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The Bitter Taste of Sugar : BIG SUGAR Seasons in the Canefields of Florida by Alec Wilkinson (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95; 256 pp.)

September 17, 1989|David Rieff | Rieff is a free-lance writer.

Lengthy, reflective pieces of journalism--the kind of writing that, in America, is usually associated with The New Yorker magazine--are out of favor in a world where most newspapers, if they can't be transmogrified directly into television programs, seem increasingly intent on imitating the "lite journalism" approach of USA Today. The New Yorker, which published John Hersey on Hiroshima, Hannah Arendt on Eichmann, and Jonathan Schell on Vietnam, was pilloried when, a few years ago, it published what was, in fact, a brilliant article on where the household trash ended up. This subject, it was commonly agreed in our Gannettized world, was hardly important enough to be written about at such length. In other words, the fate of the Earth, yes, the fate of the trash, no.

The intransigent fact, however, remains that an intelligent reader is likely to learn more from a well-made long article on a given subject than from an equally well-done shorter piece. This, rather than the parochial narrowness of New York publishers, is why over the years so many New Yorker articles have later become books. And the rightness of this phenomenon is borne out yet again by the publication of Alec Wilkinson's "Big Sugar: Seasons in the Canefields of Florida," which is, quite simply, one of the finest works of reportage on any subject to have appeared in years.

"The most perilous work in America," Wilkinson writes in his humane, deadpan style, "is the harvest by hand of sugar cane in south Florida. It is performed by men from the West Indies who live in barracks on the sugar plantations." Wilkinson spent five years in Florida writing and thinking about the migrant cane cutters. Not surprisingly, most of the sugar growers refused to cooperate with him. Even the workers themselves, whether out of fear or just plain indifference, were often less than forthcoming. Still, Wilkinson persevered and the book he has written not only evokes the life of these workers with marvelous compassion and understated outrage but for the first time tells the truth about what is probably the harshest, most labor intensive and tyrannical industries in the United States.

Sugar cane is grown in Texas, Louisiana, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, but only in Florida, where about 40% of the U.S. crop is produced, does the unusually soft soil make it necessary for the harvesting to be done by hand. The sign at the outskirts of Clewiston, where the first sugar acres in Florida were planted, may proclaim, "Welcome to Clewiston, America's Sweetest Town," but life is anything but easy for the 10,000 foreign workers (the largest single such group admitted legally to the United States on an annual basis) who come to do the cutting. Bused from their barracks to the fields, dressed in heavy boots and wearing aluminum guards on their hands, shins and knees, the cutters move down rows of cane that are either one-quarter or one-half mile long, and, bent over at the waist (cane cutting is, literally, stoop labor), swinging the long knives West Indians call cutlasses. They are expected to cut 8 tons of cane a day, and when they finish, their clothes are covered in pitch-colored grime. "If I do not dress in two pants," one cutter told Wilkinson, "I be blacker than I black already."

Reading Wilkinson's account, it is difficult not to conclude that the cutters, who, after all, come to America not because stoop labor is the job they want but because it is the only job they can get, exist in conditions of near peonage to their employers. For their part, the sugar companies' public relations efforts, when not directed at ensuring that Congress keeps sugar prices at a certain level and foreign sugar out, are directed toward reinforcing the myth that cane cutting is, as Wilkinson points out, an exotic, foreign skill. The Florida Sugar Cane League, for example, produced a film that includes a scene of a cane cutter moving down a row while a narrator intones that "to watch a West Indian wield a cane knife is to see a centuries-old art." In fact, few West Indian cutters have ever so much as seen a cane knife before they arrive in Florida. The real reason for using foreigners, as "Big Sugar" demonstrates in painful detail, is because they can be bullied. In 1983, a House subcommittee investigating the sugar cane industry referred in its report to the "unique and awesome form of management power that sugar-cane growers exert over their work force." Asked by the committee staff to explain why foreign workers were so much more effective in the fields than Americans were, a vice president of U.S. Sugar was unexpectedly frank. "If I had a remedy," he said, "comparable to 'breaching'--that is, firing and deporting--an unsatisfactory worker which I could apply to the American worker, they'd work harder too."

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