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In The Delta, King Cotton Dethroned?

It was almost as an afterthought that Kathleen Robbins shared some vintage family photos with me. Frame after frame of folks neatly centered in endless cotton fields. And it wasn't until then that I really understood her work. Not only is cotton is in her blood, but it also occupies her mind's eye.

An untitled photograph from Robbins' family collection

hide captionAn untitled photograph from Robbins' family collection

Courtesy of Kathleen Robbins

Robbins grew up in the Mississippi Delta, where her grandfather was a third-generation cotton farmer. She left the Delta to take a teaching position in 2003 — but started noticing a change on return trips to visit her family: "The cotton was disappearing," she says.

On her family's farm, for example, for the first time in more than a century, cotton was replaced with easier crops like corn and soybeans. "I wondered who was left," she says. "Who was continuing to grow cotton and reside on rural farmland?"

A young Robbins on the family farm in Mississippi, circa 1985.

hide captionA young Robbins on the family farm in Mississippi, circa 1985.

Courtesy of Kathleen Robbins

She received a grant and sabbatical last year to find out. Teaming up with writer Mary Carol Miller, Robbins spent five weeks with 10 cotton farmers and their families in the Mississippi Delta, a region with a complicated — and in some ways very dark — past.

But her project, In Cotton, is also full of light: It's a mix of farmers in fields, cotton bolls fully puffed — much like those in her family album. It's square-format southern living rooms with taxidermied animals and beautifully crafted furniture; soft dappled light and quiet moments.

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It's as much a photographic poem about memory, as it is a documentary project on what remains. One anecdote about this particular portrait, written by Miller, sums it up:

Aven Whittington Sr. (left) and Aven Whittington Jr.

hide captionAven Whittington Sr. (left) and Aven Whittington Jr.

Kathleen Robbins

Aven Whittington Sr. showed up for his cotton portrait late on a Wednesday afternoon, in dress slacks, a white cotton shirt and dark brown polished wingtips. Ninety-three years old, ramrod straight but tilting forward just a bit, standing smack in the midst of his 72nd cotton crop, with clear memories of his first, a crop that he was gathering with sharecroppers and mules as the world tumbled out of the Depression and into the chaos of war.

Mr. Whittington, son of a Congressman, philanthropist and businessman and gentleman of the first order, with Ole Miss and Princeton diplomas on his walls, did not seem to find it the least bit strange that these two women had plunked him into a dusty field while Kathleen scaled the ladder in the truck bed and I passed cameras up and down to her.

As we waited for the western sun to sink into that sweet spot just above the horizon, he calmly stared off into the distance, silent, perhaps musing over the many harvest seasons he had known and the strange requests that had come his way. When we were finished, he nodded his acknowledgment of our thanks and I helped him into the SUV, marveling at the puffs of cotton dust seeping through those expensive wingtip perforations. His son shifted the truck into gear and they were gone, billowing clouds of dirt and defoliant in their wake.

And barely a week later, word came that Aven Whittington Sr. was gone for good, lost to a blessedly quick pneumonia. He would soon be returned to the ground that he had loved and tilled for almost a century. His son and his nephew will continue farming that land, mourning their father and uncle through the long winter to come and preparing for another spring and another summer and another fall in the Delta.


This article is part of Southword, a multimedia partnership between The Oxford American magazine and NPR — exploring the people, places and trends that shape the modern American South.

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