The sweet life in the sugar fields

Chapter 6




In the wintertime I usually hitchhiked 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 conditions that were throwbacks to antebellum times.



The white landlord not only owns the sugar plantations, but also the houses of his black workers - 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 prices are 30% higher than in larger towns where the 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 $5000 a year which often must support a family of 6-10 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.



As a result, it was almost impossible to get to stay with the sugar workers around there as they were afraid of reprisals from the whites.



When I finally found a place and had gone to bed, I discovered that the rumor about me had already swept like lightning through town, for suddenly the door was torn open and a madman stuck the barrel of a gun in my stomach and chased me out into the cold winter night.



Later that night a poor widow, Virginia Pate, took pity on me and I was allowed to share a bed with five of her children in a shack far out in the swamps. It always gets cold in the morning when the stove goes out and since the children pulled the covers over themselves, I had to freeze the first night.



So the next morning the mother set to work repairing old quilts.



Together with her oldest son I went hunting in the swamps for armadillos and other edible things. Drinking water we got from the roof gutter.



Never will I forget her, and almost every year since I have been back to visit her. She was willing to defy the whites although, admittedly, she dared not sleep under the same roof as I, but slept in her sister's shack.