If spacious skies rising above amber waves of grain capture the romantic vision of an agrarian ideal, cotton fields serve as a reminder of the grittier, exploitative side of American agriculture. The sight of vast fields smattered with white bolls evokes nostalgia for many, but it’s undeniable that cotton’s investiture and reign as king was long and tortured, fostered by the twin evils of slavery and sharecropping. And for a long time, the state of Mississippi was known as America’s cotton kingdom, with little acknowledgment of the human cost wrought by its dominion.
Mississippi’s ascendant and descendant role in American cotton farming was a theme throughout the state’s official history textbook, part of a required course of study for its high-school students. One of the book’s final chapters—called “The ‘New’ Mississippi”—marked the death of cotton’s dominance by reminding readers that “King Cotton was a long time a-dying, and Mississippi almost died of him first.” Historian John K. Bettersworth continued his obituary by noting that although King Cotton died, “Prince Cotton” ascended the throne in his place. “He was young in heart and fond of gadgets and machines. His rule brought a ‘new’ agriculture—an agriculture ‘balanced’ with industry.”
Gerard Helferich’s article “White Gold” in this issue of VQR reminded me of my old textbook—and sent me back to its pages—since Helferich takes us onto a cotton farm in Mississippi largely run by enormous picking machines and just two farmers. The Mississippi Delta’s new agricultural landscape has shifted from the land of cotton to the land of soybeans and corn, changing the state’s visual landscape almost as much as the site of a Nissan plant built more than ten years ago on 1,400 acres, much of which was once planted in cotton.
Alongside a pair of second-generation cotton farmers, Helferich explores whether the cash crop can make a comeback in the Delta. But that resurgence depends more on precise spreadsheet projections rather than any reliance on cheap labor, as evidenced by photo-graphs of the wide expanse of Delta land harvested by a single human figure hidden inside the air-conditioned cabin of a picking machine. Cotton production in the United States has been flat since the 1960s, and the popularity of cotton clothing means that world consumption of cotton has increased. Will Mississippi Delta farmers get to cash in on cotton’s globalized market?
While contemporary cotton farming is far removed from the shadows of its checkered past, human exploitation has now left the fields where it is picked and moved to factories in countries such as Bangladesh, where it is made into the clothes many of us wear. Like farm laborers, garment-industry workers have long been subject to exploitation. But as protections for those workers grew in the United States, similar protections did not move with the jobs when they migrated to South Asia. Just a year ago, the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza factory complex laid bare the need to reform worker safety in overseas manufacturing of clothing. Jason Motlagh’s “The Ghosts of Rana Plaza” takes readers back to the tragic morning of April 24, 2013, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when the sprawling manufacturing complex practically imploded, and captures the impact that disaster still has on families and survivors one year later.
“The Ghosts of Rana Plaza” is reported with great depth and cinematic breadth, chronicling the factory’s destruction and its aftermath. The Rana Plaza building functions as a character in Motlagh’s narrative, yet the story is brought to life by the careful portraits he sketches of the people affected by this catastrophe. While the main strength of the article resides in the scenes Motlagh renders in painstaking detail, when his writing is paired with photographs—his own as well as those of photographer Atish Saha—the words become even more powerful.
Atish Saha’s photographs are being published here for the very first time, and the decision of which photographs to run was a difficult one. We will have a much more expansive presentation of photographs by Saha and Motlagh on our website at vqronline.org.
Both “The Ghosts of Rana Plaza” and “White Gold” are contemporary stories, yet their full impact comes when read as part of a historical continuum. This country’s history of exploitation in farming and manufacturing is not untethered from the events in Bangladesh last year. Without a doubt, Rana Plaza is linked historically to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and numerous industrial accidents of the twentieth century. But the question that remains is: Will we take the lessons of history and apply them to today? Yes, history allows us to define, explore, and understand the past. But history’s real power—as revealed in the connection between these two very different stories—comes in the way it helps us understand the present.
At a VQR event held at New York University in February, the poet Tess Taylor remarked that the connection between poetry and journalism runs deep. In fact, it was Walt Whitman’s work as a journalist that served as a framework for his poetry. Without a doubt, there is much journalism can learn from poetry’s lyricism, and the poet from the reporter’s quest for detail.
It is this connection between poetry, prose, and journalism that makes VQR unique. Few literary quarterlies publish reporting and journalism alongside fiction, poetry, personal essays, and criticism. In addition to our featured reporting, this issue includes a rich suite of fiction by Elizabeth McCracken, Thomas Pierce, and Elizabeth Eshelman; poetry by Rita Dove, Amit Majmudar, and others; insightful and bold essays by Leslie Jamison, Carlene Bauer, and Lawrence Weschler; and a stunning photo essay of female matadors by photographer Gina LeVay. There is more than I have space to mention here, yet I can assure you that you will enjoy the diverse—yet connected—content of this issue of VQR.