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

By Peter Benson | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
Sorriness

A COMMON JOKE is TOLD among white North Carolinian tobacco growers at the country store, farm meetings, the gas pump, and, in the past, the tobacco warehouses where their cash crop was sold. It goes like this:

A tobacco farmer is at the warehouse, waiting to sell his tobacco. He
walks the rows of tobacco to see how his bales were graded. One bale
got the grade N1GR. He turns to a group of farmers chatting, waiting
for the auction’s start, and says, “My tobacco is so damn sorry that
they wrote nigger on it.”

During my fieldwork, I heard this joke dozens of times. Amid variations and elaborations, two words remain the same: sorry and nigger. This twinning is the joke’s gist, its laughter-crowded, easy hostility. The auction system involved more than a hundred standardized government grades. Tobacco leaf was distinguished by a government grader according to such characteristics as color and texture. N1GR was nearly the lowest grade a bale could receive.

The grader would write N1GR on any bale that was of such poor quality that it was barely recognizable as tobacco: disheveled, discolored, dirty, perhaps moldy or rotten. The joke’s punch line is that this grade graphically resembles the racial epithet. The joke plays on this resemblance to associate sorriness, meaning low human value, with African American farmers and workers.

One possible reading of the joke is that it converts a potential moral hazard (the grower’s sorry tobacco might say something about him) into the essential property of the tobacco itself, which embodies the labor of the racialized farm labor workforce. In claiming rightful ownership of the tobacco, thereby alienating this labor, the joking grower also takes distance from it, insinuating that even he is the victim of the niggardly ways of workers that put him in this precarious position. Not blaming the grader for the low grade, the joke actually implies an affinity—the grader got it right, yes, the tobacco is so damn sorry—a kind of collusion among white men who seem burdened by having to deal with sorriness and empowered with the visual powers of objectification and evaluation.

This explanation is appealing, although it misses much of the nuance of what sorriness means and why it matters, and how multiple layers of

-210-

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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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