A Woman Rice Planter

by Belle Waring on August 14, 2013

[This post is not entirely about Oprah Winfrey. FYI. It discusses a former slaveowner’s attempts to run her plantation after emancipation.]
Rest easy everyone! We’re cool! The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto has sussed out this Oprah situation in a way that I think you will all find correct and satisfactory. And what is more reliable than the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal?

Jesse Jackson hasn’t yet declared Zurich the new Selma, but from some of the news coverage you’d think Oprah Winfrey was the next Rosa Parks…It seems there was a language barrier: The clerk’s English isn’t great, and Winfrey probably doesn’t speak Swiss. “This is an absolute classic misunderstanding,” the store’s owner, Trude Goetz, told Reuters…What Winfrey construes as a racial episode is actually a story about class–a wealthy, privileged celebrity aggrieved by a lowly saleswoman’s lack of deference…It’s reminiscent of the endlessly repeated claim that criticism of Barack Obama proves racism is alive and well in America. Somehow Obama’s defenders are unable to see past the color of his skin and notice that he is president of the United States. As for Winfrey, she went all the way to Europe to discover that racism is alive in America.

Golly, don’t I feel a fool now! Thanks, the Wall Street Journal! With that out of the way I have something that is interesting and amusing to share with you, rather than something melting down with white-hot rage like a nuclear reactor core in a devastating accident. Let’s just wish we were down in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten, but–look away!

My grandmother had a library in her house in Savannah, with tobacco-colored walls and shelves painted cream, and cream-painted cabinets below them. It had one huge window looking out onto Oglethorpe Ave., floor to ceiling, with a little slant-top desk in front of it, and yellow silk curtains. The fireplace, like all the others in the house, had been converted to burn coal, so there was a broad expanse of black masonry and then a tiny black iron grate, full of coal, and a brass scuttle likewise encumbered, and set of brass poker, tongs and broom. When my father was a child a truck would come and pour coal through one of the street-facing windows of the half-sunken first floor, but the fireplaces were all for show, now; we never burned the coal. On the top of the mantelpiece there were two big blue-and-white ginger jars and a big oil painting of Sequoyah, inventor/popularizer of the alphabet system for the Cherokee language. It also had a beautiful deep blue velvet sofa, silk velvet, and many interesting books, most fascinating (to my young self) Milton’s Paradise Lost with engravings by Gustave Doré. Unfortunately, despite my best intentions and a number of attempts that were fortified with various chemical courage, I could never manage to read a book in there because the room was just as haunted as it could be. No one could sit in there. It was like pouring a bucket of ice water down your back just to walk through it. But after my grandmother died and before my dad sold the house (with much gnashing of teeth and wailing on my part) I nabbed some excellent books, in particular A Woman Rice Planter, by Patience Pennington, published in 1903. An unmarried woman living just to the north of my family home, she relates her trials as she attempts to keep her family plantation running after the end of the Civil War.

This is just a taste of how much her former slaves, who now either work for her or are sharecroppers, hate her, and how much she completely doesn’t understand that they do, or why:

The renters made very fine crops–30, 40, and 45 bushels to the acre, while the wages fields only made 17. This is a complete reversal of the ordinary results, for I have very rarely, in all my years, made less than 30 bushes to the acre on my fields, and I was very discouraged and greatly anxious to understand the reason of this sudden failure in the wages rice at both plantations.

By the merest chance I found out the cause. Early in December I was planting oats in a 6-acre field. We broad-cast winter oats in this section and then plough it in on fields that have been planted in peas before. I was anxious to get the field finished before a freeze, and had six of my best ploughmen in it. Grip had prevented my going out until they were nearly finished, but Bonaparte assured me that it was being well done. When I went to the field it looked strange to me–the rich brown earth did not lie in billowy ridges as a ploughed field usually does. Here and there a weed skeleton stood erect. I tried to pull up one or two of those and found that they were deeply rooted in the soil and had never been turned. I walked over that field with my alpenstock for hours, and found that systematically the ploughmen had left from eight to ten inches of hard land between each furrow, covering it skilfully with fresh earth, so that each hand who had been paid for an acre’s ploughing had in reality ploughed only one-third of an acre! And then I understood the failure of all the wage rice!

Does she really not see how much more difficult this was? Where did they get the nice earth? Is there a great big hole in the woods behind the field? If it’s out in the middle of somewhere, how’d they carry the dirt there? How did they lay it down at the same time they pretended to plough? This happens in the first 15 pages of the book. I will blow y’all’s minds.



pedant 08.14.13 at 1:00 pm

Just from a technical standpoint, I think you may be making more of this than there is.

If I understand your final paragraph correctly, you imagine that the “hands” engaged in a massive and laborious fraud, bringing dirt in from somewhere and arranging it so as to make it look as though the entire field had been plowed, creating sort of Potemkin furrows or trompe-l’oeil furrows.

But I don’t think it was that laborious. The plowing will turn fresh dirt over on top of adjacent, unplowed dirt. So they did not have to bring any new dirt into the field, nor did they have to do any additional work. They simply plowed one out of three furrows, and allowed the upturned earth to cover the undisturbed portions. Perhaps they smoothed it out a bit, too.

Were they committing fraud, and messing with the old woman’s mind? Yes. (Were they justified? I won’t say ‘no’.) But was the method of their fraud very complicated, more complicated than just doing one-third the job they said they were doing? No, I don’t think so.

Again, my point here is at the technical level of how you would produce the results she describes. I may be wrong on the details, or I may be wrong on the details of the theory you are putting forward.

Even if I’m right, it doesn’t speak to your main point, which is the huge mental and social gulf between the woman and the people who are allegedly working for her.


Martin 08.14.13 at 1:01 pm

It seems that the book can be read online (not gated, I think) here:



Jacob T. Levy 08.14.13 at 1:04 pm

I wish that I believed that “doesn’t speak Swiss” was an intentional joke.


Random Lurker 08.14.13 at 1:12 pm

@Jacob t.

Ha ha, I too think that to ask Oprah to speak fluent Swiss is a bit too much


Belle Waring 08.14.13 at 1:17 pm

Martin, now I have a sad. Pedant; I think the plough already turns up a certain, fixed amount of earth. Even if we imagine they have pushed the dirt from the edges of the furrow onto the adjacent soil, they have to walk the whole length of the field time after time, following each furrow they made, and pushing the dirt over with…their hands? While the oxen stand around? Shovels? It looks good enough that she doesn’t immediately notice, they have to have put in some significant effort. Does the plough turn up enough earth to cover 10 inches of ground? I really don’t know.
Jacob: Sadly, no.


Mao Cheng Ji 08.14.13 at 1:19 pm

pedant: ” They simply plowed one out of three furrows, and allowed the upturned earth to cover the undisturbed portions.”

I’m no peasant, but I’ve seen fields. 8-10 inches of space between the furrows (ridge?) doesn’t seem too wide to me.


Main Street Muse 08.14.13 at 1:21 pm

This is how the guy who wrote the piece (with that fabulous nugget about Oprah “not speaking Swiss”) *identifies himself on twitter:

”’James Taranto…should be called out for what he is: a misogynist and a dinosaur.”–some guy”

‘Nuff said! All shopkeepers want to keep their most expensive purses away from their extravagantly wealthy customers! No racism at all. Of course the (black, female) billionaire is to blame…

*Like Jacob Levy, I do not believe this was an intentional joke. But such is the state of the talent at the WSJ these days. Fox-like in its ignorance of the globe.


Peter T 08.14.13 at 1:28 pm

The attitudes are alive and well. I have taken tea with Philippine planters who bemoaned the laziness of the peasants while watching them plant rice from the comfort of their shaded verandahs. And I’ve seen (and participated in ) some quite elaborate ways to get back at bosses – ways that were more effort than just doing the work. I think the driver was a need to assert, even just to ourselves, that we were not the clueless automatons they clearly thought we were.


L. F. File 08.14.13 at 1:29 pm

I’m not at all clear why you think that you know more – or even as much – about cultivating oats as the woman who grew up on and ran the plantation. Have you ever farmed commercially? Did you consult experts on turn of the century oat cultivation? The woman’s story indicates to me that – as pedant mentioned above – the workers just spread the soil from one furrow more widely to make it appear that two furrows had been plowed.

I know nothing about cultivating oats – or much of anything – so I took the expert’s – plantation owner’s – story at face value. Apart from your apparent presumption of prejudice on her part can you provide anything else to disabuse me of this?



Jay 08.14.13 at 1:36 pm

Lurker, the joke was that “Swiss” isn’t a language.


Belle Waring 08.14.13 at 1:42 pm

L.F.: I cannot believe you are serious. She is explaining how it came to be that her employees ploughed only 1/3 of the land they were meant to plough, causing her crops to fail. She believes that it is because they are lazy. I think it is because they loathe her and wish her crops to fail. The sharecroppers did well. The rice she grew herself for herself using hired labor failed (these workers were paid either way; the financial loss on the failed rice was hers alone). I think this illusion of a ploughed field, with a hard crust of dirt covered carefully with soft black soil is too elaborate to be the result of indolence and more likely to be the result of intention deception which, moreover, must have been at least somewhat difficult to perform. Is it genuinely this impossible to talk about race in America? Does the Devil need so many Advocates as all this?


Mao Cheng Ji 08.14.13 at 1:49 pm

Well, Germans don’t understand it. And since language is a dialect with an army and navy, and the Swiss have both, it should indeed count as a language. The navy is a weak point, though, in my logic here.


pedant 08.14.13 at 1:49 pm

Yeah, let me dissociate myself from File, who claims me as an ally, and say (once again) that my point about the details of how the fraud was committed are entirely irrelevant to the point that BW is making.

The interesting points about relations between former slave-owner and former slave really are not affected by whether the illusion required 80% of the time that the reality would have required, or 137% of the time.

And how File moves from my technical quibble all the way over into “so you’re the real racist, Belle!” territory–well, that’s a sight to see. An unpleasant sight. Sorry to have been an inadvertent cause.


politicalfootball 08.14.13 at 1:51 pm

The link Martin provided in 2 is lovely. Here’s a bit that I like, regarding those who would mislead her servants:

Can we doubt which will conquer in the end? No! Evil can never have the final victory, but the struggle will be long, for the Prince of Darkness uses such subtle emissaries. They come in the guise of angels, as elevators and instructors, taking from them the simple first principles of right and wrong which they had grasped, and substituting the glamour of ambition, the desire to fly, to soar, for the God-given injunction, “What cloth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?” Thank God, there is one man of their own race striving to hold up true standards of the Cross instead of the golden calf of the politician.

You still hear talk like this among whites today. I wonder who the one man of their own race is?


journalmalist 08.14.13 at 1:51 pm

My Swiss wife, fluent in several languages, will say in English one is speaking “Swiss” as shorthand for “Swiss-German.” I think this is a fairly common way of saying it. Plenty of other things to diss Taranto about.


pedant 08.14.13 at 1:56 pm

OCR error there: “what cloth” should surely be “what doth”.

I think the reference is to Herman Cain.


Marcos 08.14.13 at 2:01 pm

I think that the problem is your last paragraph is hard to read (at least to me).
So you really mean that they went out and brought dirt from somewhere to create this elaborate ruse?
Doesn’t look like a feasible explanation to me, at least not in the obvious way you tried to make it appear. If they actually did that, it would be like the british film about the man who climbed hill and the went down a mountain. So hope you’ll excuse the confusion created.
Would they carry out work to spite her, sure they would.
However, I actually think the simple explanation makes sense: no benefit of doing the job right, hate the owner of the field, less work in doing it wrong, win all around.
How much you weigh the hating vs the economic incentive vs the lazing, up to you…


Jeffrey Davis 08.14.13 at 2:03 pm

It’s possible she isn’t explaining the situation very well, and I agree that 8″ between furrows isn’t much. [2 minutes] I just looked up what’s recommended in modern planting:

The optimal soil temperature for planting is 40 F. Seed should be placed 1 – 2″ into the soil. Some growers use 6″ row widths, while others use 10 – 14″ row widths.



L. F. File 08.14.13 at 2:05 pm

Belle, The devil does not need any more advocates but neither do we need to see him where more mundane explanations suffice. There is certainly plenty in the woman’s book to show her prejudice without this dubious example.



Random Lurker 08.14.13 at 2:09 pm

@Jay 10
I know, I live 30km from the swiss border, I was just joking too.


politicalfootball 08.14.13 at 2:20 pm

There is certainly plenty in the woman’s book to show her prejudice

This is the second time you’ve suggested that the original post was about the woman’s prejudice. It’s not at all; it’s about her lack of understanding of the world around her.

Like our planter, you’re missing the point.


William Timberman 08.14.13 at 2:24 pm

Does the Devil need so many Advocates as all this?

That really is the question, isn’t it? When I was growing up in the South, there was always a list of reasons that could be cited to explain all the horrible things that were done, but no one ever cited it out loud except in the presence of clueless Yankees. Native white folks were expected to know it by heart, and never to question it. It could be painful if you did.

These days, people not intimately familiar with that culture can be fooled, but we who were raised in it — black or white — are rarely deceived about its true intent. The devil’s advocates, those who aren’t just out to stick their thumbs in our eyes, should go peddle their wares elsewhere.


Belle Waring 08.14.13 at 2:42 pm

Miss Pennington is not exhibiting prejudice here precisely; it is rather that she cannot imagine that any of her employees (almost all of whom are former slaves or the children of former slaves) would harm her except by their natural indolence. Because she does not think they hate her or have any reason to do so.

People, as far as the farming goes, thinking back on it I did, in fact, discuss this issue briefly with my brother’s god-father 2 months ago when he was here for a night. He is currently head of U.S. AID for SE Asia, though he served in that capacity in Africa for some time, and worked for CARE before that. He did not think they would be able to get enough earth out of 1/3 of a ploughed field to cover the other 2/3. He knows much more about rice farming than oats. But the implication in the book is that they pulled the same stunt. And think: she surely holds their wages back till threshing, and they had no way of knowing she’d be laid low with the grip for ages. She tramps all over the place normally. This had to look pretty damn tilled. If you can’t see that there was some effort involved in making a pretend tilled field in which good black dirt is heaped up all nice and fluffy on a crust of untilled ground, I really don’t know what to say.


Marcos 08.14.13 at 2:58 pm

I still find it very hard to think that they transported the dirt from elsewhere, except if it was a very small amount which it probably wouldn’t by your account.

Not sure what your brother’s credentials are supposed to tell us, but I’ll give him credit for it.

Wouldn’t it be more feasible again to think that the good lady was exagerating a little bit and that it was more of 50/50 rather than 33/66? Or that she is hiding the fact that she did not really look close enough at the fields to realize the problem?

By the way, I have no issue with the argument that she could not imagine her labourers harming her. I’m more on the technical sckepticism camp of the feasibility of the ruse. I’ve been around a farm long enough to have some intuition regarding the technical implications, but I’m no expert.


L. F. File 08.14.13 at 3:12 pm

Well let me insert my foot in an orifice of your choice one more time.

I am working class enough to realize that managers correctly attribute labor shortfalls more often to indolence than to left wing politics. Could it not be true that liberals err equally in the opposite direction?



James Wimberley 08.14.13 at 3:14 pm

Jeffrey in #17 tells us that some modern farmers plant oats as far as 14″ apart, others as close as 6″. It’s possible that the ploughmen simply belonged to the former school of thought, the plantation-owner to the latter. A misunderstanding instantly interpreted by her as proof of sabotage.


mud man 08.14.13 at 3:16 pm

Since the sharecroppers presumably hated no less, the story *also* illustrates the futility of expecting people to actually work for wages. Not that sharecropping can’t be gamed to be like wages, only without the assurance.

As to how the trick was pulled, no doubt there was some cleverness involved, and the thing about cleverness is that it’s hard to see. Do people not think untermenschen of all stripes are not capable of cleverness, as well as good work, properly motivated?


Rmj 08.14.13 at 3:27 pm

This had to look pretty damn tilled. If you can’t see that there was some effort involved in making a pretend tilled field in which good black dirt is heaped up all nice and fluffy on a crust of untilled ground, I really don’t know what to say.

Not to pick on your example but: this is the issue, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Until we resolve the empirical questions of this anecdote, all consideration of the underlying issues must cease!

So it is written; so it should be done!

(Aren’t examples wonderful things?)


JW Mason 08.14.13 at 3:29 pm

It is not controversial that former slaves intensely disliked working as wage laborers for their former owners. This was the central economic conflict of the post Civil War era — the whole point of the Black Codes was to coerce the former slaves into wage labor, and Southern states continued to have strict laws limiting black workers’ rights to leave their jobs into the 20th century. Post Civil War, Southern States also passed strict restrictions on the use of unimproved land — previously, in general, people could graze animals on any land that wasn’t fenced, but after the war exclusive right to the use of one’s property was enforced whether it was fenced or not. This was to prevent ex-slaves from gaining economic independence through ownership of some animals.

Despite these efforts to force the former slaves to continue working on the plantations, black resistance to wage labor (including the sort of passive resistance described here) was mostly successful; the sharecropping system evolved as a compromise between wage labor and the former slaves’ goal, ownership of their own farms. If you read histories of this period they are full of stories like this one, of plantation owners shocked by the length their former property would go to resist working for them.

Eric Foner’s Nothing But Freedom is really brilliant on this. It’s also quite short, and focuses on the South Carolina rice country — Belle and anyone else interested in the conflicts over the terms of labor post-Emancipation should take a look at it, if you haven’t.


dairy queen 08.14.13 at 3:40 pm

Truly epic amounts of mansplaining have certainly piled up all over this and the last three comment threads, that’s for sure! With the sweet, sweet tang particular to the academic variety. Quite sure the perpetrators haven’t broken a sweat at it, though. They’ve been in training for years.

Courage, mes soeurs Belle and Maria, courage! Please continue posting, your perspectives much appreciated.


JW Mason 08.14.13 at 3:44 pm

I should add that while there was much more scope for passive resistance to plantation labor after Emancipation, this kind of strategy was also used under slavery. As an astute 19th-century observer pointed out:

The labourer here is, to use a striking expression of the ancients, distinguishable only as instrumentum vocale, from an animal as instrumentum semi-vocale, and from an implement as instrumentum mutum. But he himself takes care to let both beast and implement feel that he is none of them, but is a man. He convinces himself with immense satisfaction, that he is a different being, by treating the one unmercifully and damaging the other con amore. Hence the principle, univerially applied in this method of production, only to employ the rudest and heaviest implements and such as are difficult to damage owing to their sheer clumsiness. In the slave-statcs bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, down to the date of the civil war, ploughs constructed on old Chinese models, which turned up the soil like a hog or a mole, instead of making furrows, were alone to be found. (J. E. Cairnes. “The Slave Power,” London, 1862, p. 46 sqq.)

In his “Sea Board Slave States,” Olmsted tells us: “I am here shown tools that no man in his senses, with us, would allow a labourcr, for whom he was paying wages, to be encumbered with; and the excessive weight and clumsiness of which, I would judge, would make work at least ten per cent greater than with those ordinarily used with us. And I am assured that, in the careless and clumsy way they must be used by the slaves, anything lighter or less rude could not be fumished them with good economy, and that such tools as we constantly give our labourers and find our profit in giving them, would not last out a day in a Virginia comficid-much lighter and more free from stones though it be than ours. So, too, when I ask why mules are so universally substituted for horses on the farm, the first reason given, and confessedly the most conclusive one, is that horses cannot bear the treatment that they always must get from negroes; horses are always soon foundered or crippled by them, while mules will bear cudgelling, or lose a meal or two now and then, and not be materially injured, and they do not take cold or get sick, if neglected or overworked. But I do not need to go further than to the window of the room in which I am writing, to see at almost any time, treatment of cattle that would ensure the immediate discharge of the driver by almost any farmer owning them in the North.”


js. 08.14.13 at 3:45 pm

The amazing thing about this is that the evidence is not only right there for her to see, she sees it:

The renters made very fine crops—30, 40, and 45 bushels to the acre, while the wages fields only made 17. This is a complete reversal of the ordinary results[!]

Doesn’t it occur to her that “natural indolence” can’t explain this “complete reversal”?


JW Mason 08.14.13 at 3:49 pm

(Just to be clear, I’m not disagreeing or criticizing the original post — which is right on — just adding some context.)


JW Mason 08.14.13 at 3:52 pm


Right exactly. It’s not that the freedmen don’t like working, it’s that they don’t like working *for her*. The interesting thing about the story is that she can’t see that.


Rmj 08.14.13 at 3:52 pm

Doesn’t it occur to her that “natural indolence” can’t explain this “complete reversal”?

I think the point is: No, she doesn’t.

But we’re still arguing over the sillion, so we’ll get back to that issue when more important matters are resolved.


pedant 08.14.13 at 3:59 pm

as a pedant, I’d just like to thank Rmj for the word “sillion”.

And also to point out that “comficid” in JW Mason’s fascinating quote must be “cornfield”–cut and paste does not preclude proof-reading, folks.

I would be very happy to get back to Belle’s original point, i.e. about the failure of imagination on the part of the former slave-owner. And I apologize for having played a role in diverting the conversation onto the minutiae of arability. To ar is human.


Theophylact 08.14.13 at 4:02 pm

J. W. Mason @ #30: ” a Virginia comficid”.

I’m sure the original was “cornfield”. Oh, the wonders of OCR… .


Rob in CT 08.14.13 at 4:09 pm

Reading Foner’s Reconstruction, I find it’s filled with astoundingly blind quotes from planters in the late 1860s.

There are some great ones too from Dem politicians trying to position themselves as “cooperationists.” The idea being they sell themselves to freedmen, get their votes, and then prevent any radical changes. Foner quotes from some of those appeals. They make the 21st century GOP look effing brilliant. My absolute favorite was one where the speaker said something like this: “we’ve always been close to you. Our blood run in many of your veins…” [unsaid, but audible nontheless: because, while we were your masters, we raped your moms]

There are also a bunch of sadly naive stuff from freedmen about how everything was going to be colorblind now…


Ragweed 08.14.13 at 4:16 pm

Yep – there is a reason that sharecropping became the primary agricultural economy of the post-war South. Freed-people largely resisted any kind of gang-labor farming. People wanted their own land, and when that wasn’t possible they settled for an illusion thereof, where at least they were partly working for themselves. I would imagine this was just one example of the revenge/fraud that former slaves pulled on the plantation class.

Like Pedant I suspect they were able to pull this off by spreading turned earth from the plowed portion onto the unplowed. That doesn’t change the fact that it was a deliberate deception motivated mostly for revenge. I also wonder if the quality of pay was an issue – ie. the resentment was not merely toward the slave master and all that represented, but also about the meager wages being offered.


Ragweed 08.14.13 at 4:30 pm

Looks like Josh Mason made the point way better than I while my post was in process.

Slightly tangential, one might be interested in reading Freaks of Fortune, which has a couple of chapters on slavery and the post-war era, looking at the role the institutions had in the development of the notion of risk and risk-management. Sharecropping offered former slaves some protection against the seasonal and market vagaries of farm labor – especially as planters only were interested in hiring the most able-bodied men for the field.


Donald A. Coffin 08.14.13 at 4:33 pm

mud man and J.W. Mason nail the issue, which is the difference between the productivity of sharecroppers and that of workers paid wages. Regardless of *how* the wage-workers managed their deception, the point is that they did so because they faced different *incentives*–they did not gain from being as productive as the sharecroppers were. And, given any plausible level of residual antagonism toward the former slave-holders of the South, they were in a better position to express that antagonism at low (or even no) cost to themselves.


JW Mason 08.14.13 at 4:45 pm

. Regardless of *how* the wage-workers managed their deception, the point is that they did so because they faced different *incentives*–they did not gain from being as productive as the sharecroppers were.

I think this is backwards. Slaves and freedmen hated being subordinated to white plantation owners, and when they were forced to work for them undermined the work even where doing so brought them no personal advantage. So agriculture had to shift toward autonomous production where households managed their own labor, even though wage labor was technically more efficient, in fact essential for crops like rice and sugar. Where the authority of the boss was recognized as basically legitimate, wage labor was perfectly feasible in agriculture as in other industries.

The incentives were adapted to politics, the politics didn’t emerge from the incentives.


SamChevre 08.14.13 at 5:13 pm

I am pretty certain this was just lazy plowing; I’ve plowed with a single-bottom plow and can see exactly how to do it.

A plow picks up a strip that is roughly a trapezoid–in this case, probably 8″ on the deep side, 6″ on the shallow side, and 12″ wide–and flips it up and over. If the soil is soft (which black soil usually is) it breaks up a fair bit in the process. (Imagine, with your pinky on a table, your fingers straight and together, your thumb up, and fingertips pointing out slightly, pushing your hand through a pile of flour.) Properly, you plow 1 plow-width back (12″ away), and the second strip lies about half on the first–half on the “earth” and half in the “gutter”. (Like fallen dominoes.) What these plowmen were doing was plowing 2 plow-widths back, so the turned strip was on the “land”. (This is how you make hills for potatoes.) With soft dirt, the dirt would all be turned and black, but it would not be shaped right–is should look like a 1-plow-width zigzag, and instead it would look like a 2-plow-width sine wave.


pedant 08.14.13 at 6:27 pm

I am pretty certain that, however it was done, “just lazy” does not adequately describe the motivations behind the agents involved.


Donald A. Coffin 08.14.13 at 6:58 pm

J.W.–I think we have no disagreement. Sharecropping emerged following the Civil War in an environment in which landowners *tried* at first to re-impose gang labor (paid wages) and then wage labor, but moved to sharecropping because it proved more productive *given the political environment and social relationships.* And both the political environment and the social relationships were irremediably affected by slavery.


JW Mason 08.14.13 at 7:02 pm

Donald, you’re right, no disagreement. I thought you were making a narrower argument.


Bruce Wilder 08.14.13 at 7:05 pm

Wikipedia tells me, Stepin Fetchit was the first black actor to receive a screen credit, the first black actor to become a millionaire.

Such is the winding path of cultural evolution.


Brett Dunbar 08.14.13 at 7:40 pm

With sharecropping the labourer got paid directly based on how productive the crop was. With wage labour the pay wasn’t related to productivity. The same sort of incentive pattern occurred on collective farms in the USSR, the private plots were far more productive. It looks like the workers did as little as they could while looking convincing. You seem to have overestimated the work involved in doing a bad job. Ploughing close enough to look good doesn’t require nearly as close a spacing as optimal spacing, the lose earth thrown up by the plough covers a fairly broad strip, if you are doing the job correctly then you plough the next furrow adjacent to the previous furrow, in the middle of the turned earth. If you just want to look good and get the field finished regardless of quality you plough down the edge of the disturbed earth, you might get away with doing only a third of the furrows you should have done.


Mao Cheng Ji 08.14.13 at 8:11 pm

” It looks like the workers did as little as they could while looking convincing.”

And still western capitalist economy operates mostly on wage labor. Go figure.


Chaz 08.14.13 at 9:50 pm

I’m afraid that while I do presume these freedmen hated her guts and were perhaps interested in sabotaging the crop, the quote doesn’t really demonstrate that. As Sam and Brett and pedant say, it’s not much harder to plow every third row, it’s much easier. They’d be done in a third the time. If they’re unsupervised (as they seem to be?) that means they can go home hours earlier. That’s a more than sufficient incentive to shirk for folks who don’t much care about their work, even in absence of hatred or destructive intent.

Maybe she demonstrates her naivete about her workers’ resentment elsewhere in the book? Or, like, it’s kind of a feeling you get but there’s no quick quote that really shows it? I am rather stunned that she doesn’t seem to have anyone supervising her workers, and that she never checked that the fields were properly ploughed until after the harvest! I bet she did better next year, but still!


Mark Jamison 08.14.13 at 9:52 pm

Davis, you looked up production oats. They were planting a winter cover crop, a nice way of getting nitrogen back into the soil. The normal thing to do would have been to turn the entire field and, as she says, broadcast seed across the field. Properly done the field would have looked like the description she offered, a closely tilled field with close and neat furrows – think roto-tilling your garden to break up the soil and sort of masticate it into a finer consistency.
So the workers cheated by tilling a third of the rows they should have – no elaborate ruse although perhaps someone followed with a hoe to smooth things up which would have been much easier than doing the additional plowing.
All that said, the effect is the same – the workers cheated her. Belle’s point is the same and well taken regardless of the technical details.


Meredith 08.14.13 at 10:19 pm

The discussion of ploughing techniques and such is really very interesting, I think, if perhaps beside the point. Anyway, I find Mrs. Pennington’s cluelessness especially interesting given her evident spunk and spine, and the personal cost wrought by slavery on plantation-class women (think Mary Chestnut). All of a sudden I am put in mine of Silda Spitzer.


dsquared 08.14.13 at 10:46 pm

It’s not “lazy” plowing – to plow someone’s field that badly is an intentional act of sabotage, and also clearly done by somebody who didn’t care a jot about the owner finding out. (Also, an economist writes, she calls these the “wage” fields, but the plowmen at least were clearly on piece-work rather than wages; if they had been on an hourly wage I suspect that they would have ploughed every third furrow but done it three times)


ckc (not kc) 08.14.13 at 10:49 pm

…who decided which fields the “renters” were given and which were the “wages [yeah, right!] fields”? A range of 17 – 45 bushels per acre may have depended more on the land than the plowing (and the yield on the “wages fields” was only 13 bushels below the low end on the renters, while the low end on the renters was 15 bushels below the high end – those damn shiftless low end renters!)


Daniel 08.14.13 at 10:58 pm

Oh god, I’ve just spelt “plough” the American way. I think I might have to cut an arm off.


ckc (not kc) 08.14.13 at 10:59 pm

…just cut a third of it off and lap it over the other 2/3s


William Timberman 08.14.13 at 11:09 pm

The American way — gets ’em every time. I blame Tony Blair.


L. F. File 08.14.13 at 11:27 pm

“pedant 08.14.13 at 6:27 pm

I am pretty certain that, however it was done, “just lazy” does not adequately describe the motivations behind the agents involved.”

Pedant is “pretty certain” Wow! How do I dispute that!



idonthaveacoolname 08.14.13 at 11:36 pm

I love it! (Sorry, I’m a historian but am not all that familiar with the intricacies of racial relations after your Civil War, especially when it intersects with gender, status, and class).

This is just a taste of what E.Pringle thinks of Bonaparte, her “trustworthy” head man, whose grandfather was owned by her grandfather:

Though the pressure from the idle, shambling, trifling element of his race is very great, he has been able to resist it in the past.

Great stuff!

and I loved this: “but now, alas, poor things, they have been so confused and muddled by the mistaken ideas and standards held out to them that they have no pride in honest work, no pride in anything but to wear fine clothes and get ahead of the man who employs them to do a job.”

Thank you! A great first hand account!



Bruce Wilder 08.14.13 at 11:55 pm

I suspect that they were being paid in wages, to work in some semblance of a gang, as JW Mason and Donald A Coffin implied above — a particularly unpleasant extreme of subordination. In lowland South Carolina, before the war, forced labor in gangs, with considerable risk of death from overwork or disease, was an essential foundation for production of rice and much long staple cotton. To imagine shirking or passive aggressive insubordination may discount the horrors.


Donald A. Coffin 08.15.13 at 12:49 am

J.W. @46: And I was not as clear as I could have been…comes from writing too fast.


pedant 08.15.13 at 1:15 am

“Pedant is “pretty certain” Wow! How do I dispute that!”

It’s not hard, File. Here: I’ll show you how to do it.

First, you recognize that my use of the phrase “I’m pretty certain” was an intentional echo of SamChevre’s previous comment. Because if you didn’t get that, you show that you are not keeping up.

Then you say, “Although Pedant may be pretty certain of P, I nevertheless dispute P, and indeed I assert not-P.” And then you give us some reasons for doubting P, or for believing not-P.

In this case, that amounts to, “…and indeed I assert that the sum total of the motivations of these agents–the entirety of their reasons for acting as they did–was just laziness. No other beliefs, intentions, incentives, desires, dreams, schemes, or cunning motivated them. Just laziness. They had no thoughts about how their actions might affect the former slave-owner; they had no views about how they themselves were being treated; they were just lazy, and that is a complete account of their motivations. Just lazy.”

You see? That’s how you dispute what I said.

Not hard at all! Go ahead and do it! And when you get tired of saying that they were just lazy, you can vary the theme by calling them shiftless, idle, shambling, and trifling, too. Those are equivalent ways of disputing the thing I said I was pretty certain about.

Come on, File! Why don’t you go ahead and dispute it? I have given you a road-map. I’ve handed it to you on a silver-platter. What’s the matter? Are you just lazy?


Belle Waring 08.15.13 at 1:51 am

James Wimberley and others: it’s not my brother, it’s his god-father, who is from (farmland!) outside Savannah, but has worked all his life in international aid projects, first at C.A.R.E., and then at US AID, until his current promotion where he oversees all US humanitarian aid to every country in Southeast Asia. It’s conceivable he knows something about farming. I honestly took it to be pretty obvious! Am I some forever-city-dwelling moron? No!

For those who think they didn’t need dirt from elsewhere: fine! But for sure they had to walk back down all the ploughed rows and heap the dirt up on the adjacent hard crust of earth. Think about it! Use some motherfucking common sense and read the quote again! Otherwise this field would never have looked “off” to her on close inspection in the particular way it did, i.e., not displaying furrows. It would just look like, damn they ploughed the rows too far apart, those lazy no’ account black people. This particular field is supposed to have been all turned under so the remains of the peas were all loosed up and rotting in the soil–she says they soak the oats a little, I think, and then just throw them all over the field (broad-cast). But she still expects to see rows because she still expects to see the closely set furrows. But she sees nothing, just irregular, uniform distribution.

And what does she way? “But then I understood the failure of all the wage rice!” Why did she only understand it then, looking at a former pea-field/soon to be oat-field? Because she knows they pulled the same stunt with the rice field! I promise you she went to see that rice, grip or no grip (and in any case it as a few months before.’ That was more than half her money for the year, that season’s planting. The field-workers weren’t just lazy, and trying to get off with the minimum. These people were willing to put in some effort to fuck this woman up.

Is post-Civil war South Carolina like Switzerland and racism doesn’t exist there because something something rich African dictator’s wives something? Can we not trust this woman’s own account because probably she’s viewing it through the filter of her own life experiences, and in all likelihood both she and the hired hands are right about the ploughing, viewed though the more accurately distant lens of the male internet commenters glasses? What in the everlovin’ good Lord’s name is wrong with all you male commenters anymore? Can you try to be faintly distinguishable from the commentariat of the Volokh Conspiracy or shall I just go on and guest post over there to save trouble?


Peter T 08.15.13 at 3:29 am

Don’t go over to the Volokh Conspiracy. I love your posts, but I’m not willing to follow you there. And take it easy on us white guys – of course the hands were willing to go to some effort to fuck the owner up. Some of us know that – we’ve done it. Being a kitchen hand in London is not being a field hand in the Carolinas, but it does make you perfectly willing to put time into making the manager’s life less comfortable.

What’s interesting here is the evident desire of the upper classes (and those who identify with them) to be loved. There is something of the pathetic in it, although I can restrain my pity.


dr ngo 08.15.13 at 3:29 am

“Thank God, there is one man of their own race striving to hold up true standards of the Cross instead of the golden calf of the politician.”

Booker T. Washington, perhaps? He was by far the most widely recognized moderate leader of the African-American community at that time, I suspect.


Ragweed 08.15.13 at 3:36 am

And if Belle doesn’t fill it in for you, how ’bout this little bit of logic:

a. Multiple historians have documented that former slaves vigorously resisted gang-labor and engaged in various acts from passive resistance to active refusal to sabotage when faced with working for former slave-owners.

b. We have an example that sure looks a lot like deliberate sabotage.

Given “a.” I think we can say that “b.” is pretty likely to have been deliberate.


dairy queen 08.15.13 at 4:09 am

Let us review the state of play:

Belle writes a post offering an example of someone not being able to discern the obvious implication of the facts that she can clearly relate.

Thence ensues an energetic piling on of male commenters harping relentlessly, pompously and obtusely on each his own agronomic soapbox, completely tangentially to the point Belle was making …

except, not completely tangential because you silly people have made her point for her in a shimmering, multi-faceted way.


Gareth Rees 08.15.13 at 8:18 am

It was surely a defensive mechanism on the part of white planters to pretend that resistance came from laziness rather than hatred. It is hard to live in the knowledge that you are surrounded by people who hate you. There’s an episode later in the book where her tenant Gibbie is behind on the rent and she learns from her (housekeeper?) Chloe that his grandfather Able repeatedly ran away from the slave gang. Pennington then writes,

Poor Gibbie, I didn’t know his ancestral weaknesses, but I recognize the type – quitters all – start with a flourish, but soon leave the track.


Chaz 08.15.13 at 8:27 am

There are some people who think it is never okay to insult people, and there are other people who think it is okay if you are right and they are fucking wrong and they’re morons who have it coming. I subscribe to the latter school but I think it may be a character flaw.

And I think that even if we assume the second school is correct, and we assume that there is an intelligence and correctness deficit between Belle and those of who disagree with Belle, in Belle’s favor, that that deficit cannot possibly be large enough to justify the jabbering in her last post.

And no, for fuck’s sake, it is not obvious that some guy who works for USAID in a managerial position is an expert on fucking farming. They do a lot of stuff totally unrelated to farming, and you never said his job was in any way related to farming, and even if he managed a bunch of rice farms I wouldn’t assume he actually knew how to plow the fields.

In conclusion, I am fucking great, and Belle is terrible, and she’s wrong about everything, and if we had a coolness contest I’d totally win and Belle would be sad. So there!


Chaz 08.15.13 at 8:32 am

Also dairy queen is clearly correct that my pomposity and obtuseness on tangential agronomic matters stem entirely from my deeply rooted sexism, and not from my deeply rooted pomposity and obtuseness.


Mao Cheng Ji 08.15.13 at 8:57 am

As far as the hatred vs laziness controversy: I imagine none of us here was born and raised as a slave and a child of slaves. Our social reality is so radically different from theirs that it’s probably pointless to speculate, based on our gut feeling, about their motivations.


Ronan(rf) 08.15.13 at 9:19 am

I’m surprised the idea that slaves disliked their enslavers has turned out so controversial


Mao Cheng Ji 08.15.13 at 10:01 am

Why shouldn’t it be controversial? There is a stereotype, you know: Uncle Tom, Twain’s Jim, Gone with the Wind. That’s just off the top of my head.


Nine 08.15.13 at 11:19 am

And then there’s the evidence of “Django” ….


Belle Waring 08.15.13 at 11:24 am

Shit, if only I’d thought to watch Gone With The Wind more recently; I can see that this would all have been so much more compelling.
Chaz: “jabbering” precisely in this post or the previous? Or the most recent comment? Or another? Your cool, hep lingo has eluded me here. You can’t just go around explaining how great your parties are and how your dealer Rob “Sweet Taste” Sim has got the whitest D and the purest Molly in all the wide world, and then not actually contribute any actual opinions. Or would we only get to hear them at the party? Have to say, reading out comment threads in lieu of DJing would…no, I hear it works pretty well for Unfogged, go for it. You may need some ringers, though, frankly, for some of the threads.
Additionally: it chances to be the case that Harlan (for his title is becoming tedious), in addition to his grandmoms having a decent size farm outside Savannah (not growing these kinds of crops though, tomatoes, and peaches and pecan orchards) genuinely does know a lot about farming (though he certainly might not), which he worked on in Zimbabwe and Uganda as a CARE employee and then he learned about wet rice cultivation here. He also knows a lot about cisterns and water-saving practices for droughts, and a lot about logistics, that being his main job for many years, getting food and potable water to internally displaced people or the victims of natural disasters, least pleasantly in Goma in, what, late 90s, which kind of wrecked him up. If he were in a superhero team it would actually be the logistics that got him on. Now you know! If it were the case that anyone commenting actually were inclined to believe what I say I think you might have known just the briefest time earlier, but one could imagine how it might not be the highest priority in your life, what with the coolness and everything.


Rmj 08.15.13 at 11:45 am

except, not completely tangential because you silly people have made her point for her in a shimmering, multi-faceted way.

“Sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine.”

Still waiting for that “shining” part. And I don’t mean the revelation that Jack Nicholson was ALWAYS the caretaker.

Although I’m beginning to suspect that may be the secret here…..


yabonn 08.15.13 at 12:26 pm

I must have missed something.

The slaves can’t be “lazy”, can they? They are robbed of their work. Are you stingy because you don’t give your shoes too to the one mugging you?

I understand the quote-less use of the word by the slaver, and the mentions of it – it’s not that I enslave them, it’s their moral failings etc – but the very notion of “lazy” slaves surprises me. How could they?


Gareth Rees 08.15.13 at 12:52 pm

Are you stingy because you don’t give your shoes too to the one mugging you?

If the mugger wants to feel good about himself he might well think so. But it would be even better if he can make you think so too; then you might hand over the shoes of your own accord without having to be mugged.


Frowner 08.15.13 at 2:54 pm

(Belle, may I ask – to digress – whether your family had a story about what was haunting the library? Was it just the generalized ghosts of genocide and slavery? We have a bad luck room in our house and despite my atheism it makes me nervous.)


dairy queen 08.15.13 at 3:38 pm


You might ask yourself in a moment of honest self reflection whether your pomposity and obtuseness flows most freely from you when directed at small children, domestic animals and women, and aka the audience one is most likely to use for excursions in half learnt foreign languages as the least likely to offer embarrassing corrections. As you hoist yourself up onto that soapbox pause for a moment, close your eyes and ask – who do you imagine populating the crowd?


Chaz 08.15.13 at 6:55 pm

It flows most freely when I am arguing about trivial nonsense on internet comment threads. The other party is typically a man.


Chaz 08.15.13 at 7:22 pm

Belle, I was referring to:

“It’s conceivable he knows something about farming. I honestly took it to be pretty obvious! Am I some forever-city-dwelling moron? No!”

“Think about it! Use some motherfucking common sense and read the quote again!”

“Can we not trust this woman’s own account because probably she’s viewing it through the filter of her own life experiences, and in all likelihood both she and the hired hands are right about the ploughing, viewed though the more accurately distant lens of the male internet commenters glasses? What in the everlovin’ good Lord’s name is wrong with all you male commenters anymore? Can you try to be faintly distinguishable from the commentariat of the Volokh Conspiracy or shall I just go on and guest post over there to save trouble?”

I found these comments insulting. I also think some of the male folks here WERE giving deference to the woman’s account, when we assumed that she was correct about how they had done the plowing (that is, she thought they hadn’t hauled in dirt or gone to a lot of extra effort). I was also giving her deference when I argued that it was not obvious from the account (though it may be likely based on history) that she was wrong about the freedmen’s motivations.

And then there’s also this, which isn’t rude, but which I find unconvincing:
“I promise you she went to see that rice, grip or no grip (and in any case it as a few months before.’ That was more than half her money for the year, that season’s planting. The field-workers weren’t just lazy, and trying to get off with the minimum. These people were willing to put in some effort to fuck this woman up.”

We assume that they did the same thing to the oat field as to the rice field. The oat scam was simple and immediately detected by the author. If she did the same or more diligence with her rice field (as she certainly should have) why didn’t she detect the bad plowing then and there? Or are you saying they did a more thorough deception with the rice?


Magnus 08.15.13 at 9:46 pm

Some have a predilection for arguing how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. It is merely for sport and has little relation to the substance of the original post.


Belle Waring 08.16.13 at 6:05 am

Chaz: the scam was not entirely simple. It happened to be the case that, having been delayed by being ill, she visited the field just as they were going to sow the oats, and just after the field had been tilled. It hadn’t yet rained, I don’t think, or not so much, because the new, aerated soil would have been flattened out quite a bit (I base this on my personal experience that the rains in this area are torrential, really, quite worthy of being compared with those of the tropics.) She got there when they had just finished making it look ploughed, right? She saw the weed still there and yanked it. If she had come a week later, if she had looked from the horse and cart up on the bund and not gotten down, if she hadn’t gone to pull up that weed–the whole thing would have gotten past her just fine! And she had to walk over the whole field with a stick for an hour or whatever to see what exactly they had done. And after having looked at this field, which had never grown rice, she said, in essence, ‘then I understood exactly what caused the awful failure of the rice crop in a completely different field that was ploughed by the same field hands.’ This doesn’t make any sense at all unless we imagine her to be saying, ‘they did the very same thing in the rice paddies, and I didn’t realize it.’ I read on from there, she criticizes Bonaparte for not overseeing better. It seems the rice sprung up beautifully but then wilted–its roots couldn’t find any purchase in the hard crust. Chaz, also: do you see above where someone is suggesting, ‘who knows how the fields were assigned, 17-35 isn’t a huge difference.’ Do you see how that person is being difficult to the point of idiocy, just for the sake of disagreeing with me? Because we do know how it is decided who gets which fields–she decides it, and she saves the best and most consistent yielders for herself (hence this is a massive reversal; under ordinary circumstances the sharecroppers’ fields yield less per acre and hers more), the ones that under slave labor produced 40 bushels an acre and more. And 17 is massively variant from 35 in an area under 5 square miles. Can you see this person is being disagreeable to disagree? Can you reflect slightly on your own contribution to this thread?


Walt 08.16.13 at 7:10 am

Belle, you have nobody to blame but yourself here. You’re perfectly free to sign your name as “Bill Waring”.


Sam Dodsworth 08.16.13 at 8:09 am

*sudden flash of realization*

Oh, God. I’d been assuming all this resistance was just about racism. Thanks Walt – I’ve been incredibly dense.


Belle Waring 08.16.13 at 10:08 am

Sam Dodsworth: really, though? I thought it was fairly self evident what the problem was.


Sam Dodsworth 08.16.13 at 10:14 am

Belle: Yes, really. Male privilege, plus carried-over assumptions from the previous racism threads. I’m not proud of my obliviousness here.


Belle Waring 08.16.13 at 2:45 pm

Oh well, now you know. Please assist me in the future by pointing out to people that they are being crazy sexist. Or just by posting actual, on-topic comments. Or by believing the things I say in the post are true. All those things would be totally awesome. Where did these people even come from? Is it Banhammer Time? I have been wanting to kill myself with a pencil to the eye for days now. I was reading some of the more awful “you didn’t consult enough experts on turn of the century oat-farming” quotes to John, and I said “at this point, I lost my temper.” John: “you should never lose your temper in comments. It only works against you and people will know they’re getting to you.” I had to look at him and say “do you really want to tell me what I should have said in this comment thread?” His advice is totally right, naturally. He is imperturbable, it drives trolls crazy. I should learn from him. I just don’t know when we picked up this crop of sexist douchenozzles.


JanieM 08.16.13 at 3:05 pm

I just don’t know when we picked up this crop of sexist douchenozzles.

My sense of it is that there are more douchenozzles in general than there used to be, and there’s more fruitless endless back and forth between and with them. But some of them show up just for you, I’m pretty sure. L. F. File, for instance, is nowhere to be found in any of the other comment threads currently on the front page, or for a while before that.

As for John’s comment about temper: I have been in awe of John for a long time in that regard. If I could deal with assholes the way John does my life would have gone very differently, for sure. :)


dairy queen 08.16.13 at 5:03 pm

My perception is that in general the sexism on display in comment threads has gotten worse here lately, which I believe has contributed to the ability of *some* male commenters to not see that they are participating in it in their own comments on Belle’s posts. The general atmosphere has deteriorated, making their own behavior seem less egregious to them. Others are, how shall I put this, more consistent.

This did make me laugh out loud: “I had to look at him and say “do you really want to tell me what I should have said in this comment thread?”” Conversations I have had!


dairy queen 08.16.13 at 5:09 pm

As for the actual topic of the thread! Brings to mind Valerie Martin’s “Property.” Has the (fatal for some) default of all fiction, in its single-minded determination to imagine what the world looks like from someone else’s point of view (so not Hector’s cup of tea), in this case a slave owning woman in an oppressive marriage and her relationship with her husband’s slave concubine. Short and disturbing. The other Martin books I’ve attempted sampled have been pretty awful, but this one is worth reading if you come across it.


Walt 08.16.13 at 8:54 pm

What makes the sexism here insidious is that it would be easy for the people doing it not realize they’re doing it. (Leaving aside obvious goofballs like Hector.) Sometimes a post rubs you the wrong way, and you pick at it. This can happen to any post — Daniel’s previous post is getting picked at, Corey had a post a month ago about Marx and the Jewish Question that got a bunch of pushback — so it’s hard to say for any post that the nitpicking is driven by sexism. It’s only from repetition that the pattern becomes apparent.


Katherine 08.16.13 at 11:08 pm

Honestly I think it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen such egregious examples of Nothing To See Here Syndrome.

I think my personal favourite one was the commenter suggesting that the yield might have just been low because of bad land/soil. This despite the fact that the writer identities a sudden and recent reduction in yield, and the fact that two thirds of the field she observes hasn’t been ploughed.

It’s the two thirds that makes it perfectly damn clear to me. Two thirds. That not just some justifiably workshy ex-slaves shuffling some ploughed earth around. That’s not different ploughing practice. That’s planned and deliberate.


Fu Ko 08.17.13 at 2:57 am

I duno, I do think Belle made an error in her original post. But pointing it out is apparently sexist.


Sam Dodsworth 08.17.13 at 9:25 am

Belle – then let me offer this extract from “Black Resistance Before the Civil War”, which I came across the other day:

“A colonial traveler reported that the Negro seemed unable to adapt himself satisfactorily to either the hoe or the wheelbarrow. ‘Let a hundred men show him how to hoe, or drive a wheelbarrow, he’ll still take the one by the Bottom and the other by the Wheel; and they often die before they can be conquered.’ So many hoes were ‘accidentally’ broken by slaves that a heavier, and therefore work-slowing, ‘n****r hoe’ had to be substituted. Planters would have been surprised to learn that the hoe was one of the basic tools of West African agriculture.”

I think the use of “conquered” when talking about training slaves suggests the the planters may not have been all that surprised, but it’s not exactly controversial to suggest that the slaves hated the masters and would resist any way they can. Why would anyone think ending slavery while preserving the basic relationship between black workers and white owners would change that attitude?


PJW 08.17.13 at 4:06 pm

What would have been the consequences of the wage hands not doing the job properly? They apparently weren’t afraid of losing their jobs and Pennington wages if they were found out, or did they actually believe they could get away with it, saving their time and effort for their own fields? I don’t know but am curious about the possible downside of such behavior in this situation. A scolding by Pennington? Criminal charges? Banned from working these fields and others in the area if Pennington spread the word around about how these workers deceived her? Is part of it a “you pretend to pay us and we’ll pretend to work” situation beyond their animosity to the boss? Part of me thinks the farm hands did as little as possible in order to make it look good enough to fool Pennington and if they got away with the fraud then maybe they could perpetuate it season after season. Maybe they thought her a fool who would never figure out the ruse. Maybe they figured a female landowner would never be sophisticated enough to get to the bottom of it. I think hate is just one in a sea of motivators here, but maybe not the key driving force behind the deception.


Bill Harshaw 08.17.13 at 4:36 pm

I’ve no experience with broadcast oats in the South, but in the North after we plowed a field we’d use a spring-tooth harrow to break up clods and level the furrows, then we’d drill the seed in.

The way I read the quote, they broadcast the seed first, then they plowed. Seems to me, depending on the design of the plows they’re using, they’d run the danger of burying the seed too deeply if they plowed as Samchevre (43) describes it–this site ( http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/cereals/bfc01s01.html) says 1.5 to 3 inches. If they plowed 1 furrow of 3, then harrowed it would spread the dirt over the whole field.

In the first paragraph the writer states a paradox, saying she’s always been able to do as good or better with the wage hands than the renters, but in this instance the renters did much better. The second paragraph she explains the paradox by saying the wage hands were fooling her by poor soil preparation. What I don’t understand is why then, presumably with the same wage hands, she had been able in the past to make good crops? Do we assume that usually she had been supervising them closely all the time, but this one time she was ill?


delurking 08.18.13 at 5:15 pm

Just decloaking to say how much I’m loving your posts, Belle.

If you can bear the mansplaining, please stick it out.

(And this — “Fu Ko: I duno, I do think Belle made an error in her original post. But pointing it out is apparently sexist” — OMG, it made me laugh. Please tell me that was satire, FK? Because it was spot on perfect!)

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