Cotton Picker

I don’t know why
I remember
the claustrophobic cotton fields
of the burning August South,
stalks seven to eight feet high.
I’m not Black,
descendant of slave
but some sad times,
when I close my eyes,
I am afire in the early light of sticky fields.

Hands like sunburnt plums,
plucking and stroking, green
unopened bolls be damned.
Breast high sack on my back,
bottom dusting ground.
Break a branch,
receive the same back.

First time, they whipped me smart,
sweat stickier than the bushes,
just trying to make a quota,
weigh my worth,
so the masta’ don’t whip me
at day’s end;
laggards get lashes.

The wide blue sky’s
my only playground,
picking against punishment
the wicked white man’s crop,
but in my mind, I’d also hop
cloud to cloud.
In my mind, I’m
free off the ground.
From slavery,
to forced poverty,
to segregation
to poor education,
to decades of underlying hatred,
to not breathing,
to the light of justice,
an open conversation,
and finally a horizon
of sublime adoration.

I smile completely,
knowing my soul
is just a barge
working the water furrows of
today till it’s too dark to see
by fearful full moon;
but there will be daybreak!
Chores by candlelight tonight,
but true light lies
only puffs ahead.

It’s the last day of Black History Month, and so even though this poem doesn’t feel as polished or perfect as I’d like, I found that it needed to be posted today.

Some of the imagery in this poem was inspired by the novel, Slave Life on a Cotton Plantation, 1845 by Solomon Northup. You can read an excerpt here. It’s important to remember, even what we do not know ourselves.

I recently read Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, which I highly recommend and may also have planted the seed that led to me penning this verse.

Artwork: “The Cotton Picker” by Thomas Hart Benton

Linked to dVerse OLN.


  1. Mister Bump UK

    Whether somebody is black or not I don’t think matters much. It maybe makes something more obvious, but it should be known anyway. Right is right, wrong is wrong, that is universal.

    I listened to The Underground Railroad recently, which was a good book but of course very heavy.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. K.Hartless

      I hope my post does some justice to the past with a hopeful look to the future. Thanks I haven’t read that book, but I recently read Kindred by Octavia Butler and she goes back in time to slave times. It was a powerful read for me. Might have been where the seed of this poem was planted. Thanks for commenting, friend.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Mister Bump UK

        I used to have an Audible subscription but even at just 1 credit per month, the credits started piling up. So I canned it, I didn’t see the point in paying each month. I used to read voraciously – I recognise Northup’s name so I must have read things either by him or about him.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. abigfatcanofworms

    I admire you for writing this. I found it convincing (note that I’m not black either). And by stating in the poem that you’re not black, it’s honest. I have been too afraid to say anything about Black Lives Matter. I can’t figure out where I belong – a white, middle class, female. I’m so super privileged. Can I possibly pretend to put myself in less privileged shoes? I really don’t know. No matter how much I might feel I can.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. K.Hartless

      Thank you so much for commenting. I think saying what’s in your heart matters, and if you feel a burning to speak about a topic, it’s like a call. I feel strongly about many social issues, so I feel a pull to write about them from time to time. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts; that is also brave. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Brendan

    It’s hard to work these fields burdened with both empathy and clarity — how can we ever truly understand the depth of 400 years of servitude and the ghosts of it that haunt to this day? Except that we are all stained by it, making even transcendence a fraught escape. Its good you’re picking through the flax and weevils here. .


  4. sanaarizvi

    Whoooosh!! This is INCREDIBLY potent in its portrayal of the history, of the pain, the ache and the struggles that have led up to this day. May racism cease to exist. 💝💝

    Liked by 1 person

  5. msjadeli

    This stands out to me: “It’s important to remember, even what we do not know ourselves.” We can never know the burden of those who’ve borne it but it is our responsibility to learn as much as we can. Powerful writing that shows you are trying to understand.


  6. Ingrid

    A bold work of imagination, and it is important we try and understand the legacy of slavery, including the problems which continue to this day which you skilfully summed up in the penultimate stanza.

    Liked by 1 person

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