A Genius Behind The Plow

All God's Dangers The Life of Nate Shaw Edited by Theodore Rosengarten 556 pages; Alfred A. Knopf, $10

WE HAD BEEN in Alabama for two weeks and hadn't talked to a single black person. We were just digging up trial records and old newspapers. Then the last day we met a man and asked him one question and he spoke for a whole day.

This is Theodore Rosengarten, of Brooklyn and, more recently, Somerville, speaking in an interview. Rosengarten is a Harvard graduate student in American Civilization who has written a book about a black man from Alabama whom he calls Nate Shaw. Nate Shaw is the man Rosengarten met on the last day of his first visit to Alabama, the one who took a whole day to answer one question. Several years after they first met, Rosengarten decided to write a book about Shaw and taped, transcribed and edited the man's reminiscences of his life.

It was clear we had come upon something ex-extraordinary; there was no reason in the world for him to welcome us as he did. This man and I developed a special relationship--his stories were told with a literary consciousness and trust that grew out of his trust for me and his feeling of the importance of his story. His way of life was dying, and it as a human loss as well as a loss of knowledge. The people who had produced crops themselves were gone, and with them their history. Nate Shaw saw himself as the repository of that history.

Rosengarten first went to see Nate Shaw because Shaw had been a member of a short-lived Alabama labor union, the Sharecroppers' Union, and had spent 12 years in prison after a shootout with white sheriffs that stemmed from his union activities. But the book turned out to be more than just a story about a man who had joined a union and gone to jail; it is a detailed account of 85 years of Nate Shaw's life, with the union and prison experiences serving as a central balancing point.

People are supposed to have wide-ranging and specific memories of their entire lives in the time just before they die--Nate Shaw died shortly after Rosengarten finished his tapings--but even given that, Shaw's ability to remember everything that happened to him is extraordinary. He tells, often supplying exact dates, about everything from how many bales of cotton he raised in his first year of tenant farming, to how he felt when his wife died, to the relative merits of the myriad mules he plowed behind.

Nate Shaw's day-to-day experiences were not extraordinary. But the man was a genius, an absolute genius. The book is his history of Southern life. We have to allow for the possibility that genusises or brilliant people lives out their lives as illiterates, walking behind a plow.

Rosengarten is operating on some tricky assumptions in his book: if Nate Shaw is a typical black Southerner, only with an unusual mind, then in telling his own story he is also telling the story of all other black Southerners as well. His smallest action, if seen as typical of an entire race and class, immediately becomes universal in its importance and profundity. If Nate Shaw buys a mule, say, it may make an interesting story in itself; but if it's actually all struggling black tenant farmers acting, with Nate as a distillation of all their experiences, whatever he does takes on enormous significance.

Looking at Nate Shaw as a spokesman for all Southern blacks is dangerous, however. It diverts attention from the real merits of All God's Dangers and becomes an excuse for judging it uncritically. White liberal critics have heaped an avalanche of unstinting praise on All God's Dangers, calling Nate Shaw "a black Homer." They seem to be saying, with great relief: See, black people can be as profound as white people, they just haven't had the chance to tell their story until Rosengarten tape-recorded Nate Shaw. But saying Nate Shaw's story is the story of all black people is assuming a degree of sameness among blacks that is just not there, and insulting. If Rosengarten had taperecorded the reminiscences of an 85-year-old white insurance salesman, no one would think of calling it the history of all whites.

TAKEN JUST IN itself, Nate Shaw's account of his life does lag at times, as would any account of any life. Shaw often goes through entire paragraphs explaining how he is distantly related to people who come up only peripherally in his story. The hundreds of interrelated names in the book are impossible to keep track of and only give a general impression that Shaw lived in a tightly circumscribed community. Only twice--in passing references to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt--does Shaw mention anyone outside his native county in Alabama.

But Shaw does have the ability to convey an incredible depth of emotion at his life's critical junctures, enough to make all the ordinary daily events seems part of a vast, profound pattern. His life comes across as an even progression, unembellished but full of meaning, because he describes it in such a simple, deeply felt way.

Here he is, for instance, describing his wedding night: "That night, that Sunday night I stood up and married her. I didn't know no more about bein' her in nature-course than I knowed about ying--it wouldn't have been no harm if I did. I meant to marry her and carry out the full obligation of my acts."

It is precisely because Shaw goes into such detail that his story has all the fullness of a real life, and his most important experiences assume a significance in the book that they must have had for him. Every story he tells has to do with what has happened to him before and will happen to him as he lives on.

He didn't know what Soviet meant when I used it once, and he asked me what it meant. So the next time I went to see him I brought a picture book about the Russian Revolution that I got from the public library and showed it to him. He almost fell off his chair. He said, "I knew somewhere if there were poor farmers fighting for their rights they would have to win."

THERE ARE TWO things about Nate Shaw's life that are striking and dominant: work and race. The two are on every page, dwelt on more often than people less outspoken than Shaw would feel comfortable with. Shaw was born poor and spent all his life trying to make a living by farming while white people tried to take his money and crops away from him. His life was a struggle from beginning to end, and his courage in remaining fiercely independent is striking. He was something of a pariah in his community because of his belligerent attitudes towards whites and his insistence on retelling the stories of his many rebellions. "They'd give you a good name if you was obedient to 'em, acted nice when you met 'em and didn't question 'em about what they said they had against you," Shaw says of white people at the end of the book. "You begin to cry about your rights and the mistreatin' of you and they'd murder you."

Nate Shaw was too independent to represent or speak for anyone but himself. His book is not unusual because he told the story of an entire race, but because he could understand his whole life and make sense of it and tell his own story.