A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
This Pulitzer Prizewinning book shocks the reader before he or she has opened it. The cover photograph shows a young black man, (possibly only a boy) in prison garb, lying on his side with his arms tied around his legs in what must have been at least, great discomfort. This photograph, which isn’t credited, gives the reader the merest hint of what is to come.
Our understanding of American history, (at least on the UK side of the Atlantic) is that the emancipation of the slaves was a straightforward affair. Lincoln spake and it was thus and apart from some unpleasantness prior to the Civil Rights movement, African-Americans were home free. Prior to reading this book, I knew about the Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, and I knew that the Ku Klux Klan and its like did not obligingly disappear with the new millennium. However, what I did not realise was how much of a hold slavery continued to have in the Deep South, even in the face of advancing urban capitalism and the retreat of the rural economy.
On reflection, this is very naïve. Britain’s industrial development was based on cheap labour, at home and abroad (including the supply of cotton from America to the mills of north-west England) so there is no reason to believe that the bigger, more complex economy of the new United States would be any different.
What Douglas Blackmon tells us is that after the brief flare of post-Civil War optimism the lives of African Americans got much worse before they got better. He writes in a tone of flat anger and pain about the many ways in which white Americans, especially in the south, sought to defy and subvert Lincoln’s intent and that of the many Americans, black and white, to eliminate the ownership of one person by another. He makes it plain that not only did they re-establish slavery, they made it worse, in many respects, than it had been in the antebellum period. He sets out his case with the aid of court transcripts, subpoenas, witness statements, invoices and many other forms of documentation, to establish as truth what most of us would rather we didn’t have to believe. However, the conscientious reader will find the evidence very hard to put aside.
Prior to the Civil War, millions of African Americans had been owned by individual families. They were put to work on farms and plantations, or used as house servants, where they were relied on and needed, if not respected by their owners. Their lot depended on the inclination of those owners, and in spite of a certain element of wishful thinking, about kindly, paternal plantation owners and contented slaves, it was often a hard one. Even when it was comfortable, the difficult question of ownership was always there, an affront to the dignity and humanity of slave and owner. However, owners had a financial incentive to look after the well-being of their human property as much as they would their livestock. A sickly, overworked, undernourished slave couldn’t produce a decent return on their owner’s investment, so it wasn’t in the latter’s interest to be gratuitiously neglectful or cruel. This doesn’t mean some weren’t, but it didn’t pay.
After the Civil War, all that changed. Slavery had been formally abolished by the Emancipation Declaration, but that was qualified by at least two huge caveats. One was that there were no specific laws against owning people, a fact that was used later by defendants on trial for doing just that. The federal government decided the relations between the races should be left to the states to determine. The fact that black people had very little power or political representation in the states where they were most numerous – that is, the former slave states – did not register as a priority with (white) political elites in Washington. The other caveat was that although legally free people were emancipated from forced labour, prisoners were not. It was alarmingly easy for black people to find themselves in the judicial system, especially if they were young and male. They need not be serious criminals; many were arrested for such atrocities as breaking a contract with an employer, vagrancy, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or worst of all, the gentlest of flirtations with a white woman. Once arrested, they would be taken to court, fined, and costs would be added. Costs could appertain to everybody involved in the apprehension of the malefactor, starting with the local busy-body, through to the local sheriff, and up to everybody in the court system. Saddled with costs they couldn’t meet, they and their debt would be passed on to an individual or body, such as the local council and made to work for them or leased to a third party such as a huge industrial concern where yet more money would be made out of their labour. Because the imprisoned man or woman wasn’t a slave, no one individual had an investment in his or her well being and working and living conditions were often miserable. Starvation, beatings and sexual abuse were common, those who failed to meet their work quota could expect no leniency and death rates were high. This applied even in those industries like mining and quarrying, where conditions for free workers still left much to be desired and where accidents and illness were a major problem. In addition to that, forced labour came with other hazards, such as malnutrition and squalid living conditions.
Blackmon tells us in some detail why forced labour happened and how. He also makes it clear that contrary to the rosy perspective of many people in the Deep South as well as northern liberals, it wasn’t an aberration by a few bad apples. It was widespread and facilitated by the south’s rapid industrialisation and drew its ideological underpinning from the feeling that many powerful individuals had, that the emancipation declaration wasn’t legitimate and could be flouted with impunity. It was also helped along by the ugly fact that although the north excelled at pious pronouncements, the reality for its black citizens was often very different. A rash of gruesome lynchings hit the headlines in the years after emancipation, many of them in such places as New York and Chicago.
Above all, however, what Douglas Blackmon’s book tells many of us is how little we really know about the experience of African-Americans in the post-emancipation period. Although many readers will have an understanding that they weren’t living in a paradise on earth, fewer will know how terrible it was for millions of human beings caught in the hinterland between slavery and full civil rights. That so many of their fellow citizens were determined to deprive them of what little they had will come as a shock, even to many of those who know the history. For those of us outside the States, we might also look at our own countries. The white supremacists of America’s Deep South were not uniquely dreadful people; if their history has its dark corners, it begs many questions about our own.
Icon Books, London 2012, ISBN: 978-184831-486-3.