Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry

By Peter Benson | Go to book overview

Preface

Never Reject Anything Human

TOBACCO GROWERS IN NORTH CAROLINA and workers on the farms let me into their lives when they didn’t need to. I’m deeply grateful for this hospitality and trust. Riding around in pickup trucks, hauling and heaving the tobacco, and wasting time in labor camps are truly some of the most fulfilling times of my life. To protect the identities of the growers and the workers with whom I spent my time, I must refrain from thanking individuals here. Except for historical references, all names used in this book are pseudonyms. Also, at the request of growers, I did not include any photographs of them or their farm operations.

My hope is that those folks who let me into their lives and left an enduring mark on me will read this book. Yet, this is not the entirely positive picture of tobacco agriculture that is found in museums or in other history books, or espoused and embraced in many tobacco households and communities. This fact is something that I will always struggle with. Writing this book has often been morally and emotionally difficult for me as a result. Several farm families in North Carolina are now like family to me. A key personal and scholarly problem in my work has been balancing a sympathetic and sensitive account of these folks with the reality of how tobacco agribusiness works.

“Never reject anything human” is what my graduate advisor, the anthropologist and physician Arthur Kleinman, told me when we discussed this challenging goal. The multinational tobacco industry, in its decision to maximize profits at the expense of so much that is human, also threatens the dignity and security of the people who work on tobacco farms, some of them more vulnerable than others. It’s very easy to blame growers for the serious problems that are part of this business, or tell a simple story about hypocrisy and exploitation on tobacco farms, which essentially rejects their humanity. Instead, I’ve tried to heed this admonition to be careful about all that is human by writing about the contexts and concrete processes that inform how growers see themselves and relate to others, as I take this proscription as a call to contextualize and contextualize again, to make sense of attitudes and actions that may, from an outside perspective, seem contradictory or even unethical.

The growers with whom I studied knew me and my background, the goals of my project, my position at an elite university, and my political inclinations. Part of why they let me into their lives, I believe, was

-xi-

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Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Foreword ix
  • Preface xi
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I- The Tobacco Industry, Public Health, and Agrarian Change 35
  • Chapter 1- Most Admired Company 37
  • Chapter 2- The Jungle 63
  • Chapter 3- Enemies of Tobacco 96
  • Part II- Innocence and Blame in American Society 133
  • Chapter 4- Good, Clean Tobacco 135
  • Chapter 5- El Campo 166
  • Chapter 6- Sorriness 210
  • Conclusion Reflections on the Tobacco Industry (and American Exceptionalism) 258
  • Bibliography 275
  • Index 307
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