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The Catfish Industry and Spatial Justice in the Mississippi Delta: Steve Yarbrough's The Oxygen Man

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 January 2016

Southern Studies Department, English Department, University of Mississippi. Email:
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Mississippi. Email:
English Department, University of Mississippi. Email:
Sociology Department, University of Mississippi. Email:


This essay traces Edward Soja's “geography of labor” in the Mississippi catfish industry. Our interdisciplinary analysis integrates the socioeconomic realities of the Mississippi delta with Steve Yarbrough's literary rendering of that place in his 1999 novel The Oxygen Man. We argue that Yarbrough's novel closely maps changes in Mississippi delta agribusiness and urges readers to reimagine spatial justice in a landscape infamous for racism and poverty.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press and British Association for American Studies 2016 

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1 Williams, Tom, “‘Dogged by Some Sins from Their Past’: An Interview with Steve Yarbrough,” Arkansas Review, 33, 2 (1 August 2002), 114–20, 114Google Scholar.

2 Edward J. Soja, Seeking Spatial Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 1, emphasis in original.

3 Ibid., 63.

4 Ibid., 4.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 5.

7 Steve Yarbrough, The Oxygen Man (San Francisco: Lawson Library, 1999).

8 By studying the particularities of places, not just as they are reflected in terms of time and history, but also as they operate within spaces, we argue for an approach that Edward Soja calls “multiscalar,” that is trained on the specific as a way of getting at the more comprehensive. Soja, 32, emphasis in original. The case study for many of our own efforts as an interdisciplinary faculty working group has been the state of Mississippi, and it is our hope that this emphasis “helps to ground the search for spatial justice in socially produced contexts rather than letting it float in idealized abstractions” (Soja 31). To be clear: we understand Yarbrough's novel as artistically invested in questions of labor equity and social (in)justice in the Mississippi delta, not the global dimension of the catfish industry. Yet in applying the lens of Soja's “geography of labor” to The Oxygen Man, we find that this novel has the potential to foster conversations about labor practices, both global and local, past and present.

9 James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

10 Jan Nordby Gretlund, “‘Still There?’ Encapsulated Prejudice in Today's Southern Fiction,” in Marcel Arbeit and M. Thomas Inge, eds., The (Un)Popular South (Olomouc, Czech Republic: Palacky University, 2011), 97–112, 110.

11 Soja, 24.

12 Yarbrough, 12.

13 Ibid., 135.

14 We understand the “global South” as a conceptual framework used to observe the contingent and interconnected pockets of poverty, gender and sexual inequality, and racism throughout the world, including within so-called “wealthy nations,” one that attends to the importance of both local context and global interdependence and privileges the perspectives of the subordinate and subaltern in the production of knowledge. Thus we do not use “global South” as a synonym for globalization, and we do not deploy it strictly within a nation-state context that depends on either geography or economic indices, pitting countries against one another in a global South/global North paradigm. Rather, we advocate a granular approach to place that allows us to define “global South” based on the relation of people to power, money, and influence in specific locales. We can, then, recognize the global South pocketed in the global North, as well as its reverse, and thereby deepen and complicate our understandings of individual places as well as the connections that may arise linking otherwise seemingly disparate locations.

15 Yarbrough, 18.

16 Rob Nixon's notion of “slow violence” is particularly instructive here. Slow violence, he explains, “occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 2. Nixon's examples are primarily environmental, suggesting, as does Yarbrough, the gradually revealed history of sustained ecological destruction as intertwined with the health of the human beings who live on the land's surface. Yarbrough's novel would certainly sustain a reading that examined the environment of the Mississippi delta as literally poisoned by generations of abuse and the actual toxins of agribusiness and mosquito control.

17 Richard Schweid, Catfish and the Delta: Confederate Fish Farming in the Mississippi Delta (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1992), 6.

18 Craig S. Tucker, ed., Channel Catfish Culture: Developments in Aquaculture and Fisheries Science, 15 (New York: Elsevier, 1985), 8.

19 Schweid, 6.

20 For more information about changes within the catfish industry, see, for instance,

21 Schweid, 8.

22 Terry Hanson and Dave Sites, 2005 US Catfish Database, sources: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service and Mississippi Agricultural Statistics Service, 2006, 45–48, at, accessed 1 Aug. 2013.

23 Hanson and Sites, 4.

24 Jimmy Avery, Terry Hanson, and Jim Steeby, “US Farm-Raised Catfish Industry: Production, Processing, and Import Trends 2013,” paper presented at the World Aquaculture Society Meetings, at, accessed 1 Aug. 2013, 20, 2.

25 “Delta Pride Pact, Monthly Labor Review, March 1991, 41. A 2010 article by Joseph B. Adkins in Southern Exposure highlights the fact that the vast majority of workers in the Delta Pride catfish processing plant were women during the 1990 strike. Today black women continue to make up most of this workforce. See”

26 Media coverage of these conditions, ranging from Peter T. Kilborn, “Charges of Exploitation Roil a Catfish Plant,” New York Times, 10 Dec. 1990, to a 2001 documentary by Donald Blank entitled Standing Tall: Women Unionize the Catfish Industry (Filmakers Library), capture the horrific working conditions at Delta Pride and other catfish processing plants.

27 Yarbrough, Oxygen Man, 23.

28 Ibid., 265.

29 Ibid., 44.

30 Schweid, 24.

31 Paul Greenberg, “Catfish by Any Other Name,” New York Times, 9 Oct. 2008, available at, accessed 1 Aug. 2013.

32 Ziegenhorn, Randy, “A River Full of Fish: Industrial Catfish Production and the Decline of Commercial Fishing on the Upper Mississippi River,” Human Organization, 59, 4 (2000), 162–68, 163Google Scholar.

33 Helena Bottemiller, “GAO Blasts Moving Catfish from FDA to USDA Jurisdiction: Step Would Be Costly, Impractical Report Says,” Food Safety News, 12 June 2012, at, accessed 23 July 2013.

34 Kirsten Dellinger, “H2 Visas in the Mississippi Catfish Industry: Multiple Perspectives on Transnationalism and Gender,” paper presented at the American Sociological Association Meetings, 8 Aug. 2007.

35 Steve Yarbrough grew up on a delta farm close to Indianola, Mississippi, and in an interview admitted he felt trapped in this landscape: “I wanted always to be connected to it, but I wanted always to get away from it as well.” Williams, “Dogged by Some Sins,” 120.

36 Mississippi State Penitentiary (colloquially known as Parchman Farm) operates on 18,000 acres in Sunflower County, Mississippi; it first opened its doors in 1901 and is the oldest correctional facility in the state. At one point during the 1960s, as many as 300 freedom riders were incarcerated there, many of them working on chain gangs (, accessed 9 June 2014). In 2008, Parchman held 4,181 prisoners. Of that number, 3,024 were African American males (, accessed 2 June 2014). For additional information about Parchman see David M. Oshinsky, “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York: Free Press, 1996); William Banks Taylor, Down on Parchman Farm: The Great Prison in the Mississippi Delta (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999).

37 Yarbrough, Oxygen Man, 109.

38 Ibid., 5.

39 Ibid., 262.

40 Ibid., 177.

41 Ibid., 8.

42 Ibid., 18.

43 In a 2002 interview Yarbrough remarks, “When I'm writing about the Delta, I can lay my hands on things of ordinary life in a way that I have difficulty [doing] in most other places. I think it probably has to do with the different speeds you live at when you're young, that experience registers with you to a degree that it doesn't as you get older.” Williams, 120.

44 For more information on the rise of private “segregation academies” or “white flight schools” in the Mississippi Delta see Andrews, Kenneth, “Movement–Countermovement Dynamics and the Emergence of New Institutions: The Case of ‘White Flight’ Schools in Mississippi,” Social Forces, 80, 3 (2002), 911–36Google Scholar; Sarah Carr, “In Southern Towns, ‘Segregation Academies’ Are Still Going Strong,” The Atlantic, 2002, at, accessed 22 Nov. 2013. For an account of national segregation and resegregation trends see Reardon, Sean F., Grewal, Elena Tej, Kalogrides, Demetra, and Greenberg, Erica, “Brown Fades: The End of Court-Ordered School Desegregation and the Resegregation of American Public Schools,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 3, 4 (2012), 876904 Google Scholar.

45 Melanie Benson, Disturbing Calculations: The Economics of Identity in Postcolonial Southern Literature, 1912–2002 (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2008), 19.

46 Yarbrough, 110.

47 Ibid., 229.

48 Ibid., 45.

49 Ibid., 104.

50 Ibid.

51 Yarbrough links Ned and the other workers to catfish themselves on more than one occasion. At 266, the narrative voice enters Ned's consciousness yet again: “The water around the tractor was brown and roiling. Brown water belonged in a pond. Tractors didn't. Catfish and snakes and alligators did. People didn't. People ought to be where he and Larry were now, their feet firmly on the ground, their lungs sucking in that blessed fresh air. That was the natural order of things, and anybody that upset it would have to pay for fucking it up.” Ned reveals his awareness here that Larry's interventions threaten to derail what has been the accepted order of things in favor of a different order in which farm owners would recognize the full and individual humanity of their workers, rather than equating them with the very commodity they were hired to tend.

52 Yarbrough, 278.

53 Ibid., 255, original emphasis.

54 Ibid., 20.

55 Ibid., 20.

56 Ibid., 272.

57 Ibid., 272.

58 In 1997, the University of Mississippi banned bringing sticks into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, ostensibly as a safety measure aimed at preventing injury in the crowded venue from pointed objects such as umbrellas. The practical consequence of this measure was that fans could no longer wave Confederate flags, the once ubiquitous symbol of the Ole Miss Rebels, prominently featured, for example, in halftime footage from 1962 in which Governor Ross Barnett, simultaneously engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Kennedy administration, made his infamous pronouncement that James Meredith would not enroll at the University of Mississippi. Since 1997, the University of Mississippi has taken additional steps to distance itself from the symbology of the Confederacy. In 2009, Chancellor Dan Jones requested that the UM marching band no longer play “Dixie” in the stadium. In 2003, the school's unofficial mascot, Colonel Rebel, was removed from the playing field, replaced in 2010 with Rebel Black Bear. Substantial resistance to each of these changes has come from some students and alumni, although others have supported the measures, and discussion around representations of “Ole Miss” continue with vigor. For additional information about the University's history see David G. Sansing's The University of Mississippi: A Sesquicentennial History (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999). For information about the role of the University of Mississippi in the civil rights movement see James W. Silver's Mississippi: The Closed Society (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966); William Doyle's An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962 (New York: Doubleday, 2001); and Charles W. Eagles's The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

59 Yarbrough, 273.

60 R. W. Connell, Masculinities, 2nd edn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 76–81.

61 Yarbrough, 265.

62 Ibid., 267.

63 Ibid., 280.

64 Ibid., 280.

65 Ibid., 280.

66 Soja, Spatial Justice, 4.

67 Hortense Powdermaker, After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993); John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town, 2nd paperback edn (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).

68 For more history of the Mississippi delta see Chris Myers Asch, The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994); Chana Kai Lee, For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (Urbana: University Press of Illinois, 1999); Kay Mills, This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (New York: Dutton, 1993). For more background about the relationship between Powdermaker and Dollard and their connections to the region see Adams, Jane and Gorton, D., “Southern Trauma: Revisiting Caste and Class in the Mississippi Delta,” American Anthropologist, 106, 2 (2004), 334–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

69 Wanda Rushing, Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 53. Rushing uses as her case study Memphis, Tennessee, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, and she maintains that “[p]lace shapes conflict over race, class, and gender; hence it was Memphis where the Sanitation Workers’ Strike occurred, it was Memphis where the protracted ideological and administrative struggle could not be resolved, it was Memphis where King lost his life” (ibid.).

70 The University of Mississippi Faculty Working Group on the global South began in the fall of 2005 with a grant from the UM Office of Research. Over the ten years of its existence, the group has brought a number of speakers to campus, hosted workshops, presented at conferences, and participated in faculty forums featuring its collective work, particularly as it has pertained to a shared interest in the US South, especially Mississippi. Membership in the working group has necessarily fluctuated over time, as faculty have left the university or become invested in different projects. The four authors of this essay remain the group's core, but owe a debt of gratitude to earlier collaborative efforts with their colleagues.