Ish the Sharecropper

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I thought of a word the other day, that I hadn't heard in a long time. It was sharecropper. I knew one named Ish Clark, who lived on my maternal grandfather's farm.

I was born among the baby boomers in 1955, the result of a Christmas vacation. I grew up in a mid sized town, in a mid sized house, with no brothers or sisters. My mother played the piano and my father worked the family business. It was a mid sized 1950's life.

Although I had visited my mother's parents on their farm when I was much younger, at the age of seven or eight I was starting to develop my own perception of the world around me. My grandfather was half Choctaw Indian, and my grandmother half indian from several tribes. They had a farm in northern Missisippi, and it was there I met Ish. The first thing that struck me was his name. It didn't seem like his parents had short changed him on his name, for I had never met an Ish in my life. It seems strange that I could remember his name after forty some odd years.

Ish lived in a house in the cow pasture between the small pond near the barn, and the big pond on the back forty. God made the big pond, and grandfather made the little pond for the dairy cows to drink from on their way to the barn each morning and evening. Ish was a tall thin man. If I was old enough to know the word gaunt, I would have used that to describe him. He was a meek and soft spoken man, who was always respectful to everyone. He seemed to hold his hat in his hands, over his chest more often than was natural.

Ish had a wife and two children, but I never saw them up close or met them. Where young children usually go off and play with others their own age, I was told not to bother Ish's children. I remember walking along the red clay road to the big pond by their house one day, when Ish's wife waved to me from their porch. As I waived back, she ran down to make sure the children waved back at me too.

For those of you who don't know what sharecropping is, an oversimplication would be that poor farmers without land would be given a piece of land to farm. A share of whatever was raised there would be given back to the land owner. It had gained much usage after the freeing of the slaves. The defeated Southern farmers didn't have the money to pay workers, and the freed slaves didn't have land to farm or the ability to get other jobs, since agriculture was what they knew best. It wasn't only the freed slaves who were sharecroppers or tenant farmers. By 1900, thirty-six percent of all white farmers in Mississippi were either tenant farmers or sharecroppers. By 1942 only ten percent had refidgerators and fourteen percent had radios, much less an iPod. In many ways being a sharecropper was little more than indentured servitude. History has had both honest indentured contracts and those who have abused it.

Ish was white, and Ish was poor. My grandfather was never well off. His tractor looked like something from the great depression, and his clothes were patched many times over. He always made sure the small pond was stocked with fish, so Ish's family had protien without having to ask. They alway had whatever food was growing both on their land and my grandfather's to choose from. I remember the year after I met Ish, they had managed to get electricity out to his house.

Years later, after Ish and his family were long gone I walked into their empty house. What looked like a brick outside was actually floor linoleum that was nailed to the walls. A single light bulb hung from a bare wire in what was pretty much a single room, shaped in an L formation. With the main bed in the short of the L and bunks on the far end, with the kitchen and living room in-between. There was a tiny electric stove, but there was remnants of cooking hardware in the fireplace as well. What struck me the most, was the light pouring in from cracks at the floorline over a hardly packed dirt floor. There were rugs thrown here and there, but the floor was dirt.

What brought Ish to mind, was the look that I've seen on the faces of the employees of big corporations. Those people who's life savings for retirement were stolen by mismanaged corporations going bankrupt, had the same hollow eyed look that I saw in Ish's eyes. I've seen it on the faces of workers laid off as their jobs get outsourced to sweat shops in foreign countries. I've seen it in the eyes of people who have jobs, but are terrified that losing their job would send them spiraling into destitution, because they live paycheck to paycheck.

I then think about the corporate mantra of empowering the employee. Make him a shareholder. When we do well, he does well. They don't tell you the other half of the saying. When they mismanage, you are the one who pays. So when you look into the mirror, do you see a shareholder or a sharecropper?


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