It was the list of the 50 best memoirs of the last 50 years according to a recent article in The New York Times that took me to this book. I expect it to be my own Book of the Year.
How this exceptional book came to be is a story in itself. Theodore Rosengarten went with his friend Dale Rosen to interview Ned Cobb about his experience in the 1930s as a member of the Alabama Sharecropper’s Union which landed him in prison for 12 years. They asked him why he had joined the union and his eight hour answer filled Dale’s requirements for her thesis. Theodore realized they found a true storyteller and went back to Alabama for hours of recording his stories in 1970; this 556-page book came out in 1974. They changed his name to protect him and his family.
I was mesmerized by the audiobook version made in 2014 of the stories of this man born in 1885 who never learned to read or write. His memory was amazing; he told his story sequentially and mentioned the names of 400 people and detailed information about all the mules he owned, including the negotiation and purchase, their weight, and names. In the episodic telling of his life, he often repeated certain facts as he neared the denouement of each story; it was masterful storytelling.
He tells the story of how he made his way in an economic and social system set to limit his ability to profit as a farmer. As a sharecropper he always gave a percentage of the profit to the owner. Selling supplies such as guano for fertilizer was another opportunities for the white store owners to limit profits. Black farmers could not sell cotton directly. No aspect of the system was untouched by considerations of race. More than once the president of the local bank and a local store owner tried to force Nate to sign notes that he couldn’t read. On one occasion when he brought his wife along to read the note, he learned the note included not only the land he worked, but all the goods that he owned outright.
Nate describes in minute detail how he managed his mules, did blacksmith work, raised his own food, planted and harvested cotton, and thereby managed to accumulate some wealth. When cotton prices were high, during World War I, he had enough to buy a car, very unusual for a black man. Those times ended and by 1932 a number of black farmers had joined the Alabama Sharecroppers Union, organized by the Communist Party. Nate tells that though black people were prohibited from secretly joining together, they did meet. When a sheriff and others showed up to take his neighbor’s goods and property, Nate and others gathered to resist; the others disappeared, but Nate stood his ground and when he turned to go into the house, he was shot with buckshot in the rear. He fired back, but did not hit anyone. He was jailed for 12 years.
I enjoyed the unusual turns of phrase that Nate used. One example involves a story about a time he employed white women to work on his farm; he went to a woman’s house to ask her to help chop cotton and though he knocked several times, she did not answer the door. A white man who was a close neighbor was nearby and Nate knew that if he appeared to be “messing” with a white woman it would be like “playing with the screws on my coffin.”
Mules figured large in Nate’s life; it’s surprising how much he had to say about them. Here are some excerpts from one of his discourses on mules:
Fed em three times a day just like I et—them animals, my mules or my horses, I considered the next thing to my family. Fed em mornings early, day dinner when I’d carry them to the barn, nights when I’d put em in the lot….Twice a day if I’m plowing, mornin and night, I’d brush and curry my mules. Keep my mules in thrifty condition, keep em lookin like they belonged to somebody and somebody was carin for em. Mule love for you to curry him; he’ll stand there just as pretty and enjoy it so good—run that comb over him first one way then the other, backwards and forwards, scrub him good, all over, the fur under his stomach if necessary, and from his head back. Brush the head—mules don’t love for you to hit his head much with a curry comb.
When Nate went to jail, farming was a mule-dominated business; when he returned, it was all tractors. While he did work after he returned, he could never move into that realm. The stories of Nate’s life on the farm, his family, and his struggles to make his way in an oppressive system were endlessly engaging. I grew to love Nate and was sad when the 23-hour audiobook ended. I also have the greatest admiration for Theodore Rosengarten, without whose work we would never know this exceptional man. More about Rosengarten and this National Book Award winner is on this Amherst College website.
Theodore Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, Knopf, 1974, 556 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.