THE HEART: RICK BRAGG AND “THE CHOICE”

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 continues:

“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.

Additional reading:

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

 

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12 thoughts on “THE HEART: RICK BRAGG AND “THE CHOICE”

  1. Amy Clark

    I have no mill (other than a sawmill my great uncle owned) in my life, nor did I grow up in the south; however, Rick Bragg’s writing calls to me in a way that few other writers’ words have. His books are among those I have read over and over, and that speak to me every single time.

    Reply
  2. Kelly Roberson

    rick is an amazing writer. there’s no mill that i have a story about, but the stories he writes have a connection with the people who work and live and die with no celebration, just an unflagging dedication to family and faith.

    Reply
  3. Kendra

    I’ve lived in the northeast for most of my life, and have such respect for the presence of mills in my town. Unfortunately, most are apartments or retail stores now, but you cant help but feel the weight of the energy that still pulses through the mill “stores”…energy from years and years ago. I visit these shops, one of which is a fabric store, frequently. There is such a draw to their high ceilings and big windows. LOVE!

    Reply
    1. Lynne

      Growing up in the south–and living here all of my life, I have always known about mills and their workers. My grandfather worked in a steel mill. I love fabric of all kinds and have been so sad at the closing of each fabric mill that we have lost. I remember passing Avondale Mills as a child and wishing I could stop and go inside to watch the workers make my beloved fabric. I live in an area currently without a large fabric store–and feel the loss of being unable to go just to browse and dream of what could be made from a piece of cloth. Rick Bragg brings so much of our south to life. I am so grateful that he is now in Southern Living magazine each month–so I can get a little taste of his humor and insight regularly.

      Reply
  4. Elizabeth Hardin

    I’m looking forward to reading this book! I grew up outside of Gadsden. While most of the cotton fields were gone by the 1980′s, when my dad was little, he’d help his mom and aunts pick cotton and then drive it to the mill in Alabama City. Once, 45 years after the incident occurred, my dad’s aunt pointed out a woman to him and said, that’s the woman who stole your cotton! She had taken his tiny sack of cotton and just added it to her own, and my great aunt was not going to forget it.

    Reply
  5. Linda Selby

    My favorite aunt, my sweet Aunt Rene, operated a sewing machine in an upholstery factory in Montgomery, Alabama. She went to work there in the 1950s, right out of high school, and retired from the same job decades later. The only “old maid” in the family, she was blessed with more cheerfulness than her four sisters combined. I still have the green stuffed monkey that she made for me from upholstery scraps, his arms reaching out for a hug & his button eyes shining. And I still have my memories of the wonderful, scary stories Aunt Rene would tell. I always requested the same story of the young wife that one day, while her husband was at work, went into the forbidden room and discovered the bloody bodies of all the previous wives. She was so shocked, she dropped the key into the blood and, you know, blood will not wash off the key to the forbidden room. Don’t worry, the resourceful wife did escape and lived happily ever after without her murderous husband. And my Aunt Rene kept her cheerful disposition and loving heart throughout her life. Her tiny house was as neat as a pin; I marveled that after 50 years in the same place, she had empty space in her little closets. But she stored many happy memories and was dear to all her family and friends. I love you, Aunt Rene! I was so lucky to have you in my life!

    Reply
    1. Marjorie Rogers

      I live on the Maine, New Hampshire boarder and there are old mills in every little town around here. Almost all of them have been preserved for apartments, restaurants, shops and most of all artist studios. I work in one in Rollinsford NH, it is fill with musicians, jewelers, painters, cabinet makers, drum makers and my own boss who is a glass architect. The floors can still stain your jeans if you kneel down on them, full of grease from the old shoe machines. Most of them where shoe mills and the others where woolen mills and everyone of them has a pulse that is still beating. I am not familiar with Rick but thanks to your folks I am now. May the heartbeat of this land keep ticking with memories of what people did for work. Thank you for sharing Ricks’ story and sharing what goes on at AC.

      Reply
  6. Karen Guerra

    I was a student at Louisiana Tech in the 1970s. A field trip to a mill making double knit fabric in West Monroe, Louisiana has stayed with me all my like. I can still see those circular machines producing yard after yard of knit fabric.

    Reply
  7. india flint

    oh i loved reading this post and also the comments appended to it. what struck me most was the contrast between our lives…as the product of the marriage of two people displaced from different countries by the 1939-45 war i spent most of my growing-up life moving every few years. and while i’ve now lived in this district for twenty years you’re not considered a local unless you have all four sets of great-grandparents buried here. i’m still not really sure exactly where it is i belong.

    you, on the other hand, have the blessing to have been raised where your family has roots. every re-telling of a story or gleaned historical fact nourishes those roots like good fertilizer does a tree.

    Rick Bragg’s writing is a delight to read – thank you for quoting so much of it. i’m hoping my name comes out of that hat but if it doesn’t i shall be seeking out the book anyways.

    as to mill stories, Australia has few if any left. there was a marvellous one in our area called the Onkaparinga Woollen Mill. it produced warm cosy blankets from Australian-grown wool. at one time i had wool yarn produced from our clip [lovely Leicester sheep] but the mill that spun it for us is long gone, too. these days wool from our country goes to China and India for processing and our textile industry is literally in tatters.

    grown to sewn, a lovely phrase and a laudable practice.

    Reply
    1. Kim Bennett

      For the last 21 years I have had the good fortune to work for two iconic apparel companies. Each has been in business for more than 100 years. Over my short tenure I have watched factories close and jobs lost at heart breaking speed. Quality suffered in favor of stock holder dividends. People lost their jobs to help the “bottom line”.

      My current company has been family owned for over 100 years. It is one of the last “vertical” manufacturers left in the US. We still have domestic factories but in order to compete much of our production must be overseas.

      Whether we will admit it or not most consumers would not choose a hundred dollar” made in the USA” shirt over a twenty dollar one made in China. We have only ourselves to blame for the loss of jobs. Our desire for “throw away” clothes trumped our desire for full employment.

      I love the Alabama Chanin business model. I could definitely work there. I left the South 32 years ago and never looked back, but after reading your journal and your books, I am drawn back to that life. One of my life goals has always been to make clothing from scratch. I mean grow the cotton, raise the sheep, spin the fiber, weave the cloth, sew the garment and wear it proudly. Alas my home owners association won’t allow sheep and cotton does not grow well in Oregon(yes I did try), but I can actually see you guys doing just that. You all are so fortunate to have found such a unique way of supporting yourselves while supporting your community and environment. I wish you continued success.
      Oh and if you ever need a technical designer with years of experience just holler. I’ll come running.
      Thank all of you for being you.

      Reply
  8. Ashley Boccuti

    I have no mill in my life, but I have grown up here in the South, and I love our beautiful history and the dignity of the mill workers. I would love to read this book and learn more!

    Reply
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