Nancy Scheper-Hughes Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Studying the Human Condition: Habits of a Militant Anthropologist: Conversation with Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Professor of Anthropology, U.C. Berkeley; 12/14/99 by Harry Kreisler.

Photo by Jane Scherr

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Civil Rights Work in the U.S.

So you finished your tour of duty, you came back, and then you went into the civil rights movement and went South, working on programs to bring government programs to the poor in the South.

Yes, it was an organization that was founded by Don Jelinek, who today is on the city council of Berkeley, who was then a lawyer from New York City. And I think that his original idea was that many, many people had been going to the South to try to integrate the "Tasty Freeze," but it didn't matter to rural people, especially black sharecroppers, who didn't have the money to buy ice cream at Tasty Freeze. So he became interested in less glamorous issues, questions around entitlements [for the] rural poor, mainly black people but whites as well -- although we didn't deal with the white population; we couldn't at that time. You had to sort of choose sides, it was a highly polarized environment. And the question was, why weren't these small sharecroppers having access to federal subsidies that were given to all farmers, presumably? In addition, they were not having access to some of the food programs, rather "primitive" food programs, food [surplus] commodities programs.

We learned that although these were federal programs, they were administered locally by a very small, white class that controlled the counties. And if they said "We don't have any hunger," then they didn't take the programs. But worse, the checks, the subsidy checks, the cotton allotment checks, these were being pocketed by the landlords, although they were supposed to be distributed among the people that were sharecroppers or tenant farmers. So most of these federal programs completely bypassed the population that most needed them.

photo caption below: Lawsuit. Probably the most significant thing that we worked on as a group was a lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture, suing then-Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman for allowing Americans to go hungry. The only contribution per se that I could bring was that I had worked with very hungry people in Northeast Brazil and I could recognize the signs of hunger, which often, if you're not used to it, you don't recognize -- these large bellies and certain sores that people would have from pellagra, or just the pale eyes and fingernails and things [like] that. see caption below: Malnutrition. From ten feet I could tell you whether someone had what kind of nutritional imbalance.

So what we did is, basically, we brought doctors in and we did a survey with some 500 households in several black belt counties, and I worked with a small group of civil rights workers identifying some of the worst households [like the Burns family], and asked people to come by bus to Washington, D.C. and to present themselves before a panel of judges in a lawsuit, class action suit, "Peoples versus the Department of Agriculture."

And was that successful?

We lost in court but won in the media. As a result The New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune and ...

And CBS Reports.

CBS Reports "Hunger in America" was put out. And I think really because of that movement, the food stamp program was brought into counties that didn't have it previously.

So overall, by this mix of domestic and international experience, you were getting a sense of inequality and a sense of activism and that something could, marginally maybe, be done to correct the situation.

I think I was, yes. I was an optimist from this more engaged work. But always there was a side of me that was more reflective and that would get exhausted by the work, and would want to go into a back room and write about it, and think about it, and to raise larger questions about what is anthropos after all, what kind of a species are we? Why do we treat each other the way we do? Some of those basic, ethical questions.

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Photo captions

Burns: "Hunger in America: The Burns family; Wilcox, Alabama; 1967; photo by field staff photographer by Geoffrey Clark. The Burms family joined the class-action suit and presented their plight before a panel of three judges in a district appeals court in Washington, D.C. As sharecroppers on the Minter plantation, Lester Burns was cheated of his cotton allotment checks each year. 'Baby' Burns, 2 1/2, could not yet walk. 'We goes half-hungry the year round,' his mother told Scheper-Hughes. 'Mr. Minter don't let us plant no greens nor keep no hens.'"

Lawsuit: "Scheper-Hughes with civil rights colleagues Linda Hunt and Robert Rembert Jr. prepare data to be used in the class-action suit, 'Peoples v. the U. S. Department of Agriculture.' Gees Bend, Boykin, Alabama; 1967."

Malnutrition: "In rural Pernambuco, Northeast Brazil, in 1964-66, Scheper-Hughes first learned to 'read' the signs of malnutrition and slow starvation. The 'madness of hunger' (delirio de fome) as local people call it still plagues the sugarcane zone. Alto de Cruzeiro, 1987."