Born in Alabama, Ned Cobb was a tenant farmer and social activist who spent twelve years in a penitentiary for staging a protest that turned violent. Though an illiterate man, Cobb had a talent for storytelling that enabled him in his eighties to relate the story of his life to Theodore Rosengarten, a Harvard graduate student, who recorded the older man's account and eventually had it published under the title All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw (1974). The book contains a long, episodic narrative that portrays Shaw (Cobb's pseudonym) as a thoughtful and industrious person whose prison sentence resulted from a clear refusal to tolerate social inequality.
In All God's Dangers, Shaw appears in contrast to his father, Hayes Shaw, a former slave turned sharecropper, who has grown accustomed to “take what come and live for today.” While Nate Shaw observes that the social order confines “poor colored farmers” to an outrageous second-class citizenship and thereby strips them of ambition, from his youth he plans on “climbin up in the world like a boy climbin a tree.” By learning as much as he can about farming his crop and diligently applying the knowledge that he gains, Shaw manages to make a decent enough living to raise ten children in “a pretty good old house.” His fortune changes, however, beginning in December 1932, when he takes a stand for equality by defying four deputy sheriffs sent to seize a neighbor's property in order to compensate a white landlord. A bloody confrontation lands Shaw in jail for over a decade and decimates his family.
All God's Dangers compares favorably to slave narratives written by Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet A. Jacobs, all of whom represent learning as a source of freedom. Shaw's personal narrative belongs to an “as-told-to” tradition of African American autobiographies transcribed by an amanuensis, which includes The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831) as well as The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). Since Shaw lived from the Reconstruction era of the late nineteeth century through the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth, his story serves as a valuable chronicle of the manner in which African Americans in rural communities struggled for equality during the period of legal segregation in the United States.
Roland L. Williams, Jr.