Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II is one of the most harrowing books I’ve read in a long time–and one of the most important.
My sense of the Jim Crow era has largely been a recognition of the government-sanctioned segregation, discrimination, and diminishment of the humanity of African American people following the Civil War up through the success of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. I’m aware of the terror that black people were subjected to by white people through violence, threats of violence, and lynching–as highlighted in Sherrilyn A. Ifill’s terrific book On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century. The likelihood of white perpetrators of such terror being prosecuted, let alone convicted, of crimes against black people was quite small.
What I was unprepared for in reading Slavery by Another Name was how federal, state, and local laws were written and used–and abused–to intimidate and subjugate African Americans. Tens of thousands of black people were arbitrarily arrested on the most spurious of charges. Fines and so-called “court costs” were levied against them that they could not pay. State and local government officials “leased” the prisoners to white businessmen in exchange for payment of the fines. The prisoner thus “owed” the businessman and was sentenced to a period of enforced labor to pay off his debt. Black men worked in coal mines, on farms, for subsidiaries of U.S. Steel–all of which were run as slave labor camps upon which shackles, torture, starvation, and threats of death were used to maintain the system.
Southern government treasuries were enriched through the sale of human beings. Corporations, small businesses, and white families were enriched through the stolen labor of black people. From roughly 1890 through the early 1940’s the promise of freedom for formerly enslaved African Americans and their descendants was universally and brutally exposed as false.
From the book: “The gruesome fates of all those men ricocheted across the landscape of black life, depositing as they spread new layers of tragedy atop the deep residue of trauma left by thousands of prior horrors from inside and outside the South’s forced labor camps. Together, these events formed the foundation of a collective recognition among African Americans of their precarious vulnerability in American Society.”
As I continue to study the history of the United States–and I focus on that which has been previously hidden from me–I’m developing a much clearer understanding of the deep and historic mistrust that continues to exist among black people, white people, and our relationship with each other and our government(s).
As I re-read the words I’ve written here about Slavery by Another Name I hope I haven’t scared anyone off from reading it. Blackmon is honest about what he is presenting. I’m sharing my honest views about his book. It is brilliant. It is challenging. It is enlightening. It will change you. Most of all it is a significant contribution to understanding the complexities inherent in both the history and current condition of the United States of America.