Saturday, June 21, 2008

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon

The full title of the book resulting from the Atlanta-based Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas A. Blackmon's seven years of research is Slavery by Another Name: The Reinslavement of African Americans from the Civil War to World War II (Doubleday, 2008). No that's not a typo, yes as you can see by the image to the right, that is actually the title of the book and the end of


I've just reserved a copy at my public library. In the book Blackmon uses the narrative technique of following one African American man in Alabama describing how after the dismantling of Reconstruction laws were put on the books that "criminalized African American life" including those allowing for the arrest for vagrancy at any time of any African American man who couldn't provide proof of his employ by a white man. So just sitting on a porch, or taking a walk, or walking, or traveling by any means to visit family, or to a place where he might inquire after employment was was dangerous proposition for a black man and his loved ones at that time. After being charged and convicted with vagrancy or another trumped up charge he was given a financial penalty which could amount to a years worth of wages or more and forced to work to pay them off by being leased or sold to a commercial enterprise. The conditions were appalling as detailed by Blackmon, and many men died in enslavement.

Although Blackmon focuses on Alabama in a May 6 interview (you'll need to scroll forward a little to get to the interview) with Michael Slate of KPFK's Beneath the Surface, he noted that this type of re-enslavement practice was occurring across the South. It occurred for the longest period of time and in its most structured form in Alabama. There are 30,000 pages of documentation on the situation comprising numerous complaints all available in the National Archives in Washington D.C. Blackmon talked about the changing national sentiment towards the Civil War and race relations in the wake of emancipation, the legal loopholes that allowed for this practice while it was unconstitutional for a white person to hold a deeds on African Americans as property, there was no federal statute that made it a crime enslave another person. So even though these complaints poured into federal offices it was determined by the government that they didn't have the jurisdiction to investigate or prosecute these cases. What amounted to kidnapping was not considered a federal offense and thus allowed the practice to be exclusively under state and county jurisdiction. Blackmon also commented on the white South's addiction to the economic model of slave labor as well as landowners lack of developed knowledge about their agrarian methods. Further xplaining the background to this reinslavement model he outlined the pre-Civil War development of a new slavery model in which African American men were separated from their families and put to work in industry fields at inhuman paces, "far beyond what any human being could be expected to survive" that resulted in profits that exceeded the loss incurred by that man being effectively worked to death in 4-5 years, and losing out on procreation opportunities--despite the purchase cost of slaves at that time. Some of these same white men were the architects of the new re-enslavement system after the Civil War. The resulting wealth, with the elimination or considerable decrease of the initial purchase cost of a slave, is behind the development of such companies as US Steel and Coca-Cola. (pictured above a U.S. Steel stockade (jail) in Birmingham, Alabama, 1908 © Douglas A. Blackmon) This re-enslavement primarily focused on young African American males, but of course also profoundly impacted African American families and communities, children grandparents, sisters, wives, who experienced the loss of loved ones and the continued violence and terrorism against their basic humanity in the repeated rending through of African American families and communities with this continuation of slavery--how can one recover from a disease that has not ended, but mutated and "metastasized"?

Blackmon's book also has a website with excerpts from the book, interviews, photo gallery, teaching guides, and multimedia resources. The practice the book details only ended in 1942. It was, as Slate and Blackmon deemed, a cynically motivated ending to a horrible injustice and shameful period. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941 and the US's entry into WWII, the Roosevelt administration realized that the existence of both the lynching of African Americans as well as this continuation of basically legal slavery in the South were going to be propaganda nightmares for the country. The legal changes with regards to prosecution for this form of enslavement soon went into effect on December 11, 1941 (lynching laws took much longer to take effect), and the first case was prosecuted in early 1942, a father and daughter who had enslaved a black man for five years. In 1943 they were convicted and sent to prison--an event which Blackmon considers the official endpoint for what he terms "the Age of New Slavery."

Officially the enslavement of African Americans--in all currently known forms--has only been over for 65 years, instead of the heretofore accepted end-date of 1865, or 143 years ago. Many of us have relatives older than 65 years of age.

I'm thinking it's time to add another emancipation day of recognition to Juneteenth. Additionally I want to express my graditute all those people who are responsible for those thousands of complaints that flooded the White House and the Justice Department in Washington D.C. taking what I'm sure was considerable personal risk to issue those statements. Though many of them likely died without redress, the fact that they attempted to be heard and gain justice meant that decades later someone, in this case Blackmon, could find that history and know it wasn't a few isolated cases, that a major chapter of US history was missing and needed to be addressed.

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