Saturday, March 23, 2013

School Days

My Dad, Tom Latham, was a single-minded man, with an even temper. He was red-faced, a little short, thin guy. Weighed about 165. He was just like a cricket, though. Everything he did was just like snap, snap, snap! He was always in a hurry. And I don't believe he ever did finish a day's work. He planned his day and he never finished.
Like his brothers Henry and Edgar, he taught school. It was a little one-room school. And I can remember the first day I went to school. My mother didn't let me go that morning when the school first started. A little later in the morning, she brought me up there, dressed in little rompers, red and white striped with a little jacket, and she told me to go up to the door and say, "Mr. Latham, do you need a new student?" There I went, just like Mama said. I think the whole school just roared when they realized I was standing there.
He'd start the classes with this little bell he had. And he'd ring it when the classes was over, when it was time for lunch. He'd just pick up the bell, "Ding-a-ling!" Time for class to come back in. He'd usually take the bell and step to the door, because everyone was on the playground playing. He'd ring it several times.
He taught everything from primary to the ninth grade. I was in a class with Roy Lee McClung, P.J. Dalton, Odell Stubblefield, Clarence Sloman, Tailey Goldman, Little John Eaves, Russel Carter, Troy Summerfield, and plenty of others. They went to school the same time I did, but they had all different grades in the same room.
He'd have this class of geography to come up to the front benches, and he'd lecture them or he'd quiz them to find out how they studied their lesson. He'd let them back to their seats, then he'd call up the math class up to the front row. He'd lecture them and let them go back. When he called us up, he had a little box. He'd sit down right in front of us, on that little box. "All right, T.J., come right over here now. Let's see," he'd say as he'd turn the pages in that little primer. "Suppose you read this to me right here?"
In spelling, we'd all line up in a line, right up against the blackboard. He'd give out the words as he'd go down the line. And if this guy missed it then the next guy had a chance. He'd come on down, down the line. And if some of them missed all the words, if they couldn't spell anything, he'd have them go over and sit at the end of the bench at the side of the room. And he'd take that primer and he'd show them the words and he'd sound the letters to them. I remember he did that with me, when I first started.
I think he treated everyone alike. He wasn't any stricter on me or my sister Eloise than he was on anybody else in the class.
But in teaching school, I noticed this about him. Albert and John Previtt went to school to him. And Albert Previtt was hare-lipped. And of course, you know, somebody would talk to Albert and try to get him to talk back. And he couldn't whisper. He had to talk pretty loud, you know, because of that hare-lip. My Daddy was at the blackboard with some of his students. I think he was working math or something or other. And somebody said something to Albert, and Albert answered him. And Dad said, "Albert Previtt, come to the front!" Albert got up and went up there. Said, "Albert, you know you're not supposed to whisper when you're in school."
Albert said, "How did you know I was whispering?" Dad said, "Don't you know I got eyes in the back of my head?" I'll never forget that. I was just a kid. I believed him.
--T.J. Latham

Monday, March 4, 2013

'They Made Over 5 Million of Them'

The Calendar Year

From March through June, while the cotton is being cultivated, they live on the rations money.
From July to late August, while the cotton is making, they live however they can.
From late August through October or into November, during the picking and ginning season, they live on the money from their share of the cottonseed.
From then on until March, they live on whatever they have earned in the year, or however they can.
During six to seven months of each year, then -- that is, during exactly such time as their labor with the cotton is of absolute necessity to the landlord -- they can be sure of whatever living is possible in rations advances and in cottonseed money.
During five to six months of the year, of which three are the hardest months of any year, with the worst of weather, the least adequacy of shelter, the worst and least of food, the worst of health, quite normal and inevitable, they can count on nothing except that they may hope least of all for any help from their landlords.
--James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, p. 102-103

'Actually Lost Three Dollars'

The loan companies were the sharpest people he had ever had anything to do with. Once he had secured a two-hundred-dollar loan from one of them, but he swore it was the last time he would ever bind himself to such an agreement. To begin with, they came out to see him two or three times a week; some of them from the company’s office would come out to the farm and try to tell him how to plant the cotton and how much guano to put in to the acre. Then on the first day of every month they came back to collect interest on him. He could never pay it, and they added the interest to the principal, and charged him interest on that, too.
By the time he sold his cotton in the fall, there was only seven dollars coming to him. The interest on the loan amounted to three per cent a month to start with, and at the end of ten months he had been charged thirty per cent, and on top of that another thirty per cent on the unpaid interest. Then to make sure that the loan was fully protected, Jeeter had to pay the sum of fifty dollars. He could never understand why he had to pay that, and the company did not undertake to explain it to him. When he had asked what the fifty dollars was meant to cover, he was told that it was merely the fee for making the loan.
When the final settlement was made, Jeeter found that he had paid out more than three hundred dollars, and was receiving seven dollars for his share. Seven dollars for a year’s labour did not seem to him a fair portion of the proceeds from the cotton, especially as he had done all the work, and he had furnished the land and mule, too. He was even then still in debt, because he owed ten dollars for the hire of the mule he had used to raise the cotton. With Lov and Ada’s help, he discovered that he had actually lost three dollars. The man who had rented him the mule insisted on being paid, and Jeeter had given him the seven dollars, and he was still trying to get the other three to pay the balance.
--Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Picking Cotton

Corn Harvest

How Do We Farm?

"How do we farm? Well, dey's sev'ul diff'unt ways. Dare is de cash rentuh, but we has always sharecropped, on a third and a four -- he furnish de house en de land en credicks you enough to live on, en den you settles at de end of de year. In de cotton we gives him a fourth, in de cawn he gits a third -- ...when you raise four bales of cotton de landlord gits one en you get three, and if you raise three wagonloads of cawn he gits de first one en you git the other two.
"Landlord's got a store on de place, en he 'low you so much a week on de books -- dey wuz four in my family and he didn' 'low us but a twenty-four-poun' sack of flouah, en a twenty-four-poun' sack of meal, en eight poun's of lard, en maybe a bar of soap. Ef you got molasses you didn't git no sugah, en ef you got bakin' powdah you didn' git no sody -- Meat? Whooo! We didn' git no meat, but we'd ketch a mess of fish now en den..."
--Walter Rowland, from Such As Us: Southern Voices of the Thirties, edited by Tom E. Terrill and Jerrold Hirsch, p. 55