So, I watched a documentary called Slavery by Another name on PBS. I knew of the book and the original Wall Street Journal article, but a 90minute documentary is so much shorter and nicer. The documentary is excellent (like just about all of PBS’ documentaries) and has a bunch of personal touches that you can’t really get without seeing and hearing people. After watching the documentary it really made me want to read the entire book. The book is big though and will take some time to get through. Like most good non fiction texts it requires a lot of critical thought, self examination, and external research to get as much out of it as you can. So it took me over a month to read it, and it was well worth it.
You can (and should) watch the documentary here.
I think this book is absolutely wonderful. It has a lot of things going for it. First and foremost, the writer doesn’t do that thing that too many white writers of books on race and slavery do and capitulate, and make excuses for society, and sugar coat the actual motivations behind slavery. This book is very upfront about white supremacy and the role it played in all this.
So, what’s awesome about this book is that it’s told in the style of a story. It’s the history of one man and his journey through convict leasing. This framework allows for him to delve deeply into specifics of the situations. Not having this super detached look back at everything keeps the impact fresh. It also allows the author show larger ramifications of what was happening.
For instance, it’s interesting to know that someone could get arrested for vagrancy, but it’s more impactful to hear the story of what happens to a person who is arrested for such a frivolous charge and what happens to them. Then it’s even more unsettling when you get the numbers of how many people had this happen to them. Then you get to see the direct impact on the society as a whole. Then you go back to the personal story of the white people who got money for selling people into convict leasing.
This same thing goes for debt slavery peonage and a bunch of other systems. The book sort of works in this way from pre civil war up until the author concludes slavery actually ended around 1943 or so.
I really recommend this book. If you are curious as to where the stereotypes of black criminals came from, this book will tell you. It shows the direct correlation between bad policing (or at that time good policing) and high arrest rate among Afican-Americans. It shows how the country came to view African-Americans as criminals and why the system is as bad as it is today.
This book also shows the social ramifications of slavery politically. It shows how deliberate the PR push against African-Americans was during and after reconstruction. It shows how whites in America weren’t just passive observers to racism, but active participants. There wasn’t this giant wave of ignorance among white populations to what was going on, but an active apathy to how the system was working because they firmly believed that if anything good happened to African Americans that their lives would be made worse. It’s how someone like Woodrow Wilson gets elected, because running on a platform of White Supremacy spoke to a large number of people.
It’s a really good and informative read.
Douglas Blackmon does a great job with this. He acknowledges his privileges and gaps in his knowledge, and the book is better for it. It’s unfortunate, but due to racism this book is going to have more credibility. He won’t be perceived as having an axe to grind, and he uses that to totally sling axes right into the face of post reconstruction white society (including the highly racist north that pretends they had no part in all the bad business of Slavery and Convict Leasing and Peonage). I’m enamored with this book.