Denver explains that he never knew his mama and was raised by his grandparents PawPaw and Big Mama. Due to poverty, black families often have unusual arrangements, with children being raised by siblings, grandparents, uncles, friends, or whoever is available.
In the same way that Denver explains many aspects of poverty to Ron later in the book, he also explains them to the reader in the telling of his life story, inviting the reader into the same process of reconsidering one’s prejudices and assumptions.
Denver explains the concept of sharecropping: the Man owns the farm land and sells the clothing, seeds, equipment, and everything else a sharecropper needs to survive the year and harvest a cotton crop on credit. Although the Man says that both parties will split the profit from the cotton harvest, he increases the debt or cheats the sharecropper so that the sharecropper always owes more money than he or she makes. Since sharecroppers often cannot read, there is no way to know if the Man is being honest, though most assume not. A common saying among black sharecroppers is, “An ought’s an ought, a figger’s a figger, all for the white man, none for the nigger.”
Sharecropping, as a method of modern slavery, plays a dominant role in Denver’s life and typifies the racial discrimination used to oppress black families and keep them mired in poverty. It is worth noting that, rather than owning a person outright, the Man maintains control over his workers through inflated debts and ignorance, knowing that he has little to fear in the way of legal retribution or justice.
Denver and his brother Thurman live with Big Mama and PawPaw in a three-room shack with a cracked floor showing open earth below it. Big Mama is Denver’s closest companion, and he likes to do special favors for her: get her pills (some form of sedative), feed the pigs, and catch chickens for her to fry. Big Mama often has little gifts for Denver as well, such as bottles caps to nail to a block of wood and make a toy truck out of. Denver isn’t much of a “playin child,” though.
Although, to a modern reader, Denver’s poverty seems apparent, Denver does not make a large issue out of it, choosing instead to simply describe what he remembers. Denver’s neutral recollection of his own abject poverty suggests that human beings can adapt to nearly any environment or standard of living and consider it to be normal.
When Denver is around five or six years old, he wakes in the middle of the night to find the house on fire. Big Mama had taken her pills before going to sleep, and it seems no else has woken. Although the house is filled with smoke, Denver cannot find the fire. Denver wakes Thurman and they jump out the window, since PawPaw has already left for work and locked the door behind him. However, Denver realizes he needs to wake up Big Mama and his cousin Chook, who’s been staying with them. Chook is sitting in front of the fireplace with glazed eyes, unresponsive, where a large fire is burning.
This early tragedy sets the tone of Denver’s first thirty years of life in Red River Parish, contrasting strongly with Ron’s own comparatively safe and stable childhood.
Denver hears the fire spreading up the chimney and to the roof. Ducking below the smoke, coughing and sputtering, he finds Big Mama in her room, still lying in bed. Denver screams in her ear and shakes her but she is completely unresponsive, as if dead. With a broken heart, Denver decides the smoke must have already killed her. With the roof threatening to cave in, he flees the house once more. As he and Thurman stand outside together, crying, the shack buckles and collapses in flame, and Big Mama finally wakes. Her grandsons watch, horrified, as she burns to death, rolling and screaming, pinned under the fallen roof.
This is the first death of a close family member that Denver describes. Throughout Denver’s life, he will lose many family members through death or separation, causing much trauma, pain, and grief.