The Farmer in the Dell

The Farmer in the Dell

Have we learned the right lessons from the mistreatment of Shirley Sherrod?


Good morning, dear pupils! Please settle down, take your seats. Today’s class will be another exciting lesson in our infinite series of teachable moments. Hush now, stop the giggling. This is important, and we’re never going to graduate until we master the basics of how to read and write. We will begin with a nice little fairy tale that I’d like you to read aloud:

"Old Man Sherrod and his wife had a farm. It was a black farm because they were black farmers (not that any God-fearing person can actually see color, but the Sherrods were always making a terrible fuss about how being black was just so gosh-darned awful). The Sherrods beat their cows and mistook nonblack farmers for pigs and plowed their fields with salt. Plus, they were socialists. When a kindly banker wrestled the poor farm away from the Sherrods’ greedy proprietary grip, the black-hearted thug-king of the realm threw the kindly banker into the dungeon, knighted Farmer Sherrod (now to be addressed as ‘Sir,’ no less!) and welcomed Farmer Sherrod’s wife into his court as chief counselor on how to grow turnips."

So, dear class, here is your assignment. Take out your crayons and draw a picture of each one of the characters in the story. What do they look like? How much of what you have drawn comes from the actual words of the story? How much of your picture comes from your imagination? Use a green crayon to circle the parts of your picture that come from the actual words. Use a flesh-colored crayon to circle the parts that come from your imagination. Now here’s the hard part: try to think of the pathways in your head that took you from the actual words to the imaginary parts. Give each of those pathways a name.

OK, now stand up, arms to the sky, then touch your toes and let’s move on to the next exercise. Now that you’ve read a story, it’s your turn to craft one of your own. This time, I want you to rewrite the tale you just read, only from Farmer and Mrs. Sherrod’s point of view. Ready? Set? Go!

Time’s up. So, was that harder than just reading the first story as given? Could you write about the Sherrods as heroes of your story using the words in the original story? Was the first story hard to get out of your head? Draw your story. Is the picture entirely imaginary? Is it as easy to draw pathways from the actual words of the original story to the images in your story?

OK, time to frame your pictures. First, let’s think about perspective and ask ourselves how they should be hung on the wall. Is there a relationship between the first picture and the second? Should they be hung in the order that we worked on them? If I’d asked you to write your heroic farm story first, before we read the one I gave you, what might you have written? Does it matter that you were told the Sherrods were villains first? Does the sequence of the stories affect our perceptions of their meaning?

Second framing exercise: I’d like you to examine just the parts of each story that you identified as having come from your imagination—yes, that’s right, those pathways from the actual words of the given story to the imagined parts. Did you label them nice and neatly? Let’s see if those pathways lead us anywhere. Oh, well done, Arbuthnot—look, class, his pathway is labeled "From anecdotal to the general." And regard young Mistress Evangeline’s! "From the local to the unknown." Excellent, Sebastian: "From witness to belief." Intriguing, Galileo: "From the analytics of telling to teleological whimsy."

Good work, all! Jumping jacks! Shake the cobwebs off!

Now that you can read and write, it’s time to play a silly game, just for kicks. Take your scissors in one hand and your pictures in the other. Cut your pictures up into a hundred tiny pieces, then paste some or all of the pieces into a new picture that has absolutely no resemblance to the original. I’ll go first. Here’s my story: "Shirley hates it when her children leave their clothes on the floor and the new puppies chew them all to shreds." Snip, snip, snip. Et voilà! My new version: "Shirley hates children and puppies." Wait, wait, here’s another: "In order to beat the heat, Charles took his wife to the beach." Slice, slice, slash: "Charles beat his wife." See how easy it is? And how much fun? OK, let’s divide into teams and see who can come up with the most random, ridiculous and insinuating ellipses we can think of. The name of this game? Redactio ad Absurdum. It’s not the same as reading and writing, but it always makes you wonder about the bigger picture.

Oops, there’s the bell. Next time we’ll talk about how you can tell whether the first story you read is or is not itself the product of a Redactio ad Absurdum. For example, what if the fairy tale with which we began this class was actually just a mishmash of a totally different, much longer story I didn’t tell you? Ha! Snookered you, did I? Well, here’s your assignment—mind you, it’s a lot of pages with lots of big words, but if you don’t put in the time to do your homework, you will never get to enjoy life’s really big pictures.

Assignment: Shirley Sherrod’s speech to the Georgia NAACP (; Charles Sherrod’s speech to the University of Virginia conference on fifty years of civil rights activism (; Pigford v. Glickman, 206 F. 3d 1212—Court of Appeals, Dist. of Columbia 2000 ( en&as_sdt=2&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr); "Significant Dates in Black Land Loss & Land Acquisition," Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund ( Calculate the number of black farms lost since the 1960s (Appendix Table 3, Black Farmers in America, 1865-2000, USDA) and the overall farms lost since 1959 (

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