The sugar fields

Book pages 32-33

In the wintertime I usually hung around in the deepest Southern states and at Christmas one year I ended up in the sugar cane plantations of Louisiana. While I had perceived slavery in North Carolina's tobacco fields as primarily a state of mind, I was here shocked to find purely feudal or serf like conditions.

The white landlord not only owns the sugar plantations, but also the houses which his black workers inhabit - usually located in a little cluster around his big plantation home exactly as in slavery times. In addition he owns almost everything else in the small villages - including the only store which is called the company store"

Here the prices are 30% higher than in the bigger towns where the poor sugar cane workers cannot afford to go, and where, incidentally, they often cannot read the street signs as many of them are illiterate. Their average income is around $3,000 a year, which in most cases must support a family of six to ten persons.

In order to survive, the workers start borrowing money from the landlord and soon fall into constant debt to him. Usually they do not pay with cash in his stores, but get further credit and are in this way slowly pushed into economic bondage.

People who do not receive wages for their work, but only food and housing, can in my opinion only be called slaves, for when they fall into such a vicious circle, they are, as a matter of fact, owned by the landlord since they cannot leave his plantation before they have paid off their debt, which can only happen by a miracle.

When New Orleans newspapers ran a series of articles about this feudalism right outside the city, with sentimental stories about how the children in the sugar plantations only got to taste an orange once a year at Christmas, a tear jerking, conscience-easing campaign was started to send the kids Christmas gifts. And the dental students arranged free dental buses when it was disclosed that they had never had money to go to a dentist.

I later found out, however, that others had made efforts to organize these slave workers. A white Catholic priest related how he had to hold secret meetings with the blacks in pig pens, as they were constantly shot at by the landlords, and how impossible it is to organize them, because they are afraid of losing the little they have and because they still remember an earlier insurrection in the 1930's in which thirty of them were killed. Although this most likely had passed into history for the whites, I soon discovered everywhere in the black community that a slave remembers for generations.


Copyright 2005 AMERICAN PICTURES; All rights reserved.


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