Some years ago, my father told me the story of the most cotton he ever picked in one day: 214 pounds. He was 15 and the year was 1960. For his labor, which began at can’t-see-in-the-morning until can’t-see-at-night, he earned $7.50. I was struck by the fact that decades later he remembered that dollar amount so vividly. I was dumbfounded to learn that folks were still picking cotton by hand in 1960. And later another thought occurred to me: the only difference between American slavery in 1400s and sharecropping in the 20th century was $7.50.
As part of the Root Work solo exhibition, I also created a performance called Reconstruction. Presented as an hour-long “lecture-demonstration,” I reconstructed a cotton plant taken from the fields near my father’s home that was pulled up by its roots and cut into several pieces. As the plant was being mended by hand, using glue, staples, silk, leather and other elements, I engaged the audience in sharing stories of family roots, singing traditional hymns and discussing the various meanings of “reconstruction.” Viewers were also given pieces of raw cotton and cotton seeds. At the end I added bits of gold leaf to the branches and bolls, a way of highlighting the beauty of a much-maligned yet essential plant.