“James Armstrong” by LaThelma Armstrong

“I remember walking down the dirt road in Turrell Arkansas. Sweat dripping down my fo’head”. It was always hot and I always had to walk-you know because we didn’t have a car or nothin’. It was hard, but you know Tee life can be hard but we survive”

 My Grandfather is a man of few words. His slow speech still reminiscent of his southern upbringing reminds me that his past is always an ever-present part of his life. My grandfather, James Armstrong was born in 1933, the last of nine siblings. Raised by a single mother, my grandfather spent most of his childhood picking cotton as a sharecropper. “Sharecropping is a system” in which” the landlord allows individuals to “use the land in exchange for a share of the crop”.[1] During the 1930’s, many former slaves and children of former slaves found work as planters and laborers in a post civil war era. Black families were still renting land from white owners, working for cash crops such as “cotton, tobacco, and rice”.[2] Accordingly, “In that absence cash or an independent credit system” the system of sharecropping emerged”.[3] As a sharecropper my grandfather faced the challenges of erratic harvest and deceitful landlords often causing him to move from place to place in search of work.

A tin roof house with 3 bedrooms and a kitchen was what my grandfather called home. His meals consisted of any form of meat that could be cleaned and put into soup.  “Big mama could make anything taste great. We ate rabbit and squirrel, pretty much any meat we could find”. Every 3 to 5 years, my grandfather would move to various farms to find work. Due to his financial obligation to his family, he was able to only attain a ninth grade education. My grandfather’s dream for a better life lead him to almost every town in Arkansas, Florida, Detroit and finally Chicago in 1949. My grandfather occupied every job from harvesting fruit, working in a scrap yard to a factory job at Deluxe packing company. The American dream has been characterized as the attainment of the wife, dog and two kids. When asked to describe his proudest moment, my grandfather responded, “Marrying your grandmother, moving into our first house and having my first child.” Together my grandparents had five kids, seven grandchildren and ten great grandchildren. At 79 years old, my grandfather has lived through the two world wars, the civil rights movement and the election of the first Black president.

 “I was always a man whether it was chopping cotton or ploughing a mule. I have always thought of myself as a man. I was proud to be saved and alive”

           From a very young age, my grandfather has always had a progressive sense of masculinity. Segregated public spaces and schools characterized most of his childhood and adult life. African American men are the victims of “psycho-socio-economic suppression” relative to African American women and their White female and male counterparts.[4] Additionally “a major feature of the experience of African American men has involved coping with the challenges associated with being victimized by institutional arrangements that have been designed to hinder their capacity to achieve political and economic equality with White men”[5] Thus, many Black men like my grandfather are forced to find alternative avenues of masculinity. Many Black men choose avenues that include hypersexuality, concern with expressive styles of speech, dress, and appearance, and toughness or violence or choose to the subculture that has been ethnographically described through the various manhood roles of the tough guy, the hustler, the player, the “gangsta”.[6] I am proud to say that my grandfather practiced self-definition and self-valuation early on and choose to measure his manhood according to his own standard that included internal qualities. “I ain’t neva looked to the White man to give me my identity as a man. I was a man because I had integrity, character and good work ethic. That’s somethin’ that only God can give any human being and no one can ever take away.”

Within U.S. society, Black men encounter contradictory expectations concerning their manhood[7]. For example, historically Black men have been characterized as” sexually violent rapists, as brutes and as irresponsible boys who fail to marry the mothers of their children and financially support their children.”[8] My grandfather has been the only father figure in my life and in the lives of many young girls and boys in my neighborhood. In addition, he has always demonstrated respect towards his female counterparts and is very proud of celebrating his 62nd wedding anniversary to my grandmother this year. He said with great pride, “my marriage to your grandmother has been my first and my only.”

My grandfather has raised his two daughters, his two granddaughters and currently his two great granddaughters. Therefore, whether by circumstance or choice, my grandfather has adopted a Black feminist consciousness. To this day, my grandfather always reminds me of my independence and has warned me early on of the issues that I may face in a society where Black women are faced with interlocking oppression. I learned how to be a strong Black woman from both my grandfather and my grandmother. My grandfather rejects the dominant gendered assumption of Black deviancy that suggests that African Americans have women who are too strong and men who are too weak. He has always told me, “Never change the woman you are to please a man. Find a strong man that is not afraid of a strong independent woman.” I especially admire my grandfather for his resilience and overall love for his family. For the past 4 years, I have watched my grandfather become the primary caregiver for my grandmother who has suffered from a stroke and my two toddler nieces. My grandfather has made himself learn how to manage all of the domestic chores in the house while still making time to read Princess books and attend pretend tea parties with my nieces.

I strongly believe that my grandfather is an example of a progressive Black man. I am proud to call the sharecropper from Turrell, Arkansas with only a ninth grade education, my grandfather. Looking at my grandfather now, I would have never imagined the struggles he has endured to become the man he has today. Even with all the accomplishments and achievements, his last few words were, “I am just proud to be alive and saved.”

[1] “Sharecropping.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 09 May 2013.

[2] Ibid..

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hampton, Robert L. Violence in the Black Family: Correlates and Consequences. Lexington, MA: Lexington, 1987.: 96 Print.

[5] Hampton, Robert, William Oliver, and Lucia Magarian. “Domestic Violence in the African American Community: An Analysis of Social and Structural Factors.” Violence Against Women 9.5 (2003): 533-58. Print.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hill, Collins Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

[8] Ibid., 156.


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