What if I told you slavery in the United States didn’t end until 1951? You’d probably tell me I’m lying and that slavery ended with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 (or 1865 if you were so unfortunate as to live in Texas, where it took two years for word of the Proclamation to reach Texas slaves).
But the history we learn in school–that slavery ended with the Civil War and racism is a minor issue and only in the South–is wrong. Douglas J. Blackmon takes readers through, not an alternative history, but a forgotten history. A hidden history. A history of which even its direct descendants are sometimes unaware.
Anyone with an interest in the social and cultural discussion happening today in the United States needs to read Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. I consider myself to be a fairly knowledgeable social liberal. My parents raised me to believe everyone deserves the same opportunities, no matter the color of their skin. While this lesson didn’t open my eyes to the struggles that non-whites face in this country, it did make it so I assume equal opportunity is a given. And if it’s not, it should be, so I happily call it out as I learn more about where equality is non-existent.
That being said, I am embarrassed to say how many times my jaw dropped–literally dropped, Trump presidential election style–at the things I learned in this book. I don’t want to give too much away because I think you should be shocked as well. I hope it wakes you up as much as it did me. As Blackmon says:
As painful as it may be to plow the past, among the ephemera left behind by generations crushed in the wheels of American white supremacy are telling explanations for the fissures that still thread our society. In fact, these events explain more about the current state of American life, black and white, than the antebellum slavery that preceded.
Everyone was complicit in the new slavery detailed by Blackmon. Northerners. Progressives. Conservatives. Religious figures. Civil rights figures. State and local governments. Federal government. Lawyers. Judges. Businesses. Farmers. Blacks. Whites.
This book is not an easy read. It’s long. It shares, in sometimes graphic detail, the lives of black Americans after the Civil War. In many ways, the new slavery was worse than the old slavery of the antebellum South.
But this is a book every American should read. We should learn about this period of history in school. Post-Civil War life in the South was not all about Jim Crow laws and segregation. It was worse. Much worse. And the only way we can move forward today is if we study the lessons of the past.
The book is easy to follow, but if you aren’t sure about reading 403 pages of history, I urge you to simply read the Epilogue. What you learn in the epilogue will shock you enough. And if you read critically, you’ll get an idea of the horrors shared in the rest of the book. Decades of racism and white supremacy are clear when U.S. Steel says it can’t accept responsibility today for any slavery the company benefited from in the past, when the company gets a cemetery property tax exemption on some of its land, but can’t confirm that any slave convicts are buried there. The importance of openly talking about this past is clear when Wachovia Bank commits resources to understanding its own history, and shares the reactions of its employees when the company talks about this history internally and creates scholarships to help make amends for profits from slave labor.
Read the book, or check out the PBS documentary of the same name. Either way, this is required “reading” for all Americans. We can’t understand ourselves without understanding our history. Don’t be afraid to confront it.