Friday, October 15, 2010

Young, Gifted, and Black Farm Laborer

Dreamer in the Fields: My Life as a Child Migrant Farm Worker By John Hill (Vision Publishing, ISBN: 978-0-9762730-7-3, $12.99).

Langston Hughes in his poem Dream Deferred asks this question: “What happens to a dream deferred?”

Perhaps he should have consulted the parents of John Hill, who once had dreams of succeeding as entertainers -- the father, Thomas, as a singer; the mother, Alberta, as a dancer. Instead, they wound up as dirt-poor farm laborers in California’s Central Valley.

What happens to a dream deferred? It slowly turns into a nightmare. The dreamers turn to alcohol, and potentially good parents become bad parents.

In Hill’s case, his parents went a step further. They became combatants. So fierce were some of their drunken battles that both would seek medical attention. As might be expected, these fights took their toll on the nine surviving Hill children. (One had drowned at seven.)

“My parents’ battles were thoroughly upsetting to me,” writes Hill. “My siblings and I would take bets on who was going to win, but when it was all over we’d go outside to sit and cry. We were all losers, and I think that thought alone may have been the most devastating part of my young life.”

But young Hill was a dreamer himself, and his dreams did not include slave-like work in the hot California sun or the fall chill, picking fruit, vegetables and cotton. He dreamed of a stable home with regular meals, a chance to get an education, and parents who loved each other enough not to try to kill one another. In fact, he often daydreamed in the fields instead of working. “almost always envisioning a more normal existence far away from the labor camps.”

“We moved around,” Hill writes, “following the crops and traveling as far north as Washington. But most of our time was spent in California. We worked in small towns between Bakersfield to the south and Marysville and Yuba City to the north …and other places such as Oxnard, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, Salinas, Gilroy, San Jose, and Santa Rosa."

The family lived in horrid camp shacks, sometimes bathed in rivers and streams, slept on filthy mattresses strewn around on dirt floors and used outside toilets that were both unsanitary and dangerous.

“We never allowed our sisters to go to the restroom alone,” he writes. “The boys would always accompany them and stand by the door and walk them back to the cabin or tent, but it was also dangerous for young boys who were unaccompanied. We learned as kids how to survive.”

Hill recalls that he began working in cotton fields around age five or six, with the unreachable quota of picking 100 pounds a day. Rising around 4:30 a.m., the family was in the field well before daybreak. Work didn’t end until dusk, and there were often seven-day work weeks. In spite of their dire poverty, Hill’s dad would frequently take all the family’s earning and drown his sorrows in a night of hard drinking while the children went hungry.

There were some good times, especially when the parents weren’t drinking. During such times, the parents would be lovey-dovey, and all seemed right in the world. When Thomas took a regular job in the town of Paso Robles, the family had a period of stability. Hill’s mother was able to see that children went to church. Young Hill, a gifted reader, loved the Old Testament stories, and he developed a love of church. But one day he was impressed to rise above the normal Sunday school fare that made up the children’s church service.

“After Sunday school the younger children would usually be sent into another room until the main service was over. However, on this particular Sunday I felt I needed something more. A voice kept telling me to go inside and listen to the minister. … The minister spoke of the goodness of God and how He would do anything for us, if we only believed in Him. He said, ‘Just ask and you will receive; seek and you shall find; knock and the door will be opened.’ ...Those words struck a chord in me, and the minister seemed to be speaking exclusively to me.”

By age eight, Alberta had abandoned both the abusive and philandering Thomas and her nine children. By age nine, Hill was so miserable that he determined to run away. That’s when a divine visitor intervened to counsel and console him. Hill explained his longings and asked the visitor for help. A short time later, Thomas was sentenced to a lengthy jail term and the children made wards of Fresno County and put in a foster home.

Hill delighted in his new home and foster parents, the Rev. James Seals and his wife, Velma. It is what he prayed for, although all the children regretted somewhat the loss of contact with their biological parents. But Hill reveled in the normalcy of his new life, and found comfort in the strict requirements to attend church and school, and to help with chores around the big foster home. At last, he was able to embark on the educational journey he had always desired.

Today, in comfortable retirement with his wife Mattie, Hill does book tours and holds speaking engagements.

Just what he prayed for: heaven on earth.

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