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Not Forgotten The Life of a Southerner (in Drawings): An Interview with Jesse Whitaker Gretchen Givens At the age of 51, Jesse Whitaker began drawing pencil sketches of his memories of being a schoolboy in eastern North Carolina. The collection of his sketches that follows and his accompanying thoughts about the events taking place during that time are vehicles through which southerners can understand his life and his sense of place within the history of the South. Whitaker understands the politics of growing up black in eastern North Carolina, and subtly expresses social norms in his depictions ofJim Crow North Carolina. Jesse Whitaker Whitaker was born to a sharecropping family in Lawrence (Edgecombe County, North Carolina) in 1937. He attended segregated public schools when he did not have to work the fields with his family. He left Edgecombe County in 1955 to join the navy but returned after realizing that he needed a high school diploma to become an officer. He finished high school in 1960, enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, and left the college three years later after realizing that he could not pass the mathematics entrance exam that would allow him to train to be an air force pilot. Since 1964, Whitaker has been employed in numerous semiskilled jobs and has served six years in prison. Today, he speaks enthusiastically about trying to acquire his commercial driver's license so that he can be employed as a truck driver by the state. Whitaker is temporarily living with his brother, but his sketches were discovered while he resided at the Art Shelter, a homeless shelter in Raleigh. Growing Up as a Black Sharecropper The race relations between the white sharecroppers, black sharecroppers, and the owner of the . . . land was according to how obedient the black person was to the authority of the white land owners and white subordinates. You see, we had to also be obedient to the whites who were themselves sharecroppers. . . . the racial cloud did not rain any bad water until the black people would do something that would step on the toes of the whites. —Jesse Whitaker Historically, Edgecombe and Halifax counties have been economically poor farm communities compared with other regions in the state. Edgecombe County is located in the northeastern part of North Carolina, and in 1940 its population was approximately 49,000, 138Southern Cultures with approximately 27,000 of its citizens being black. Its neighbor to the north, Halifax County, had a population of approximately 57,000, of which 32,000 were black.1 The primary occupation for blacks in the two counties was sharecropping, a means for landowners to get cheap labor—a new form of black enslavement. In 1940 half of the black population within these neighboring counties worked on farms where, as sharecroppers, they had little hope for advancement.2 Whites affirmed the injustices that blacks faced—a white Edgecombe County farmer stated, "We've got the best Negroes of any county in the state. They are good workers and they know their place."3 It is important to note that not all whites were landowners , and that whites who did not own land worked side-by-side with blacks who were a mere generation away from enslavement on lands that were once plantations. Whitaker vividly remembers this period in history. As a young boy his place in Edgecombe was on the farm alongside his family, who worked the fields as sharecroppers, moving from plot to plot to make a living. Whitaker recalls the days in the field as "hard work for a young man." His life revolved around the crops: tobacco, peanuts, cotton, and corn. School was the only reason a farming child could get out of working in the fields. For Jesse Whitaker, school became the highlight of his life for two reasons: as a child, school was a means of escaping the fields and "the chopping"; as an adult, school was a means of escaping the sharecropper existence that his father led. The memories captured in his artwork illustrate that school represented hope. In his early years school was a safe place for Whitaker because the teachers were his people and they saw to...


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pp. 137-153
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