Slavery by What Other Name?

Unidentified African American undergoing punishment in labor camp in 1932. (photo by John Spivak)

Unidentified African American undergoing punishment in labor camp in 1932. (photo by John Spivak)

Ask any student of American history what year the enslavement of African Americans ended in the United States and she or he will answer with cheerful confidence, “1865.”

Ask that same question of author Douglas A. Blackmon, who recently picked up a very cool 2009 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for his book Slavery by Another Name, and he will suggest a different date: “I would put 1942 as the date for the technical end of slavery in the Unite. States,” said Blackmon. Why? Because according to Blackmon’s research, spun into the compelling narrative of his book, the condition of what he refers to as “neoslavery” did not end until that time.

Neoslavery was the practice of abducting African Americans, and/or imprisoning them based on exaggerated or false criminal charges, and forcing them into servitude long after the days of the Civil War that supposedly put an end to such practices. As the subtitle of his book indicates, the practice basically constituted “The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.” Blackmon maintains that the practice was particularly prominent in the states of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. Moreover, the “free” labor it provided was utilized by a number of corporations and allowed them to become some of the wealthiest and most powerful in modern U.S. history.

Sitting in on Blackmon’s lecture, I couldn’t help being as moved as anybody else in the very diverse audience by what he had to say: “This is not only a story about what was done to African Americans. It’s a story about what was done by White Americans… It isn’t black history. It’s American history.” The emphasis on the words “to” and “by” in the previous sentence are his. They were further underscored by a series of some thirteen canvases, by artist Robert Morris, mounted on easels near the back wall of the annex. Some of Morris’ work combined painted images with copies of authentic newspaper articles from the 1700s advertising slave auctions or rewards for runaway slaves. Included among the images are locations only recently identified as places where slave trading or related activities took place in Savannah .      

Significantly enough, Blackmon shared his insights and theories with a packed to capacity audience last week (Friday, May 15, 2009) in the brand new annex of the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum in Savannah, Georgia. Considering that Savannah once-upon-a-time in the 1700s American South was one of the busiest slave port cities in the country, it seems like something more than a coincidence took place when Blackmon was scheduled to give a book signing and lecture in the city only weeks before he won the Pulitzer. That kind of almost magical confluence of events is something authors and booksellers hardly dare to even dream about much less hope for. In this case, the lucky bookseller turned out to be The Book Lady, which temporarily moved its base of operations from 6 East Liberty Street in Savannah to the Civil Rights Museum for the lecture and signing.

So now visitors on their way to the city know where to drop in to pick up an autographed copy of Slavery by Another Name fresh off the Pulitzer lecture circuit. Moreover, art from the Robert Morris exhibit is also currently on display at The Book Lady. AND: it just so happens that you can also pick up a copy of ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love at that same location. Feel free to reserve a copy of either book by calling (912) 233-3628.

Slavery by Another Name
raises some serious issues in relation to some of my own nonfiction works, particularly Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance and The Wisdom of W.E.B.  Du Bois . For that reason, and for others dealing with the book’s potential impact on studies of American and African-American history during this era of the United States’ first African-American president, I will periodically revisit the subject in this blog.

For a related article, please read Authors Weigh in on Neoslavery Debate

by Aberjhani

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