LaGuana Gray’s book provides a detailed, yet concise, history of the southern poultry industry and the dangerous, exploitative conditions inflicted on workers. Focusing primarily on the ConAgra/Pilgrim’s Pride complex of processing facilities in El Dorado, Arkansas, [End Page 126] and a smaller set of plants located in nearby Farmerville, Louisiana, she traces the evolution of the industry from the post–World War II era to the closure of the El Dorado plant in 2009. Gray draws extensively on interviews with black women who worked in the plants for varying lengths of time during this period, supplemented with archival sources drawn from industry, union, and government records. Her case study builds on previous examinations of the industry by social scientists and journalists, adding a historical perspective that contextualizes its development as a continuation of regional employers’ long record of exploiting black labor.
Gray joins numerous other scholars in demonstrating that the racist oppression of African Americans continued well beyond the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Workers who were pushed off the plantations by the modernization of southern agriculture in this period had few options for employment, and the economic boosters who tried to address this problem by luring new industries to the South pointed to the existence of this desperate, docile pool of labor as a selling point. Policymakers also took active steps to limit workers’ options by regulating access to social-welfare services in ways that excluded or discouraged black families from receiving assistance. Consequently, Gray explains, most of her interviewees had no choice but to labor in the processing facilities under criminally harsh conditions. Along with the physical pain caused by long hours performing repetitive tasks at breakneck speeds in extreme temperatures, workers endured exposure to toxic chemicals and unsafe machinery that threatened their health and lives. Sexual harassment, limited break times, and verbal abuse from supervisors added to an atmosphere of dehumanization reminiscent of the slavery and Jim Crow eras. This point is made most powerfully in a segment where workers recount witnessing people being severely injured or killed on the job, punctuated repeatedly by the observation that the assembly line never stopped. At the same time, Gray notes the ways workers subtly and sometimes overtly fought mistreatment. By supporting each other at work, negotiating time off to care for family members, [End Page 127] and maintaining active connections to their communities, black female workers challenged employers’ conception of them as mere bodies to be valued only to the extent that they generated profits.
The book makes a useful contribution to the literature on economic and social developments in the late-twentieth-century South. Its skillful exposition of how race, class, and gender oppression intersect adds to its versatility and potential value for courses on a range of subjects. Although its most likely audience may be scholars and students of southern history, African American history, and labor history, anyone who is interested in the rise and impact of corporate food systems in the United States would benefit from the insights offered by the author and her interviewees. As Gray states, the stories told by these workers are a disturbing reminder that “Americans have their chicken in every pot but at an extraordinary cost to the people who produce them” (p. 42).
GRETA DE JONG is an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada–Reno. Her most recent book is Invisible Enemy: The African American Freedom Struggle after 1965 (2010).