Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Song for the Field Slaves

Cotton Song

Come, brother, come. Lets lift it;
come now, hewit! roll away!
Shackles fall upon the Judgment Day
But lets not wait for it.

God’s body’s got a soul,
Bodies like to roll the soul,
Cant blame God if we dont roll,
Come, brother, roll, roll!

Cotton bales are the fleecy way,
Weary sinner’s bare feet trod,
Softly, softly to the throne of God,
“We aint agwine t wait until th Judgment Day!

Nassur; nassur,
Hump.
Eoho, eoho, roll away!
We aint agwine to wait until th Judgment Day!”

God’s body’s got a soul,
Bodies like to roll the soul,
Cant blame God if we dont roll,
Come, brother, roll, roll!

—Jean Toomer, from Cane (1923)

 

During American slavery, the economy of the Southern states depended heavily on the production of cotton, and subsequently on the black slaves who harvested it in the fields. Field work was the hardest of slave labor. Slaves worked from dawn to dusk clearing land and planting, tending and picking the cotton. They were supervised by slave drivers and overseers who were notoriously cruel, frequently whipping the slaves if they didn’t work hard enough. Slaves were expected to pick a certain amount of cotton, which would be weighed at the end of the day. If the weight was under the requirement, they were punished; they were either denied a meal, beaten, or worse.

Laborers in the fields picking cotton - Jefferson County, Florida. 189-. Black & white photoprint, 8 x 10 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
Laborers in the fields picking cotton – Jefferson County, Florida. 189-. Black & white photoprint, 8 x 10 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Jean Toomer’s “Cotton Song,” similar to the Negro spirituals, can be described as a work chant sung by field slaves as they labor in the back-breaking work of picking cotton. Though not content with the inhumane work forced upon them, they continue on in their suffering, knowing that the freedom they long for will come on Judgment Day.

Songs like this were usually misinterpreted by slave owners, who believed their slaves were happy in their work—why else would they sing? However, these were songs sung by people suffering for God, not earthly masters. How ironic is it that slave owners used Christianity to justify slavery, and the slaves, in turn, used the same principles to anticipate their freedom.

A specific Bible verse comes to mind when reading this poem:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is not favoritism. (Colossians 3:23-25)

For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a work song for the field slaves. Show how they can still be optimistic after being beaten down by the burning sun and slash across the back with the overseer’s whip, harvesting a crop that would line the white man’s pockets.

—Nortina

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Song for the Field Slaves

Don't Keep It to Yourself. Write It Down!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s