Joyce is an African American woman who was born in Ocala, Florida. She subsisted on migrant work from the age of nine, and from 1985 was enslaved by the Bonds family, who operated a ring of labor camps from Florida to the Carolinas. After seven years in bondage she escaped with her husband Huey. Sometimes the experiences of 21st-century slaves encompass not only the narrator’s turn from slavery to freedom, but also a reversal for their enslavers. In 1993, members of the Bonds family were charged with conspiracy to hold workers in a state of peonage, distribution of crack cocaine, and two violations of the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. The Bonds were released from prison in 2000, and Joyce recently received word of their fate: while she had experienced stasis and entrapment (“there’s nowhere to run”), the Bonds now spend their days trapped by the side of a highway, picking up cans for a living. In her narrative, Joyce further inverts slavery’s power dynamic by using the vague and threatening third-person pronoun “they” to counter her own dehumanization (“treated like a dog”).
Was doing migrant work since I was nine or ten. Went to school with Mormons. Only black in the school. Picking tomatoes, cucumbers, stringbeans. Wages still the same, and now I’m 43 years old. It ain’t went up no more than about 10, 15 cents.
Lake Wells, near Orlando, is where I was mainly working. With my husband. Worked many years on the camp. And they be beating on you and pistol-whuppin’ you. Leaky showers, the water be cold. Half-fed people, unlivable camps. Ain’t no sheets on the bed. The mattress don’t be fit to sleep on. The food is slop. Some of the time it be cold. For lunch, they bring you a little sandwich, sauce, and baloney. It already melted in the sun. It make your blood pressure high. Treated like a dog. They used to spit in the food. Once the Bonds girl wrung out a tampon into the food.
Got you way down a clay dirt road, mosquitoes eat you up. You so far back out there in the woods you can’t walk to town. Never got paid a cent. You go to bed at 9 or 10 o’clock. Sun up to sun down. They have you working in the rain, at 5am. Sometimes till 9pm with the truck lights on picking sweet potatoes in North Carolina. Locked up each night in a compound with barbed wire, guarded by dogs. They’d make a count of everyone before bedtime and they’d be walking with a rifle outside the hall when people slept. All the men stayed in the bullpit. Wind blows and turns over the trailer.
They take you to town in a van, they count you. They stay right there with you when you go to the store. The town’s so small there’s nowhere to run. They’d just come get you, and they’d tell the other crew leader man that they done stole their people.
Once they took me to Atlanta, to get homeless men by offering crack. I was tired, didn’t wanna go work in the fields that day. I was telling those men how we had swimming pools and how nice the camp was. Pool tables, this that and the other.
Sometime around ‘91 or ‘92 we decided we needed to get away. We made a plan. At night, when we could, we went into the peach fields, started stowing our belongings. Got another camp leader to help us with that. The guards went and drank at night. When Huey said start running, you start running. The dogs started chasing, I fell in a ditch, Huey fell with me. The cars were chasing and the dogs were chasing, and we went to some other camp, and the guys at that second camp protected us. The way the brothers got caught was a guy came on the camp pretending to be a worker, but he was a cop or something.
The big farmer, they’re the ones making the money. Maybe a contractor, like, say, Goldteeth, off one truck of sweet potatoes, he made $10,000. He probably makes 60 or 70 thousand a season. He’s got his own camp now, eight miles outside Benson.
Narrative as told to John Bowe, 2002, in Orlando, Florida, USA