One More Row to Hoe

by Rufus Battle

I’ll never forget my first day chopping cotton as a paid field hand. Saturday morning in the spring of 1958, hoe in hand, ready to show what I could do. There I was, ten years old, looking down a row of cotton plants a quarter mile long. A blanket of mist hovered over the field, as the morning dew evaporated. At 7:00am the temperature was already 85 degrees. Anxiety rampant in my gut overshadowed any discomfort I might have felt due to the climate conditions. A prickly sensation crawled over my scalp, as droplets of sweat rolled down the back of my neck, dissipating into the collar of my flannel shirt. Now officially a paid hand, thoughts about my ability to handle the job filled my consciousness. My job was to remove all the weeds and grass, while avoiding the cotton plants, but thinning out areas where too many plants grew together. Having observed field-hands performing this task every spring since old enough to remember, I knew well what the job required. By sundown, I would have earned a day’s wages, same as everyone else, a lofty sum of three dollars.

Looking down that first row, the thought of the work before me was overwhelming. Just getting to the end seemed a monumental task. And then, seemingly, endless other rows stretching across this pocket of farmland nestled between patches of wooded swamps, waited to greet me. Two of the older men grabbed the first two rows and went to work, moving with little apparent effort. I immediately followed suit, though hardly moving with as much ease as them. Though no one in the group was officially in charge, I humbly took my cue from the older men. Those old sons of slaves were like machines. They always gave an honest effort, diligently doing the job they were paid to do despite having no overseer.

Every time I looked up the group had moved farther ahead of me. With crisp smooth strokes, I guided my hoe through the sun-baked crust into the dark moist soil beneath as fast as I could, careful not to cut the cotton plants. Though I was only ten, my skills with a hoe were polished, having spent many hours tending Big Papa’s vegetable garden, reputedly the best on the Helena plantation. But moving as fast as I could, the others steadily moved farther ahead. Now it was more than just the physical work confronting me; fear of failure was waging war within. I was already getting weary only 30 minutes into the work day. Looking down my row accessing the work ahead, I thought; “just get to the end and everyone will know you can handle the job.” Finally I reached the end. By then the rest of the group was well on their way back on another row. I quickly moved over to the next row, looked down upon the work ahead and again felt overwhelmed. Maybe I wasn’t good enough, or maybe this was just another example of a place I didn’t belong. If only I could do my job as well as the older men, then I would win their approval – I would belong.