- We Just Keep Running the Line: Black Southern Women and the Poultry Processing Industry by LaGuana Gray
The idea of activism and resistance during the twentieth century in the United States has traditionally been viewed through images of grassroots civil rights organizations marching in the streets or the Black Panther Party bearing arms during the height of the Black Power Movement. In We Just Keep Running the Line: Black Southern Women and the Poultry Processing Industry, LaGuana Gray presents a different outlook on activism and resistance. Her book provides a historical perspective on the role African American women played in building the chicken-processing industry. She argues that this history has been omitted due to the fact that, historically, scholars and researchers have focused on the experiences of immigrants and men working in factories. Therefore, her research uncovers new history by understanding the experiences of these women from the mid-1950s until the early 2000s. Furthermore, her project challenges racial myths about African American women as lazy, docile, and promiscuous, as well as bad mothers.
Gray’s book opens up with her personal connection to the topic through her mother’s and brother’s backgrounds working in the poultry industry. Gray recounts her mother laboring as an employee in the processing plant in the northern region of Louisiana until she retired. As a result, Gray became interested in understanding the struggles and sacrifices of African Americans who worked in poultry (17). She specifically focuses on providing a historical timeline of the creation of the poultry industry and its impact on African American women. Gray insists that poultry-processing plants ascended after the decline of the oil and lumber industries in the rustic areas of southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. To attract businesses to replace these waning industries, local and state government officials, as well as boosters, courted companies with promises of a low-salaried, unskilled workforce (36). Due to socioeconomic conditions that women were facing in their communities, such as the lack of a formal education and the absence of living-wage jobs, they took employment in the factories that moved to the region. These conditions led women to be economically marginalized and open to exploitation, similar to what one would have seen on a slave plantation (36). Furthermore, Gray discusses the role that policies enacted by Southern white conservative politicians had on their economic state (51). [End Page 101]
The book explores the emotional and physical challenges many of these women endured due to racism, sexism, and economic exploitation. Gray’s research points out that long hours working on the line both negatively and positively affected the women’s relationships with their families and obligations to their communities. She expands on this topic by highlighting how African American women were active in their churches and school activities, which allowed them to bond with family members, especially with their children (69). Gray elucidates this topic by addressing how African American women viewed success as not based on their job performance but rather as parents. Gray argues that, despite the stresses of unfair treatment on the job, such as sexual harassment and lack of support from unions (79–81), African American women actively resisted the industry’s demands and Southern racial norms. She demonstrates that African American women working on the line found support systems in each other and had a sense of sisterhood and solidarity expressed through mutual encouragement, singing, and organizing (122). One of the organizing efforts was the development of relationships with grassroots organizations and churches like Interfaith Worker Justice and Poultry Justice Alliance, which aimed to address the inhumane treatment of employees in poultry-processing facilities and assist in pursuing lawsuits for discrimination (124).
Gray’s book gives a new view of the roles of African American women in labor and social history, as well as tells the story from the perspective of ordinary people. Her research gives a humanistic perspective of the lives of women whose stories have been elided. In five chapters, Gray demonstrates African...