When I was in high school, cigarettes were smoked by campfires at parties under cold stars and Carolina pines. Cigarettes were smoked by gas station attendants who lingered outside low structures off country roads and spoke to you in slow, soft drawls. Durham residents recognize cigarettes as part of North Carolina.
Tobacco money built Duke University and funded the growth of our small city. Yet I never thought much about the fields of the yellow-green plant until leaving Durham to spend two weeks in Newton Grove, North Carolina. In Newton Grove I realized the full significance of the plant within southern society. As I became acquainted with the tobacco fields, I entered the spaces of the Latino farmhands who worked, sang, and suffered in the fields. I came to see that the plantation-era mentality and hierarchy in the agricultural structures of North Carolina has continued over 150 years after slavery. Migrant farmworkers lack adequate housing, wages sufficient to purchase nutritious food and satisfy needs, and proper safety equipment and medical care. In Newton Grove I was confronted with the reality of the absences and inadequacies migrant farmworkers face, but it was the seemingly small and insignificant absence of a pair of gloves that compelled me to understand the depth of the injustice lived by farmworkers in North Carolina tobacco fields. The southern imaginary of an idyllic antebellum plantation past obscures the reality of tobacco production in rural areas of North Carolina such as Newton Grove, where conditions for undocumented workers laboring in tobacco fields resemble those that were endured by enslaved people in the pre-Civil War period.
I became aware of the migrant field laborers’ conditions through a conversation with a priest in Newton Grove, during which he asked for the donation of gloves. I was on an end-of-year school trip with my class doing volunteer service at the local Spanish-speaking church. When a teacher asked how the school could be helpful, the priest told us that what his congregation needed most at that moment were work gloves. He explained that a few weeks prior, a tobacco picker who could not afford gloves had gone into the fields and worked all day in the sun. The tobacco leaves slowly but steadily left traces of nicotine on his skin and his bloodstream absorbed it. He became agitated and nauseous and tried to rest, but it was too late; the nicotine poisoning was so severe that he lost control of his senses. His body was burning with pain, and he stripped off his clothes as he began to convulse. Because he was undocumented, the other workers were afraid to take him to the hospital, but eventually they took him from the fields to get medical assistance. This story astonished me. I couldn’t believe that in the twenty-first century, agricultural workers in North Carolina were laboring from sunup to sundown, and were not earning enough money to buy work gloves.
Moreover, I could dismiss the discomfiting presence of the slave quarters by thinking of the hierarchy of southern plantation labor as a system of the past.
The year before going to Newton Grove, I visited the seemingly idyllic Monticello historic site. Like many visitors, I was taken by the imaginary of beautiful old plantations. I was charmed with the aesthetic appeal of the architecture of Thomas Jefferson’s mansion and surrounding estate—in particular the glory and elegance of the tall white columns of the big house removed from the slave quarters. Moreover, I could dismiss the discomfiting presence of the slave quarters by thinking of the hierarchy of southern plantation labor as a system of the past.
Learning of the undocumented tobacco picker’s nicotine poisoning disturbed my notions of the beauty of the places and spaces produced by an agricultural system reliant on free or cheap labor. On average farmworkers only bring in an annual income of $11,000, which is nearly $1,000 below the poverty line. Almost half of all North Carolina farmworkers cannot afford enough food for to feed themselves and their families. Entering a community that lived this reality caused me to realize that the exploitative southern plantation agricultural system does not just operate in the past.
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture asserts on their website that “Tobacco has always been an important part of North Carolina’s economy and a vital crop to our producers.” Tobacco became an agricultural crop in North Carolina as early as 1663, when farmers moved south from Virginia and discovered the plant was suited to the dry, sandy soil of the Piedmont. However, the crop’s popularity grew the most in the decades before the Civil War. In 1839 in Caswell County—just forty miles north of Durham—an enslaved man named Stephen accidentally cured the first Bright Leaf tobacco. Stephen’s discovery made his master wealthy and laid the foundation for the Duke and Reynolds’s family fortunes. Profits from tobacco picked by enslaved people like Stephen lined the pockets of plantation owners and expanded the North Carolina economy based on a system dependent on free and cheap labor. A rigid caste system in southern society that kept black workers poor and intimidated to speak out continued well after slavery ended through practices such as sharecropping, in which workers rented farmland from landowners at prices that sustained a cycle of debt and poverty.
The shacks provided by the farm owners bore a painful resemblance to the slave quarters of antebellum plantations. The hierarchy of plantation agriculture clearly still existed in and around the tobacco fields of that region.
Today, tobacco production in North Carolina relies similarly on the exploitation of a vulnerable labor force: undocumented Latino immigrant and migrant workers. Agricultural employers may take identification, green cards, or other valuable items, and withhold access as long as they wish workers to continue laboring on their farms. Essentially, workers may be trapped under indentured servitude or slave-like conditions. Undocumented farmworkers are unable to report wage theft, harassment, or assault to police as they will most likely be deported for contacting any authorities. They are exempt from minimum wage laws and basic labor standards such as overtime provisions. The undocumented workers I met in Newton Grove slept in small one-room shacks with cockroaches scuttling across peeling linoleum floors. The workers asked us for sheets and blankets. They were sleeping on the bare mattresses, which could easily have been infested with bugs, because they could not afford to buy bedding on wages that fell far below minimum wage. The shacks provided by the farm owners bore a painful resemblance to the slave quarters of antebellum plantations. The hierarchy of plantation agriculture clearly still existed in and around the tobacco fields of that region.
Before visiting the tobacco fields of Newton Grove, I only knew tobacco through the presence of cigarettes and the tobacco wealth that had flooded into the hands of powerful white people in Durham. The idyllic image of North Carolina’s plantation past lingered in me. The dramatic scenery of Monticello and Gone with the Wind gave me an imaginary of the plantation and the lifestyle it represented as romantic and honorable. I considered any qualms with the brutal exploitation of farm laborers to be safely in the past, allowing me to consume the reproduction of this imaginary without guilt. Hearing the story of a farmworker’s lack of work gloves changed all this for me. Undocumented migrant workers labor on agricultural estates bearing eerie resemblances to the plantations of the past. Living in squalid conditions, laboring for less than minimum wage and without protection from abuse and overwork, many farm workers in North Carolina continue to endure the brutality of a system that has changed but not totally transformed since the end of slavery in the South.
Naomi B. Carbrey
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