Charlie Thompson on “Spirits of Just Men”

Charlie Thompson

Charlie Thompson, director of the undergraduate program at CDS, holds the faculty position of Lecturer in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Religion. His latest book,Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World (University of Illinois Press), about moonshiners in Franklin County, Virginia, in the 1930s was published in May.

A former farmer, Thompson remains immersed in agricultural issues and the laborers within our food system. He has written about farmworkers, and is an advisory board member of Student Action with Farmworkers. He is also the author of The Old German Baptist Brethren: Faith, Farming, and Change in the Virginia Blue Ridge, and editor with Melinda Wiggins of The Human Cost of Food: Farmworker Lives, Labor, and Advocacy. Thompson has produced/directed three documentary films: The Guestworker, We Shall Not Be Moved, and Brother Towns/Pueblos Hermanos, which recently toured North Carolina and was written about in the New York Times.

A book release party and book signing for Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World will take place at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, NC, June 4, 2011.


The following is from an interview with Charlies Thompson conducted by Lauren Hart of CDS.

LH: How have your educational background and your previous experience working as a farmer led you to documentary work?

CT: Before I became a farmer, I worked with my grandparents and learned directly from them—experiential education at its finest. I started my own farm with my wife’s help in 1984 and farmed full-time for nine years after that, becoming the president of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market and helping organize a number of other North Carolina markets. Before that, I worked as both a VISTA volunteer and as a staff person for the Rural Advancement Fund as a community organizer, so as a farmer, I combined agriculture with community-building skills.

It was when I was an organizer that I began to realize that sharing stories helps get people together, whether to work on a cause or to form an organization. Writing bylaws and rules is one thing, but it’s really personal testimonies that motivate people. Farmers and other people I have worked with, from my grandparents to those in my community to those at markets, told me stories that have stayed with me to this day. As I drove to different farms as an organizer I’d jot down notes of sayings that I heard. I also recorded farmers’ words and helped them turn those words into testimonies before Congress. We used photographs of the farmers in garnering public support for our causes of saving farms and building alliances with consumers.

It was during those years as a farmer that I also began to learn stories of farmworkers who came from Mexico and Central America. I learned Spanish in the field from them, eventually deciding to go with my family to live in Guatemala for a year to learn about refugees from the other side of the U.S. border.

All of these experiences contributed to what eventually became my own documentary work. When I began to learn more documentary skills, I turned to the subjects I care most about: farming, farmworkers, immigration, and rural life in general. My writing and my films have all in some way addressed the problems of rural people who have experience trauma, whether they Maya of Guatemala, African American farmers in North Carolina, or farmworkers from Mexico.

I teach about these subjects and hope my students are engaged with the people behind the issues. It’s one thing to read statistics, and these are important of course, but it’s another to hear stories from someone who’s lived a life immersed in farm work, of whatever it might be. I like to say to my students that we, as documentarians, should endeavor to turn statistics into stories.

LH: Can you tell me about your upcoming book, Spirits of Just Men?

CT: Spirits, in a word, is about moonshine. That word usually gets a laugh or an astonished look, and so one work requires hundreds more. More than one person has said that it seems to be a departure from my past work on farmworkers, labor, refugees, and so on. But don’t be fooled—the book is really about small farmers in the 1930s, most of them descendants of immigrants from the British Isles, who endeavored to save their land and their families by turning to what is known in today’s parlance as a “value-added product.” Moonshine was liquid corn—more profitable and easily transportable than the raw grain.

The narrative that holds the book together is the tale of an unscrupulous group of the county’s most powerful, who coerced many of the rank-and-file moonshiners into working for them and into paying tribute  to the deputies for every batch of moonshine run, every load hauled. A federal investigation ensued, and an informant was murdered. Members of the community I write about were witnesses and defendants in federal court. My own great-grandfather took the stand.

Also in the audience scribbling away in his notebook was the famous 1930s author Sherwood Anderson. He wrote eloquently about farmers, preachers, and others who survived in the mountains. I explore why moonshiners did what they did in part through his words. In the end, moonshine continues to be produced, but what was lost then was the last great generation of independent Appalachian farmers—those just people whose spirits surrounded me as I wrote the book. Those people had stories all too similar to the farmworkers and refugees whose lives make our food system what it is. The’ve all been just people, just trying to make a living.

LH: How is building a garden at CDS tying into your Politics of Food course? What are the plans for the future of the garden?

CT: As my syllabus says, I’m not likely to ever teach this course in exactly the same way, but this year we’re trying to get our hands dirty growing food while talking about producing food. An academic discussion, which we have plenty of each week, if not coupled with tangible acts of learning, leaves the body out of the equation. I want the students to engage with food production with not only their minds but their their corporeal selves, and, in the process, to build a sense of community through starting a garden and sharing it with the broader neighborhood.

I’m so pleased that students from my dorm as well as a good number of staff from the Center for Documentary Studies have come out to join in. We’re also working with a local organization, El Centro Hispano. My understanding is that women in nutrition classes at El Centro may be joining us soon.

In the long run, the garden will belong to those who work it. At this point, this appears to be a nice hybrid group made up of faculty, staff, community residents, students, and a few of their dogs that tag along. It’s been a rewarding experience to see it take shape. The other day we planted our first lettuce seedlings. Some of the students held the plants as if they were holding a baby—so delicate, and a little timidly. I asked if some of them had never put a plant into soil and several said this was their first experience. I knew again in that moment that we need to incorporate learning with our hands, through experiences, every chance we get. It’s not just a teaching style; I believe the future of our world depends on it.