|This book is not a micro-history of the post-Reconstruction South and Jim Crow Era in the leadup to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, but it does end up covering a lot of that territory well. The book instead focuses on the various forms of re-enslavement that various states saw in the 1880s-1910s or so, heavily focused on the debt peonage, where someone was imprisoned and enthralled to a specific person in order to work off a debt. This system, and it became a system in the ways that a lot of anti-Black racists systems around the country work, through vague laws, predatory contracts, the total erasure of agency, and the threat and use of violence, involved state laws in the South that made it nearly impossible for a Black man or woman to work in the state except under abusive and predatory practices. These laws included things like once a year payments for work, with the clear implication that fraud, denial, and the substrction of cost would make sure that the smalled amount of wage possible was given, making it illegal for a Black person to quit a job without permission, allowing the local law enforcement to act as “slavecatchers” for any worker who “ran away” from a job, and laws that allow the use of corporal punishment on workers etc. This then led to further entrenched abuse where Black men (especially) and women would be accused of any sort of crime (real or imagined) and then assesses huge fees and then had those fees sold off, where they would then become the de facto property of a white person to be paid off through labor. Similar to the contract slavery in Cuba that Chinese immigrants faced, the men and women who found themselves in this situation often faced cruelty, torture, rape, and working conditions even more savage than many of the slaves of the previous generation because the new “owners” had not made investments, and so had little incentive to provide anything remotely like safe working conditions. This is not a comparison between the two in terms of which is worse, so much as an acknowledgement that the conditions were different for a specific reason.
In a way, this book functions as a kind of prequel to The New Jim Crow, which itself is a reminder that none of this ever really has stopped. Combined with the ways in which small municipalities (like Ferguson MO) criminalize everyday life of Black people and assess fines and fees on anything and everything they can, it’s a case of the content changing, but not the form. This book focuses on these conditions, and acts as a clear reminder that US history is filled to the brim with similar systems and versions of cruelty, and that almost nothing has changed in terms of the lengths white people will go to visit cruelty and exploitation on Black Americans, save what the government and wider society will allow them to do. A good thing to keep in mind in the next few years.
“Only by acknowledging the full extent of slavery’s full grip on U.S. Society – its intimate connections to present day wealth and power, the depth of its injury to black Americans, the shocking nearness in time of its true end – can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life.”
“When white Americans frankly peel back the layers of our commingled pasts, we are all marked by it. Whether a company or an individual, we are marred either by our connections to the specific crimes and injuries of our fathers and their fathers. Or we are tainted by the failures of our fathers to fulfill our national credos when their courage was most needed. We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others. It is not our “fault.” But it is undeniably our inheritance.”