Thursday, March 10, 2016

Book recommendation: "Slavery by Another Name"

When did slavery end in the United States? In 1863 when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation? In 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified?

According to Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, slavery continued in the United States until the 1940's.

It's an amazingly well-researched, eye-opening, horrifying book.

Douglas Blackmon is not comparing Jim Crow laws to slavery. He's not using slavery as an analogy for poverty. He's talking about actual, forced-labor, legally-owning-another-person slavery. He begins with the Civil War, takes us through Reconstruction, which saw some real gains for former slaves, and then explains the system of convict leasing that fueled the industrialization of the South, using tens of thousands of Black slaves primarily to lay railroad tracks, clear forests, mine coal and process iron.

Here's how it worked. The 13th Amendment said that, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." That loophole was enough to create an entire new system of slavery that I, at least, had never heard about before. In my mind, the period after Reconstruction in the South was associated with sharecropping, not coal mines. Blackmon explains how beginning in Reconstruction, laws in the South "criminalized Black life." Laws made it a crime to not be employed by a White man or to change employment without permission from the White employer. When a Black person broke such a law, they were arrested by local law enforcement, who then turned around and sold the prisoner's labor to a coal mine, a timber company or an ironworks. This was called "convict leasing." Often scouts for the companies would identify good potential workers and notify the local sheriff, who could make arrests based on trumped-up charges and then profit from the sale of the new labor. Enormous mines and factories were worked entirely by slaves. Slaves literally built the modern cities of the South.

Physical abuse of convicts was such that 30-40% of slaves died during their forced labor. Perversely, while before the Civil War slaves were viewed as property that had some financial worth, in post-Civil War slavery, the slaves were leased, so when a slave died he or she was simply replaced with no financial loss.

What this means is that there was legal slavery in the United States, not when my great-great-great-grandmother was around, but when my mother was a child.

"Let us define this period of American life plainly and comprehensively," writes Blackmon. "It was the Age of Neoslavery. Only by acknowledging the full extent of slavery's grip on U.S. society - its intimate connections to present-day wealth and power, the depth of its injury to black Americans, the shocking nearness in time of its true end - can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life." 

Slavery by Another Name won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

You can watch an interview with the author at