by Angela Steusse, author of Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South
This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Minneapolis. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on November 20th.
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Set in Mississippi, my new book, Scratching out a Living takes readers into the chicken processing plants and surrounding communities in the Deep South to explore how new Latinx migration is transforming the region. But I came upon this project—upon the South—quite accidentally.
I hadn’t worked there previously or been focused on food or workplace justice, though I had been interested immigrant communities’ political mobilization. More importantly, I was committed to collaborative research that could both help us better understand lived social problems andcontribute to addressing those conditions. Specifically, I was trained in activist research at a time when my mentors were beginning to build the case for politically engaged scholarship that was in conversation and explicit political alignment with those people most closely affected by—and actively organizing to change—the social problems under study.
The idea of an anthropology that could simultaneously shed light on relations of inequality and be used as a tool by marginalized communities seeking social justice led me into dialogue with a budding coalition of folks in rural Mississippi—immigrant and civil rights advocates, labor unions, faith leaders, employment justice attorneys, and poultry workers—grappling with questions of worker justice within the context of new Latinx immigration into the area’s chicken plants.
I began by spending a summer in Mississippi with them, asking how research might advance their work to help immigrant and U.S.-born poultry workers improve their wages, working conditions, and quality of life. I quickly realized that there were more obstacles than resources for organizing workers across the differences of race, language, and citizenship that divide them, and I spent the better part of the next six years there alongside a budding workers’ center, trying to understand, explain, and help poultry workers overcome those challenges to building their collective power. The book essentially tells this story.
The story begins with the founding of the poultry industry amid vast relations of racial inequality. I trace the entrance of African Americans into the plants, their history of struggle, and the industry’s recruitment of Latinx immigrant workers to gain greater control over the labor force. I consider the racialized reception of these newcomers and examine they myriad ways in which their presence in the plants has complicated efforts to organize workers. The story concludes with an exploration of the workers’ center’s efforts to bring workers into dialogue across difference. In the postscript I reflect upon my experiment in activist research, and I’ve been excited to see people are using it to talk with students about the promises and challenges of politically engaged methodologies.
Folks who are interested can watch a two-minute video trailer and learn more about the book at AngelaStuesse.com. There they will also find a free teaching guide. In addition to questions meant to stimulate synthesis, analysis, and reflection, the guide also contains a list of resources—films, art, and interactive websites—and ideas for action. It is my hope that readers’ engagement with the ideas in this book will lead them to explore further the challenges of immigration, race relations, labor exploitation, and community change, and to take action on these issues to make their campus, their city, their country, and our world a better place.
At this year’s meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Angela Stuesse will participate, along with politically engaged anthropologists Christen A. Smith and David Vine, in Activism and Anthropology: A Book Reading and Dialogue About Race, Immigration and War. To be held at the Minneapolis Central Library, this session will explore the connections between these authors’ recent books in order toidentify and build connections between #BlackLivesMatter, Black liberation struggles in Brazil, labor organizing in the U.S. South, immigrant justice, and the anti-war movement.
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