twelve years he spent in prison. his recollections of his heroism and the events that led up to it belonged to a vanished reality. When he spoke about the past, his own sons shied away from the implications: "Some of em that don't like the standard I proved in these union affairs tells me I talk too much."

Seeking a better judgment from god and his race, and aiming to leave his trace on the world, Shaw proceeded to narrate the "life" of a black tenant farmer. The result is an intimate portrait that reproduces the tempo of a life unfolding. Shaw has the storyteller's gift to suspend his age while reciting. thus his childhood stories ring with the astonishment and romance of a boy discovering the universe. Similarly, stories of his old age are tinged by the bitter-sweet feelings of a passionate man who has lost his illusions.

Nate Shaw belongs to the tradition of farmer-storytellers. these people appear in all civilizations and are only beginning to disappear in the most advanced ones. their survival is bound up with the fate of communities of small farmers. When these communities disperse and farms become larger, fewer in number, and owned more and more by absentee investors, the sources of story material and audiences dry up.

But the decline of storytelling is more complicated than this. It has to do with the passing of craft activities, like basketmaking, which generate the rhythms at which stories flow; with the appeal of competing voices of culture, such as television; and with the unfortunate popular assumption that history is something that takes place in books and books are to be read in school.

What happens to the history of a people not accustomed to writing things down? To whom poverty and illiteracy make wills, diaries, and letters superfluous? Birth and death certificates, tax receipts--these occasional records punctuate but do not describe everyday life. In this setting, Nate Shaw is a precious resource. For his stories are grounded in the ordinary occurrences of the tenant farmer's world. Furthermore, they display as few records could an awesome intellectual life.

Shaw's working years span approximately the same years as the Snopes family odyssey in William Faulkner's trilogy. Shaw's narrative complements the social history contained in the Mississippi writer's work. Faulkner writes about the white south; Shaw speaks about the black. Both focus on the impact of history on the family. Faulkner, heir to a line of southern statesmen, pursues the decay and decline of white landed families and the rise of their former tenants. Nate Shaw records the progress of a black tenant family through three generations.

Both are steeped in genealogies. With the rigor of an Old Testament scribe, Shaw names the parents and foreparents of many of his characters. In fact, he names over four hundred people. Shaw creates a human topography through which he travels with the assurance of a man who knows the forest because he witnessed the planting of the trees. The act of recalling names is also a demonstration of how long he has been living in one place. Thus, his family chronicles express both the bonds among people and a man's attachment to the land.

Somerville, Massachusetts -- October 1, 1973

Source: Theodore Rosengarten. All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. New York: Random House, 1984.

*   *   *   *   *

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Related files:  All God's Dangers Preface   "All God's Dangers Ain't White Men."  Crane's Ford and the Sharecroppers Union (SCU)