In my youth, the farming country of Arkansas was marked by structures known as “shotgun shacks.” One theory is that the name came from the fact that one could shoot straight through the front door and out the back, the pellets passing through all the rooms. Who knows? The fact is, they were hardly mansions.
The structures were narrow, as small as 12 feet wide, and usually consisted of a living room in front, a bedroom in the middle, and a kitchen in the rear. They existed both in cities and in the rural areas. Sometimes a room was attached and sometimes those sitting side-by-side were joined to make what were jokingly referred to as “double-barreled shotgun houses.”
The ones in the country were lonely things, usually sitting in the corner of a field of cotton, with a privy and a well out back, sometimes within a few feet of one another. The shacks housed the poorest of families whose prospects for employment kept them on the farm.
My own parents lived in one as sharecroppers in the late 1930s.
One can only imagine what dreams were born, nurtured, or crushed in those dwellings. One of the most poignant for me was related by my father-in-law.
It seems that as a youth in the late 1920s, he knew of a solitary, quiet African-American man who lived in such a shack on a large farm nearby. Nobody knew much about the man. He was quiet but worked steadily for his landowner and rarely left home except to work or catch a ride on a wagon going to town, to buy essentials.
The man died and, as happens, curiosity overtook a band of boys exploring the harvested fields. They looked inside the deserted shack and found quite a surprise. I’ll let him tell what they saw.
“There were these pictures on the wall. Everywhere. The whole place was covered with them. Churches, houses, buildings like I saw in Europe during the war. The man could draw anything and nobody ever knew.”
The home was finally demolished, as most of those structures were, and the contents of that single, solitary house were lost. As I say, one can only imagine what dreams went up as the flames of progress swept through the Delta.
It is also sad to think about the genius that poverty can poison.
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