Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2013/Spring/John Benton

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This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories

African American tenant farmer planting tobacco

Overview[edit]

John Benton was an African American man that grew up and lived in North Carolina during the Great Depression. He was interviewed as a part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) in 1939 that was designed to find and support writers during the Great Depression.

I. Biography II. Social Issues a. Tenant farming b. Education III. Issues of Historical Production a. Vernacular dialect b. Style


I. Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

John Benton grew up on a farm in Alliance Country, North Carolina, with five other siblings. As his mother died when he was very young, his father raised him. His father rented a piece of land to farm from a man named Long. Benton explained that although they would spend a lot of time working on the farm, his family would not receive benefits in return. Due to this disadvantageous lifestyle, Benton decided to leave the farmland and live in the town once he became older. After Benton got married, he and his wife stayed on the farm for a couple of years to help his father manage the work. Soon, however, they moved out and lived in a town called Riverton.

Career and Downfall[edit]

While there, Benton obtained a job at the Express Company working on the express wagon. He started making $35 a month. Although this was not a lot of money, it helped pay for living expenses. Despite the fact that his wife wanted to move back to Alliance Country, he continued working in town because he wanted to get rich. During the war, his pay raised even more to $95 a month. With this pay he was able to pay for basic living expenses as well as have enough money to spare for small luxuries. Soon after that, he suffered a stroke, which inhibited him from working at the Express Company. He looked for other jobs, but to no avail. As a result, he started to follow Daddy Judah, a local man who assumed the role of preacher.

II. Social Issues[edit]

Tenant Farming[edit]

Tenant farming is defined as a dual system in which the landlord contributes his land while the farmer contributes labor.[1] Tenant farming started as a result of the end of slave-based farming system in the south. This systematic approach to agriculture “enabled farm laborers to rent ground from landowners.”[2] (Hinton, 1). After a season of laboring on the land, the farmers were required to pay a percentage of the crops, cash payments, which they harvested to the landowner. However, this system had many flaws, which resulted in unequal distribution of crops and disadvantages to the farmers. As the New Deal began to make changes in agricultural policies, tenant farmers began to feel underprivileged because they were not benefitting from the landowner-farmer relationship. John Benton displayed similar feelings as he observed the significant unfairness his family was receiving while working on the farm. Tenant farming became less popular and many farmers began to “seek relief from the federal government.”[3] through means of protest.

Education for African Americans[edit]

During the Great Depression, lack of education was prevalent among many people, especially among the African American population. Throughout the depression, many African Americans were tenant farmers; as a result, farming and harvesting were a crucial part of the family’s income. Due to the constant need of people on the farm, many children were forced to work rather than go to school. In fact, “these country children might have to miss school at planting time, hoeing time, and at harvest.”[4] As Benton grew up while his father was a tenant farmer, he was working more on the fields than going to school. Furthermore, many of the families lived farther away from numerous public schools, which provided a hindrance in traveling. In addition to this, several factors prevented these children from gaining an equal education as the white students from the same district. The salary difference from the white teacher to the African American was significant: “the salary range for white teachers in 1933 was $45 to $90 per month.”[5] This contrasts with the salary range for African American teachers being “$35 to $70.”[6] As a result, the African American public schools during this time period were given less money, prohibiting a fair education.

III. Issues of Historical Productions[edit]

Issues of historical production are very common in documents that attempt to recreate a history of another person or event.. Created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935, FWP collected histories of various citizens in different localities. Some common issues that are noticeable in FWP’s are issues with vernacular dialect and style.

Vernacular[edit]

FWP highlighted issues recreation of vernacular in life histories. Vernacular is defined as a specific dialect that is commonly used within a specific population or region. In Benton’s life history, Bennett creates a vernacular by using dialect in her writing. In her attempt to do this, however, many perceptions and assumptions are created. For example, when writing out the Southern dialect and poor grammar within the interview, Bennett creates a visualization of Benton. Specifically, attempts to recreate the vernacular “reflect the local (white) perception of the positive aspects of white domination.”[7] As the interviewee is an African American man, the use of the vernacular dialect shows the white person’s domination in intelligence. As the interviewer recreates the dialect, she implicitly shows the positive aspects of the white person.

Style[edit]

FWP also presents issues in style as a result of bias. In the interview, the events from Benton’s life are presented in a structured and abrupt manner. This is evidence of Bennett’s editing of specific details after the interview was completed. As changes were made to the actual content of the interview, the Federal Writers’ Project “dealt more with myths rather than reality.”[8] The abrupt linkage from event to event in Benton’s life history shows evidence of details being left out; therefore, it skews the audience’s perception of the life story at hand.


References[edit]

  1. “Tenant Farming Labor System.” Southern Tenant Farmers Museum. Arkansas State University Heritage. Web. 10 April 2013. p. 1.
  2. Hinton, Linda. “Tenant Farming Labor System.” Southern Tenant Farmers Museum. Arkansas State University Heritage. Web. 10 April 2013.
  3. Roosevelt, Eleanor. “Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union.” Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt. The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, 1960. Web. 10 April 2013.
  4. Davis, Anita. “Public Schools in the Great Depression.” NCpedia. Government and Heritage Library from NC Department of Cultural Resources, 20 December 2012. Web. 10 April 2013.
  5. Davis, p.1.
  6. Davis, p.1.
  7. Cohen, Ronald. “A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project (review). “ American Folklore Society 475 (2007): 116-117. Project Muse. Web. 10 April 2013.
  8. Cohen, p.116.

Bennett, Cora. “We Never Did Git Nowhere.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Southern Collection. Print. Cohen, Ronald. “A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project (review). “ American Folklore Society 475 (2007): 116-117. Project Muse. Web. 10 April 2013. Davis, Anita. “Public Schools in the Great Depression.” NCpedia. Government and Heritage Library from NC Department of Cultural Resources, 20 December 2012. Web. 10 April 2013. Hinton, Linda. “Tenant Farming Labor System.” Southern Tenant Farmers Museum. Arkansas State University Heritage. Web. 10 April 2013. Roosevelt, Eleanor. “Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union.” Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt. The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, 1960. Web. 10 April 2013. Sundstrom, William. “Last Hired, First Fired? Unemployment and Urban Black Workers During the Great Depression.” Journal of Economic History 2 (1992): 415-429. JSTOR. Web. 10 April 2013. “Tenant Farmer.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation, 10 April 2013. Web. 10 April 2013.