- Rethinking King Cotton:George W. Lee, Zora Neale Hurston, and Global/Local Revisions of the South and the Nation
It was in the Bodleian Library, while rummaging among the quaint and musty index papers of the Upper Reading Room, that I heard one capped and gowned librarian muttering to another, as with an air of offended dignity: "Writing on cotton! Why on earth should he want to write on such a subject as that?"James A.B. Scherer, Cotton as a World Power
In 1940, a U.S. Department of Agriculture pamphlet titled The Negro in American Agriculture called "the story of the Negro in agriculture . . . a challenging chapter in the story of farming in America, a tale of impressive achievements and of great misery and need." It continues:
Agriculture means more to more American Negroes than does any other industry or occupation. . . . The welfare of most Negroes in the South rises and falls with the welfare of southern agriculture. The status of the Negro farmer is one of the major factors in the southern agricultural situation. It is of vital interest, not only to the South but to the entire nation.(4, 3)
In the 1930s and 1940s, Zora Neale Hurston and George W. Lee tell compelling and competing stories of the "Negro" in agriculture. To be sure, each narrates "impressive achievements" as well as "great misery [End Page 63] and need." Lee's River George (1937) describes the record-setting cotton crop that protagonist Aaron George produces when he returns to his late father's shares, for example, while Hurston's novels and stories present black communities that, despite the racist and classist pogrom of early twentieth-century agriculture, affirm and sustain its members. At the same time, each narrates "great misery and need": River George ends in Aaron's graphic lynching, while Hurston's work tends toward wholesale African American rejection of American agriculture: as she asks in Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), "Why must I chop cotton at all?" (345). What's more, their works defy the relegation of "the status of the Negro farmer" within a regional or national circuit, for they contest American agriculture as solely national or local and instead acknowledge its global dimensions. While Aaron does not recognize that he is victim of the plantation, a transnational system far greater than he and fundamental in refusing him agency or equity, Hurston's works embrace global consciousness, repudiating emplacement in and fealty to a world order that denies her characters autonomy and equity.
Indeed, both authors, from different positions, explore the problematic conflation of race and space under globalization. Aaron's environmental imagination is demarcated by his economic relationship to the cotton he sharecrops for the enrichment of a global economic system—an untenable relationship that effects his enlistment in the U.S. Army during World War I and his final, fearful flight from his rural Mississippi homeplace to Memphis. Hurston, by fetishizing not cotton, but food crops—from green beans and citrus to potatoes and hogs—seeks to disrupt the global commodities system that founds and powers the "Ass-and-all of democracy" in "subjugating the dark world completely" (165) and thus envisions transformed black relationships to southern landscapes. Put simply, Lee's and Hurston's fetishization of cotton—one through the devastation of its presence, the other through the liberation of its absence—crystallizes the perplexing, debilitating, and alienating interchanges of globalization, race, and place.
Recent literary critical turns to the study of globalization make possible my argument that Lee and Hurston, through the image of cotton, express complex responses to "glocal" imaginations of place, race, and agriculture. As Wai Chee Dimock writes in her provocative Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (2006), "the [End Page 64] analytic adequacy of the sovereign state has been increasingly called into question," thus requiring a theorization of
a crisscrossing set of pathways, open-ended and ever multiplying, weaving in and out of other geographies, other languages and cultures. These are input channels, kinship networks, routes of transit, and forms of attachment—connective tissues binding America to the rest of the world. Active on both ends, they thread American...