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 the fearful full moon;
but there will be daybreak!
Chores by candlelight tonight,
but true light lies
only puffs ahead.

© 2020 | K.Hartless

It’s Juneteenth. A time to talk candidly about slavery and its impact. This holiday commemorates the freeing of the last slaves in the United States on June 19, 1865. I wanted to reshare a poem that is perhaps controversial.

I wrote it in response to reading the novel, Twelve Years A Slave, originally published in 1853 about the remarkable journey of Solomon Northup. You can read an excerpt here. It taught me that it’s important to remember, even what we do not know ourselves.

Last year, I read Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, which I highly recommend as a Science-Fiction work where a woman is thrust back and forth between modern times and life as a slave.

Artwork: “The Cotton Picker” by Thomas Hart Benton


  1. 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 5 people

    • 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

      • 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 2 people

  2. 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 3 people

  3. 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. .

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Björn. I tried to recreate it, in a way that would be a call for others to keep moving towards equality. Look how far we’ve come, and yet, we still have farther to go.


  4. Quite the read and ride; a hard-hitting profile of a slave, and a slice of shame for America’s 400 year romance with racism.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. 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 2 people

  6. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. 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 3 people

  8. A deeply powerful piece that’s an incredibly visceral portrayal of the shameful hardships they suffered. Glad I discovered this old gem of yours – vitally important that we keep remembering and commemorating their struggles through history ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Tom. After my reading selections last spring this is the poem I needed to write, and I’m glad it still holds power. I was happy to talk with my children today about slavery and answer some of their questions. I think if anything, this piece is my way of trying to understand something atrocious. I appreciate your comment very much. 💜

      Liked by 1 person

  9. A wonderful poem, rich in history everyone needs to understand, explore, and talk about. I adore Kindred, it’s one of my fav sci-fi books of all time. Octavia Butler = genius.


    • Thank you. It makes me happy to see Juneteenth become a more recognized holiday and an opportunity for us to reflect on the impact of slavery. I was able to discuss this topic with my kiddos for the first time and the holiday gave them the curiosity to ask questions.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It definitely is amazing! It’s awesome that the knowledge is being implemented and given over to the next generation. Hopefully the world can be a better place, one change at a time 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • I believe it can. I think we’ve shown the capacity for change and expanded thinking, so I hope for my children that this is so. Thank you, Simone, for connecting with me and my piece.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You are certainly right! We’ve definitely shown enough open mindedness and widening breadth of thought for us to know that change is possible!
        It’s good to converse with you dear. I appreciate your perspectives. Hope I’ll be like that too when my little one makes its way into the world 😍

        Liked by 1 person

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