Man with a Hoe


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

Roosevelt, a black man in his middle years, and I worked together in
cornfields around my hometown for three summers when I was in high

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


  1. Beautiful ariticle. I grew up and Arkansas (before I moved to the cultural mecca of Ft. Worth, TX) and recall the simple dignities of manual laborers before this day and age where anything less than a six-figure salary and an advance degree is considered lowly work. I spent time working for and with people clearing lake lots, digging drainage ditches for pipes and other things. These men never complained, worked hard and treated that work like the most important job to be done in the world. They gave it their entire focus, effort and attention. By the way they were all poor and (often) African-American, but how much you made was never discussed or how this person had that or this much was never discussed. Just kind words to all (if anything was said at all) and occassional correction for us less focused (white) youth about to hurt ourselves with an axe on a pick.

    Thanks for recalling that race relations where more than men in white sheets and George Wallace, and that amongst all the B.S. there was the quite interactions of people living side by side, raising children, catching fish, and just being normal people libing basic simple lives.

  2. The African-American male did more than hoe a garden for little pay when little else was available.

    Their work in stone: dry stack walls & paths, or brick, in private landscapes, remain as testament to their labor, eye, intellect, heart, spirit, and forgiveness.

    Often I have described how to place stone/brick to a contractor. Frequently, once the work begins it’s obvious their mind is deaf.

    Then, I say it should look as if an African-American did the work on a hot afternoon in 1947. Without fail, the work morphs into beauty, integrity, history and timelessness.

    For including this tidbit during a lecture recently I was contacted by the Cobb County Master Gardeners in Atlanta, GA and told I was racist.

    Wow. Honoring the art a repressed segment of society produced, and not honoring the artists. Hmm. Racist?

  3. Nice article. Seems that after summer jobs as kids, the only other activity that brings a full spectrum of people together are volunteer projects. This brings to mind a full day clean-up in a park that I led in 2002 that included investment bankers, gay bar wait staff, a Baptist group, Scientologists, and people working off community service sentences. What happened? The weeding got done, lots of laughter and smiles, all shrubs planted, and a we built a 30′ stone fence – all parted after handshakes, pats on the back, and with a feeling of accomplishment.

    True craftsmanship – and the pride of doing it right – is becoming lost. I cringe when I see those fake pressed cement “stone” walls of “natural” color an texture, Yuk. Just slapping something together is also awful. It is not “just” pay that is the reward, but knowing what you have done was done right, will last, and have beauty and/or function – that’s the real payoff.

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