by Guest Essayist Ed Cullen. Ed’s a commentator on National Public Radio’s "All Things
Considered" and feature writer and columnist for the Baton
Rouge Advocate. Listen to more of Ed’s essays on the NPR site.
His name was Roosevelt, a man whose silences ran to days, whose movements
were a study in
efficiency and whose handling of a hoe was
It was hot, back-bending work that ended with the start of school for me.
For Roosevelt, it was seasonal labor, another use for which his athlete’s body
was made and wasted.
Years later, I’d see Millet’s painting, "Man With A Hoe," and read Edwin
Markham’s poem of the same title and think of Roosevelt.
In the painting and poem, the man with a hoe is a despairing laborer who
leans on his hoe exhausted. If Roosevelt despaired, he kept it to himself. He
lent dignity to hoeing weeds.
Watch what you’re doing," he’d say to the callow youths on either side
of him as we moved down corn rows seemingly without end.
"You cut the roots, don’t matter you cut the weeds," he’d
Religions have been founded on utterances less profound.
One kid chopped so many corn stalks off at the roots that he took to
standing them back up. That got a laugh from even taciturn Roosevelt who must
have thought, "Who are these children and what are they doing pretending to
Roosevelt could have chopped the weedy field by himself with far less
damage to the corn.
Roosevelt held the blade of his hoe flat, parallel to the ground. The hoe
blade, sharpened to a razor’s edge, sliced the soil, severing the weeds just
below the roots.
Watching him work, I knew "chopping cotton" was a term invented by
someone who had never used a hoe with the surgical precision of a field
In my garden I have a reason to take care that I lacked in another man’s
field. I am no Roosevelt, but I am a better hoe handler than the kid who
attacked corn in those long ago summers.
We worked in corn higher than our heads. The corn rows were airless and
scratchy, but at least the tall corn plants shielded us from the sun part of the
Before sunscreen, we worked in long sleeves and straw hats. My face never
tanned. It only became less red. We were a mixed crew of black kids and white
kids learning how the other half lived. In the corn field, we were equally
That first summer, the company that hired us paid $1 an hour, a dollar
and a half overtime. The next summer, someone in personnel found
out that agricultural labor didn’t fall under wage and hour. Pay dropped to 85
cents an hour, $1 for over time. We complained to no avail. Roosevelt, though he
never said it, had been a victim of low wages all his life.
Tall and straight in my memory,
Roosevelt is dead I suppose or too frail to work in the hot sun. Still, I see
him old but straight, knotty fingers firmly, gently, gripping the handle of a
hoe, working the soil, excising the roots, making art with a metal blade,
lending his dignity to the