Back in April, the New York Times published an article about All God’s Dangers by Theodore Rosengarten, the 1974 National Book Award winner, an autobiography that seemed to have been all but forgotten. It’s the oral history of a former sharecropper who bucked against the system that kept him down.
Well, we picked up a used copy down at Heartwood Books in Charlottesville (coincidentally, the name penciled on the inside was Lauren F. Winner, a high-school acquaintance of mine who writes about faith and society and sexuality, among other things). And it’s every bit as important today as it was in 1974.
Nate Shaw is an old man as he narrates his life, and he meanders, but even those digressions – about the livestock he owned, the proper way to plow a field with a pair of mules, the family history of his neighbors and kin – are informative.
What struck me, again and again as I read the book, was the how difficult it was to be a poor farmer, regardless of being cheated by white people. The title of the book refers to the arrival of the boll weevil in Alabama: “All god’s dangers ain’t a white man.” No, the boll weevil is also out to get you. Lice and mosquitoes and your mule if you don’t look out will also hurt you. Doctoring won’t help much. The commodities market and the weather can ruin you.
And if you’re Nate Shaw, decades of incredibly hard work and prayer and good fortune will let you scrape together enough money to put down to buy some land of your own, and white folks will get together, put you up on some bogus charges, and send you to prison for 12 years, and take that land away and return your family to poverty.
If you want to understand Ta-Nehisi Coates’ case for reparations, remember this: Nate Shaw’s was not an atypical story, and he was not a distant historical figure. When his children left the countryside, they faced not only individual discrimination, but official federal policy that kept them in substandard and overpriced ghettoes while white people got cheap financing for new houses in white neighborhoods.
Shaw’s story is the story of American injustice, piled decade upon decade. Reading it won’t fix things, but it’s a start.