Saturday, May 30, 2009

Slavery By Another Name

Douglas A. Blackmon. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II. New York: Doubleday 2008

Reviewed by T. Hatch

Perhaps you can't tell a book by its cover but a book-signing-talk by the author may provide some illumination. Such was the case recently while watching C Span Book TV one Saturday morning that I encountered Douglas Blockman, the Wall Street Journal's Atlanta bureau chief, presenting his book about neoslavery. With C Span's rather slavish adherence to the false doctrine of fair and balanced I had braced myself for the worst. Shame on me.

This is an important and a powerful book. Its power resides in making an argument that seems almost self evident once you see it. If you have delved into the tragedy/ outrage that the betrayal of Reconstruction was and read works such as Eric Foner's Reconstruction: Unfinished Revolution or John Hope Franklin's Reconstruction After the Civil War or most prominently of all W.E.B. Du Bois' Black Reconstruction in America one develops a sense of what a vicious white insurgency did to subvert the union occupation and destroy any hopes of black citizenship.

Despite the efforts of historians like the aforementioned the prevailing historiographical view was that the recently freed slaves showed a determined proclivity to criminality. The basis of the Jim Crow social compact required the deference of blacks to whites and a black fear of law enforcement. That compact also fostered the creation of a mythology of an honorable southerner with his contented slaves tragically defeated in the quest for secession. The pernicious lie that the civil war was fought over regional patriotism and not slavery was thusly created.

Certainly serious readers of American history are aware of the Jim Crow exceptionalism of apartheid in the United States and the Civil Rights movement that was ultimately its undoing. But almost no one has explicitly made the connection that Douglas Blackmon makes. Slavery did not end in 1865 it merely evolved. It did not entirely cease until the 1940s when considerations of possible propaganda use by the Japanese and Germans compelled the administration of Franklin Roosevelt to finally extinguish this forced labor scheme.

The ground work for the southern apartheid regime was laid by virtually every southern state from the late 1860s to 1877. A series of interlocking laws were enacted that criminalized black life. Charges such as vagrancy, using obscene language, adultery, and obtaining goods under false pretenses were examples of imprisoning blacks. Times being what they were a black man arrested in the south was bound to be found guilty of something. It was this misdemeanor forced labor system that was the sine qua non of southern whites reestablishing political control. The slave owners no longer were plantation owners but country sheriffs and their deputies were incentivized to round up all the available black labor they could. The victims of this system were leased to mines, lumber mills, and steel factories which served as the basis for southern industrialization and the emergence of what Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady labeled as the “New South” in 1886.

Blackmon estimates that between 100,000 and 200,000 blacks were enslaved by this forced labor system. An initially small fine could keep a black man in the Jim Crow south imprisoned for years working at forced labor. The prisoner-laborers in this system were subjected to physical violence and even torture if they failed to comply. The also faced multiple dangers in the work place and death was anything but a rare occurrence. Additionally the Southern captains of industry received another benefit from their preferred system of labor relations. Slave labor has a way of undermining unionization efforts by non incarcerated workers. Forced labor served as “a bulwark against labor unrest.”

Blackmon concludes the book by backing away from the seemingly logical conclusion of the work. He explicitly states that “This book is not a call for financial reparations.” Based on the evidence presented in Slavery by Another Name it certainly could be. One of the standard arguments against reparations has always been slavery ended with the Civil War. If this is demonstrably not the case then perhaps it is time to reconsider the question.

Available at Grinnell College Libraries. Please ask at circulation desk if you would like to check this out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I will read this book and possibly send a letter of complaint to the author for not advocating for reparations based on this review.