My wife and I got a babysitter last Friday night so we could take the bus – MUCH easier than trying to find parking at the uptown UAlbany campus – and watch Slavery by Another Name, “a 90-minute documentary that challenges one of Americans’ most cherished assumptions: the belief that slavery in this country ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.” Though the film will be premiering on PBS, Monday, February 13 at 9pm ET / 8pm CT (check local listings), the real draw of viewing it early on a bigger screen was to be able to see the director of the film, Shelia Curran Bernard, and the writer of the book upon which the film was based, Douglas Blackmon, who I had seen before.
Narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne, “The film tells how even as chattel slavery came to an end in the South in 1865, thousands of African Americans were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality. It was a system in which men, often guilty of no crime at all, were arrested, compelled to work without pay, repeatedly bought and sold, and coerced to do the bidding of masters. Tolerated by both the North and South, forced labor lasted well into the 20th century.” The movie notes the failure of the federal government, both after Reconstruction, and again in the early 20th century under Teddy Roosevelt, to stem the tide of forced labor.
As both the SBAN book and the movie made clear, the peonage system was, in many ways, far worse than the slavery before the Civil War. If one had slaves, one needed to protect one’s economic investment by providing some measure of food, clothing and shelter. If one were a business, such as US Steel, leasing convicts, one could work someone nearly to death, or sometimes fatally, and then go lease someone else.
The speakers had no prepared comments, but were just doing a question and answer period. Anyone who’s seen a Q&A knows that the quality of questions are all over the place. One person wanted to know why we never heard these stories before. Blackmon noted that that further away we are from it in history, the easier it is to look at it. In any case, there will be classroom material available to talk about this previously unknown, shameful part of the American postbellum past.
A question that intrigued me was, basically, how people could be so cruel to each other. The speakers noted that when you create a class of “the other”, not just racially, but as “the criminal”, even if it were based on a vague, trumped-up charge of vagrancy, it made it easier to think of people as less than human. This tied to another question about the new Jim Crow laws, which continue to incarcerate black people in disproportionate numbers; the speakers referred to Michelle Alexander’s book and other sources for further reference.
I must admit to laughing at a recent comment from the blog of SamuraiFrog “It’s Black History Month. So if you’re one of those complete idiots going on Facebook and whining about how having a Black History Month is racism against white people, please pick up a history book. And hit yourself in the head with it. Repeatedly. Until you black out.” The fact that THIS story has largely been missing from the history books makes the continued investigation of the lost black history, a/k/a American history, still relevant.