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Thursday, April 08, 2010

Celebrating Confederate History Month with Wenger, Brophy & Tabasco

I'm celebrating Confederate History Month by reading Kaimi Wenger's fine paper Apology Lite: Truths, Doubts, and Reconciliations in the Senate's Guarded Apology for Slavery. The paper contends, among other things, that the Senate's recent apology for slavery lacked a certain sincerity because of its explicit statement that it could not be used as a basis for reparations--"I'm sorry, but I'm not open to discussing  whether I need to do anything to make up for what I am apologizing for."  Al Brophy's work on monument law, including explorations of statutes of Ben Tillman and Strom Thurmond, makes me think the Senate's apology is ambivalent because the attitudes of many Americans are ambivalent.  Many are not willing to say that Americans who participated in slavery or Jim Crow were, to that extent, dishonorable, at least from the perspective of who we should choose to honor and celebrate today. 

Which brings me to Tabasco.

In March, CNNMoney published an unintentionally hilarious interview with the current president of the McIlhenney Company, the family business famous for Tabasco.  The company was started in 1868 and, according to the article, is "still hot." When asked how things had changed since then, Mr. Paul McIlhenny replied: "Look at the laws regarding wages, labor relations, 401(k)s, health care. It's all highly regulated now. There was no HR in 1868."  No, there wasn't, particularly not on Avery Island, where Tabasco was made. 

As it happens, at the turn of the 20th century, The New York Times and LA Times reported that the company was accused of holding workers in peonage.  Compelled labor was fairly common in Louisiana until at least the mid-20th century.  Now, Tabasco as a company celebrates its past; it has an elaborate history section on its website, and employs a professional historian who wrote Tabasco: An Illustrated History about the family and the business.  While the company published the book, and thus it is hardly reasonable to expect an expose, I saw no mention of peonage or other compelled labor after the Civil War.  However, the book contains suggestive and chilling photographs.  At page 124 is a photograph of tokens, with which workers were paid instead of cash, usable at the company store.  Not paying cash is, of course, a technique of control--folks can't leave if they have no money.  At page 36, an African American child of 9 or so holds a Tabasco stirring paddle.  Child labor, though much more common then among the workforce as a whole, is at least consistent with harsh conditions.  At 136 is a photograph of young and elderly African Americans on the porch of a cabin, captioned "4 generations born on Avery Island."

If Tabasco had been unusually enlightened for the time and did not use compelled labor, that fact would almost certainly have been trumpeted in the book.  If Tabasco employed some of the same conditions of labor that many other agricultural businesses did in Louisiana at the time, and if the company today regretted that fact, presumably they would either have acknowledged that it was the unfortunate product of the bad old days, or at least they would not focus so much, when selling Tabasco, on the history of the product.  Instead, the website boasts that "Over 140 years later, TABASCO Sauce is made much the same way" as it was then.

While people alive today have no personal responsibility for occurrences decades before they were born, in this particular case, the shareholders alive today, the family, continues to benefit from the labor arrangements of the 19th Century.  Not only is the company unashamed, it is proud of what happened then.  This is why we have Confederate History Month, and why we are not yet in agreement as a nation that what happened back then was, from our perspective, bad.

Posted by Marc Miller on April 8, 2010 at 04:07 AM | Permalink


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Thanks for the kind words, Jack. Any day that I'm mentioned in the same paragraph as Al Brophy or Jack Chin is a good day. And your observations about Tobasco and about ambivalence are spot-on, which underscores the seriousness and difficulty of the underlying racial justice issues.

Posted by: Kaimi | Apr 14, 2010 5:32:57 PM

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