INDENTURED SERVITUDE IN RURAL AMERICA
by Tara Golden
[photo Andre Karwath via Wikimedia Commons]
[published: January 11, 2012 (4:30PM PST)]
There is a common misconception in America that indentured servitude: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indentured_servant, is an institution that exists only in history’s record of darker ages. The fact is that this institution is alive and well in rural America.
I entered this institution late last year, and still live under the heavy weight of its influence in my life. Never before in my life has the difference between land owners and the rest of us been so clear. Gentry exists and is an accepted part of life in the back roads and byways where farming is the largest employer and economic lifeblood of the region.
In my former life, ensconced in the relative comfort and safety of city life, with its access to jobs, resources and comfortable living, I could not imagine that this situation could exist in our nation. I always had sufficient money for rent, and considered whatever was left over to be a part of my birth-rite. In other words, I invested in and bought into the “American Dream:” get an education, work hard, and the rest will come to you. Part of this, of course, is the fact that I am, or at least was, a part of a privileged class. I suppose many of my fellow Americans, who are not of the privileged, white, masculine… social strata may roll their eyes at someone such as myself having the temerity to broach the subject of exploitation. However, if a white girl like Joss Stone can sing the blues… I can write about exploitation and servitude. It does not mean that I count my condition to be similar, equal or worse than any other person who find themselves standing under the ladder of success, but I am starting to see that exploitation that rises, or sinks in this case, to the level of servitude, even slavery, is a story that is much more common than the American psyche would care to admit.
My story begins with a dear friend of mine who found a job on a farm in the California foothills town of Grass Valley. I was currently in a job situation that existed somewhere between bar security and law enforcement, and the bustling, gritty, flickering neon lit, frenetic, intermittent siren punctuated, sidewalks littered with broken dreams and the sharp stench of desperation rising from darkened doorways, life of the city. My visits to my friend on the farm were a balm to my bruised soul. The peace and quiet of nights sitting on the porch of the large house the farmers that employed my friend owned, while staring up at the spectacle of millions of stars invisible to city-light blinded eyes, listening to a symphony of silence accompanied by the string sounds of the wind blowing through the trees and the staccato woodwind of crickets soothed me and opened my connection to a creative side of me that had spent years curled up in a fetal position, rocking back and forth and humming lullabies to itself to shut out the frightening noises of the world of the city I lived in. In short, to me, this was a paradise… a romantic dream that called to mind long walks with Keats and vistas painted by Monet brushes.
When my job in the city started to show signs of an imminent demise, I heard from my friend that a position on the farm had opened up. I went up to Grass Valley and was interviewed by the farmers. At first the rent for the on-site trailer house seemed steep, and I refused the first offer. It was followed by a counter-offer by the farmers, that I considered and decided the benefits were worth the exorbitant rent, which was twice the going rate for similar housing in the area. But, the offer existed to work off the rent, and I thought that maybe, once I proved myself, they would give me a more reasonable rate… and after all… long hours and long days were a part of farming were they not? I was sure I could swing it. Hard work has never been something I avoided, and I romanticized the image of sun-tanned, healthy living and hard work toned life. And, wouldn’t it be better if I moved in next to my friend instead of trusting the fate of a stranger living so close to her?
I should have known. I should have seen the signs. The farmers told me stories of how past “caretakers” had taken advantage of them and rebelled against their situation in shocking manners. They told about how they had such a high-turnover of caretakers, and all they wanted was someone who would work on their organic farm and their small side business. I told them that I would give my best efforts and green thumb to the pursuit of success of their small farm. And before too long I was moved in to the trailer in the trees.
I saw potential all around me. The bare front yard, shading by towering oaks and conifers, was a blank canvas that I wanted to plant gardens in and put up a trellised seating area. I was granted a long plot in the garden space for my own use and I fantasized about heirloom tomatoes, peppers and okra growing in wild, green abandon. I started to settle into this new life, wide-eyed and ready to find myself in the tranquility of the wilderness
Slowly, I realized that I had entered something other then what I had thought I had seen through the romantic fantasy-tinted lenses that I had previously worn. I started to see the lines of worry on my friends and neighbor’s face. I started to see that the hours on my time-sheet added up slowly, and that work on a farm used energy and muscles that left me gasping for breath and dragging my feet after a few hours working the soil. I started to discover the concerns that exist in the country that do not in the city… such as fire-wood and propane and marauding deer and vicious yellow-jackets.
At first I saw the benefits in a green-tinted light… my cupboard filling up with home-canned healthy vegetables, while my refrigerator was full of fresh fruits and vegetables. And I watched as my figure started to appear from under layers of Fast-food and lush living padding, muscles starting to show despite their soreness and threats of an imminent revolt against the abusive treatment. I saw my cat embracing the country life with vigor, showing me a happy kitten energy that I had not seen in her for years. Before too long I added a beautiful, golden-haired Chow/Siberian husky mix puppy to my growing family. And felt sometimes, while sitting outside with my friend, as our friendship deepened far past what my other arms-length friendships of the past had offered, with my dog frolicking in the yard and the evenings gloaming blue light silhouetting the surrounding trees and the music of the night soaked in along with the glasses of red-wine that we sipped, that I had found a space of my own finally – with a family and peace that I had never previously imagined.
But another reality jarringly co-existed. I learned to dread meeting the Farmer’s wife in my daily life. Her voice, that had previously been chirpy and cheerful, started acquiring a new tone that was over-riding. With increasing frequency she approached me and handed me invoices for rent due, and electricity (which is generated by her self-sufficient solar powered panels), and propane and… the invoices started to stack up, and I began to dread her appearance and voice more and more. And I found myself responsible, or blamed, for more and more problems that are inherent to farm-work, such as crop failure due to our strange weather and the precarious balance that gardening on any scale represents. And I felt more and more like I was falling into a hole that had less and less light.
You see… I was starting to experience what so many others in our country feel – despair. I was working for rent, not for cash. And the rent was so high that it required 120 hours of work a month to even break even. And the necessary implements of life, such as pet food, litter, toothpaste, etc… were unavailable to me, except for the largess of my friends and family who supported me financially, which was a steadily growing debt I felt added to the weight of the rent bill that seemed unreachable.
An outside job was what was suggested to me, but I had been living in the city where I relied on my feet and public transit to provide my transport to and from work and stores and etc… now, I had only a motorcycle with expired tags and brakes in bad need of replacing, which also required funds more tangible then hours written on a time-sheet. I had no way of traveling the fifteen-plus miles into town, not to mention that an hour at a job meant an hour not on my time-sheet towards rent. The distance to the sunlight of the world above started to seem further and further as I sunk deeper.
And I started to realize that everything I got on the farm had a cost. The beans canned in my cupboard represented hours off the clock harvesting and shelling and cooking in a pressure cooker so they can be canned. I started to see that a handful of canned food represented forty or fifty dollars of work. The wood that I had been cutting on the farm represented the same, until the day that the farmer’s wife told me to stop cutting the fallen branches as that was “their wood,” although she suggested that I could buy it. The guage on the propane tank sank lower and lower as the price of propane rose higher and I still had no income. The simple prospect of staying warm in the cold mountain nights started representing money that I did not have.
I started to see that I was trapped. There was no way out. The longer I stayed working on the farm the deeper I would fall into this hole. My entire month’s labour no longer represented a full rent payment. It was not like my former life where I paid rent out of my earnings and could count on money left over… now rent alone started to resemble a mountain rising before that could not be reached… and the other costs of life were dangerous glaciers and chasms that threatened to crush me. There was no hope of saving money to escape… there was only more work to try and catch up.
And that is where I still am. I realize that I serve under a system of serfdom: That my very existence and well-being no longer is dependent solely upon my efforts, but rather relies upon the largess of my Master’s and my friends. There is no way out… there is no way to work my way out of this well I have cast myself down. And I find despair and chronic depression to be a part of my everyday existence.
And I understand now what I have not understood before. That what I relied on before was an illusion. That I relied upon a sense of self-worth that told me that I was educated, that I was talented in various fields, that I had worth because of who I was and what I had accomplished. In other words, I was living a life of privilege. I took for granted that I existed on a pedestal that rose above others in my society that I sub-consciously looked down on. I now understand the despair that so many feel in our modern America: The Mexicans in the fields, working under the hot sun for long days that have little hope of rising above their situation, The inner-city minorities that have lived their entire lives hearing that they will never be able to escape their conditions, the women who find working the streets the only way to keep their heads above water despite the way their heads hang from despair making breathing difficult. My situation is different, and there are many situations that are much worse than mine… but I understand now how it feels to feel un-entitled, unable to stand on my own and walk towards a better situation, trapped beneath a situation that is solid as a sheet of ice on a frozen river… but which lets less light in while lending the same drowning feeling.
Situations exist for a reason. They are all learning experiences. And the best learning experiences are the ones that allow you to understand what the world looks like through the eyes of another individual. Slavery and Indentured Servitude is not an extinct social form of injustice. It exists for everyone who does not feel entitled to the American Dream, who becomes trapped in a situation despite their best and hardest efforts. It wears the face of the brown skinned of whatever shade, of those who were born into situations from which there is no escape: such as poverty, or insufficient education, or challenges that others do not have, or those who are seen as objects simply because their genitals have a particular shape, or the thousands of other Americans that see the American Dream as a horizon that is only reachable from altitudes that they can only dream of… and have learned not to. My situation is not unique, in fact… it is becoming more and more a part of the modern American experience for the majority of the people who live here… and the human experience for millions of people who live elsewhere.
And I have learned to read the signs in others… how, with a simple exchange of glances a shared desperation and despair is shared. We are the have-nots, we are the ones who have learned that dreams are things for other people, we are the ones who have learned to tread-water simply to continue breathing, we are the people who exist inside the pages of “The Grapes of Wrath,” and Faulkner novels. We exist in the back hills of the Ozarks and on the streets of New York. But most of all, we are human, and share our definition with countless others that have struggled to find hope and meaning throughout the ages. Despite our dirty hands and lack of dreams we live lives that are real and vital… and WE have more in common with each other then we do with them – the entitled, landed gentry… and if only we could all find a way to row towards the shores of our dreams together… if only we could all help each other break free of the shackles that threaten to pull us under… if only… but dreams, they are horizons and only those with tickets to ride can reach… but I still have travel brochures scattered around my house that I read and try to ignore the disclaimer in small print “offer does not apply to humans.” But sometimes, the horizon still reflects in my eyes… my very human eyes.