Academic journal article Southern Cultures

To Know Tobacco: Southern Identity in China in the Jim Crow Era

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

To Know Tobacco: Southern Identity in China in the Jim Crow Era

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Go to one of the tobacco areas in North Carolina or Virginia today and you will still find a large number of people who, as the saying goes, "know tobacco." That is, you will encounter people who grew up in close proximity to multiple stages of tobacco production: a great many tended it on the farm when young, learned to cure it, and then brought it for sale in the tobacco markets. Some came to cities like Winston-Salem, Durham, Reidsville, Petersburg, or Richmond to work in factories producing cigarettes or other tobacco products. Some learned to grade tobacco so they could work in the markets; others became skilled at maintaining cigarette machines. Virtually all had at one time, and maybe over their entire lives, smoked cigarettes or chewed tobacco or both. They know a lot about tobacco: how it grows, when it needs to be hoed, topped, and suckered, and what pests threaten it; what the different types of leaf look and feel like when cured; how much it has brought on the market over the years; how it smells when it is being processed or smoked; how it feels to pull the smoke deeply into the lungs. "Knowing tobacco" was more than the sum of these facts and experiences; it was a shared way of life that formed the weft for southern culture in tobacco regions. Tobacco was their livelihood, and it wove through the fabric of their days.

This way of knowing is passing away now, as the tobacco industry declines in the United States. Its health risks undeniable, smoking no longer seems like a simple pleasure for a regular guy or a glamorous pleasure for a movie star. The "golden weed" has ceased to yield its magic gold for the people of the upper South, though multinational tobacco corporations continue to reap huge profits in overseas markets. But this way of knowing tobacco was prevalent for generations, and it is part of why, when the cigarette industry globalized in the early twentieth century, southern identity became central to global capitalism in China. The transnational industry incorporated southern networks when hiring U.S. employees to work in China, and southern identity became a grounding in China for a new transnational business culture. Globalization required new identities and new ways of relating, and one of the greatest resources for building these was deeply held, complex local knowledge, like knowing tobacco.

James A. Thomas was one person who knew tobacco and dedicated his life's work to promoting it globally. He was born on a tobacco farm near Reidsville, North Carolina, in 1862 and spent his life building the transnational tobacco industry, particularly during his nearly twenty-year stint as the head of operations for the China branch of the British American Tobacco company (BAT) beginning in 1905. He hired hundreds of young white men from Virginia and North Carolina to come to China as well, first to market imported cigarettes made largely in the upper South and soon to build a parallel system of production, from growing American seed tobacco in Chinese fields, to curing the leaf, to producing cigarettes, packaging, and advertising. These men gained crucial opportunities that gave them a foothold on middle-class status. Such jobs were stepping stones to business positions at home in tobacco, advertising, or other fields. In addition, some men made a career in China, rising to management or executive positions in BAT.

The southerners who built BAT China occupied a nexus of contradictions in globalization. They gained lucrative and adventurous opportunities in a modern and growing corporate capitalist venture while development of their tobacco-based hometowns largely suffered from the same transition. They built a successful company that directed profits from their labor to the northern United States and England. After 1890 corporate capitalism replaced nineteenth-century proprietary capitalism. Companies owned and managed by local individuals, partnerships, or small groups could not compete with the corporate capitalist model, which divided ownership and management, raised greater amounts of capital through stockholders, reduced risks, and engaged in larger-scale endeavors. …

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