“You shut the fuck up and wait,” Tom said from behind the wheel, pointing his finger at the driver honking at him from behind.
Tom was a big-bellied fat man. A pistol and a pocketknife hung from his waist. Framed by ditches on both sides, Tom and Pops talked from their trucks, blocking the narrow two-lane road. In the back of our van, my middle brother Peter and I were sitting on tomato boxes.
“Geeze,” Pete whispered, putting his head between his legs. “The man’s insane.”
Tom was asking Pops about how the tomatoes were doing. Too much rain was killing them. In exchange for a cut of the crops, Tom’s daddy lent us land to grow tomatoes. This arrangement is a classic American tradition. After the Civil War, southern blacks who didn’t head north, worked the land of their former captors. My folks usually leased land or they paid to pick tomatoes by the box. This was sharecropping, a synonym for slavery. And Tom wanted to play overseer. He didn’t like that my father wouldn’t agree to sell tomatoes through him.
In a thousand acre square of farmland, my family planted, produced, and picked tomatoes under Florida’s merciless sun. Back when Sanford was predominantly black, Tom’s family was one of the only white farms in the area. They owned the most land and paid their workers the lowest wages. Looking at old photos of black people picking cotton reminded me of us. None of my friends’ parents did this. At school, telling kids what my parents did was like a big secret. Instead of wearing a uniform or a suit, my parents were always wearing muddy boots and stained green clothes from working the fields. This was familiar to my folks. It was what they knew -what their parents and grandparents knew. As a suburban black kid in white America trying to keep up with the Joneses, tomatoes bought me Air Jordans. It fed us and paid the mortgage, but having Tom berate my family while we toiled was new… to me.
“What the fuck have you been doing? You ain’t boxed those tomatas?” Tom said to my father, slamming the door to his truck.
I jerked up to the sound, thinking something bad was about to happen. Pops chewed on his tongue, spread his gorilla arms and chuckled with a smile.
“Well, we going as fast as we can.”
Before I ever thought that I’d hear someone talk to my father that way, I would’ve believed that God’s hands would appear in the sky, gesturing the dead to climb out of their graves. Pops was a man that got shot in the head and drove himself to the hospital. For all I know he could’ve killed someone. Might’ve gotten away with it.
“When your parents owned that grocery store in Syracuse, ya daddy asked me for a shotgun,” my older cousin Checker told me. “Now, I get him a shot gun. Next day, I go to the store, he say, ‘I need a shotgun.’ I say, ‘I just got you one.” He say, ‘I need another one.”
Though ill tempered, my dad never hit my brothers and I, Moms got all that, but the raising of his voice could make me levitate.
“When I come back, make sure those fucking tomatas are ready.”
Pops sarcastically smiled,
We had already boxed and sold most of them.
“Hurry up befoe this cracka come back,” he said to Pete and Moms separating tomatoes by color.
From work, on car rides home, Tom was the fat cracka taking over his daddy’s business. My dad’s impression of him made us cry laughing. Short of calling Pops a nigger, Tom kept trying to emasculate my dad, but Pops wasn’t going for the okie doke.
“I ain’t going to jail for killing ah cracka,” he said staring at the road, with one hand steering and the other holding a Coors Light.
The people in Charlottesville, Virginia fighting to save these statues remind me of Tom. They are right when they say that America was founded for whites, but blacks built it.