CLEVELAND BENJAMIN'S DEAD! by Patsy Sims

CLEVELAND BENJAMIN'S DEAD!

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The title is largely hype: when New Orleans States-Item reporter Sims was working on a series of articles about Louisiana cane workers in 1972, a man named Cleveland Benjamin was killed in a tractor accident--one more indication of what the field-workers face, but incidental to the story Sims has to tell. The subtitle, in turn, reads like social consciousness for-all-seasons--while this, when it doesn't lapse into agitprop romanticization of the poor blacks (and denigration of their white landlord-employers), is about a few real people who took a concrete stand and achieved tangible, if limited, results. Overall, it's as if those responsible didn't believe that what happened to field-workers Gustave Rhodes and Huet P. Freeman (misnamed after Huey P. Long), plus the efforts of the Southern Mutual Help Association in their behalf, could stand on its own. The only reason that it can't, quite, is that this is still essentially a journalistic piece inflated with repetitive interviews (re the workers' poverty and exploitation) and some lit'ry echoes of Let Us Praise Famous Men. (Inadvertently or otherwise, there's even a chapter entitled ""On the Porch."") The situation is this: in 1971, Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz' delay in setting hourly rates cost the workers their ten cent raise; and Rhodes and Freeman were encouraged by the SMFA to file suit. Their neighbors were hostile; they risked losing their jobs; and Freeman was in fact ousted from his shack the next year. But applying some pressure and winning the suit had its effect: by the time Sims returned for a visit in 1978, conditions on the plantations were better and both Freeman and Rhodes owned their own homes. ""By movin' into my own house,"" says Rhodes, ""I'm beyond that boy-man. I'm a man."" What we hear from the men and their wives (about wages and hours and getting by), and from SMFA activists (about past efforts to organize the fieldworkers too), carries weight; the presentation, unfortunately, doesn't let it be.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1981
Publisher: Dutton