It’s now the dog days of summer. In the past, that would mean it was time for the tobacco market to open. And for towns like Clinton, Dunn and Fairmont, the tobacco market was a big deal. It was where the farmers were finally paid for all the hard work of the previous months by selling their crop.
For my family, it wasn’t just getting our tobacco crop out of the barns and to the market. It was being a part of the market itself, since my father worked there for all of my childhood, and most of his adult life. And I also spent many of those days during my teenage and young adult years working with my father and Mr. Leland Lee, and the rest of the folks at Lee’s Planters Warehouse in Dunn.
I was basically a “Hey, Boy!” during those days, doing whatever was needed. It may be weighing tobacco, unloading a truck, or driving a forklift or golf cart loaded with piles, or sheets, of tobacco, which usually weighed around 200 pounds. One of my jobs was to assist the USDA tobacco grader prior to a sale. I would pick up the tag off of each pile and hand it to the grader as we went down each row of tobacco. This would help him move quickly down the rows since there would be hundreds of piles of tobacco sold during each auction.
The USDA grader had an important job. The grade that he would put on that tag would determine the government price support for the pile of tobacco. It would be the starting point for the tobacco company buyers who would come along later during the auction. A better grade, like a B1L, would mean a higher starting point, a higher price per pound, and more money in the farmer’s pocket. A low grade, like a P5F, would mean much less for the farmer. And you didn’t want to get a grade with the dreaded “N” on it. That meant little or no price support.
So the USDA tobacco grader would quickly go down the rows of the cured tobacco piles, glancing at the tobacco, maybe briefly picking up a few leaves on a pile, before writing down his grade on the tag, or label, that I had given him. He would toss the tag back on the pile and quickly move to the next one that I would hand him. He would move quickly because there were hundreds of sheets of tobacco to grade, and it sure was hot in that tin covered warehouse.
That grade put on the tag determined the future of that pile of tobacco. A quick glance, and maybe a quick touch, and a grade was put on the pile of tobacco. That grade determined how the buyers would look at it later during the sale.
I suppose, in many ways, we are like that USDA tobacco grader, except we grade and label people, instead of sheets of tobacco. A quick glance, and we determine their grade and value. We all do it. Sociologists say our brains are hotwired to take shortcuts so we don’t have to process and store so much information. It’s helpful sometimes, but often it can be harmful. Let me repeat, we all do it.
We see a young African-American man with dreadlocks, wearing baggy pants, at Walmart. We quickly grade and write “Thug” on his label. On the other hand, at the same Walmart, we see a young white man, with his cap on backwards, riding around in his jacked-up pickup with a loud muffler. Once again, we make our grade, and write “Redneck” on his label. We have never actually met either individual, but we’ve graded them. Both of them may have been home from college and on their way to church, but we’ll never know. We’ve put our grade and label on them.
When I say we’ve all done it, I include myself. I heard a person talk from another part of our country, and I immediately graded and wrote on his label, “Retired Military Yankee.” (Due to dealings during my work career, that hasn’t been a good grade in my book.) But over time I got to know him, and, for me, the label changed to “Good Guy.”
Due to the large numbers of piles, and in his hurry to finish, sometimes the USDA tobacco grader did not examine a pile of tobacco correctly. The incorrect grade might cost the farmer. But, most of the time, that cost would only be a few dollars.
Incorrectly grading and labeling people is far more costly. Instead of a quick glance and judging, maybe we can take time, look, and examine closer. We may like what we see. We may determine a new grade and label. How about “Friend?”
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org