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We Just Keep Running the Line

Black Southern Women and the Poultry Processing Industry

288 pages / 5.50 x 8.50 inches / no illustrations

ebook available

Southern History | African-American History | Regional Studies

  Hardcover / 9780807157688 / November 2014

Winner of the J. G. Ragsdale Book Award

The poultry processing industry in El Dorado, Arkansas, was an economic powerhouse in the latter half of the twentieth century. It was the largest employer in the interconnected region of South Arkansas and North Louisiana surrounding El Dorado, and the fates of many related companies and farms depended on its continued financial success. We Just Keep Running the Line is the story of the rise of the poultry processing industry in El Dorado and the labor force—composed primarily of black women—upon which it came to rely.
At a time when agricultural jobs were in decline and Louisiana stood at the forefront of rising anti-welfare sentiment, much of the work available in the area went to men, driving women into less attractive, labor-intensive jobs. LaGuana Gray argues that the justification for placing African American women in the lowest-paying and most dangerous of these jobs, like poultry processing, derives from longstanding mischaracterizations of black women by those in power. In evaluating the perception of black women as “less” than white women—less feminine, less moral, less deserving of social assistance, and less invested in their families’ and communities’ well-being—Gray illuminates the often-exploitative nature of southern labor, the growth of the agribusiness model of food production, and the role of women of color in such food industries.
Using collected oral histories to allow marginalized women of color to tell their own stories and to contest and reshape narratives commonly used against them, We Just Keep Running the Line explores the physical and psychological toll this work took on black women, analyzing their survival strategies and their fight to retain their humanity in an exploitative industry.

LaGuana Gray is a historian who specializes in the study of African American women’s lives and labors. She is assistant professor in the Department of History and the Honors College at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Praise for We Just Keep Running the Line

“In this compelling, if at times horrifying, examination of the evolution of the modern poultry processing industry, Gray (Univ. of Texas, San Antonio) provides a convincing account of what the intersectionality of race, class, and gender really looks like on the plant floor. . . . [A] fine contribution to US labor history. . . . Highly recommended.”—CHOICE

“Personal testimony and meticulous archival research showcase the power of voice in LaGuana Gray’s We Just Keep Running the Line.”—Times Higher Education

“A detailed, yet concise, history of the southern poultry industry and the dangerous, exploitative conditions inflicted on workers. . . . 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.”—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“In all, this book achieves its goal, and Gray gives voice to the black women employees of the poultry processing industry. This significant contribution to the dialogue of gender, race, class, and agriculture rehumanizes a marginalized and exploited population of the agriculture industry. In the conclusion, Gray writes humbly and hopefully that she ‘can give these women just a small bit of what they gave to [her]’ (161). She has, and this research can inspire more of the same.”—Rural Sociology

“As one of the few scholarly historical studies to date on this subject, We Just Keep Running the Line is most insightful for understanding the rise and success of the poultry industry in places like El Dorado, Arkansas, and across the American South. Through original sources like numerous oral and written interviews, a survey, and personal family experience, the author effectively captures the extent of the brutality that black women poultry workers faced, as well as their responses.”—Journal of Southern History

“A stellar examination of women’s working conditions inside an important American industry. . . . This impeccably researched book will introduce an eager audience to the testimonies of these women.”—Journal of American History

“Gray walks a fine line between placing the workers of El Dorado and Bernice in context and attending to the particularities of their lives. Much of the study will ring tragically familiar to readers who know about racially motivated economic discrimination in general and industrialized agriculture in particular. . . . Using one specific area at one particular time to raise larger questions is an honored way of writing history, and one hopes that the words of the women of Bernice, Louisiana, and El Dorado, Arkansas, will continue to find their way into studies of southern workers.”—American Historical Review

“An important study. . . . We Just Keep Running the Line is a powerful story about the rise of the poultry industry and the experience of black southern women who worked and lived in its shadow. A very readable account, it will be of interest to a wide range of scholars working on the U.S. South, labor, agro-industrial development, and race and gender.”—Arkansas Historical Quarterly

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