That Cotton Thing…and Food….

Friendly ReminderSunday May 6th at 11:59 pm our campaign is done.  Its going to mean cutting places, venues, community service opportunies, and losing time to do genealogical research if we don’t make our goal–so please please please don’t take my work here for granted and all the sweat our team has put into this blog and this project and all the work of our network of volunteers.  We just need 162 funders to contribute 18$ or more each to make this project a flesh and blood reality.  Don’t just peek–do what you can while you can.  We love you and know that you want to see the world a better place.  G-d bless, Michael! Here’s the link to make your contribution:

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Let’s start here….

The first basket is always the easiest…

So about 150 years ago, my paternal grandfather’s ancestors in upcountry South Carolina and my maternal grandparents ancestors in northern, central and eastern Alabama, Tennesse and Georgia all worked and lived on cotton plantations of various sizes.  By the early 19th century, cotton already accounted for over half of the United States’ exports.  My Ancestors helped grow, cultivate and harvest the four million plus bales of cotton produced in 1860–or about a bale per enslaved individual living at the time.  How much is a bale? About 500 pounds.  A man my size and age might be expected to pick anywhere between 250-350 pounds a day…so almost a bale a day.  Hence–(I’m gwine to jump down spin around, pick a bale a cotton, gwine to jump down spin around, and pick a bale a day!”) Cotton didn’t just provide fiber to overseas markets—it helped fuel the industrial revolution in the North to which new immigrants from Northern Europe would provide labor.  Most Southern whites were not slaveholders, and those that did largely at smaller holdings in terms of land and workforce.  However these facts may be true they exist alongside a paradox–most enslaved African Americans lived in groupings of 10-20 or more.  Without this kind of population bunching, family growth and cultural formation and continuity could not have taken place making for the cohesive Black cultural identity of the plantation South.  Only a quarter of all Southern slaveholders had planter status (20 or more enslaved workers) With 20 or more able bodied workers you could live the life of a middling planter. When you had about 50-100 people you were pretty rich, and with over 100–which only a select few could claim–you were unbelieveably wealthy.  Going back to the 5-10 people holdings—–you can probably bet these were not all whites trying to make their way up in the world in the 1840s-1860s.  Most likely these are people owned by members of the same family—-they are inheritances and traded among cousins or siblings.  In these situations, landholdings might be contiguous or relatively close allowing for marriages and other kinship patterns to emerge as if they were in fact part of a larger plantation community.

Scaling “the Wall”

Admitedly, part of this journey is about breaking down, “the Wall,” the barrier of time and space that so frustrates many African Americans doing genealogical research before 1860.  You have to know your families’ “owners,” including the surname, the individual property lines, the counties, their biographical data, etc. etc.  You have to learn all about them in order to discern whose who in your family tree. If you are lucky you will get some legal papers—andy many many were destroyed in and after the War…or you will find property or auction lists or wills.  In South Carolina we belonged to the Twitty, Mungo, Reeves and Pate families of the South Carolina upcountry.  In Alabama we were the property of the Bellamy, Townsend, Hancock and Hughes families.  In Russell County, Alabama my great-great-great Grandfather, Captain Richard Henry Bellamy CSA, was both my families’ slaveholder and an ancestor.  In Northern Alabama, my family was owned by the Townsend brothers in Madison County, Alabama who had large cotton plantations with lots of enslaved people.  In that case at least we know that my Ancestors lived on one of the two brothers large holdings (they had eight plantations).  The Townsend brothers both died with the desire to liberate many of their enslaved laborers and their families.

It Sucked…

I bring all of this up because there were some very very complicated relationships going on in our history.  Both my paternal grandparents came from enslaved Ancestors who were “married” in 1861.  Some formal recognition was going on.  And both families obtained land within years of emancipation to one generation after.  This is not to say that there probably wasn’t significant brutality and oppression of my Ancestors. I think you have to be real—this was slavery, my great-great grandmother was taken advantage of against her will along with other women in my family tree–and frequently.  These people didn’t get a paycheck–or an education—and didn’t have the right to vote, marry, or the right to move around as they saw fit.  They were legally forbidden from reading or writing and they lived lives of severe restriction and control.  Family values–forget it–my Ancestors were sold away from one another without any concern for their emotions, psychological stablity, familal bond, or the decency of Spirit.  As a community they were told to believe they were naturally inferior, undeserving of G-d’s love and bound for hell if they did not obey their Masters who supposedly represented G-d on earth to them as “servants.”  Enslaved children saw parents whipped, ate worm and parasite infested food, went naked much of the year and some were physically or sexually abused by their owners and overseers and patrollers who policed the Southern countryside on behalf of the planter class.  Given the high volume of biracial Ancestors in my family trees some of them undoubtedly faced teasing, ostracism and likely abuse for their identities.  My African ancestors arriving here against their will probably experienced unbelieveable heartache and traumatic stress in their transition to exile America.  Those are the facts…

Not bitter, not angry–just telling the truth.  I’m teach about the Holocaust in Hebrew school–how would have me tell the story of my Ancestors in slavery if not in clear terms of “it was complicated, it was bad, it was confusing, its legacy is unending and its our history and we need to deal with it.”  Nuff said.  Moving on.

An Heirloom Plantation Meal

Cotton and Slavery’s Food Supply–A Primer

Food and slavery was colloquial and discretionary.  Judging from the strange and complcated relationships had my Ancestors with their “owners,” I can guess that the relationship with the food supply was probably interesting as well.  If your ancestors lived on cotton plantations in the Deep South, by 1860 they probably lived on a diet based on corn and pork in their preserved form.  Corn=hominy, hominy grits, cornmeal, cornbread, hoecake/ashcake, mush, kush—a cornbread scramble made with hot pepper, fat and onions, dumplings, meal breading, cornbread/cornpone, corn liquor, and corn on the cob (green corn).  Pork=salted and smoked meat, offal (the heads, feet, tails, intestines, ears and the like)  were the predominant carbohydrate and protein of the Cotton Kingdom.  Only occasionally would people enjoy fresh meat in other forms–beeves, sheep, goats, chicken, fish, or game.  And of course there were gardens….if you were allowed to keep them.  In the word of King Cotton–industrial style slavery had taken hold.  Probably–and this is me guestimating here–only about 2/3 of enslaved people living under King Cotton were allowed to keep their own garden spaces in any signficant way.  Many enslaved people reported not being allowed to do any work or labor other than working in cotton or receiving garden truck from a large communal garden maintained by the elderly.   The most commonly mentioned field crops were cabbage, cowpeas, watermelons, and sweet potatoes–often grown in their own separate fields and after that–enslaved people might grow greens gardens–usually collards and turnips—and string beans and white potatoes were usually the remaining big crops.  Other foods like homegrown rice, red peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, herbs, pumpkins, okra and the like were infrequently dispersed and we should not think of them as being necessarily common.  This system was not based in part on a new literature unique to the antebellum era where the management, care, and control of enslaved people was a frequent subject of agricultural and trade journals basically encouraging planters to maximize results and get more bang for their bale.

Rations of salt, molasses, coffee, white flour, orchard fruit (apples, peaches, etc.) and the like rounded out any sort of gathered, hunted, caught foods avaialble within the plantation ecosystem. I like to describe game as usually belonging to the four food groups–including possum, squirrel, rabbit and racoon.  Living in largely landlocked places, various species of catfish, perch, buffalo, bream, bass, trout, gar, crawfish and freshwater clams and mussels formed the surf to your turf.  Usually those If you’re ancestors were subjects of King Cotton like mine, this is probably how they ate.

Each plantation crop during slavery had its own unique food profile.  Among the enslaved people of sugarcane alley and the rice coast, African, tropical American and Afro-Caribbean foods were available to round out the diet.  In the old Tobacco Kingdom, personal gardens and access to Tidewater fishing grounds rich in both fresh and saltwater species, crustaceans, mollusks and reptiles were among the reasons why the Black population multiplied and reproduced at a natural rate almost incomprable with any other community of Blacks in the New world.  Most enslaved workers on the sugar, coffee, rice and cotton plantations of Latin America and the Caribbean died within seven years of arrival, right up to the last days of slavery.  Virginia and Maryland would lend most of their workforce to the Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri, while others would end up in Western Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.  There they would join people from the Carolinas and eastern Georgia and the Lower Mississippi Valley sold across the Cotton Kingdom.  When these two group merged so did their dietary practices.  Rice cultivation and consumption spread from the Gullah-Geechee corridor and the Lower Mississippi Valley  into the Lower South while the corn culture and turnip greens and the like dominated the Upper South.

Food tells you a lot about how we got to be how we are….In 1750 we were anywhere from 1-3 generations removed from Africa…if that…….We were not largely Afro-Christian and there were various dialects of Black English and Black French–read Gullah/Geechee, Patois, Creole, etc.  In 1850 we were largely 4-5 generations removed from Africa (especially in the Upper South) while in the Lower South this number was lower owing to the late slave trade.  We were largely Afro-Christian LEANING (varieties of Baptist and Methodist) with elements of folk religion and we spoke a generalized Plantation Creole English based largely on those dialects from Maryland, Virginia and upper North Carolina with inflections and loan words in the Deep South from Gullah/Geechee and Afro-Creole dialects of French in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.  Our music was the “Virginia music” based on gourd banjos, rattles, the bones, the fiddle, triangle and clandestine drums made from gourds, barrels, and boxes, flutes, quills and mouthbows.

How does it feel to pick cotton? 

Cotton is an extremely beautiful crop in the Southern fields….it is heartbreakingly beautiful…soft, inviting, miraculous.  Out an almost alien like green shell pops out a clear and delicate whiteness that soon envelops the boll’s space until the green turns to a brown husk.  The field turns a blinding white–the whiteness of the link is set afire and gleams wih the sunlight until you can’t see anything else. It is repetiive, painful, and makes your back ache.  Doing this alone you can understand why field hollers, the blues, and all of that music—was created to endure this mechanical, backbreaking process.   And until you’ve picked cotton–you have no idea how a hoecake “should,” taste, or how far we’ve come….


1 cup of white stone-ground cornmeal

3/4 cup of boiling hot water

½ teaspoon of salt

¼ cup of lard, vegetable oil or shortening

Mix the cornmeal and salt in a bowl.  Add the boiling water, stir constantly and mix it well and allow the mixture to sit for about ten minutes.  Melt the frying fat in the skillet and get it hot, but do not allow it to reach smoking. Two tablespoons of batter can be scooped up to make a hoecake.  Form it into a small thin pancake and add to the pan.  Fry on each side 2-3 minutes until firm and lightly brown.  Set on paper towels to drain and serve immediately once all the hoecakes have been cooked.


3 Replies to “That Cotton Thing…and Food….”

  1. I am happy to have stumbled upon your blog today and I pray that you keep up this very important work.

    Please, we must STOP reassuring others that we’re “not angry” or “bitter”. If you’re not angered by what was done to your ancestors, I would assume there is something inherently wrong with each and everyone of us.

    This was a tragedy, a mass genocide that was attempted upon Black people with the added benefit of simultaneous profit.

    I’ve never seen a jew reassure a german that he is “not bitter/angry”. They make no mistake of their outrage at what was done to their ancestors.

    I’ve never seen a Native American reassure whites that he is “not bitter/angry”. They are upfront regarding the injustice, and genocide committed against their people.

    I’ve never seen a native Hawaiian reassure ANYONE that they’re not outraged at their land being occupied by the US.

    But African-Americans, we’ve been conditioned to feel obliged to reassure others that we’re “not angry/bitter” about this genocide/injustice, to assuage the guilt of the descendants of those who committed and/or profited from this injustice to this day.

    We need to be angry and human about this genocide. And maybe that will mobilize us to act and demand justice for those ancestors whose lives they stole; for those children they enslaved as young as three years old in back breaking work in fields; for those matriarchal queen ancestors we called mama, mami, nani whose dignity and human rights were transgressed in the most barbaric of ways – through rape and torture.

    If we are not angry, we are dishonoring our ancestors and losing our OWN humanity.

    Please keep up you important work. I commend you for this very important website.

    1. Is it wierd for whites to feel angry too about slavery (coupled with guilt and sorrow), even though we continue to benefit from it? It’s not the same anger as those whose ancestors were enslaved, but anger to have our own humanity diminished by the racist legacy and the acts committed by some of our white ancestors in the name of whiteness and white supremacy?

      Great blog by the way. Good resource for teachers.

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