Now, I don’t watch FOX News. In fact, I don’t even have cable – I got rid of it several years ago and went to a leaf antenna and streaming. However, I must say that the reaction to a comment by FOX contributor David Bossie to “Democratic strategist” Joel Payne that he was “out of his cotton-picking mind” is way out of proportion. Payne, who is of African ancestry, took offense at the comment because “my relatives picked cotton.” My response to that is – so fucking what? I picked my cotton, my daddy did, my mother did, my brother did and my sisters did and so did my grandmother, aunts and uncles, not to mention my neighbors. In fact, if you lived in the rural South prior to the 1960s when the use of mechanical cotton pickers became widespread and were able to get to the fields, you picked cotton. Picking cotton was so much a part of the culture that rural schools had split “vacations,” with school starting back in July for six weeks, then getting out for “cotton picking” in the fall.
Payne’s reaction is that of a northern black person with little real knowledge of the South and of the practices before his time. (He’s also a “Democratic strategist,” which says a lot.) Black northerners have been attributing racial prejudice to sayings common in the South for decades. For example, when I was in the Air Force, I had a roommate who was a mulatto from Harlem – his father was “Irish” and his mother was black. The first thing he said to me when we met was that I had better not ever call him nigger – as if I ever had any attention of doing so. (“Nigger” was known to be considered by blacks as synonymous with a “sorry” white person. Incidentally, the term “white trash” originated with slaves who used it to refer to poor whites with no land or slaves of their own.) That, however, is not my point. He went on a trip as a student with a sergeant instructor from Georgia who, like most Southerners, had a habit of calling everyone “boy.” My roommate took umbrage, but the sergeant, who lived across the hall from us, sat him down and explained that everyone in the South called each other “boy” and “girl” regardless of whether they were white or black. Although we never became friends, at least he seemed to understand that everyone wasn’t looking down on him after that.
It seems that blacks in the North have concocted a number of mistaken ideas. An example is the term “soul food” which came about in the 1960s when blacks from the South opened restaurants in New York and other northern cities and called their fare “soul food” at a time when blacks had started referring to certain forms of music and black culture as “soul.” In truth, what is now commonly called soul food is actually nothing but rural Southern cooking. Rural people in the South, white and black, made full use of the animals they slaughtered and grew crops foreign to northerners such as collard and turnip greens. Hog intestines were cleaned and called chitlins, which is short for chitterlings. White families ate them, as did blacks. Personally, I love chitlins the way my mother fixed them. She breaded and fried them and we ate them with her biscuits. Catfish were practically a delicacy at our house (blacks were famous for eating “rough fish” such as carp and buffalo.)
Payne seems to have taken exception to Bossie’s comment because his grandparents were sharecroppers. Again, so what? Share cropping was a means by which people who owned no land of their own could make a crop and living, and large numbers of sharecroppers were white. Sharecropping was a means of allowing a landowner to get full use of their land. Before farming became mechanized, a single family could farm some forty acres. Although it’s commonly believed – apparently especially by blacks – that sharecropping came along after the Civil War, the practice actually dates back for centuries and was and still is common in many parts of the world. (There is a difference between a sharecropper and a tenant farmer. Sharecroppers are laborers who provide the labor to raise a crop for a share while a tenant farmer rents the land from the landowner and provides everything necessary to raise a crop. Tenant farming is common today – my own land is rented to local farmers to raise a crop each year.) Sharecroppers were provided everything they needed by the landowner, including a house and plot of land where they could grow their own food and raise hogs and maintain a cow or two for milk.
There is a common misconception that picking cotton is hard work. Actually, while cotton-picking by hand is tedious, it’s not particularly hard and its definitely not backbreaking. Personally, I’d much rather pick cotton out in the open fall air then work in a foundry or factory. Cotton-picking is not a constant, year-long task. Cotton becomes ripe for picking in late summer or early fall, depending on the length of the growing season and when the crop is planted, and is picked over a 6-8 week period. The image of slaves or sharecroppers laboring in the fields from dusk to dawn 365 days a year is false; the actual days spent in the field for cotton-picking is more like 65 days, if that.
As for the use of the term “cotton-picking” as an adjective, the origin is unsure. So, for that matter, is the meaning except that it is used to add emphasis to a statement – for example, “She’s a cotton-picking liar!” Another common use is “Just a cotton-picking minute!” “You’re out of your cotton-picking mind” is another. However, in no way is the use of the term “cotton-picking” derogatory to blacks, as the media often claims. The only connection to blacks is that blacks picked cotton, but so did whites.