“Only by acknowledging the full extent of slavery’s full grip on U.S. Society — its intimate connections to present day wealth and power, the depth of its injury to black Americans, the shocking nearness in time of its true end — can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life.”
– Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name
When I was in high school, in regard to black history, I remember learning about the slavery and Civil War, and then jumping ahead to the civil rights movement, with only a brief mention of sharecropping. The impression left from these lessons was that although racism still abounded after Emancipation, African Americans in the South were at least free, able to farm and build a life for themselves.
It turns out this was mostly a myth.
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon reveals through meticulous research how southern whites by-passed the Emancipation Proclamation and constitutional amendments to continue slavery in the form of convict forced labor. “In the first decades [after Emancipation], the intensity of southern whites’ need to reestablish hegemony over blacks rivaled the most visceral patriotism of the wartime Confederacy,” writes Blackmon. So, they found their way around emancipation by criminalizing black life by writing laws targeted specifically at African Americans, one such law making it illegal for someone to leave their current employment without their employer’s permission.
“Whites realized that the combination of trumped-up legal charges and forced labor as punishment created both a desirable business proposition and an incredibly effective tool for intimidating rank-and-file emancipated African Americans and doing away with their most effective leaders,” Blackmon notes. The forced labor of blacks was big business, refilling the coffers of southern governments that had been drained during the Civil War, as well lining the pockets of judges, sheriffs, justices of the peace, clerks, accusers, and the business owners who rented the young men, labeled “criminals,” from the county and state courthouses. The system became so efficient that a business man could have This combined with lynchings and other forms of intimidation provided a way for white southerners to crush what little autonomy African Americans acquired in the first decades after emancipation.
While a percentage of these black men (and some women) were sold to work in the cotton fields, a greater number of them were sent to work in the growing industrial complex of the south, including mining and metallurgy. The conditions were horrifying, with prisoners not only being beaten and tortured, but also working with little to no clothing and with little to no food. Disease ran rampant through the prisons, where the men were often chained together at night.
“The horror of the mortality rates and living conditions was underscored by the triviality of the alleged offenses for which hundreds of men were being held.” Such offenses included illegally voting, vagrancy, false pretense (leaving employment of a white farmer without permission), homosexuality, and other minor infractions. In some cases, no accusation of a crime was even recorded.
Once this system took hold, it went uncontested for decades with northern whites turning a blind eye, tired of the fight and leaving the south to handle it’s own problems. The U.S. government received thousands of complaints over the years, some from it’s own investigators, with only one real attempt at combating the system — which failed because attorneys were able to argue that under the amendments as they were written, slavery wasn’t technically illegal — up until WWII. At which point the new slavery system began to fall apart because it was becoming less economically viable, as well as with a dislike of the conditions of the mines, which became sensational news when two white men fell under the treatment. It was also a good political move for the president to show support for African Americans during the war, as the U.S. would need access to as many troops as possible.
The new form of slavery didn’t officially end until 1945, when the federal laws were finally rewritten to clarify the illegality of slavery. 1945!
“As painful as it may be to plow the past, among the ephemera left behind by generations crushed in the wheels of American white supremacy are telling explanations for the fissures that still thread our society. In fact, these events explain more about the current state of American life, black and white, than the antebellum slavery that preceded.”
It would be easy to disconnect, to relegate these events as things of the past and no longer relevant. But reading this book, I can clearly see the seeds of how race is currently handled in the U.S. today.
When Blackmon writes — “A venomous contempt for black life was not just tolerated but increasingly celebrated. … When a black man in Henderson, NC, refused to give up his reserved seat in a local theater to a white patron in April 1903, he was forcibly ejected. When he resisted being moved, the black man was shot dead by a policeman. White southerners applauded.” — I can’t help but relate to the number of recent events in Ferguson and elsewhere in which unarmed black men have been shot and killed, after which the men and their lives are so criminalized by authorities and the media that the police officers in question are not even indicted in most cases.
I look at what a big business the conviction of African Americans was during the time period in this book, and I find myself disturbed to learn that the for-profit detention industry is growing, especially considering the fact that:
- African Americans constituted nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population in 2008, and, together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population.
- On average, black men’s prison sentences are 20% longer than white men’s for comparable crimes.
- Black people and white people use illegal drugs at similar rates, but black people are far more likely to be arrested for drug use.
- African Americans are far more likely to be stopped and searched (although the contraband hit rate is higher among white people) in California.
- And also in New York (where the data isn’t quite as good but appears to be comparable to CA).
- Those wrongfully convicted and later exonerated by DNA are disproportionately African American.
- Black kids are far more likely to be tried as adults and more likely to receive life sentences.
(I found these sources and statistics, along with the video “Racism by the numbers,” on John Green’s tumbler.)
This is a depressing book, which is also dense with facts and data, making it a difficult read. However, it’s also a vital book. It presents an aspect of American history that one would not necessarily want to look at, but it’s something we need to look at. I don’t know if reparations, such as those required of the Germans following WWII, are the answer, but I feel strongly that this piece of history needs to be openly acknowledged and accounted for in some way, if we in the U.S. are going to move forward toward a truer enactment of equality.
“When white Americans frankly peel back the layers of our commingled pasts, we are all marked by it. Whether a company or an individual, we are marred either by our connections to the specific crimes and injuries of our fathers and their fathers. Or we are tainted by the failures of our fathers to fulfill our national credos when their courage was most needed. We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others. It is not our “fault.” But it is undeniably our inheritance.”