Around the Press in 80 Books: We Just Keep Running the Line

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Managing Editor Lee Sioles writes about We Just Keep Running the Line: Black Southern Women and the Poultry Processing Industry.

GrayLINE_jktfront(HR)The poultry processing industry in El Dorado, Arkansas, was the largest employer in the region in the latter half of the twentieth century. We Just Keep Running the Line is the story of the labor force—composed primarily of black women—upon which this powerful industry relied.

Men took the better jobs in the area, driving women into more dangerous and labor-intensive work like poultry processing. Author LaGuana Gray details the disgusting and demeaning conditions for those doing line work in the plants—the inhuman pace, extreme temperatures, and physical dangers—and the callousness of company supervisors, whose control over their mostly black, mostly female workforce was absolute. Using collected oral histories, Gray explores the physical and psychological toll this work took on black women, and analyzes their survival strategies and their fight to retain their humanity and care for their families.

I admire this book for its intelligent, dispassionate writing and thorough research—but I’m also moved by its origins in something highly personal: The author’s mother was a poultry processing worker in Arkansas. Gray tells us that her mother was “noncommittal” about her job, saying “chickens will feed and clothe you.” But she washed her clothes separately from those of the rest of the family and endured “chicken rashes” and boils from repeated exposure to toxins. Many workers quit the chicken plants within a few days, but Gray’s mother worked there for 23 years.  She didn’t complain—but refused to let her daughters take summer jobs at the plants, saying “You don’t need to work there.”  Instead, LaGuana Gray­ grew up to be a scholar and to write what has been called “a jewel of a labor history” and “one of the most significant works to appear on the lives of the nearly invisible world of poultry workers of South Arkansas.”

We Just Keep Running the Line received a “highly recommended” review in the April 2015 issue of CHOICE.

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