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At the Cotton Museum
The former Cotton Exchange in Memphis has been transformed into a loving tribute to the fiber that shaped the South: King Cotton.
The museum is a fine combination of multi-media presentations and preserved artifacts. One of the display cases features a compendium of products made from cotton, including hair curl activator, disposable diapers and Laffy Taffy. Another display illustrates the various grades of cotton, from the “fair” to the “middling” to the ordinary.
One cannot help to notice, though, the way in which history is collapsed and truncated. Though the agricultural boom that cotton brought to America prolonged and increased the slave trade—though the industry was, in fact, built upon the backs of captives treated as second- and third-class citizens—the institution of slavery is given comparatively little space in the museum’s collection. In fact, issues of race are often glossed over in ways that mirror America’s continued unwillingness to talk about anything that makes people uncomfortable.
For example, there’s a short film at the museum that summarizes the history of the Memphis Cotton Carnival. The celebration was a de facto “whites only” event from its inception just following the American Civil War. The film tells us that African Americans were not welcomed at the carnival as participants, except to pull the parade floats like human mules. In response to the ingrained segregation of the Memphis Cotton Carnival, Dr. R. Q. Venson and members of an all-black chapter of the American Legion organized the Cotton Makers Jubilee, starting in the 1930s. These two events—one sponsored by cotton growers and traders; the other, by cotton workers and their descendants—ran separately and unequally alongside one another until the 1980s, when they finally merged into “Carnival Memphis.” A still photo that recurs in the film, and which graces the exhibit, shows the white “king” and the black “king” shaking hands. Actually, if you look closely at their gloved palms, you realize that they aren’t actually touching one another at all. And that is perhaps just the beginning of a story that isn’t told. Even now, the “kings” of Carnival Memphis appear to be mostly white, and the participation of African Americans seems to be marginal, especially given the ratio of blacks and whites in Memphis.
If you only watch the film, you are given a fairly vanilla version of history. To wit: there was a carnival in which white merchants celebrated their product, cotton. There were African Americans who felt excluded by this celebration and who therefore decided to have a celebration of their own. The two celebrations are now one happy, variegated celebration. Just enough tension for the kind of shortstory you wouldn’t let your undergraduates get away with writing, because it simplifies a plot that needs to be told in its full complexity.
Similarly, the story of the blues is summarized in a Cotton Museum exhibit: down in the Mississippi Delta, African Americans produced a unique music, as reflected in the compositions of W. C. Handy. Meanwhile, in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, descendants of Scotch-Irish settlers were singing tunes based upon the ballads and folksongs of their homeland. The two kinds of music grew into Rock and Roll, as epitomized by Memphis legend Elvis Presley. And the pure product of America went crazy…
I don’t expect the Cotton Museum to truck out every injustice, nor to tell how the labor of some of America’s citizens was stolen by others. I don’t expect the museum to right the wrongs of hundreds of years. But I also don’t believe that an exhibit which sets out to tell the story of the crop that changed Southern Culture—“that white downy fiber [that] has weaved its influence into your life and world”—should present a watered-down, Hollywood version of history.
In the gift shop (and I completely understand the need for a gift shop: museums have to fund themselves through a variety of revenue streams), one can buy a small packet of cotton seeds for a buck fifty. The label on the packet says, unironically, “Start Your Own Plantation.” Surely someone with a modicum of sensitivity can review the museum’s exhibits and merchandise.
* * * *
Walt Whitman, who knew this country to be a mass of contradictions, a symphony of voices sometimes in harmony and sometimes in opposition, celebrated the cotton field as a complex emblem of our national identity:
Singing the song of These, my ever-united lands—my body no more
inevitably united, part to part, and made out of a thousand
diverse contributions one identity, any more than my lands
are inevitably united and made ONE IDENTITY;
Nativities, climates, the grass of the great pastoral Plains,
Cities, labors, death, animals, products, war, good and evil—these me,
These affording, in all their particulars, the old feuillage to me
and to America, how can I do less than pass the clew of the union
of them, to afford the like to you?
Whoever you are! how can I but offer you divine leaves, that you
also be eligible as I am?
How can I but as here chanting, invite you for yourself to collect
bouquets of the incomparable feuillage of these States?
And, cutting their way out of the field of servitude, Jean Toomer’s “Reapers” strike at the oppressive shadows:
Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones
Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones
In their hip-pockets as a thing that’s done,
And start their silent swinging, one by one.
Black horses drive a mower through the weeds,
And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds,
His belly close to ground. I see the blade,
Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.
Whether it’s woven into the blues or worksongs or spirituals or poems, crazyquilts or painted saws or novels or folktales, cotton—despite (or even because of) its problematic history—has made America all the richer for its sorrows. One pair of manacles is displayed in the Cotton Museum: this lone set of fetters doesn’t even begin to tell our national history, its darkest moments, nor those moments when we decided—either individually or collectively—that we had to be better than our shared past.