The first time I met Arlean and Willie Peat it was because their neighbor Ted Pullen introduced me. I don’t think they would have said anything to me had I showed up alone. As it was, all I got was a sideways look and a “Don’t make no never-mind,” from Arlean when I asked if I could come photograph on their farm as they lived and worked.
I never got a lot closer to understanding Arlean and her motives than that, and it shows in the photos I made of her.
For many visits over many months, that was the only sentence I heard, over and over, as I photographed their lives. In other words, I never knew if they put up with me only to keep from hurting Ted’s feelings, if they somehow enjoyed having me around and therefore didn’t run me off the place, or if they honestly didn’t care either way. The only time she epressed a desire was when she asked me not to photograph in her kitchen. That was both a heartbreak to me, because her kitchen showed the hard life they led, and a bit of a relief, because I took it to mean that she was okay with me photographing everywhere else on the farm – a conclusion that I was admittedly stretching to reach.
Both Willie and Arlean clearly loved Ted Pullen, who not only stopped by frequently to visit and check on them, but also lent his more modern farm equipment, his know-how and his kindness to their effort to squeeze a living out of 80 acres of Bootheel floodplain land using mostly hand tools – and one early 1950s John Deere tractor that was broken much of the time. Ted did his farm work and at least some of theirs every year, and it may have been what kept them from going under.
I eventually had some more relaxed conversation with Willie, who liked smoke breaks in the shade. But neither Arlean nor Willie showed much interest in the prints I brought back, and they weren’t eager to talk about their past – or their present, for that matter.
When I returned to the Bootheel in the early 2000s, both Willie and Arlean Peat had passed, buried in the Pullen Family Cemetery just down the street – among the people who supported them in life.
Their farm was quickly sold and was plowed under. Ted would have liked to buy that land, but it went to larger operators, almost all of whom are white.