The phrase “migrant farm worker” inevitably conjures stereotypes in our minds, whether possibly undocumented Mexicans today or Okies during the Depression. It’s a loaded phrase, usually invoking our prejudices rather than our empathy, blinding us to the real lives of the workers themselves. Migrant farm workers have certainly not been limited to those two groups, however--anyone at the bottom of the economic ladder could find themselves picking crops.
In her new book, Green Grapes, Black Hands, local poet Jackie Joice documents the experiences of her African-American family, picking grapes in the 1940s. The book is a combination of family history, personal narratives from her family members and Joice’s own poetry. The result is more impressionistic than straight forward history, but a project that allows Joice to focus on the emotional reality of their situation.
Joice was originally inspired to research her family’s story when her great-uncle passed away in 1993. She realized how much information was lost with his memories. At that time she started writing poems about her journeys to visit her family in Hanford, CA, in the Central Valley.
Further impetus came in 2001, when she became acquainted with her paternal grandfather for the first time. She started interviewing him in 2006.
“My grandfather is a tough interview. He’s willing to give me information, but only if I ask for it," Joice says. "He’ll give you the answer to the question you ask, but I don’t know what to ask him.”
She originally wanted to write a novel about her family’s experiences, but “it just wasn’t flowing.” Then, she tried working the stories into poetry. Only then could she tell the stories through her eyes.
“The poetry just flowed, poem after poem,” she says. She then decided that the best voice for the actual experience in the fields was her family members themselves and had her parents and two aunts pen essays about their experiences. She completed the book with short chapters on the family history she had uncovered in her research, including interviews with her grandfather and trips to the military archives in Washington DC.
But Green Grapes, Black Hands is more than just an attempt to document a personal family history. It captures a part of our cultural history that is generally overlooked. Joice’s great-grandfather first arrived in the Central Valley in the early 1900s.
“A lot of people don’t know that this rich black history existed in Central California and my extended family is part of it,” says Joice. “The purpose of the book was two-fold, assembling it in book form for my family, and sharing it with the world.”
Joice readily admits that this is just the first part of an ongoing project. Throughout our interview, she constantly brought up new pieces of information she had discovered since putting the book together (“All this stuff is surfacing. I have to do something [with it]. I’m obligated,” she says). Her ultimate ambition is to put together a documentary exploring her entire family history and its connections to the larger history of the Central Valley.
“I want to encourage young folks to talk to their elders and record their stories," she says. "It’s one thing to a have a family tree, but it’s another thing to have these stories and life experiences. You’ll be able to pass these stories on.”
“Kings River Blues (Part One),” one of the poems in the book, was just nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Song of San Joaquin.