I started this blog a bit over 10 years ago. On that Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday in 2008, I wrote about a childhood experience that has affected everything I have done since. With all that is going on in our country now, I thought it a good time to repeat it:
I grew up here in California, in the heart of the state where agriculture is king. We grow the fiber and food for the world, and although it is done by large conglomerates now, when I was a child growing up, it was done by small farmers, farmers like my father and his friend, Mr. Price. Farmers who made a living on small plots of land and fed and clothed the world.
My dad met Mr. Price and his wife when they came to chop cotton on our farm. They hit it off because, although handicapped, Mr. Price worked harder than any man my father knew. My dad was always looking for hard workers because he believed that is how you make a way for yourself in the world, by the sweat of your brow. Race, politics, religious convictions, they meant nothing to my dad, only how hard did one work. That was his measure of a man, and Mr. Price filled it well.
Our farm had excellent soil, and my father, being an excellent farmer, worked it sun up to sundown, growing high quality cotton on it each year. Mr. Price owned a small piece of land not too far from our farm, and he too was trying to make a living by farming this hardscrabble land. My father was sympathetic to his plight as the soil was highly alkali and so harder to coax a good crop from it. He offered to help Mr. Price with his farming, especially since Mr. Price only had one arm and one tractor that was on its last leg. My dad knew it was hard to farm with good soil, good equipment, and all digits.
Because my dad had an open account at the local seed and fertilizer store, he took Mr. Price there too so he could buy his yearly supplies and pay after harvest. It’s the way farmers make their living, paying their accounts after they’ve been paid for their crop. However, the fertilizer store refused to open an account for Mr. Price. This was a store for the white farmer, and Mr. Price was black, or as we said in those days, Negro. My dad, who had a fierce temper, was furious but not thwarted. “Ok, then put Mr. Price’s seed and fertilizer on my account,” thinking that would solve the problem. Alright, but all materials had to be delivered to the address on the account. Every delivery that was made was dropped in the front yard of our home where Mr. Price and my dad would then reload the bags into the back of Daddy’s pickup and haul them another 3 miles to Mr. Price’s plot of land. I would watch from the living room window as the two men, one with only one arm, would lift those bags from the pallets where they had been dropped into the bed of the pickup. I learned the lesson, you do what you have to do to get the job done, and it’s stuck with me ever since.
My students get upset to learn that a store wouldn’t sell to a black man, but I point out it wasn’t that the store wouldn’t sell, it was that it would not sell on credit to a man who was a different color. There was the perception that Negroes would not be good for the money when it came time to pay up. Mr. Price always paid Daddy, by the way. I also point out that this was only a few decades ago, and it was right here in California, not the deep south where we think of racism. I remind my students of what people like Dr. King have done for all of society and that we should remember what it was like then and look for how we can continue to improve the lives of all people. As my father would say, “hard work never killed anyone,” and sometimes the hardest work is just to change people’s attitudes.