To Know Tobacco: Southern Identity in China in the Jim Crow Era

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To Know Tobacco: Southern Identity in China in the Jim Crow Era

by Nan Enstad
Southern Cultures, Vol. 13, No. 4: Global South (2007)

"Many southerners from rural areas did not yet have electricity or indoor plumbing in the early twentieth century. In Shanghai they encountered more modern amenities and an elaborate public nightlife, full of perfect strangers."

Go to one of the tobacco areas in North Carolina or Virginia today and you will still find a large number of people who, as the saying goes, “know tobacco.” That is, you will encounter people who grew up in close proximity to multiple stages of tobacco production: a great many tended it on the farm when young, learned to cure it, and then brought it for sale in the tobacco markets. Some came to cities like Winston-Salem, Durham, Reidsville, Petersburg, or Richmond to work in factories producing cigarettes or other tobacco products. Some learned to grade tobacco so they could work in the markets; others became skilled at maintaining cigarette machines. Virtually all had at one time, and maybe over their entire lives, smoked cigarettes or chewed tobacco or both. They know a lot about tobacco: how it grows, when it needs to be hoed, topped, and suckered, and what pests threaten it; what the different types of leaf look and feel like when cured; how much it has brought on the market over the years; how it smells when it is being processed or smoked; how it feels to pull the smoke deeply into the lungs. “Knowing tobacco” was more than the sum of these facts and experiences; it was a shared way of life that formed the weft for southern culture in tobacco regions. Tobacco was their livelihood, and it wove through the fabric of their days.