So last week I randomly came across Douglas A. Blackmon’s ‘Slavery By Another Name’ in a used bookstore in London for like a buck. I had never heard of it, but the cover told me it won the Pulitzer Prize, so I bought it and I’ve been reading it in NYC this week.
It’s basically the story of what happened in the American South in the hundred years between the abolishment of slavery and the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.
I’m probably a bad American and human for admitting this, but I never really learned what happened after slavery ended. I don’t mean politically or morally but, like, logistically. On Monday you were a slave. On Tuesday you weren’t. This obviously changes in a profound way your fundamental civic dignity and economic opportunity, but there’s just as much it doesn’t.
You still live in the same house, you still have the same family, you still have (or don’t have) the same education and skills. Some of your challenges have lifted, but others have appeared.
Blackmon’s book is the best account (OK, the only account) I’ve read that describes what this transition was like for the former slaves and former enslavers who lived it.
Human slaves had been freed many times before—from the Israelites, to the Romans, to Africans in the vast British Empire as recently as 1834. But no society in human history had attempted to instantly transform a vast and entrenched slave class into immediate full and equal citizenship. The cost of educating freed slaves and their children came to seem unbearably enormous, even to their purported friends.
Their expectations of compensation radically altered the economics of southern agriculture. And even among the most ardent abolitionists, few white Americans in any region were truly prepared to accept black men and women, with their seemingly inexplicable dialects, mannerisms, and supposedly narrow skills, as true social equals.
According to Blackmon, Southern lawmakers, business leaders and elites did everything in their power to slow down the advancement of African Americans. From restricting voting rights to defunding schools to prohibiting labor mobility, the economies and societies of the south removed every material benefit of living in a democracy. Northern whites, viewing this through the frosted window of newspaper coverage, decided that now that blacks were free, illiteracy and poverty were their fault. Why couldn’t they just try harder?
The subtitle of Blackmon’s book is ‘The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War To World War II’, and it mostly deals with the systematic forced labor systems established by the southern states:
By 1900, the South’s judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites […]
The records demonstrate the capture and imprisonment of thousands of random indigent citizens, almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process. The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totaled more than 100,000 and perhaps more than twice that figure. Instead of evidence showing black crime waves, the original records of county jails indicated thousands of arrests for inconsequential violations of laws specifically written to intimidate blacks—changing employers without permission, vagrancy, riding freight cars without a ticket, engaging in sexual activity—or loud talk—with white women.
Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges of arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime.
Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South—operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial framers. These bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations.
According to Blackmon, every single southern state practiced this form of slavery: Arrest black people on fake charges (‘vagrancy’, ‘inebriation’, etc.), coerce them into pleading guilty, levy a fine and fictitious administrative fees, rent them to a private company, force them to work to pay off their debts.
What’s so chilling about this now is how embedded it was in the politics and economies of Southern cities. The sheriffs actively arrested blacks on trumped-up charges. Judges actively leveed these fake fees and fines. Companies actively sought out ‘convict’ labor. Administrators all the way from mayors to governors passed laws promoting this model of labor supply.
As a black person caught in this cycle—sentenced to hard labor for years, subjected to brutal, sometimes fatal, beatings if you tried to escape—there was no higher authority you could appeal to, no institution or individual who was fighting to free you. Blacks were so systematically disenfranchised, and whites so condescendingly uninterested, no one even launched an investigation into this system for decades.
The message was clear, and shared almost universally among whites: Whatever happens to black men in strictly the result of their own choices. Those choices ultimately were to submit quietly to the emerging new order or be crushed by it.
[This] further underscored how far southern whites could extend their ability to reconcile the obvious and extraordinary abuses of blacks occurring around them with their rhetorical insistence that African Americans were entirely free, content and unmolested. Never before in American history had so large a portion of the populace adopted such explicitly false and calculated propaganda. Many southern whites actually came to believe claims that black schools were equally funded, black train cars were equally appointed, and that black citizens were equally defended by the courts—as preposterous as those claims obviously were.
I had to sort of stop reading at this page and take a little break.
Blackmon’s book makes me wonder what lies we tell ourselves now, what propaganda we swallow today that will make our grandkids cringe. It makes me wish I knew more, agued more, listened more. But mostly, it makes me wish this wasn’t the first book about this I’ve ever read. Next time I grow up, I’m gonna pay more attention.