More than two weeks after a heinous photo in the medical school yearbook of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) roiled Richmond, his wife, Pam Northam, shook things up again by reportedly handing cotton to black kids during a tour of the governor’s residence and asking, “Can you imagine being an enslaved person, and having to pick this all day?” At least she didn’t call them “indentured servants.”
The Post reports that a Virginia state employee wrote a letter to the governor and legislators complaining that on a tour of the residence on Feb. 21, Mrs. Northam handed her eighth-grade daughter raw cotton and made that say-what-now? query. “The governor’s office ... said she simply handed the cotton to whoever was nearby,” the story notes, “and wanted everyone to note the sharpness of the stems and leaves on the raw cotton, to imagine how uncomfortable it would’ve been to handle all day.”
As an educational point, I get it: Having children touch and feel cotton to help imagine a time when handling the rough fiber was daily life during slavery isn’t a terrible thing. It brings history into the present day. And Northam’s stated belief that “it does a disservice to Virginians to omit the stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked there” is laudable. Where Northam ran off the rails was in handing the stuff to the African American children who were a part of the annual tour for state Senate pages and asking them that dumb question. Yes, I call it a dumb question, because for African Americans, cotton is not an abstraction. It is as integral to our family history as it is to the nation’s.
In his 2013 PBS series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross," renowned historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. devoted an entire episode to the cotton economy and slavery, an economy that exploded with Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and had slavery as its accelerant. Walking through a blooming cotton field, Gates explained just how devastating all this was to African Americans.
Slaves in the Upper South became incredibly more valuable as commodities. Because of this demand for them in the Deep South, they were sold off in droves and that created a second Middle Passage. And in many ways, the second Middle Passage was just as devastating as the first. To feed ‘King Cotton’ more than a million African Americans were carried off into the Deep South. That’s two and a half times the number that were brought to the United States from Africa. It was the largest forced migration in American history.
Despite never addressing the original sin of slavery, this nation has come a long way since those horrifying days. But I like to remind people how the distant past is not so distant. I am a descendant of slaves; my parents grew up in North Carolina during the hateful reign of Jim Crow. More to the point, my cousins and I are the first generation in our family who didn’t have to pick cotton. Think about it: Even after the Civil War that freed the slaves, generations of their descendants — our parents, aunts, uncles and distant cousins — continued their work for a pittance.
The cotton fields would drift by as my Jehovah’s Witness grandmother drove us to the Kingdom Hall or to Bible study at someone’s home during my summer vacations in North Carolina. But as we rode past those same vast patches of land on our way to bury her in 2003, my mother and her sisters told rueful stories about picking cotton in those same fields. Although they weren’t farmers, my mother and her siblings were hired to help other people who farmed.
In a flurry of text messages, my mother told me on Thursday that the most she ever picked in one day was 70 pounds. She recalls being “maybe 11 or 12 or younger.” Her pay was “about $0.50 a pound.” On that ride to the gravesite, my Aunt Elsie reminisced about how they would sometimes add water to their bags. More weight meant more money, which went directly to my grandparents. “People stopped hiring us because we didn’t pick enough cotton to even matter,” my mom said. “I remember people picking 300 to 400 pounds of cotton per day, I don’t know what they were putting in the bags LOL.”
Don’t let that LOL fool you. Mixed in with the laughter is lingering anger. After my mother read the story about Pam Northam, she wrote back, “What is happening to these white people? Do they think slavery and poor black folks, black sharecropper were a game[?]”
In her statement of apology, Northam said, “I regret that I have upset anyone.” Four hundred years after the first slaves arrived in Virginia, we have a right to expect better. I regret that neither Northam seems capable of moving this painful and necessary conversation on race forward.
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