Dose #27: Part II: Man(Kind)? - The Slave Post-Civil War, Twisted Truths And Stolen Lives...
"Herein lies the tragedy of the ages: not that men are poor, - all men know something of poverty, not that men are wicked, - who is good? Not that men are ignorant, - what is truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men."
~ W.E.B DuBois, "The Souls of Black Folk"
On the flight home I read the 13th amendment: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Then what? What happened to four million 'freed' people? Where did they go? How did they live? Was this talked about in school? How could I not know...?
As an adolescent traveling south on the bumpy U.S. Route 1 I watched in amazement as the landscape changed from prim-looking pines to gigantic, swaying palms. After South Carolina's sweet-smelling morning air came Georgia's open-front rest stops piled high with peanuts by the pound and t-shirts, hats and mugs featuring confederate flags, every purchase an opportunity to "...live the rebel way." The most famous rest stop of all, "South of the Border", teased every Florida-bound traveler for hundreds of miles with building-sized poster promises of 'treasures' waiting at "Pedro's Fun-Filled Playground".
Crossing into the "sunshine state", we were greeted by the biggest sign of all, "Welcome to Florida", followed by lots of smaller, hand-painted signs, "Oranges by the Crate" and "Fresh-squeezed Juice". What a thrill it was to finally see the ocean mid-state when we switched over to "old A1A", an even bumpier road lined on both sides with 1950's strip motels, wobbly-looking wooden snack bars, oiled bodies, Ray Bans and fuchsia-coloured bathing suits. A world within a world.
On the way down there were other signs...next to water fountains , "Colored Only", on bathroom doors,"Whites Only", at lunch counters, "Serving Whites Only". It was impossible not to compare the freshly painted doors leading into the neatly kept 'white' accommodations with entryways meant for the 'other', more hidden, less well-lighted, covered in fingerprints and peeling paint. "So this is the way it is", I thought, "...this is the way southerners live". I had an odd feeling I'd walked into a living history, everything out-dated and out of sync, people going on about their lives unaware they were locked in time.
My young mind thought it had something to do with the heat - slowed speech, no one hurrying the way people did where I came from. "Surely..." I thought, "...they'll catch up", become more "modern", more accepting. Was it possible these separated lives were a result of some unspoken agreement, a way of life "negroes" and whites preferred? This was their world, not mine, who was I to say? It took years before I would understand the full meaning behind those signs and the difference between cooperation and submission.
My questioning didn't mean there was no thought of culture or race at home. When I was in third grade a woman approached my mother - I would say, an 'acquaintance' - Katherine was her name - overweight, officious, greying hair, and, as an eight-year-old I thought, too long, making her look 'unkempt'.
"Do you know your daughter is playing with a coloured child?", she asked. "Oh...", my mother replied..."...does her mother object?"
My mother knew. My friend Patty Jackson and I walked to our house every day after school to play the piano and talk about school and friends and things 8-year-old girls talk about. I remember her brightness...braids tied with colourful bows, pretty dresses and a happy disposition.
At the time I didn't grasp the meaning of the exchange, but I was aware enough to see Kathryn's body stiffen and knowing enough to feel my mother's reassuring certainty, there in what she didn't say...no challenge, no defense. I felt a pang of fear that I might lose my friend, but no, Patty and I were close until time and family changes brought us to a natural parting.
More than once I heard my mother say,"If I was a Negro, I'd be angry". She wrote letters to newspapers hoping to bring attention to the problems of young incarcerated Blacks whose opportunities for justice were lost under the cloak of prejudice. Lost, I now understand, as a result of a decades-long crafting of misinformation and distortion beginning almost immediately after those early days of 'freedom'. My mother's compassion made an impression on me, but I wonder if it also quelled my own need to question racism - she and others like her - they would make the world a better place. I could go about my young life with little concern.
I found the answer to the question, "What happened to 4 million slaves?", in the 2012 PBS documentary, "Slavery By Another Name", based on the Pulitzer prize-winning book, "Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II", written by historian, Douglas A. Blackmon. It took three painful viewings before I could fully grasp this dark history of post-civil war America. I cried as I listened to the reading of letters written by Blacks in the late 1800's, begging federal authorities to free loved ones ensnared in newly-created forms of bondage. I was horrified at the telling of an entire culture broken physically, emotionally, socially and economically. I was angry at my countrymen, capable of unspeakable cruelty. I was disgusted with the weakness of men who's only God was money.
At the end of the war the need to rebuild was great as was the need for manpower to do the job. The words"...except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted", was the gaping loophole the white man accustomed to the availability of free labor used to rob the Black man of everything he stood for, everything he held dear, reviving and securing the practice of slavery, crushing a people for generations to come.
When laws are made prohibiting a Black man from looking at a white woman, or addressing a white man by his first name, or walking beside a railroad track rather than on it, or standing outside with friends on a sunny day, it's easy to charge, convict and imprison thousands of 'lawbreakers'.
The 'convicted' became the greatest tool for reconstruction, guaranteeing wealth to any who would participate in the gathering and use of the unpaid, disposable labour force. The practice of "convict leasing" allowed the white man to amass great riches and power, no one to stop him from removing the Black man from his family for years at a time, forced to work in the worst possible conditions, chained, starved, contaminated, all sense of person invalidated. For the dark-skinned man or woman brave enough to question, public hangings served as warning to others who would say "no".
As the numbers of imprisoned Blacks grew year by year, the previously recorded reputation of the respected, trusted slave was transformed into the lazy, lawbreaking, unfaithful, untrustworthy, the one who will take advantage, the one who will never lift himself up, those who would prefer dependence. Perhaps the marring of respectability of an entire culture, the theft of dignity, is what is most tragic. How foolish the believers. How suggestible the willing. How easily threatened by our own fears and stupidity.
More curious, I asked a dozen people, "Why do you think slaves had such a difficult time succeeding once slavery was abolished?" Every answer was the same: "They found it difficult to adjust to freedom...they weren't prepared.", "Cared for for so long, they had no idea how to make it on their own." I realize this is a small sample, still I was surprised to find not one person knowing something of what happened following the declaration of freedom. No one I spoke to had an opinion other than some version of '...inability to adjust'.
History tells a different story. There was jealousy among whites as they saw Blacks begin to prosper, to be educated, to finally marry and build families, start their own businesses, earn positions in the political body, and begin educating their children. No one I spoke to knew the massive need for labour in the parts of the country broken by war was met by the brazen theft of human lives. Nor did they know the North upheld many of the so-called laws created to work around the 13th amendment, laws that would justify the subjugation of a people and support the thriving, largely unquestioned enterprise of this new slavery.
For every Black man or woman I see, I want to say, "I'm sorry". "I'm sorry this happened to you...we did this to you.". "I admire what you've done...how strong and persistent you've been." My sorry is weak. It will never remove the harm.
So, yes, as Yuval Noah Harari tells us in "Sapiens", in the past 500 years we've moved at breakneck speed, but, for an entire part of our American story, we walk heavily in a kind of quicksand, slow to change beliefs that relieve us of guilt and habits that give distance from responsibility.
If we can judge a man's character by the way he treats those most vulnerable, then we have been the lazy, we are the untrustworthy, the thieves and the takers.
There will always be the weak, in need of advantage over the other. There will always be the fearful, threatened by another man's success, too cowardly and small to allow for goodness and fair play. And, there will be the fearless and wise, knowing every man's advancement is their own. There will be the reserved and generous, knowing dignity given is dignity earned.
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