Back to the Fields

Cotton Fields

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ken Lund

They take you when you’re young. The developmental years, when little, little minds are still malleable like warm copper, empty buckets for the filling, wide eyes glancing around and stubby fingers grab-grasping for everything in reach. When you’re still young enough for ghost stories to leave an impact. This is when they take you.

You step off the bus and into the shade, sunshine streaking through the leaves and falling like golden acorns in the grass. The cypresses – the oaks – they stretch high overhead, backs arched in sweet, ballet curves, their limbs draped in lumpy mats of pale, Spanish moss. You take a deep breath, itty nostrils flaring, and it’s all dew, and dirt, and rusted wrought iron.

The plantation house sits up ahead. Tall, quiet, vaulted mansions with windows propped open and the wide, French doors splayed, welcoming. The granite columns at the front, the corkscrew railing on the porches, the number of floors and windows you count – these all change each year depending on the house you visit. All but the color. Every plantation house you’ve ever seen has been white. Every single one.

They take you up to it in a neat, single file line. The docent or owner or owner’s child comes out to meet you, smiling sweetly, endeared and indulging and patiently guiding your class inside. They begin to talk, about the owners and the history and the renovations. You stop listening (the speech so glossy, so curated, it bores you to death) and look around instead.

These old houses always smell like lacquered wood and ammonia. Worn, Persian rugs and gobs of sunbaked, black-tar tobacco. You hate the Victorian-Greek-Roman styled furniture, all embroidered throw pillows and claw-footed chairs and floor-length, billowing curtains, because you can see the ghosts. The posh, poufy people who used to lived here: big-gowned Southern belles flapping their frilly fans and mustached military men poised regally by the mantle, watching you move by with dark, narrowed eyes. You shuffle past the parlors faster than all the other rooms.

You step out of the back door and into the warm, wet air. You follow the line of children through the backyard, yanking handfuls of gnat-filled moss off trees and stuffing them into your overalls.

The building you come to is small, thatched roof, usually cream-colored, a few windows and two doors with three or four slanted steps going up to them. They tell you each time that it isn’t large enough for the whole class to fit – that you’ll have to break into groups and take turns going inside. You wait at the back, flanked by your friends, inching up in the line every time a new group goes in.

The world grows quieter around you the closer you get to the house. You grow quiet with it. You know what’s coming.

When it’s finally your turn, you step inside. It’s little (like you), wooden from walls to floor to ceiling, with thin-framed beds and bunks pushed up against the walls. Sunlight seeps through cracks in the floorboards below your feet, through mud-speckled windows to your left and right, and it gives the room a stuffy sort of glow.

Slaves’ quarters, the guide says. Their tone is softer now, solemn, like the low-note bell that rings above some of the older churches you’ve been to.

The guide starts off on talks of crops and trade and humanity (words still so practiced, so proper, tip-toeing on porcelain egg shells), and you move around the room. Your palms hover whisper-soft over splintered frames, fingers brushing streaks over the window glass. Every step creaks, drops a sprinkling of something from the ceiling above that glitters in the window light. You can smell the ammonia, the dirt, the sweat, ground into the walls here. You can see the uneven, scrubbing spirals sanded into the floor.

You can hear the sobs carried on the dust.

You go outside then, and stand with the rest of the children, and you don’t say a word.

They take you to the cotton fields next, always. Dirt the color of burnt gold and pencil-thin brambles tipped off by fluffy, white poms. You’ve seen plenty of these so far, but you’ve never gotten over the color of the cotton stalks, the shade of the thorns. A deep, dark crimson.

During the winters, they look like fields of blood.

You squat at the edge of the rows, tucking a few wisps of raw cotton into your pockets alongside the moss, your eyes searching out across the ground and sweeping. The sun comes down in heavy, hot pulses, and the wind just can’t wiggle through the tree cover to get to you, so you sit there. You sweat. You stare.

You see the ghosts here, too. Kneeling hunched back over the brambles, baskets at their sides, sweat on their dark brows, cracked lips tugged down. You see the military men prowling along the edges, their starch, leather boots sunk ankle-deep in the dirt. You see the belles peering out from the windows of the house.

This, you think to yourself. I came from this.

The thought is quiet but true. So true it ties you up inside, knots and knots and knots. Seems unreal, even while you hold palmfuls of cotton in your little hands.

You resolve yourself to hold onto this. To never let these ghosts leave you, like they can never leave this field – those quarters – that house. Something so deeply, innately a part of you that you never before realized, are determined never to lose sight of again.

This. I came from this.

By: Claire Pillsbury

Displacement in America and Art

From the inception of America, displacement has been a rampant force that has affected our citizens. Our country was founded by people that were uprooted from their original homes in Europe and forced to attempt to create a new space for themselves. Most Americans today, while born in America, had ancestors that were from Europe who immigrated to America in the late 16th century and 17th century. Despite not having many written accounts of this time to truly know what the early American colonists were feeling, it is very easy to assume that they were burdened with feelings of loneliness and loss in their new environment. Although the original colonists were dislocated from their European homelands and knew the negative feelings that this produced, once they reached America they continued to displace others, the natives, from their homelands.

Ever since the European immigrants came into contact with the native tribes that resided on the American continent, the tribes have been killed, jeered at, commoditized, and forced off of their lands all in the name of the creation of a new nation. In America, they were the first to be displaced, and their displacement was inevitable given the mindset of the colonists and early settlers who wanted to build a new nation on their ancestral lands. We forced the native tribes off of their lands and removed them from their physical homelands. But we took it a step further; we displaced them from their culture and forced them to abandon their traditions and beliefs in favor of our newly developing ones. The call in the 19th century became either “extermination or assimilation;” either we were going to eradicate the native tribes for want of their land, or we were going to physically remove them from it and force them to adopt our new beliefs and traditions.

This displacement and treatment of the Native tribes can be clearly seen in some of the art produced by the Native tribes during the 19th century. Cohoe was a prisoner at Fort Marion after a battle between his tribe, the Cheyenne, and the Americans and he produced several pencil drawings of different aspects of life at the fort. These pencil drawings present how the native warriors were forced off of their homelands and were being forced to adapt to the new “American” culture. Cohoe’s drawing Fort Marion Prisoners Dancing for Tourists is a prime example of the treatment of Natives by the Americans (Figure 1). The image is a rather crude image of a group of native prisoners dancing; surrounding the dancing natives are modernly dressed American tourists who are being entertained by the dancing. Cohoe, in depicting a normal event that occurred at the fort, was in reality trying to comment on how him and his people were not only physically removed and displaced from their homes, but their cultures and traditions were no longer their own and were turned into a commodity to be consumed by the civilized Americans. Their tribes’ traditions of dances and other ceremonies were turned into a form of entertainment for the Americans.

Fort Marion Prisoners Dancing for Tourists

Figure 1: Fort Marion Prisoners Dancing for Tourists, Cohoe, Cheyenne, 1875-1877, pencil and colored pencil on paper. Credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Digital Library

Another example of this displacement can be seen in a photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston titled Class in American History (Figure 2). As a photograph, this image is irrefutable evidence of how the natives were removed from their homes and cultures. The photograph shows a group of native children in a modern classroom being shown a grown native man dressed in traditional warrior’s clothes. The children are dressed not in their native and customary clothing, but are dressed in contemporary European clothes and their hair has been cut short. They have literally been stripped of their culture and are now being forced to look on it as “history,” rather than as a part of who they are. The older native man is dressed in his tribe’s traditional warrior’s garb, but is essentially not being honored the way he would have been in his own tribe. He, like his tribe and the whole Native American culture, has been turned into a teaching tool, a museum artifact, an item of the past that is used not to honor the culture it represents, but to educate and, more or less brainwash the younger generations into seeing their cultures as inferior to America’s and therefore assimilate easier into it.

Class in American History

Figure 2: Class in American History, Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1899-1900, photograph. Credit: Artnet

Despite what some Americans would say, America was built, founded, and expanded to the detriment and displacement of others, specifically the Native tribes. This action is still extremely prevalent in the country, and as a nation we need to acknowledge how deeply seeded it is in our country; we need to look at history and the images that recorded it, in order to move away and stop removing people from their cultures and homes.

By: Erin Rothweiler