Mississippi Cotton

by Selika Sweet, M.D.

I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi which is in the central part of the state. It was hard to believe that I had never been north to the Mississippi Delta or places where they grow cotton. My mother, cousin and I drove to see her college roommate one weekend in our white rambler when I was seventeen years old. It was a hot sunny day during the month of August in the 70's.

"Stop the car. I've got to go see it." I yelled to my mother as we drove pass a cotton field up Hwy 49 about forty miles north of Yazoo, Mississippi.

She stopped the car and I ran through the cotton field, the flat fertile land that went on for miles. I picked up a twig. "Look, the leaf is as big as my hand." I yelled from one fourth of a mile deep in the field.

I walked through the rows of cotton and looked up at the sun. There is no heat hotter in Mississippi than during the month of August. Sweat poured down my pecan colored skin. I thought if I'd been born 150 years ago, it was a good possibility I would be picking this cotton while an overseer of Irish hovered over me on a horse while holding a whip. I ran back to my mother and cousin twirling through the cotton plants with millions of white soft bolls that went on for miles.

"No reason for us to come here," my mother said as I got back in the car. "We have no family here and the only friend I have is one of my college roommates and we're going to see her now. I called to check on her and she just didn't sound right." We drove the rest of the way through cotton country with signs saying Indianola, Greenville, Shaw until we reached Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Fifteen years later from the day I stood in the cotton field, I was working in a small clinic in rural Mississippi and she was one of my favorite patients. "Dr. Sweet, my life was hard. I have all kind of stories bout life in the fields. We picked cotton for $15.00 a day. I had to pick peppers, cucumbers which was the hardest. I hated the cucumbers. You had to bend down and carry baskets of them that were heavy. My back still hurts. I had six children in those fields with one day to rest after delivering. We had to call the owners five year old son Mister and that was not during slavery; it was in the 1970's. They kept stuff on you at the courthouse like fines for anything like loitering, vagrancy and they had us. We lived on their land in the middle of the fields with the animals in shotgun shacks. The only thing that separated us from the goats, pigs and cows was a barbed wire fence. My grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles all lived in those fields."

I thought back to the day I ran through the cotton and never would have imagined I would be a physician and not only a physician but of a woman who had worked harder than ten men.

"Yeah, I can't read or write you know and that is why I come to see you. I know you won't make me feel bad and a lot of people don't know my secret," she said. I felt humbled and embarrassed at the same time.

"You know you should call me Gracie Lou. I've known you for about seven years."

She then looked straight in my eyes and said "You don't get it. I had to call a five year old Mister John and here you are saying for me to call you Gracie Lou. You're Dr. Gracie Lou."

"I didn't mean any harm. You know I love you like a mother. I'll always be there."

"I love you more. You're my doc."

Mississippi Cotton by Selika Sweet, M.D.

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