My story “Cotton Compress” was published in the Callaloo Journal’s latest issue, #40.2. Many thanks to Ravi Howard–who led a great workshop I participated in at Callaloo’s 2016 Oxford creative writing workshop session– for recommending my submission. Also many thanks to Melanie Hatter, who provided key edits to the story and made it much, much better and tighter. (She helped me kill a “darling” opening that wasn’t serving the story well. Good editing is everything!).
“Cotton Compress” is one of the stories included in my collection “Strivers and Other Stories.” Set in 1949, the story is about a grad student home for the summer who engages with the working men from a nearby cotton compress when they break for lunch at the house of his aunt, who makes stew for the men, five cents a bowl.
The plot is a remix and reimagining of a couple of different tales my father used to tell about the men he knew who worked in a cotton compress in the neighborhood where he grew up, Turpin Hill in Augusta, Georgia. The larger backstory to the characters in his stories was that, within the cotton industrial complex of the times, compress work–hauling bales and the repetitive operation of heavy press machinery–was among the most arduous work of all, and therefore naturally regulated to Black laborers. Meanwhile, poor whites could get work at the mills, as fellow Georgian Erskine Caldwell documented in his stories and books. (I nod to Caldwell by using in my story the term “lint-head” which he used in his writing). By the time I was growing up in the 70s and 80s in Augusta, the compress was just a boarded up and abandoned building that I would see every time I went to my grandmother’s house nearby. It had an eerie quiet presence though. I would frequently imagine what it must have been like during its bustling prime based on my dad’s stories.
The main character in my story, the grad student, is likely representative of any number of older Black educated men I’ve known, and how I imagine they wrestled with being and getting educated in the 40s, in the face of America’s pervasive racism and the lack of opportunity most other Black men of the times endured.
Callaloo is published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Here is a brief excerpt from the story.
Remains of the cotton compress building in the Turpin Hill neighborhood of Augusta, Georgia.