Ron grows up in a lower-middle-class area of Fort Worth. His granddaddy Mr. Jack Brooks owns a Texas “blackland” farm, where he grows cotton. Like his mama, Ron and his brother John spend their summers farming cotton on Granddaddy’s farm, which they prefer to the alternative: following their daddy around as he disappears into bars. Honest and harder-working than anyone Ron has ever met, Granddaddy survived World War II and supported a wife and four kids through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression with his cotton farm, working all day every day to produce enough cotton to survive.
Like Denver, Ron’s early life is defined by hard work and difficult family situations. During Ron’s childhood, when he is unaware of sharecropping or slavery, the cotton farm is a minor symbol of sustenance, the thing that allows Jack Brooks and his family to survive many hard years. This symbol will develop in the future as Ron learns about modern slavery, when the cotton farm will come to represent oppression and the Man.
Ron and John inherit Granddaddy’s penchant for pranks, which often earns them beatings with a switch from their grandmother MawMaw’s peach tree. Granddaddy once gave both boys a pair of boxing gloves for Christmas and called all the other fathers in town to meet him at the gas station with their sons. The adults formed a ring and Ron and John fought every other kid in town before breakfast was served, noses bleeding and the boys loving every minute of it.
Ron’s memories of his childhood help to anchor his narrative in a certain historical period of America, one defined by hard work and tough love. In the absence of a strong father figure, Jack Brooks makes sure to teach his grandsons to be tough and durable, demonstrating his care for them.
Granddaddy slightly resembles the black shoeshine who lives in town, an old man whom everyone loves, the only black man buried in Rose Hill cemetery with all of the white families. Ron realizes that a black man buried in a white cemetery might not be such a surprise elsewhere in the country, but the Civil Rights Movement and its impact seemed to miss their part of the South.
This scene, like much of the memoir, depicts a more nuanced version of racism than many expect—where affection and discrimination are mixed together—while also demonstrating that the racism that undergirded modern slavery was still very present throughout the twentieth century.
The social hierarchy of the South is obvious in the 1950s and seems to young Ron “as much a topic for considered thought as breathing in and out.” The white families live in painted houses and the black families live across the railroad tracks in shacks. To Ron, this doesn’t seem particularly good or bad; many of the black people from across the tracks work for Granddaddy. He recalls, “As far as I knew, all their first names were ‘Nigger’ and their last names were like our first names: Bill, Charlie, Jim, and so forth.” The black workers on Mr. Jack Brooks’ farm are never called by a proper first and last name.
Ron’s description of racism and racial hierarchy echoes Denver’s statement: “That’s just the way things were.” While in retrospect, such hierarchy is obviously oppressive, to Ron, a young white boy, it simply forms the backdrop of daily life. This demonstrates once again the way in which prejudices are formed by one’s experiences and one’s environment. It would be a surprise for Ron to do anything but accept and uphold the racist hierarchy he is raised in.
Each morning, Granddaddy drives his truck across the railroad tracks and whoever wants to work that day climbs in the back. After a few hours’ work, Granddaddy takes the black workers to the gas station to buy them a piece of bread and slice of baloney, which they eat sitting on the ground behind the station. All the white workers eat a homecooked meal prepared for them by MawMaw. Granddaddy pays each worker the same fair wage and even offers no-interest loans to many black families to get them through hard winters. Although he never keeps books to track his loans, the black community respects Granddaddy so much that even after his death, many families come to repay their debts to Ron’s widowed grandmother.
Although Granddaddy’s farm is a not a sharecropping operation—since the workers are paid an actual wage—the discrimination is still obvious. Even so, Jack Brooks often extends kindness and generosity to his black laborers and becomes well-respected within their community. This nuanced depiction of racism rejects any easy categorization of all white people as racist and evil, or even all wealthy landowners as utterly oppressing poor families, though that certainly did happen in many cases. Racism and prejudice is thus suggested to be a complex and many-faceted issue.
Ron works alongside the black workers and the white workers starting when he is six or seven years old. When he is fourteen, two black men he has been working with convince him to sneak out that evening and come to their juke joint—an informal bar and music club—to get “a beer and a woman.” Ron goes with them and spends the whole night sitting at a corner table alone, pretending to drink a beer, though the smell of the drink makes him nauseous.
It is notable that Ron remembers having positive relationships with poor black men in his youth, since as an adult he demonstrates a strong prejudice against such men. This again suggests that Ron’s financial success causes him to turn his back on the people he grew up around, seeing them as lesser than himself now that he has risen through the ranks.