Running the Line

[Content Note: Racism; misogyny; classism.]

Did y’all miss me?* Did you wonder what in the world has elle been doing all this time?

Amongst many things, I was writing a book! A now published book! And I am grateful to Liss for allowing me to share details about the book, my “other” baby for most of the 21st century.

I am from rural Louisiana, the daughter of working-class, processing plant workers. My daddy worked in a lumber (timber? I never know which one to use!) processing plant that made particle board. And my mama worked in a poultry processing plant. It was her life’s (paid) work that shaped the historian that I am—one who specializes in African American, southern, women’s and labor history.

My book, entitled We Just Keep Running the Line: Black Southern Women and the Poultry Processing Industry, is a much-revised, edited, and expanded version of my dissertation. It is about black women from rural North Louisiana who worked in poultry processing in the South Arkansas/North Louisiana region. I wanted to write a history of the industry that explored the lives and labors of the black women who worked the lines inside the plants. Why did they go into that work? I wondered. And how in the world did they stay?

I had learned, over the course of my life, that we were to be unquestioningly grateful for the industry. If it weren’t for the plant owners’ generous act of establishing their companies in our desperate, desolate home areas, whatever would we do? We should, in our thinking, maximize the benefits and minimize the costs. But that couldn’t work for me—my mother, my aunts, my neighbors, my friends’ parents weren’t just nameless parts of a big poultry processing machine. They were human beings who worked and parented and negotiated and lost and triumphed and lived. My book is about them.

At the heart of my book are a set of oral histories/interviews with poultry processing workers and those closest to them. These are the stories I treasured, that I wanted to share, that helped me in obvious ways academically and professionally, but more significantly, that helped me in understanding who I am and the people and region from which I come. Following is an excerpt in which I try to explain why I wrote this book and, more importantly, why I wrote it the way that I did. It is, indeed, part business history. But, in the intimate look it gives into so many lives, it is so much more.

Even though the benefits to the community had been more visible to me than the costs, I was cognizant of its costs on a personal level. Money made from poultry processing helped keep me clothed, sheltered, and fed, allowed me the room to explore my interests via financial support from my mama, kept me afloat when I went away to Louisiana’s premiere boarding school. Most significantly, my undergraduate education was financed by a four-year, full scholarship sponsored by Con Agra. Only as I was older could I see the costs, the disheartening comparisons. I had to reflect on all the nice clothes I was careful to keep separate from my mother’s which bore the indescribable smell of freshly-slaughtered meat; my carefully manicured fingers that sometimes had to rub my mother’s aching and swollen ones; the fact that, in terms of paid work, I have largely been able to do what I love to do because Mama did what she had to do. I wanted to learn more about the costs to her and women like her, how they felt about their work, their lives, their sacrifices. I wanted to make those costs visible in the same ways that the benefits and our ongoing, obedient gratitude to the poultry industry were.

My desires were bolstered when I approached veteran poultry processing worker Janet Strong about this project ‘Somebody should write about this,’ she told me, ‘Should help us. Should tell somebody what they do to us.’ But before this ‘somebody’ could write about it, I had to collect and listen to the stories of women who had been connected to the industry. As numerous scholars have noted, such testimonies, ‘whether directly to the reader or through the offices of a collaborating writer,’** have been crucial in bringing the stories of marginalized groups into the center. Though she speaks of a different type of exploitation, Danielle McGuire argues that, ‘African American women reclaimed their bodies and their humanity by testifying…. [They] loudly resisted what Martin Luther King, Jr., called the ‘thingification’ of their humanity.’*** Over and over, the women with whom I spoke did just that—insisted that they were human, valuable, and worthy of decent treatment. In response to Janet Strong’s assertion that someone ‘[s]hould tell somebody what they do to us,’ my answer became that there was no better ‘somebody’ than the women themselves.
If you are interested in purchasing the book, it is available via Powell's as a hardcover and via Amazon and Barnes & Noble in hardcover and e-book format.


*I do realize that I have been away so long that many of you might not know me. Hello! I’m elle. I’m a professor, historian, feminist, mother, amateur cook, and angsty sort and I am so pleased to meet you! I also tend to write like an academic; forgive the footnotes, but I promise they contain good stuff!

** Kimberly Nance, Can Literature Promote Justice: Trauma Narrative in Latin American Testimonio (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006), 7; See also the works collected in George Guggleberger, ed., The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996); Anne Valk and Leslie Brown, eds., Living with Jim Crow: African American Women and Memories of the Segregated South (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010); Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf: 2010).

*** McGuire, xviii-xix.

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