The Economics of Race: Cotton, Land, and Labor

Text: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11; Matthew 13;31-33, 44-52

The following meditation was given by Devon Miller for Florence Church of the Brethren Mennonite on July 26, 2020.

This week in our scripture reading, we continue following the story of the formation of the Jewish nation as it seeks to establish itself in the land of the Canaanites. I’ve been struck by two things over the past several weeks: 1) As Naomi has pointed out, God seems to have left the scene during this time. As Isaac and Jacob sort out their place in the world, there is little or no input or conversation with God. 2) Along the same lines, as Donald pointed out in his response to Naomi’s message on Flipgrid last Sunday, these passages in Genesis are void of any moral compass. In these passages, one reads about thievery, deception, falsehood, incest, murder, and fierce tribalism without any judgment, perhaps even blessing.

Today’s passage seems benign at first glance. It gets reviewed as a love story in which Jacob is so taken in by and devoted to the lovely Rachel that he vows to work for the right to marry her for a total of fourteen years. Halfway through the term of service, he is hoodwinked into marrying Rachel’s sister Leah, who has lovely eyes, but this does not derail his mission; he carries on through the deceptive plot of his master, Laban.

But Jacob is not the victim, even though he plays the role. All the while he is working his father-in-law’s flocks of sheep, he is snookering him right back by scheming and funneling Laban’s best sheep into his own herd. Livestock are the signs of wealth, but the Savant is not  a lush region, and it takes intensive labor to care for the flocks and herds. It takes servants and Jacob is bent on accumulating both livestock and servants to show his place of prominence in the region. And thus, Jacob grew “exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and male and female servants…” (Genesis 30:43).

The Psalm we read this morning references this period. The Psalmist praises God for the miraculous deeds performed on behalf of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in securing the land as part of an everlasting covenant with the Jewish nation. The land of Canaan was to be their “inheritance.” Yet, if you recall, the voice of God is largely absent during these formative years in the fledgling people of Hebrew origin.

These Hebrew-speaking people enter the land of Canaan as nomad, and establish an economy built on livestock. For it to flourish, they need land and they need labor, and they were no fools in how to gain the upper hand. They used all the devices mentioned above—lies, theft, violence, slavery—and then turned around and called their accumulated wealth an inheritance from God. Is it any wonder we as Americans see our own wealth as God’s blessing? But where did it come from?

Over the summer we have been exploring the the origins of racism, how as white people we benefit from it, and our own actions and attitudes that contribute to its continuation.  We live in an economy that is built and dependent on fossil fuels. Naturally, it has not always been that way. Originally, the American colonies were large producers of tobacco. Tobacco is native to North and South America, and early explorers were introduced to it by Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. In 1611, a colonist by the name of John Rolfe was given tobacco seeds that were mild and pleasing to taste. The leaves were brought back to England, where the British acquired a taste for it, and soon the American colonies, especially Virginia, were producing tobacco in large quantities. 

The entire economy was built on tobacco. Bills were paid with promissory notes that were backed by tobacco. Wives were bought with tobacco. Indentured servants, and then enslaved Africans, were bought to work the tobacco fields with tobacco. It is no coincidence that the first galley ship delivering enslaved Africans to the shores of North America dropped anchor in Port Comfort off the coast of Virginia in 1619, only eight years after Rolfe was introduced to quality tobacco. The tobacco industry thrived for 160 years.

  However, tobacco was overproduced, and by 1790, the industry’ strength had dwindled. At its peak, there were approximately 700,000 enslaved peoples living in the American colonies.

Opportunistically, at the same time that tobacco was on the decline, the demand for cotton was on the rise. Until this time, wool was the primary fabric used for clothing. Textile mills longed for cotton but producing cotton that was fit to mill was a labor intensive process. It took one man ten hours to pick the seeds from a pound of cotton. This was prohibitive to  large-scale production of cotton. Even if enough could be raised to satisfy the mills, it could not be cleaned.

In 1793, a young man by the name of Eli Whitney was given the challenge of inventing a machine that would be able to clean the seeds from cotton. He was successful. His machine, the cotton gin (“gin” is short for “engine”) could clean fifty pounds of cotton in a single day. Suddenly, the obstacle had been removed and cotton became “King.” But cotton needed two things: it needed land, and it needed labor to work the land.

The American South possessed the perfect conditions to grow cotton.  The problem with this was that cotton could only be raised on a particular piece of land for three years until it had depleted the soil of the necessary nutrients to support an abundant crop. This demanded large tracts of land, which the colonists did not possess. Unfortunately, for cotton growers, the land was still largely inhabited by the Indigenous peoples. 

As early as 1803, the United States government was conniving how it could rid the land of its inhabitants. In a letter to William Henry Harrison, who was then governor of the Indian Territory, president Thomas Jefferson wrote, speaking of the native inhabitants: 

When they withdraw themselves to the culture of a small piece of land, they will perceive how useless to them are their extensive forests, and will be willing to pare them off from time to time in exchange for necessaries for their farms and families. To promote this disposition to exchange lands, which they have to spare and we want, for necessaries, which we have to spare and they want, we shall push our trading uses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands. (Jefferson to Harrison, 1803, Messages and Letters of William Henry Harrison, vol. 1, Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1800-1810)

In other words, not that different from Jacob, the hero in our biblical story this morning, the leaders of our government were devising ways to put people in a bind that would make them willing to give up their land. The owners of trading posts were encouraged to let Native people run up their debt until they were so far in debt that they could not pay it off, and then they would seize their land as repayment.

Finally, in 1830, the United States government set in place a policy that would allow the forcible removal of Native people from land east of the Mississippi River. Known as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, it was signed by President Andrew Jackson, and made lands west of the Mississippi available for the removed tribes. Soon after, large numbers of Native peoples were forcibly removed from their homelands in the south through the pretense of treaties. Most notable of these was the Trail of Tears, a series of forced marches in which 60,000 of the Five Civilized Tribes of Southeastern United States were removed from Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Florida. With their presence gone, the cotton industry boomed. 

To do so, however, it needed labor. By 1850, the number of enslaved people had grown from 700,000 in 1790 to over 3,000,000. The South was confident that it could sustain this economy because they felt they could depend on the British to defend them, since British mills depended on the cotton they raised.

As a consequence of these policies and practices, Natives and Africans were both considered less than human: one for their land, the other for their labor—both for the sake of the economy. This is reflected in the the 1790 census, the first census taken by the United States. In this census, you can see that neither the enslaved nor Native peoples are considered persons. After the category “All other persons” comes the category “Slaves.” There is no category for Native people. In fact, the Statue ordering the census clearly states that those taking the census should omit “Indians” and “those bound to service” (Public Statutes at Large of the United States, vol. 1, Boston: Little and Brown, 1845: 101-103).

The great Native thinker and author, Vine Deloria, Jr. writes about this dehumanization of the red and the black in his book Custer Died for Your Sins. In his chapter called “The Red and the Black,” he writes, “Negroes were considered draft animals, Indians were wild animals” (Vine Deloria, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, Norman, OK: Oklahoma University Press, 1969: 171). Africans provided the labor needed work the land on which the Indians lived. Both possessed vital elements needed for the United States economy to prosper.

It is very disturbing to me, but these attitudes persist in our current society. Besides being held at bay by the oil economy, our economy relies on essential workers. But even beyond these obvious parallels, other pieces from the past linger in our society. We see it in the way the current census is structured to minimize the presence of certain people and emphasize the significance of others. We see it in the way we value blood quantum: for those of African descent, the “one-drop” rule applies—if you have one drop of Black blood you are considered Black. For those of Native American descent, you must prove to have 1/4 Native American ancestry to be considered Native by the United States government. All of these factors have economic implications. I will leave you to ponder that on your own.

There is another text that we did not read this morning, but is which part of the lectionary texts for this week. I would like to read these at this point. It is taken from Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.

“Yes,” they replied.

52 He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

These parables are economic pictures. They include land, labor, and kingdoms—all aspects of an economy. But how is Jesus’s kingdom, or kin-dom, economy different from economies built on sheep, or tobacco, or cotton, or oil, or technology, or green energy?

Cover image: Führich, Joseph, Ritter von, 1800-1876. Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54267 [retrieved August 2, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JvFuhricjJosephRachel.jpg.

Published by Devon Miller

We are an Anabaptist community that welcomes all people to join us in the work of local, national, and international peace and justice.

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