The enduring relevance of Don West

Don West was an unapologetic radical and antiracist militant. He was an educator and co-founder of the Highlander Center and, later, the Appalachian South Folklife Center. He was also a popular poet. Largely relegated to footnotes in left literary tomes today, West’s essays and poems remain strikingly relevant.

This is the introduction to his classic collection of poems, Clods of Southern Earth, followed by “Listen, I’m an Agitator.”


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Introduction to Clods of Southern Earth (1946)

ONCE upon a time, not too long ago, authors wrote mainly about kings and nobles-the aristocracy. Many stories and poems were filled with debauchery and intrigues. Writers occupied themselves in turning out tales about the purity of lovely ladies and the daring of gallant gentlemen who never did a useful day’s work in their lives.

The fact that systems of kings and nobles, of aristocratic ladies and useless gentlemen, were always reared upon the misery of masses of peasants, slaves, or workers was carefully omitted from most books. The idea that these same peasants, slaves, or workers might them selves be fit material for literature would have been heresy.

You may think this a strange sort of way to begin an introduction to a group of poems. You may be one of those Americans who say you don’t like poetry anyhow. No one can blame you for that. I’ve often felt that way, too.

Maybe it’s because too many poets write in the old tradition. Using an obscure and “subtle” private language, they write only for the little clique of the “highly literate” elite. But in spite of their high and mighty intellectual snobbery, one finds them, after all, concerned mostly with minor themes. Such literary gentlemen, writing only for the “elite” ten percent, spurn the “crude” and “vulgar” masses. They still have their eyes full of star dust. They see neither the dirt and misery nor the beauty and heroism of common folk life.

You say you want a poem with its roots in the earth; a poem that finds beauty in the lives of common people, and perhaps a poem that may sometimes show the reasons for the heart ache and sorrow of the plain folks and some times point the way ahead. I don’t blame you. I sort of feel that way, too.

Does this sound like a strange notion about poetry? Maybe it is. Some people say I have strange notions anyhow. I don’t know. Lots of things I don’t know. I’ve been a preacher, and I’ve preached the working-man, Jesus, who had some strange notions himself about the poor and the rich and the slaves. I’ve been a coal miner in Kentucky’s Cumberlands and a textile worker in Carolina. I’ve been a radio commentator in Georgia and a deck hand on a Mississippi River steamboat. I’ve been a sailor, a farm owner, and farmer. I am now a school Superintendent. And I’ve wondered why it always seems that the folks who work less get more and those who work more get less. That puzzles me some. I’ve a notion it shouldn’t be that way, and some say I have strange notions.

Maybe it’s because of family background. You know, some people go in for that family stuff. I do come from an old Southern family. You’ve heard that one before, yes? Well, I don’t mean what you think. Mine is a real old Southern family. Oh, I’m no sprig off the decadent tree of some bourbon, aristocratic, blue-blood family of the notorious slave-master tradition. That’s what is usually meant. You know the professional Southerners who claim to be kind to Negroes-the tuxedoed gentlemen, the silk underweared, lace-dressed ladies coyly peeping from behind scented fans. No, I don’t mean that. I’m more Southern than that. That represents only the small minority. My folks were the men who wore jeans pants and the women who wore linsey petticoats. They had nothing to do with the genteel tradition. Some were the first white settlers of Georgia, and some were already settled when the white ones came.

Yes, on one limb of my family tree hangs a bunch of ex-jail birds. They were good, honest (I hope, but it doesn’t make a lot of difference now) working people in the old country. They were thrown in jails there because they were unemployed and couldn’t raise money to pay their debts.

How in the devil a man is expected to pay a debt while lying in prison is hard to see. Maybe it satisfied the creditors to take it out on their hides. Anyhow, there they were, hundreds of them, and a man named Oglethorpe, who had a big warm heart and a real feeling for folks, asked the old king to let him take a group of these prisoners to the new land.

The king didn’t warm up to the idea much at first, but finally he was convinced. These out casts would make a nice buffer protection for the more blue-blooded settlers of the other col onies, against the Indians and Spanish. The place later to be known as Georgia was just the spot. The colonies warmed right up to the idea, too. Nice to have a gang of tough jail birds known as “arrow-fodder” between them and the Indians. So, you see, Georgia was started. The plan worked.

Some Southerners love to boast about their families. And I reckon I do too, a little. At least none of mine ever made his living by driving slaves. There’s nary a slave owner up my family tree. The old story that we don’t look too closely for fear of finding a “horse thief” is common place, of course. Indeed, wouldn’t it be shameful to find one of our grand-paws doing such a petty theft? Who could be proud of a great-grand daddy with ambition no higher than stealing a horse? B’gad, we Americans go in for big stuff! Steal a horse?  No!  But steal a continent, a nation; steal the lives and labor of thousands of black men and women in slavery; steal the wages of underpaid workers; steal a railroad, a bank, a million dollars-oh boy, now you’re talking! That’s the real class. Those are the ancestors America’s blue-bloods worship. But steal a horse-aw, heck, the guy might have been hanged for that!

Guess I’d better tell you about that other limb on my family tree now. From what I can uncover, it had just two main branches with a few sprigs sprouting off. A forked sort of bush, you know. On that other fork hangs a white slave (indentured servant) in Carolina and a kind hearted old Indian of the Cherokees in north Georgia. To make a long story short though I think it is a beautiful, if tragic, one this white slave girl and her lover ran away from their master in the Carolina tidewater country. The girl was pregnant, but the master had been forcing his attentions on her and that was more than her lover could stand. They set out toward the Indian country of north Georgia. Hearing the pursuers close behind, the man stopped, telling the girl to keep going and he’d overtake her if he got a lucky shot. He never overtook her. She went on and finally, weary and near death, reached the Indian settlement around Tallulah Falls in north Georgia. The Indians put her to bed and cared for her. The baby, a boy, was born. The child grew up as an Indian, married into the tribe, and had other children.

This, then, is the other limb of our family tree.

Do you think I’m telling about this tree just because it’s mine? You’re partly right. But the main reason is that, to a greater or lesser degree, it represents the great majority of Southern whites. And their real story has never yet been adequately told. Someday I intend to do it, to tell about these people with rough hands, big feet, and hard bodies; about the real men and women of the South.

That old Southern family stuff that you’ve heard so much about, always meaning the aristocratic, slave-owning tradition, is worn about as thin as the blood of those families today. Our people, the real Southern mass majority of whites, are the ones the Negroes were taught to call “pore white trash.” And we, in turn, were taught the hateful word “nigger.” Nice little trick, isn’t it? Hitler used it, too. And it is still being used today, by the whites from the big houses, who engineer lynchings and make it seem that the responsibility is the white workers’.

Our people, and the Negroes, made up about 98 percent of the Southern population before the Civil War.

In addition to all this, I’m a “hill-billy.” My folks were mountain people. We lived on Turkey Creek. And what a place that is!

Turkey Creek gushes in white little splashes, around the foot of Burnt Mountain and down to the Cartecay. The Cartecay crawls and gurgles—sometimes lazily, sometimes stormily—down the valleys and hollows between the hills to Ellijay. Over the cataracts and through the fords these waters have gone on since nobody knows when – except that summer when the drouth saw sands scorching dry, and the river bed looked like a pided mocassin turned on its back to die in the sun.

Mountain houses are scattered along the banks of Cartecay. Mountain people live there, plain people to whom it is natural to ask a stranger to stay all night. They have lived there for generations – since the first white man pushed through the Tallulah gorge, and others came up from the lowlands to escape the slave system. Indians have also lived on the Cartecay. It was once their hunting grounds. But most of them were rounded up and marched west toward the setting sun. Mountain men on Cartecay have gone west too, in search of opportunity, but some have stayed.

The men who first settled the mountains of the South were fearless and freedom loving. Many, in addition to the prisoners, came to escape persecution in the old country. They had been outspoken in opposition to oppression and denial of liberties. Some came later into the friendly mountains seeking a few rocky acres they could till and call their own. They fled from the ever-encroaching wave of slave-holding planters in the lowlands. The “poor whites” in slavery days found themselves burdened down with slave labor competition. Their lot in many instances was very little better than that of the slave. In the lowlands of the planters they were considered a blight upon the community. They were pushed off the desirable lands. Left to them were the submarginal, un desirable ridges or swamps. Many, therefore, fled to the great mountain ranges of north Georgia and other states, where freedom of a sort was to be had. Disease, starvation, and illiteracy were the lot of tens of thousands of these “poor whites” who were forced to live in the hard, unfertile regions of the South prior to the Civil War.

Now you may have thought, as I once did, that the old South was divided simply into whites and blacks-slave and master-and that everybody supported slavery from the beginning. I was taught that in school, from the his tory books, about my own state. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret that I didn’t learn from the school text books. Here it is: Oglethorpe and the first settlers of Georgia were bitterly opposed to the whole institution of slavery. They fought resolutely against slavery ever coming to Georgia.

I dug this up from some old dusty records. Here is what Oglethorpe himself wrote in a let ter to Granville Sharpe, October 13, 1776:

“My friends and I settled the Colony of Georgia . . . We determined not to suffer slavery there. But the slave merchants and their adherents occasioned us not only much trouble, but at last got the then government to favor them. We would not suffer slavery . . . to be authorized under our authority; we refused, as trustees, to make a law permitting such a horrid crime…”

But this isn’t all. How deeply this idea of freedom and justice was planted in these early Georgians is further shown, by a resolution passed January 12, 1775, endorsing the proceedings of the first American Congress, by “the Representatives of the extensive District of Darien, in the Colony of Georgia.” It said:

“5. To show the world that we are not influenced by any contracted or interested motives, but a general philanthropy for all mankind, of whatever climate, language or complexion we hereby declare our disa probation and abhorrence of the unnatural practice of slavery in America . . . , a practice founded in injustice and cruelty, and highly dangerous to our liberties ( as well as lives), debasing part of our fellow creatures below men, and corrupting the virtues and morals of the rest; and laying the basis of the liberty we contended for . . . upon a very wrong foundation. We, therefore, resolve, at all times, to use our utmost endeavors for the manumission of slaves in this Colony . . .”

There it is! These were men who indeed did not fit into a system of power and privilege for a few. But eventually their opposition was beaten down (though never destroyed). There went on a general infiltration of the blue-bloods who wanted slaves to do their work. Finally there was a civilization, a ” culture,” an aristocracy reared upon the institution of slavery, built upon the bent backs of human beings bought and sold like cattle, and upon the misery of the overwhelming majority of non-slave-holding Southern whites.

This, then, is the so-called and much lamented “culture” of the “lost cause”! The basis of wealth and privilege was the ownership of slaves. This privilege was concentrated in a very few hands. The total population of the South prior to the Civil War was about nine million. There were about four and a half mil lion slaves, over four million non-slave-owning whites, and, at the most, not more than three hundred thousand actual slave owners.

Culture, education, and wealth were limited to this narrow oligarchy of a few hundred families. Since the overwhelming majority of Southern whites owned no slaves whatsoever, they had little voice in government. The local and state governments were virtually executive committees for the slave masters. For lack of free schools, ignorance and illiteracy were the lot of the poor whites who were bowed down under the heavy burden of taxation of a slave-master government.

And so there grew up in these Southern mountains, communities of non-slave-holding farmers, scratching a bare livelihood from the stubborn new-ground hillside patches. They hated the slave system and the slave masters. Many of them refused to fight for the “lost cause” in the Civil War. They reasoned: Why fight for a system that oppresses us as well as the black slaves?

Yes, these were my people. I come from the Devil’s Hollow region close by Turkey Creek at the foot of Burnt Mountain in north Georgia. Earliest memories are woven around the struggles of my Dad and Mother to dig a living from our little mountain farm. Life always seemed hard-like an iron fist mauling them in the face, knocking them down every time they tried to get up. But they wanted their kids to go to school, get educated. We went, the whole bunch of us. There were nine kids, three now dead. All of the survivors today are progressive thinkers, working for a better South.

Yes, I got something in schools-Vanderbilt, Chicago University, Columbia, Oglethorpe, University of Georgia, in European schools. But my best education has not been from class rooms and formal professors. My real education has been beaten into me by the everlasting toil and hunger I’ve seen, by the struggles in textile and coal mining centers, where our people were tolled down from the hills with fair promises of a better life; by the hunger I have seen in the faces of sharecropper kids; by my own sister, wife of a sharecropper, dying young from over work and worry. It is this education of life of prisons and jails for innocent men- that caused a determination never to seek to rise upon the shoulders of others; to rise only when the great mass of plain people can also have a richer life. And some day we will!

I love the South. Like hundreds of other Southerners, I dislike some things about its customs and ways. But our folks have lived and died there. Our roots are sunk deeply from generations back. My own Dad died young-toil and hunger, too much work, and too little of the right kind of food are the only honest reasons any doctor could have given.

We had big hopes when we left the mountains to become sharecroppers in the cotton low lands. But those hopes were dead long before we buried Dad in Hickory Grove Church Yard.

So I pass these poems on to you who may care enough to read. They are little pieces of life-and death-picked up along the way. May they help to kindle little sparks that will grow into big flames!

Don West Lula, Ga. March, 1946

Listen, I’m An Agitator

“He stirreth up the people. teaching …”

    Listen . . . !
I am an agitator—
    They call me “Red,”
The color of Blood,
But do you of the toiling South
    Know me?
Do you believe these things
    About me?
You croppers, factory hands—
Poor whites, and you youth
    Who look
Into a dark future,
    You who love
The South as I do—
    Do you understand?
Do you see that I am YOU,
    That I
The Agitator am
    You . . . ?

I am Don West, too,
    The poet—
A lover of peace and quiet places
    A working man
With rough hands that know how
    To toil
When there is work.
    But the poet
Is a cry for justice,
    The Agitator
Is the restless soul of the
    Toiling millions—
Stirring, stumbling, groping
A new world, a world of plenty
    And peace!

I am the son of my grandfather,
    Of old Kim Mulkey.
His blood burns my veins
    And cries out for justice!
I sing to a submerged South,
    And she responds
With deep sobs of misery,
    She stirs
And anger sets on her lips.

I’m no foreigner;
With calloused hands is foreign
    To us!

I’m Jim West’s boy,
    The one
Who saw his Daddy die
Overworked, underfed—
    With pellagra.
It’s not nice to say that,
    To say
We have pellagra
In the South.

But I was raised on a hillside farm
    Where my Daddy’s sweat
Salted down the red clay.
    I’m the son of my mother
The woman who plods between
    The cotton rows—
And I’m an Agitator!

And that means I want bread
    And homes
    And clothes
    And beauty
For all the hollow-eyed babies.
    I want songs
On the lips, and joy in the eyes
    Of you anxious mothers
Who scrub, and hoe, or weave
    In a factory.

Do you hear me?
    I love
These things more than I love
    Peace and quiet,
Or the gentle murmur of
    The Chattahoochee
Dragging our old red hills
    Down to the mighty ocean.

I am speaking—Listen!
    I, the poet
In overalls, working man,