Months ago we published a post: Brown Trucks that reflected upon heightened awareness. The idea is that once someone becomes aware of something, evidence of it occurs more frequently. And so it is with the analogy of enslavement and imprisonment. Both restrict freedom, enable oppression and often are accompanied by dehumanization. In the United States of America, however, the elements of race, crime and punishment take peculiar twists and turns that define criminal behavior, declare what constitutes suspicious activity or probable cause, determine punishment and penalties, justify and perpetuate oppression, and finally provide the means by which other members of society profit.
In the PBS special that aired 13 February 2012, Slavery by Another Name, the portrayal of enslavement, imprisonment and involuntary servitude as national historical facts was clearly documented, illustrated and exposed. A record unfolded demonstrating how these practices were established over years as extensions of the transatlantic slave trade. See our post: Slave Ships as Prisons. What was even more startling to many viewing this excellent documentary was the statement that legal enslavement in the United States did not end with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War, or by enactment of the 13th and 14th Amendments. Legally, the enslaved were freed in the early 1860s, but holding slaves, involuntary slavery, and the actual enslavement of citizens and others in the United States was not prohibited by law until 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The impetus for Roosevelt’s presidential order, according to the narrator, was the review by a team of experts assigned to assess the nation’s moral vulnerabilities as it entered World War II.
In effect, there existed in the criminal justice system an on-going practice of exploiting Black men, women and children as enslaved labor – 800,000 – for more than 80 years after emancipation. It was up to local law enforcement to decide if a person was a vagrant, was publicly intoxicated, was a public nuisance, guilty of petty theft or “reckless eyeballing,” and thereby sentenced to days which might stretch to months or years, and frequently did. What was the word of a Black person against that of a sheriff or White citizen? Prisons throughout the South became monuments to the horrors of incarceration.
National leaders and even presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson turned a blind eye to this reality although they were well aware of the practice. Why? To dismantle this system, they reasoned, would have cost the political support of the White South in particular and undermined the economics of a nation rebuilding infrastructure in the aftermath of the Civil War. This was a region of the country that was transitioning from rural agrarian to urban industrial. In order to develop major industrial complexes and industries in the South, cheap unprotected labor was required to build roads, lay tracks, mine coal and ore, as well as sustain crop production in an agrarian culture still dependent upon cotton, fruit and sugar.
Leasing and renting prisoners for pennies a day under contract generated income for town, county and state systems that were revenue-strapped. Without prison labor, there would have been no Birmingham, no US Steel. The solution, particularly in the Deep South, was to set up a “legal” criminal system that fed cheap labor to companies and men who were viewed as developers. In the post-Civil War era, the terms “chain gang” and “road gang” erupted side by side with Jim Crow segregation and the white South’s Redemption. Reconstruction was short-lived, and died at the hands of political and economic expediency. Every Black family had at least one member caught in the prison system. It was widespread, neither distant nor unknown.
Today, with forty percent of US Black men somewhere in the criminal justice system, the beat grinds on, nothing new, seldom fair. If within the next few months any person has the opportunity to see this documentary, please do. It is likely to provoke anger. It should provoke reflection. But in a social group where arrest and imprisonment are rites of passage into adulthood, we have to take a second look at untied shoes, low-hanging pants and hostile predatory attitudes. Are our young people challenging us? Are they demanding as flagrantly as possible that we stop accepting a system that railroads a significant portion, particularly males, into “slavery by another name” because of poor education, inadequate community support and no life skills? Are we in fact following the lead of the greater society by blaming the victim? Our mission may be in determining when and how to intervene.
To survive all that we have so far; to now have in the White House a Black family; to be aware of our history and contributions in building and maintaining this nation, we have already proven to ourselves that we can do anything. We cannot allow ourselves, even in small numbers, to become again, “a ‘mutilated assemblage’ of alienated persons chained together in uncertainty.” We already know where that will get us. Alienated persons see no solidarity among each other; passing on victimization is the play of the day. In that dilemma, you might aspire to be top dog just for a minute – to rule in hell, rather than to serve anyone, anywhere.
Our ancestors lived in faith, hope and love. We need to follow that model and do what we can for each other with whatever we have. Could happen.