Which won a National Book Award in 1974, is a collaboration between an illiterate tenant farmer and a Harvard graduate student. In 1969, the student, Theodore Rosengarten, met the farmer, Ned Cobb, while researching an Alabama sharecroppers’ union. In explaining why he joined the union, the eighty-four-year-old Cobb (named Nate Shaw in All God's Dangers for “protection and privacy”) told eight hours’ worth of stories that “built upon one another so that the sequence expressed the sense of a man ‘becoming.”’
Beginning his story in the late nineteenth century, Nate Shaw gives an account of his lineage that reveals “the way of life that [he] was born and raised to.” He makes it apparent that his upbringing suffered from social customs gathered from “slavery time days,” which turned his “daddy” and others in his family into sharecroppers with a poor sense of worth. The local culture, Shaw indicates, consisted of a racial hierarchy that placed “colored farmers” under the authority of “white landlords.” His relatives and neighbors should have received freedom from bondage at the end of the Civil War, when his father was fifteen, but “what they got wasn’t what they wanted, it wasn’t freedom, really.” As in slavery, they found themselves expected “to do whatever the white man directed em to do” without saying a word about “their heart's desire.”
While his father resigns himself “to take what come and live for today” and thus simply manages to eke out a living, Shaw, inspired by his grandmother, looks for more out of life. He imagines that skill and diligence can help him to rise in the world “like a boy climbin a tree.” By 1931, known throughout his region for his work ethic, he says, “I was doin as well as any poor colored man could do in this country.” He has a wife and ten children at the time, lives in a “pretty good old house,” and owns two mules as well as two cars. Undoubtedly, he seems set for continued success.
But as boys slip and fall from trees, Shaw takes a step that causes him to lose prestige and much more. One December day in 1932, after joining the Sharecroppers Union, full of pride and emboldened by the union's teachings yet virtually alone, Shaw opposes the efforts of four deputy sheriffs to confiscate a neighbor's property for the benefit of a white landlord. A violent struggle follows; it leaves Shaw wounded and under arrest. He is convicted of a felony in court and sentenced to twelve years in prison.
Shaw serves his time stoically. When he is set free, he returns to a home in disrepair. His wife dying, his children scattered, he has paid a dear price for his act of defiance. Still, he maintains his old outlook. He resumes working on the farm and looking for ways to prosper with dignity. Regardless of others’ opinions, Shaw thinks that he has done good for his people by taking his stand and suffering the consequences.