“The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.” A Long Day’s Journey into Night
It’s really depressing that this book isn’t a history book. Not really. Slavery by Another Name is ostensibly about how slavery continued in this country well into the 20th century in the forms of convict release programs and debt peonage. That would be infuriating enough. But it’s impossible to read this book and only think about the past. After the brutal violence that took away Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and so so so many more, it’s impossible to read this book and not see its parallels in the present.
In 1908, Green Cottenham, the son of slaves, was arrested for vagrancy (basically meaning he wasn’t able to prove on the spot that he had a job). Cops sold him to a mining company, where he was worked to death. This was totally legal, and the mining company wasn’t even investigated over his death. And this happened all the time.
All it took was anything remotely resembling a crime. Being unemployed, changing jobs without an employer’s permission, selling cotton after sunset-all of these could be grounds for arrest (I assume that’s where the legal precedent for Walking While Black originated). African Americans were put in jail, hit with insane fines, and then charged for their own arrests. With no way to pay, cops would sell the “criminals” to plantations, railroads and coal mines. They were forced to work off their debt for years, if they lived that long. Usually, their families had no idea where they were. And when they were beaten and thrown in cages, when their “owners” set their dogs on them, when they starved to death and dumped in unmarked graves, there were no legal repercussions.
John Williams, a plantation owner in Georgia tortured and murdered a prisoner for not working hard enough. Another man managed to escape and tell federal officials. After the feds stopped by, Williams panicked and helped his overseer kill every prison laborer and throw their bodies in the river. He was the only white person to ever be found guilty of the crime.
All of this is horrible, but the part that gutpunched me the most how fiercely most Southerners tried to defend the men who profited from this practice. It’s easier to frame the issue as “Bad Guys” did “Bad Things” and they were punished. But that’s not how it went down. In reality, the White South fought tooth and nail to defend “their way of life” under the guise that blacks were inferior and not ready for true freedom. While they did this, whites in the North looked the other way.
This is the part with the most ties to the present. Rather than arguing whether it was legal to own and kill people, people attacked the victims. They were criminals, they were lazy, they were stupid, they were disrespectful. Sound familiar? Or people would admit, yeah…that whole thing sounds really bad. But those cops that sold them were just a few bad eggs, not indicative of a real problem, and how dare you imply that we have a race problem. We’re not racists, we’re good people. And slavery’s over!
This book was rough. It was a relatively short read, but packed densely with human misery. But everyone should still read it, if only to put to rest one of the biggest lies told to American students -that the Civil War ended slavery.