April 2019

Beauty, Joy and Wellbeing: Rethinking Black Southern Women’s Agricultural Labor

We quickly learned the Lake Apopka women did not see their work as a job without prestige or power, or as essentially undesirable work. Instead, we heard raucous stories about the ways they earned status within their community from their work.

by Diedre Houchen and Mistinguette Smith

We goin’ on de muck.
Whut’s de muck, and where is it at?
Oh down in de Everglades round Clewiston and Belle Glade where dey raise all dat cane and string-beans and tomatuhs. Folks don’t do nothin’ down dere but make money and fun and foolishness. We must go dere.

Discussions of migrant agricultural labor in the U.S. South today evoke a common image: a Latino man perspiring at his labors on a large produce farm or ranch. We tell a story about him as someone driven by economic necessity to work far from his home. Exploited by wage theft and poor working conditions, he often endures these harms without recourse because of his undocumented status. 

Yet it would be a grave error to assume that this image captures the history and contributions of migrant agricultural laborers. The voices of African Americans, descendants of those who built U.S. agriculture, must be heard in any account of what it means to live and work land one does not own. The stories of Southern [WH1] African American women add a particular gendered geography to what it means to migrate for work, and to labor under conditions that breach human rights. Here, we relay the memories of seven African American women as they talk about agricultural work under the Florida sun.

We first encountered the farm workers of Lake Apopka through the frame of environmental racism. Lake Apopka was once Florida’s second largest lake, abundant with fish and avian life. In 1941, the Florida legislature subsidized drainage and dikes to open nineteen thousand acres of rich lake-bottom land, known as muck, to local farmers. “Almost overnight”, those farms began shipping fruits and vegetables across the county. In the 1970s, the EPA noted phosphorus contamination of the lake and the surrounding farms. By the 1990s it was revealed that the muck farms, and the agricultural workers who tended them, had been exposed to persistent organic pollutants, including aerial sprays of DDT and Difocol.[2] Although studies and restoration efforts have focused on the health of the lake and its animal life, no compensation has been provided to more than 2500 farmworkers and their families, who suffer with multiple chronic illnesses, disabilities, premature death, and the epigenetic impacts of pesticide poisoning.

But these women are more than objects of environmental racism. This frame, the plight of farmworkers who bear the brunt of environmental racism and hazardous workplace conditions, is factual, but also incomplete. The community itself has spoken about their experiences enduring farmworker injustices. Less represented in scholarship is their unmediated voice, moreover, their own contextualization and theorizing, from their particular place in the world, and as a community.

The Black/Land Project describes this practice as narrow framing: fixing attention on a single aspect of a community story and obscuring from view the rich context of the narrator.[3] By contrast, Hurston’s celebrated evocation of the interior lives of Black women muck farmers caused us to wonder: what other assumptions are embedded in this frame?

 We were privileged to learn from the women of Lake Apopka at a meeting arranged by Jeannie Economos, the Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Project Coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida. Jeannie hosted the gathering to introduce our research group and others to this farmworker community. Over the span of four hours, we listeners who had never farmed a day bore witness to collective knowledge of agricultural work that spanned a total fifty years.

The women agriculturists began telling their story in media res: describing the rhythmic, physical experience of stringing tobacco and being in love with the sensual joy of their own strength and accomplishment. Between them, the seven women had cultivated a wide range of crops and livestock –carrots, peas, cotton, tomatoes, poultry, cabbage, and more. But tobacco harvesting held especially fond memories. One could stand to string tobacco in the warm breeze, unlike the stooping or crouching required to plant, weed, or water other crops. Moreover, tobacco farming happened in groups where “you worked with somebody.”[4] It was fast paced, with the women stringing tobacco leaves by the bunch with dexterous hands. Together, they created a rhythm with which to move through work and across space. Quickness and skill were an entranceway to joy. The action of collective work moved them from the world of the mundane to mystery and meaning. 

Each of the women was born in Apopka, Florida or was brought to the region as children by their parents to facilitate migrating for work in the citrus groves and produce muck farms. Linda Lee, an agriculturalist[5] who worked in the Lake Apopka community for well over twenty years, shares her origin story: “My dad and them came out of Georgia. My momma is from Marianna, Florida. They were working in the labor camps there.  And they came on down [to Apopka, Florida].”[6]  

Fig. 1: Photo of Linda Lee, courtesy of Diedre Houchen.

One of the first assumptions their stories challenged was the idea that people who do low-wage, physically demanding agricultural work are “unskilled.” As the women of Lake Apopka brought us into their circle of stories, it became clear how complex the profession of farmworking is and how much skill is required to perform it. They spoke with confidence about their expertise to plant, tend, harvest, pack, and market crops as diverse as tobacco, carrots, peas and corn. Although the work itself was often grueling, their labor was also “wonderful because we had a good time doing it” as one woman said.[7] This pride and accomplishment at skillful work bound these agriculturalist women together, connecting them far more intimately than the shared experience of DDT poisoning.

We quickly learned the Lake Apopka women did not see their work as a job without prestige or power, or as essentially undesirable work. Instead, we heard raucous stories about the ways they earned status within their community from their work. Status was earned in two ways: through demonstrating the ability to complete harvests with efficiency and elegance, and through their ability to learn new agricultural skills. When speaking about livestock harvesting, Linda Lee reminded her co-workers around the table: “When we were working, y’all know we had to do a job right.” As her colleagues murmured their assent, another woman, Magaline Duncan elaborates, “If we had to pluck chickens, we got to get every piece of hair off them. We can’t sell nowhere with no hair on them.” Here, Duncan and Lee emphasize that their shared reputation for excellent poultry processing yielded both financial rewards and collective esteem within the farm worker community.

Learning to create an aesthetic presentation of a harvest was another source of individual honor as well as communal financial reward. Duncan described how an older, more skilled co-worker taught her to pack harvested corn in order maximize her per-box wage: “The old lady told me ‘come here, baby’ […] You rack ‘em, you stack ‘em in your back up. And I said ‘what is ‘rack ‘em?’ I ain’t knowed nothing about no corn. She said ‘don’t put all the layers in there. Put 3 across the back, 3 across the front.’  I didn’t put no super dry ears in a lot of them crates cause that’s the only way you were gonna[8] make your money right there.” This pride in quickly learning the many skills needed for packing corn- swiftness, well-weighted boxes, and elegant presentation- was both pride in delivering an excellent product, and a deep respect for intergenerational teaching. It is a pedagogy of collective agency, and, as Monica White notes, these “act(s) of building knowledge, skills, community and economic independence [have] radical potential.”[9] The women’s stories were not grievances about the low social status and physical difficulty of farm labor. They were proud of themselves and their work.

A frame that falsely conflates blackness with landlessness obscures the cultural context of the women of Lake Apopka. Like many southern African American families, these women were intergenerationally skilled agriculturalists: their work and their community life revolved around food production for two or more generations. Several women talked about being daughters of land-owning farmers who also earned cash income as laborers on white-owned farms. Lee told us, “My Dad and them bought they lands from them [white landowners]…daddy had farming in him for some reason.”[10]

When Lee describes her father’s agriculturalism as something “in him,” an intrinsic drive or calling, she gestures toward herself as part of a lineage in which agricultural labor is meaningful and of value unto itself, irrespective of whether one holds title to the land being worked. She esteems her own agrarian skills because they were learned from her father, a man with the determination to purchase his own farm from white landowners in the Jim Crow South, someone trusted as a leader to coordinate other seasonal agricultural work crews. For Lee, migrant farm work is part of a legacy of self-expression and leadership, transmitting freedom of movement and leadership as values. 

This new understanding of the circumstances of some migrant farm workers led us to question an assumption about migration: Did migrant workers travel to sell their labor because it is was the only way for their families to survive? To our surprise, other women told stories of parents who farmed their own land to raise both food and cash crops. “In Live Oak my family bought they land. They had a whole big area behind our house and across the freeway,” said Magaline Duncan.[11] “We used to grow our food. We didn’t buy stuff. We grew cane and we sold cane to help them pay they land off.”[12] As these conversations progressed, we noticed that itinerant labor performed for others was not esteemed differently from farming one’s own land. In the universe of the women of Lake Apopka, land ownership was less important than having command of a vast and intimate knowledge of how to cultivate, tend and harvest. This agriculturalist knowledge was the legacy that was most highly valued and passed on.

Joyful laughter is the last thing one might expect to hear from Black women describing the experience of agricultural labor, but peals of delight punctuated remembrances of the skillful, rhythmic work of a crew stringing tobacco. Betty Dubois started the conversation, describing the act of stringing tobacco in the field: “The handlers, they be able to pick the tobacco up faster for you to swing, you know, to string it. The faster you is, the better it is. Once you get started, you don’t want to stop!” she exclaimed. “You hit that string like that, and somebody’ll take it off, and you right back down. Sometime we do a whole barn. Sometime we two barns in one day. Some farms have did three barns in one day because of the crew that they had.” Another woman picks the discussion up: “I mean, I was young but I learned. I always been able to learn stuff, but I learned how to string that tobacco. Boy, I was in love with that.” Eloise Barnes carried this story into the gables of the ventilated tobacco sheds, where rods of strung tobacco hung curing on scaffolds. She notes: “There’d be a gentleman here, one there, one there” (gesturing to indicate increasing levels of height).  Sometimes we don’t have but two mens, and that’s a stretch on them. So, sometimes the lady have to get up on one of them. Somebody that’s not afraid and can.”[13]

Fig. 2: Geraldean Matthews (deceased) and Betty Dubois, courtesy of Diedre Houchen.

The strength and accomplishment of Black women’s agricultural labor is often narrated by everyone except Black women themselves. The antebellum and Jim Crow era white gaze understood the physical strength and endurance of Black women as mule-like; unskilled but persistent. Contemporary descriptions depict the experiences of women in a single-dimension, concerned with their feminine vulnerability or dehumanization. The co-existence of labor divided by “gentlemen” and “ladies” yet qualification ultimately being determined by fearlessness and ability, is a primary idea the women of Lake Apopka want us to know about their lives. They were women who were muscular enough to haul and pack 50- pound croaker sacks full of tobacco leaves, yet dainty enough to have a horror of hornworms. The unmediated voices of Black women agriculturalists offer an entirely different understanding of gender and farm labor. They describe the strength of a woman’s body as a source of power, pleasure and joy.

 Narratives around agricultural production are often framed as a discussion of the Other: outsourced, illegal, transient, undocumented, and in the case of African Americans, both assumed and invisible[WH2]. This framing focuses the oppressions enacted upon migrant workers as their defining characteristic; it flattens their stories and turns their lives into objects for use in political discourse. But in the rich sensemaking beyond that narrow frame, we found itinerant agricultural labor as an expression of collective power and agency, and as a location celebrating learning and cultural continuity. The intersection of race, class and gender that marginalized African American agriculturalists and made them targets for unredressed environmental racism was, at the same time, used by those workers to create a Black woman-affirming space of authority and agency.

Entering the circle of stories, the Lake Apopka women tell each other about their lives and work, sharply challenged our accepted notions about migration, farming and labor. Listening in community, and presupposing the narrative authority of the tellers, revealed the limitations of an analytic framework that renders migrant agricultural laborers as simple placeholders for notions about social and economic justice in political discourse. What, then, does the particular vantage of those laborers teach those of us who do not have this particularity and positionality about human experience?

We learned from the ways the women of Lake Apopka theorized their own experience that intersectionality is not a totalizing condition of oppression, but rather a complex experience wherein collective survival is made possible by artful displays of agency, even as their bodies and labor are exploited. We have come to question whether agricultural labor is merely a useful set of economic transactions that support capitalist constellations of hierarchies and domination, or whether it is immersion, a form of human meaning-making that passes through one’s hands; the collective creation of elegance and precision, work that “well done/has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.”[14]     

As scholars and activists engaged in imagining liberatory futures, perhaps the two most useful lessons from this exploration of Black women migrant agriculturalists in the South has been learning what could only be understood from being inside their circle of dialogue. First, that living lightly and transiently can be compelled by exploitation but also propelled by knowledge and respect for the generosity of fragile, fruitful land. Secondly, we are reminded that the shape of resistance lies not only in acts of political struggle, but in everyday communal acts of creating beauty, joy and well-being.

Diedre Houchen, Postdoctoral Associate, Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations, Levin College of Law, University of Florida. Diedre Houchen, Ph.D. is an award-winning researcher, educator, writer, speaker, and mother. Grounded in emancipatory educational theory, her current project focuses on historical and contemporary Black southern community life to suggest that southern Black communities—through schools, professional associations, informal networks, and parent organizations are and were complex sites of theoretical construction, organized resistance, and emancipatory strategizing for educational achievement and liberation. Her most recent work is a three-site exhibition focusing on the activism,  role, and strategies of Black educators and segregated all-Black K-12 institutions in Florida from 1920-1960.  

Mistinguette Smith, Executive Editor, Black/Land Project. When Mistinguette Smith began to notice that black people think and talk about their relationship to land and place quite differently from the ways mainstream institutions do, The Black/Land Project was born. As the Founder and Director of the Black/Land Project, she has travelled the country gathering black people’s stories about relationship to southern farmland, urban city-scapes, changing neighborhoods, and public green spaces since the fall of 2010.  Blending her literary ear as a poet and essayist with her professional knowledge of women’s health, food security, and leadership development for social equity, Smith turns the gift of individual stories into a body of information that engages and heals black communities. Smith is a skilled analyst, trainer and facilitator, and a masterful speaker who captivates both academic and community audiences.  A graduate of Smith College, she holds the MPA in Public and Nonprofit Management from New York University. She was the Twink Frey Visiting Social Activist at the University of Michigan Center for the Education of Women, and was named one of YES! magazine‘s “People We Love” in 2013. She currently lives in Massachusetts.

[1] Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1937), 95.

[2] Nolan Kline and Rachel Newcomb, “The Forgotten Farmworkers of Apopka, Florida: Prospects for Collaborative Research and Activism to Assist African American Former Farmworkers,” Anthropology and Humanism 38, no. 2 (2013): 160–76, https://doi.org/10.1111/anhu.12016; Reggie Connell, “Lake Apopka Emerging from ‘Dead Lake’ Stigma,” The Apopka Voice (blog), December 1, 2016, http://theapopkavoice.com/lake-apopka-emerging-dead-lake-stigma/; Dale Finley SlongWhite, Fed Up: The High Costs of Cheap Food (University Press of Florida, 2014); Barry Estabrook, “Of Money and Muck,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12, no. 1 (2012): 31.

[3] Smith, Mistinguette and Tavia Benjamin. “Transcending Historical Trauma” discussion session. Black/Land Project. Allied Media Conference, Detroit, June 22, 2013.

[4] Women of Lake Apopka Roundtable, Diedre Houchen, Apopka, Fl. May 3, 2017, 5.

[5] We use the term agriculturalist here with intention. For African Americans, working the land inevitably evokes generational memories of agricultural work tied to human bondage and economic exploitation.  At the same time, African-American’s agricultural labor is informed by a skillful blend of African and colonial agrarian knowledge that has been refined and transmitted by generations of practice.   In using the term agriculturalist, we acknowledge this legacy of discrimination and oppression as well as the intentional deployment of a legacy skill. 

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Monica M White, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 6.

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Marge Piercy, “To Be of Use,” in Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy (Alfred A. Knoph, 1982), https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57673/to-be-of-use.

1 comment on “Beauty, Joy and Wellbeing: Rethinking Black Southern Women’s Agricultural Labor

  1. Magnificent! A story that needs to be told. Their history and legacy lives on.


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