On the rural Southern farm where the Cain family lives in “Blues Ain’t No Mockingbird,” the family is independent and self-sufficient, able to find sanctuary from racial persecution. The same cannot be said for their previous places of residence. The reason the Cain family moved so often was due to persecution by white people: “Like people wouldn’t pay her for things like they said they would. Or Mr. Judson bringin us boxes of old clothes and raggedy magazines. Or Mrs. Cooper comin in our kitchen and touchin everything and sayin how clean it all was.” This quote reveals that Mrs. Cain has not been treated fairly as a laborer, nor has she or her family been treated with respect. She has worked and not been paid for her labor (probably by a white employer, given the historic context of the narrative). Imagine a white person refusing to pay a black person for labor during the Civil Rights Era! It is akin to a blatant pro-slavery statement. She has also experienced her white employer impeding upon her personal home-space, making condescending comments about the cleanliness, as if surprised that a black person could live so hygienically. Finally, she has experienced being given junk as donations, which expressed a judgment of her own worth and value. Today, many foster care agencies and donation centers for the poor weed out well-meant but extremely offensive “junk” donations in order to prevent the very degradation and humiliation Mrs. Cain felt at being given trash as treasures.
Understanding historical context is imperative to comprehending the significance of the Cains’ farm in contrast to their previous homes. During the Civil Rights Movement, although American culture was making great strides in abolishing discrimination and restoring basic rights to black people, many experienced the plight of being imposed upon and/or persecuted by white society, just as Mrs. Cain experienced. In the minds of some white people, equality meant forced cultural assimilation of minority groups. In other words, black people were pressured to strive to adopt “white identity” as much as possible in order to achieve true equality. In the minds of other white individuals and factions, equality was something to grit their teeth against and resist, whether passively or with violence—hence the continuation of the KKK and the assassinations of black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Fred Hampton. The Black Power Movement that grew in popularity between the 1960s and 70s recognized that both mindsets about equality—desegregation as cultural assimilation and resistance to desegregation—were predicated upon the continuance of white power structures in society. They sought to tear down these power structures and unite with the aims of maintaining cultural identity and becoming self-sufficient and empowered. When looking upon the movement retrospectively, is important to remember that for many black people and persecuted groups, becoming empowered was a matter of survival of culture and family.
In “Blues Ain’t No Mockingbird,” the self-sufficiency of the farm is addressed by a white cameraman who is filming the rural South for a food stamp campaign. As he is trespassing on her farm, he has the gall to poke into the family’s personal economics by inquiring whether or not Mrs. Cain “knows about food stamps.” The inquiry drips with resentment in tone. First, it is likely she would know about food stamps, as Martin Luther King Jr. had advocated for food stamp programs to feed the large population of impoverished black people around the nation, and second, to the knowledge of the cameraman, Mrs. Cain had been one of many struggling to make enough to gain complete independence. The cameraman furthers his insolence by asking for a statement: “Maybe there’s somethin you want to say for the film. I see you grow your own vegetables....If more folks did that, see, there’d be no need—” Given context, it is likely this sentence would have been finished with the phrase “for food stamps.” The filmmakers’ reason for stalking the farm may have been in support of the food stamp campaign, as they said. They may have simply been pushy for the sake of the story their cameras could tell on behalf of this benevolent agenda. However, readers may more likely surmise (given the questions and the tone used) that the filmmakers’ “food stamp campaign” may not be so much for the use of food stamps, but against the continued necessity of them. In showing the self-sufficiency of the farm, perhaps they meant to disprove the necessity of food stamps among the black population in the rural South.
This moment of interaction with the cameraman, and the other moments of interaction with the film crew throughout the story, show that the new home is similar to previous homes in that white people continue to impose upon the personal boundaries of the family and to treat them with disrespect. It is not until Mr. Cain demonstrates violence in killing the hawk and crushing the camera that the white camera crew begins to treat the black family with respect:
When Granddaddy’s other hand flies up like a sudden and gentle bird, slaps down fast on top of the camera and lifts off half like it was a calabash cut for sharing.
“Hey,” Camera jumps forward. He gathers up the parts into his chest and everything unrollin and fallin all over. “Whatcha tryin todo? You’ll ruin the film.”
He looks down into his chest of metal reels and things like he’s protectin a kitten from the cold. “You standin in the misses’ flower bed,” say Granddaddy. “This is our own place.”
The two men look at him, then at each other, then back at the mess in the camera man’s chest, and they just back off.
Hawks are known for their acute vision; like the camera that Mr. Cain crushes, the hawks have trespassed on the Cain family’s sanctuary. The presence of the “vision” symbols reflects the struggle to preserve and empower black identity during the era. Many had to struggle against how white people viewed them, as well as the way white people thought they should be seen. Also like these birds of prey, the cameramen mean to “pick away” at the family, just as some white people after the Civil Rights Era persisted to harass, take advantage of, and persecute this minority group. This scene symbolically demonstrates the perspective of the Black Power Movement, that when the “hawks” or trespassing cameras refuse to back off, a demonstration of power may be required to remove them.