Cigarettes, INC!

The evening of Thursday, March 28th marked the third installment of the “What is American Studies?” series. The Bates community in PGill G65 was joined by Nan Enstad, the Robinson Edwards Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Enstad’s lecture, “Cigarettes INC!” focused on her recently published book of the same name, Cigarettes, Inc. An Intimate History of Corporate Imperialism.

Enstad uses the example of the American Tobacco Company’s (ATC) merge with the Imperial Tobacco Company into British-American Tobacco (BAT) and specifically their early 1900s venture in China to interrogate corporate imperialism. In her talk Enstad sought to flip the conventional story of capitalist change, and suggested that cross-cultural interactions were responsible for producing all levels of corporate life in the beginning of the 20th century. Enstad came to this realization while conducting research of tobacco in the upper South, where she discovered, “The white guys, their white-dominated companies, along with a white-oriented political economy, and a white-centered foreign policy took over the story [of the global tobacco corporations].”
Enstad’s solution to this one-sided representation was to use her research skills from her history PhD and degree in American Studies from the University of Minnesota to dive further into the story. Enstad noted, “I saw and still see History and American Studies as a liberation practice that can transform society’s optics on the true nature of power and who matters, and where is this more necessary than in the history of capitalism?”
The first actor in Enstad’s story of the cigarette corporation rise to power is bright leaf tobacco. Bright leaf tobacco developed under slavery in the 1850s as a new variety of tobacco, becoming a lucrative commodity. Bright leaf tobacco, unlike other types of tobacco, grew on sandy land, transforming formerly useless land into valuable holdings. This land, since it had previously been unusable, did not have a history of slavery, which meant newly freed African Americans thought that there would be no obstacles for them to enter the business of bright leaf cultivation. However, “Whites worked hard to make sure blacks’ necessary skills did not translate into upward mobility.” They did this by creating the KKK, widespread assassinations, and keeping blacks from the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder. “It wasn’t just a reflection of Jim Crow, it was the production of Jim Crow,” said Enstad.
The ATC saw large economic returns in the United States, and expanded overseas. During BAT’s venture in China. Southerners used Jim Crow segregation to structure their corporation, even though they were far from home. The problem for them was that they could not close out Chinese workers the same way they had done blacks because they required their skills for translation and otherwise. The white Southerners implemented Jim Crow segregation in the corporate home in China to combat their problem. The Gregory household is one example Enstad used to demonstrate this concept.
Gregory had a business job in the agriculture sector of BAT China. Gregory and his wife hosted weekly Sunday morning breakfasts where they trained their Chinese servants to cook southern fare. These breakfasts were exclusive events, to which only the white Southerners were invited, “The home acted as a sieve, screening out Chinese-ness from the families and the corporation’s central social activities, even when Chinese servants were present at all hours.” Enstad used this example to show that implementation of Jim Crow segregation stemmed from the individual household.
White men dominating global corporations was not a natural process, but an intentional one. Cigarette corporations can be used to demonstrate this principal. Enstad concluded the talk with this message, “People made and make the corporation, and make value at every level.”
The last of the “What is American Studies?” series will feature William Cheng from Dartmouth College, who will be coming to Bates during Short Term.