Plantation Portraits: Women of the Louisiana Cane Fields
By Tika Laudin
Vol. 6, No. 6, 1984, pp. 4-6
Jeanerette, formerly Kilgro and Hope Plantations.
I plant cane, cut grass, cut cane, hoe cane, pull grass out of cane, fertilize cane, spray cane, pull dirt to the cane for harvest for the following year. And I load cane onto the tractor and drive it out of the field. Anything the man can do, I do it.
I love the part where you just go ’round the rows, nobody lookin’ over your shoulder, out in the wide open fields, fresh air, doing your own work and seeing that it done right. After harvest is over, I enjoy looking forward to next year when it’s time to plant again.
I been working in the cane since I was sixteen years old. I’m forty-three now. I lived on Kilgro Plantation ’til ’59. It was way back in the country, out in the woods. Only thing I didn’t like, it was hard to get backwards and forwards to the nearest town. It was five miles away and we had to walk. (We didn’t have phones to call a taxi or anything.) Finally we made enough money that we could move to town.
My daddy likeded the cane work ’cause that’s all he knew. My mother likeded it ’cause it’s all she knew. They had twelve kids. When we got old enough, we persuaded them to better their situation in town.
Now I work at Hope plantation. They are very nice people to work for. Don’t give us any trouble. During grinding, that’s harvest time, they come to each person home, pick up their dinner, bring it out to the field.
I take work at 5:30 until 5:30 or six at night. Time pass by so fast. Seem like you hardly started and when you look up, the man on the headland be blinkin’ his light twice to let you know the tractors can stop.
I love field work. I really do. I rather field work than any other kind of work. It’s sloppy. It’s out in the weather. But I don’t mind getting dirty. I just love it. It’s all I know. It’s my way of workin’. I worked on other jobs–housekeeping, a cafe job, factory work. But the field is it.
I drive the tractor with three other ladies during spraying time, or by myself at other times. Cutting grass, cutting the headlands, it’s just me and the tractor. Drivin’ a tractor’s like driving a car or anything else with four wheels. Once you learn, it come natural. ‘Course its dangerous sometime. Sometime you give it too much gas, it’ll rear up on two wheels. It’s a matter of knowing when to give it gas, when to slow up, how to turn wide with the trailer part hauling two wagons.
When I first started, people, mostly mens, would say, that woman trying to take over a man’s world. When they first started putting women on tractors, most mens was dead set against it. But farmers would rather have women because they’re more confident, have more responsibility, handle equipment more carefully. I think womens are more dependable. When it’s cold and rainy and sloppy, mens would go back to bed, where a woman will get up and prepare herself and say, Lord, I got to work.
And I think womens really love having money. They really greedy, you know. Like to see big, writing on her paycheck. She’ll try if there’s any way in her power not to miss a day. She don’t
want nobody to get a day ahead of her on the payroll.
I rather be workin’ any day than to be at home or any other place. Even on vacation.
It’s from small. It’s how my grandfather and greatgrandfather was. They used to say, nothin’ like workin’. They used to take us in the fields in a buggy drawn by mules, and we’d dig potatoes, break corn–that’s how we learned to work in the field. Papu say, we see which one gone be the best worker. He say to me, you’ll love the field work. And I did.
Specially when I’m by myself in the tractor, I think about how he’d talk.
I just like workin’ in the clay, in the dirt. It’s a beautiful thing to me. They brought me up that way. To me, I feel like a free spirit. It doesn’t make me feel tied down. Just free. Out in the open, in the fresh air. Just going along, doing my work.
I look back and see, here’s what these hands did, what I done all by myself.
Jeanerette, formerly Yokely Plantation.
Now tell me this. Why they don’t try to help an old person like me who been scrappin’ cane all my life on a farm?
I lost my husband before Christmas last year. I get a little social security check, $347.80 a month, a widow’s check, that’s all. At that amount, payin’ my house note, utility bills, insurance bills, doctor bills, where my grocery money comin’ out? I don’t get food stamps. I still got his medical bills to pay. I went back to Yokely plantation where I used to live, over there in Franklin. I asked the bossman, would he allow me to plant cane enough to pay my bills. Bossman, he say, No, I done got too old.
I guess he figured at my age I’d not be that healthy. I guess he didn’t want me to go out there and fall out, and they’d have to pay for me. ‘Cause the sun been real hot. It hurted me when he told me, ’cause I felt like, we stayed on his farm thirty some years. But the bossman don’t want me hangin’ ’round there.
I been workin’ in the cane fields since I was twelve years old. I cut standing up cane. After they started cutting with machines, I’d scrap cane. Now you leave the shucks on and they burn it. Them days, say this table leg is the cane, you cut high top, low bottom. That make clean cane. You had to cut the butt part down in the ground. No stubbles. Bossman would walk on your row to see if he found stubble. Might would fire you if you didn’t cut like he want it.
We used to windrow cane. That mean, you cut the cane, throw it in the middle of the row, . cover it with dirt. When they get ready to plant in the summer, they’d pull that windrowed cane out of the ground. The mule would pull it up and then we’d plant it.
June, July, we’d hoe cane, get the grass out of it. That was before they got all the tractors and sprays. They had more work for people and they get a better crop. They had one cane called 290, it was real good. And they had another big ole cane, big around as this glass, and striped like a candy cane.
Now they plant with a cane machine. It pile cane in one spot on the row. So you got to tow that cane and put it in the skip, the part of the ground that was skipped.
I used to plant cane from a wagon, that was fun. I could kick up my heels on the wagon. You did three rows at a time, one person on each row. You put three stalks of cane to each plant. You put it flat in the ground, and it has an eye at every joint. Like my finger, jointed here. All the way along, the canes got an eye. The plant grows out that eye.
Now what two mens used to do, they got one man. when I started, they was workin’ mules.
That’s why I don’t see why they don’t help old people, ’cause they done worked and they have come from a long way.
Bein’ on the farm was alright to me. I had me a gun-shoot house, a little long house just straight as a gun shoot. Only had two bedrooms and a kitchen, nothin’ else. I mean nothin’ else. No living room, bathroom. And I raised six children in that house, and three more before. It was a struggle, but we made it.
I liked it there. That’s why I went bouncin’ back to get some work.
Plantation Portraits is the name of an exhibit and a booklet which presents voices and photographs of black culture in plantation Louisiana. Conceived by Lorna Bourg of the Southern Mutual Help Association of Jeanerette, Louisiana, Plantation Portraits offers glimpses into the lives of seventeen women who work in the sugar cane industry of southern Louisiana. Interviewer Judith A. Gaines and photographer Tika Laudin gathered the stories and images which make up Plantation Portraits.
Residential, working plantations still survive in Louisiana’s sugar cane belt. The Southern Mutual Help Association is devoted to improving the li2.~e.s and conditions of cane workers and their families. Plantation Portraits suggests the strength, the oppression, the exuberance and the anger of plantation residents.
Below, Southern Changes offers two excerpts from Plantation Portraits. The complete booklet is available for five dollars from the Southern Mutual Help Association, P. O. Box 850, Jeanerette, Louisiana 70544.