Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Neo-Slavery exposed

Don't take my word for it. The 2009 Pulitzer Prize committee gave its General Nonfiction award to Douglas A. Blackmon's Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. They called this work of history "precise and eloquent." I'd add "frightening and brave." There are truths we don't want to know and they don't make the messenger popular; Blackmon tells many of them.

Piling detail on detail, Blackmon has exposed a horrible reality: slavery in the United States thrived for nearly 80 years after the Civil War, defined by race (Southern whites enslaved African Americans) and disguised as debt peonage or criminal servitude. The record of what he calls "neo-slavery" was readily available in local records and musty Justice Department archives, but few had ever looked for it.

Hundreds of thousands of African Americans, mostly young men, labored involuntarily in mines, on farms, and in the forests to the great economic benefit of whites. They worked while shackled in chains, barely fed or clothed, under constant threat of whippings, water torture (yes, these slave drivers went in for Dick Cheney's favorite game) and outright murder.

Their condition was often worse than that of pre-Civil War slaves because they weren't the expensive, valuable, property of the mine or mill. Slave drivers -- whether industrial giants like United States Steel or local farmers -- simply rented these unfortunates from rural sheriffs for a small monthly fee, usually less than $20. If the private jailer worked or beat a laborer to death, they could just rent a new hand. Rural sheriffs and justices of the peace made good money by picking up Black men, fining them for "vagrancy" or some other unrecorded offense, and passing them on to paying slave drivers seeking workers.

Blackmon reports how this system was imposed by defeated Confederates after the Civil War to keep the freed laborers down and at work; how impotent to stop it were sporadic federal legal intrusions on the system; and how only national mobilization for war in World War II, a mobilization that perforce needed African Americans, helped bring the slave system down.
One of the most interesting facets of Blackmon's book is the reaction he records from whites and African Americans when he first published some of his research in the Wall Street Journal.

The article generated a response unlike anything I had experienced as a journalist. A deluge of e-mails, letters, and phone calls arrived. White readers on the whole reacted with somber praise for a sober documentation of a forgotten crime against African Americans. Some said it heightened their understanding of demands for reparations to the descendants of antebellum slaves. Only a few expressed shock. ...

The reactions of African Americans were altogether different. Repeatedly, they described how the article lifted a terrible burden, that the story had in some way--partly because of its sobriety and presence on the front page of the nation's most conservative daily newspaper--supplied an answer or part of one to a question so unnerving few dared ask it aloud: If not racial inferiority, what explained the inexplicably labored advance of African Americans in U.S. society in the century between the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 1960s? The amorphous rhetoric of the struggle against segregation, the thin cinematic imagery of Ku Klux Klan bogey men, even the horrifying still visuals of lynching, had never been a sufficient answer to these African Americans for one hundred years of seemingly docile submission by four million slaves freed in 1863 and their tens of millions of descendants. How had so large a population of Americans disappeared into a largely unrecorded oblivion of poverty and obscurity? They longed for a convincing explanation.

Later in the book, he shares the story of an extended African American family coming to terms with each other about a history that had never been explicitly told. Several generations brought their different perspectives.

On a cool fall night, Pearline Danzey, the eighty-eight-year-old matriarch of the extended family of Martin Danzy, who died as a slave worker in a turpentine camp in 1916, welcomed me to her home. ...

"To kill a colored person then, it wasn't nothing," she says. "We was slaves too in a way." For most of the Danzeys gathered that night, this is the first time they have heard "Pearl," as Mrs. Danzey is known to them all, tell the harsh tales of her childhood. ..."Our daddy and momma never taught us to hate white people. . . . We just got taught who always got the job, who had authority, and we were supposed to address them with respect," explained Ida, one of Pearline's nieces. "Until the civil rights movement we didn't know life could be any other way," she said.

...The Danzeys live in a place where cotton has been grown for most of two centuries and where Mrs. Danzey's family traces its history back to 1832 and a slave, Frank, brought to the county by a local white farmer named John Danzey. Pearline remembered her uncle Martin mostly as a man who spelled his last name without an "e," as did one line of white Danzys who lived nearby. She said she no longer remembered his alleged crime.

"My granddaddy used to talk about him. He went off to prison and died there," she says. "They was real sad about it."

...It wasn't clear whether the elder Mrs. Danzey's recollection had failed or, as was the case in many black families in Alabama, the stigma of imprisonment makes her uncomfortable discussing the subject. One thing is certain: after his arrest, Uncle Martin never came back.

Reading this, I had to wonder how many Black children today, north and south, have a similar ghostly awareness that an uncle or a father "went away to prison and never came back." This is the contemporary truth that Michelle Alexander writes about in The New Jim Crow.

Mrs. Danzey's grandchildren had their own generational response to her stories.

The younger Danzeys aren't sure what to make of the story of Uncle Martin. "You can't go back and change the past. Just don't let it happen again," says Cynthia James.

Pearline's granddaughter, Melissa Craddock, disagrees. The companies that made money off the forced labor of Uncle Martin owe something, she says. "If there was something that came out of that, then there ought to be compensation," she says. "That was after slavery ended."

Cynthia's brother, James Danzey, a deeply religious forty-five-year-old, has listened intently as his great-aunt unspooled her stories. James Danzey brings up the talk of slave reparations he has heard recently and of other long-ago abuses of African Americans that have come to light in recent years.

"I believe it's God's hand," says James Danzey, who works as a counselor at a center for behaviorally disturbed children in a nearby town. "I believe there are some good true white people of God, who realize that their ancestors did bad, and they have to make right. ... Think about all the money those companies made on those people," he says later. "Those companies should be investigated for doing that. They should have to pay something."

We don't live in a world where it's likely anyone is going to have to "pay something" -- but at least we can all tell the truth about what was done.
I listened to Blackmon's history as an audiobook. As horror followed horror -- accounts of pointless humiliation and vicious "punishments" of the neo-slaves -- a concurrent debate rumbled in my head. Were the neo-slavers drivers so cruel because it was in their systemic economic interest -- or did they simply hate Black people? This is not a question Blackmon disentangles; there is evidence for both in the documentation he presents, intermixed without comment. And it is not a question with any meaning for the victims of the neo-slave system either; when someone is whipping you bloody, the torturer's motivation doesn't really matter.

But nonetheless I find it haunting. The economic interests involved are obvious; sheriffs, farmers and industrialists had a good deal going for themselves. But the unconstrained sadism takes the practice into some additional horrible cranny of human possibility

Many more pictures from the neo-slavery era are posted at the book's website.
Slavery by Another Name will be the subject of a PBS documentary in 2012 (assuming House Republicans don't kill off PBS.)

1 comment:

Darlene said...

Man's inhumanity to man. Even today more blacks are arrested than whites for the same crime and are given harsher punishments.

The injustice is not dead, even though it is not as cruel as it was before the Civil Rights movement.

Poverty among blacks is the shame of our country and of the citizens who look the other way.

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