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"Born in Clarksville, Texas," he begins. "Red River County, June 6, 1944. D Day. I was the seventh of 12 kids of James Richard Smith, cotton sharecropper. I had red hair, a red glow, red lips. My mother, Dora, was Indian. I was the apple of her family. She died in 1970, at 57, of a coronary in church, listening to her daughters sing. Just as she had said she wanted to go." Words, in the Smith family, were not empty.
"Daddy is a quiet person," Smith continues. "Piercing eyes and a scowl. He looks through you. He was self-taught. He learned to read from studying the Bible. When I was little, I went through the fields behind my father. I remember the muscles of the horses, and the earth dividing before the plow, the sound of the grass tearing, the smell of the wet earth. I followed them for hours, picking up worms."
As Smith the child totters in the furrow, Smith the man closes his eyes, thrusts out his hands and breaks open the clods. The way he enters memory makes it seem as if he is overtaken by dream, but Smith always knows what will happen next, how reverie ends.
"At five I started school, walking three miles, watching for cottonmouths in warm weather. On the farm, we raised hogs and cows. My father hunted meat. There was always corn bread. No stores around. We went to one maybe twice a month. No, what we did was pick cotton.
"A truck with white people in the cab would get us, our hogs and beds, and deliver us to a shack in another county, where we'd live for a few weeks, picking. We moved a lot like that. We got maybe a sixth of what we should have been paid for what we took from those fields.
"One day a big bus came. And I was confused, wondering why my dad was giving the animals away. We kids were told to gather our clothes. I was given a little pee bottle, because once the bus had begun, it couldn't stop.
"We passed four days and four cold nights on that bus. When it stopped on a wet, foggy September morning, we were at a labor camp. No heat, just bare cabins and wood benches. We were two miles from Stratford, 10 miles southwest of Lemoore, 40 miles south of Fresno, in the San Joaquin Valley in California. That's where my whole life began."
"Look there," Smith continues. "A cotton field a mile long, a quarter-mile wide. Fifty heads are above the cotton, all black, all dragging a long sack hooked over a shoulder. Two or three white men circling. We keep an eye on them. White men goosed my father on the arm in the fields. All black men were supposed to be loosey-goosey—Stepin Fetchit caricatures. My father was not.
"A white man stops at my sack. I see my dad ahead, rising up, pulling off his sack, coming back to see what's the matter.
" 'He's half-picking this row!' says the field boss.