Sunday, June 22, 2008

Slavery By Another Name

If you haven't peeped it, you definitely should check out Stephen A. Blackmon's excellent new book, Slavery by Another Name. The book documents the age of "Neo-slavery" that funded American expansion in the post-Civil War period up until WWII.

As the US raced towards industrialization at the turn of the century, the South was still a major source of raw materials, like cotton & steel, that the country desperately needed. There were machines to be built, train tracks to be made, crops to be picked, and fortunes to be amassed. The South had built much of it's economic infrastructure with the slave labor model and corporate interests saw little reason to change the status quo. A system of "peonage" was developed to arrest newly-freed Black men on bogus charges, like "vagrancy," and send them to "work off" fines through forced labor. Although working conditions were horrendous everywhere, some of the worst were in the steel mines. This was especially true in light of the fact that there was little to no government oversight and Black life was considered cheap. Slave miners were forced to work without proper equipment, clothing, food, or medical care. Forty-five percent of the men who went into the mines never came out and tens of thousands either lost their lives or were permanently disabled.

Although Blackmon's book is exhaustively researched and provides an extensive account of the economic and political forces that contributed to this form of slavery, he effectively ties these larger dynamics to the personal accounts of those caught up in the web of this system.

In 1901, John Pace and his wife Nora were in their twenties, had two kids, and had their own cotton farm near Goodwater, Georgia. Not bad for people who had been considered property just a few decades earlier. But, the Paces struggled to both pay rent to the White owners of the land and have enough to feed and clothe their family. And then Nora took sick and had to stay with her parents. When John went to visit his wife, he was arrested on bogus charges by a local constable and sentenced to work off his fine in a steel mine in Tallapoosa County, Alabama. John survived and was later able to testify against his captors, but many others weren't so lucky.

Slavery by Another Name should not only be required reading for those interested in the history of Black folks in America, it also illustrates some of the frightening ways that unchecked political and corporate interests can exploit the most vulnerable members of society. This is even more important these days since Amnesty International estimates that the modern day global economy benefits from the forced labor of 27 million people. Scary, but true.

1 comment:

Shawna said...

Nice. Came to your site via Vanessa's. Hope you are well and enjoying summer!

Another thought: If you haven't already, you might consider adapting your review for