All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw
is a 1974 work of oral history by American historian Theodore Rosengarten. Based on four years of interviews, the book narrates the life of illiterate African-American sharecropper “Nate Shaw” (real name Ned Cobb) in Nate’s own words. The book won the 1974 National Book Award for non-fiction, beating out All the President’s Men
, Studs Terkel’s Working
, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
. It has been hailed by critics, readers and academic reviewers as an invaluable testament to the Southern black experience: “Nate Shaw strides directly off the page and into our consciousness, a living presence, talking, shouting, sorrowing, laughing, exulting, speaking poetry, speaking history, thinking and feeling—and he makes us hear him” (New York Times
Nate Shaw grew up in the 1890s, the son of a tenant farmer who was born into slavery. Shaw worked on his father’s farm from early childhood, learning to plow, drive mules, and plant crops. He recognized at a young age that the tenant farmer’s life was futile: “ain't nothin’ but go day, come night, God send Sunday.”
In retrospect, Shaw acutely analyses the racial and economic injustice of the tenant system. White landowners rented farms to black farmers, supplying “furnish” (money for equipment) and taking a “mortgage” (a share of any proceeds from farming). The black farmers did all the hard work of raising cotton, only to sell it to the landowner at a price determined by the landowner—and minus the “furnish” money and the “mortgage.” Often the farmer was left with nothing but debt to show for his year’s work. In short, Shaw’s South had changed little with the end of slavery: “Years ago I heard that Abraham Lincoln freed the colored people,” he muses, “but it didn’t amount to a hill of beans.”
Shaw resolved to escape. Having married and started a family, he began working double days, farming his rented farm while also hauling lumber for extra money. He paid off his debts, bought land of his own, built a house on it, and began to prosper. In time, he owned mules, horses, livestock, and two cars. Shaw lovingly describes the daily work of his life as a farmer, the animals he loved (especially mules), and the injustices he suffered and sometimes managed to sidestep.
As he prospered, Shaw knew that he was inspiring anger and jealousy in the whites around him. When the Alabama Sharecroppers’ Union was formed in the early years of the Depression, he knew that joining was both the right and the expedient thing to do.
However, the white landowners were enraged by the union and used every means in their power to destroy it. In 1932, four sheriffs arrived at the farm of one of Shaw’s neighbors—a fellow union member—bearing a faked mortgage note and threatening to seize the land.
Shaw refused to accept this injustice: “Somebody got to stand up…If I'm sworn to stand up for all the poor colored farmers—and poor white farmers if they'd taken a notion to join —I've got to do it....So I stood up against this Southern way of life.”
He told the sheriffs they would have to kill him first. They tried their best, shooting him three times. He chased them off with his gun and fled. Tracked down by white law enforcement officers, he was sentenced to twelve years after a cursory trial.
“I went through prison quiet as a plank of wood,” he says. Three times he was offered parole if he would betray the union leadership, but he refused. Instead, he served all twelve years and returned to his land.
He found the world transformed. Tractors had replaced mules. Now fifty-nine, Shaw threw himself into his work, trying to build a future for his ten children. His wife died: “I'd stayed with her forty-odd years, and that was short, short.”
Eventually, he remarried, and was able to retire, with his sons farming in his stead. Speaking to Rosengarten, he proudly defends his life: “If you don't like what I have done, then you are against the man I am today. I ain't going to take no backwater about it….I'd fight this morning for my rights, I'd do it—and for other folks' rights if they'll push along.”
He reflects also on the political future of the United States: “How many people is it today that it needs and requires to carry out this movement? How many is it knows just what it's going to take? It's taken time, untold time, and more time it'll take before it's finished. Who's to do it? It's the best people of the United States…the uneducated, unknowledged ones that's living here in this country. They goin’ to win! They goin’ to win!”
The book records that Shaw died on November 5, 1973, the year before the book’s publication.