When I returned to Alabama over a decade ago to start the project that has become Alabama Chanin, I had NO IDEA that this simple project would surround me with stories of cotton, mill work, and, quite honestly, the history of the small community where I grew up. This blog is proof to the fact that I am STILL learning – each and every day.
While researching the post about Sweetwater Mills and reading William McDonald’s books a few weeks back, I came across Rick Bragg’s book, The Most They Ever Had. As an avid reader and, quite honestly, a Rick Bragg fan, I was surprised that I’d never read this book before. I have followed his work for years: from Anniston, Alabama, to The New York Times, through all the novels, the Pulitzer, to the controversy surrounding his departure from the Times. (Full disclosure, I know some of the parties attached to The New York Times scandal and have a few thoughts on that myself – we will save that for a later day or a face-to-face conversation.)
I have said – and written – over and over again that if you don’t read any Southern Literature (yes capital letters), read the introduction to All over but the Shoutin’. Bragg writes about a south that I feel in my bones and describes moments that I feel played out in and around my community. It gave me words to describe my thoughts about the ugly problems of race in my own past. (“Hunger knows no color.”) I didn’t grow up hungry. I grew up hungry for knowledge. Rick Bragg grew up with both.
The Most They Ever Had is a love song. It is a love song to the American worker – played out in an Alabama mill.
When I started “working cotton,” I met so many women, so many hands that had worked textile plants: fingers that ran sewing machines, arms that lifted boxes and ran dyeing equipment. I was surrounded by tales and laughter about what seemed to be a “better time,” a time when everyone worked, paychecks rolled in, and the night shift was seen as just a part of living. I heard over-and-over again how “those people were my family,” or, “Everything I learned worth knowing was learned in that plant.”
My years of schooling, working, growing – they all helped me to hone my skills in making and manipulating fabric. Rick Bragg knows how to make and manipulate stories. And these stories he has collected and told about the Alabama mill are so important to the very fabric of our nation AND my community.
The very first chapter, titled “The Choice,” dives right into the deep end of the matter:
“The mill had become almost a living thing here, rewarding the hard working and careful with a means of survival but punishing the careless and clumsy, taking a finger, a hand, more. It was here before the automobile, before the flying machine, and its giant, coal-fired generators lit up the evening sky with the first electricity they ever saw. It roared across generations, and they served it even as it filled their lungs with lint and shortened their lives. In return, the mill let them live in stiff-necked dignity, right here, in the hills of their fathers. So, when death did come, to the red-dirt driveways, mobile homes, and little mill village houses, no one had to ship their bodies home on a train.”
Page after page of my copy are marked up in a fine pencil. I am the kind of person who USES a book. The pages are dog-eared. Words are underlined:
“Outsiders like to talk about the working people of the Deep South in clichés, like to say their lives are consumed by football, stock car racing, stump jumping, and a whole lot of violent history. But it is work that defines them. You hear it under every shade tree, at every dinner on the ground, whole conversations about timber cut, post holes dug, transmissions pulled…”
“The women are tougher, still. They know how to compress time, how to work a twelve-hour shift, cook a good supper, run a sewing machine, sing to the baby, ghost-write homework, go to choir practice and the Food Outlet, pick an armload of tomatoes from their own vines, and watch General Hospital at 9 p.m., on the VCR. They eat supper as early as 5 p.m. and are in bed by 10 p.m.–because at 4 a.m. they have to wake up and do it all over again.”
“It is the work that makes them, holds them up. They like the fact that they can measure it, see yarn filling up spools, see how perfect it is. They would hate, most of them, sitting at an office keyboard, moving phantom money around on a computer screen, then glad-handing a boss with a real Rolex and a phony smile. On the mill floor, you never stopped to glad-hand—the machines would stall, and the chains of production would break.”
Like many of the women who have come through our company, Bragg’s book tells a similar story:
“’I got on September 20, 1974,’ said Smiley Sams. ‘I quit school when I was sixteen, and Momma said I could either go back to school or I could go to work. Momma worked here. I got nine brothers and sisters, and all but one worked here. I’ve never even filled out an application. This is all I’ve ever done.’
He took his place on a line of machines that had spun enough yarn to tie the moon and earth together with one long, uninterrupted cotton string, on a floor worn smooth by people named Hop, Bunk, Chee, Slate Rock, Squirrely, Dago, Jutt, Hook, Kitty, Boss, Elk, Lefty, Possum, Sam Hill, Pot Likker, The Sandwich Thief, and the Clinker Man.”
These were people who lived for and by their work… like their people before them. As I write this blog post, I feel the urge to quote on and on.
“The modern-day workers, whose ancestors labored to stave off deprivation, made ten dollars an hour, elven dollars, more, and bought modest houses, bass boats, and above-ground swimming pools. The mill here, like others around the country, became safer, cleaner, better ventilated. A job that had once carried a social stigma—lintheads, people called them—now carried a rock-solid respectability. And the thing the mill workers never could explain to better-off people was, it always had.
But human dignity, in a global economy, is just one more cost to cut. Long before the economic meltdown of 2008, the age of the textile worker was coming to an end.
In 1991, an American trade journal ran this advertisement:
Rosa Martinez produces apparel for U.S. markets on her sewing machine in El Salvador. You can hire her for thirty-three cents an hour.”
Reading Bragg’s love song to the American mill worker makes me cry, and laugh, and sigh. But, at the same time it inspires me to maintain Alabama Chanin’s commitment to being grown-to-sewn in America. As I have said over a hundred times, it’s not because I am against outsourcing… it’s because I am for insourcing where we CAN. I choose this. It is a choice.
Rick Bragg—author, activist, Pulitzer prizewinner, and sometimes controversial public figure— whether he knows it or not, a part of the heart and soul of Alabama Chanin.
The Most They Ever Had, by Rick Bragg
P.S.: We have an extra copy of this book. Leave us a comment by Saturday, March 24th, 12 midnight, about a mill (or the absence of a mill) in your life for a chance to win this copy. We will put the best stories in a hat, draw a name randomly, and announce a winner in next Monday’s post – March 26th, 2012.
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Matthew B. Crawford
The Craftsman, by Richard Sennett
What Are People For? by Wendell Berry