Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

Discussion Questions

Question for Week of Jan 15 – Jan 21
How does the beginning of this book demonstrate the way we’ve historically discussed black bodies? How do you see that translating into today? Consider returning to this question throughout your reading of the book.

Question for Week of Jan 22 – Jan 28
John T. Milner believed the success of postbellum industry would rely on white businessmen’s ability to “manage” blacks (51). Blackmon states that Milner’s belief put in practice “would resonate through the next half century of national discourse about the proper role of the descendants of Africa in American life” (51-2). How do you see that discourse happening in the history laid out in the book so far? How do you see it still happening today?

Question for Week of Jan 29 – Feb 4
What inherent relationships are there between slavery and capitalism as demonstrated by the history Blackmon is describing? Consider returning to this question throughout your reading of the book.

Question for Week of Feb 5 – Feb 11
These chapters largely deal with white passivism and lack of concern for African American rights, freedoms, and living and working conditions in America, particularly the American South. Southern whites were well aware of the neo-slavery going on around them, and yet when Roosevelt suggested that blacks get a fair deal, “What most galled whites was the implication by Roosevelt that African Americans were not already receiving as square and fair a deal as they could possibly deserve” (170). Furthermore, when asked about their thoughts on neo-slavery, “few whites expressed any misgivings about the forced labor going on in plain sight” (176). How are racist attitudes and acts underscored by passivism among the white moderate?

Question for the Week of Feb. 12 – Feb. 18
Judge Jones ruled that Alabama’s convict labor laws were unconstitutional, but he had no idea the full impact his decision would have:
“Like many well-intentioned but still fundamentally racist whites, he naively believed that the system engineered by Pace in Tallapoosa county was an isolated instance of abuse. He accepted the common convention of the time that African Americans were less intelligent and more inclined to criminal behavior than whites. He presumed that the vast majority of blacks arrested in the South were in fact guilty of their crimes, and merited severe punishment. What made him more ‘progressive’ than other whites, and where he differed from most white southerners, was that he believed blacks could not be brutalized in their punishment, and that the concept of impartial treatment of all citizens by the courts had to be upheld.
“Rank-and-file southerners, especially in rural sections with large black populations, held no such illusions. They knew Judge Jones had set a standard by which thousands of white men were guilty of slave dealing, that hundreds of state and county officials were in jeopardy, and that the whole financial structure of governments and local economies was at risk” (206).
From the examples of Judge Jones and the reaction of rank-and-file southerners, what can we learn about racism and its implementation?

 

Question for the Week of Feb 19 – Feb 25

Blackmon states that during this time period, the idea about what the Civil War was fought over changed. “The South had nothing to be ashamed of anymore. The myth that the war had been fought over regional patriotism rather than slavery became rooted in American identity” (141). While Blackmon foreshadows how problematic and dangerous this idea and belief would be for blacks being re-enslaved under the peonage system in the South, it’s also worth considering how this problem has translated into the present day. How do you see this shift in belief affecting the indictments and trials of these slave drivers? And how do you see similar problems reflected in our current political climate with the fights over monuments, fake news, and hate crimes?

 

Question for the Week of Feb 26 – Mar 4
W.E.B. Du Bois—when his sociological survey that showed slavery and peonage in Lowndes County was destroyed on the grounds of it touching “on political matters” (275)—decided to write his first novel, “The Quest for the Silver Fleece,” about what he’d seen and recorded so that it would be read and remembered. What other paths of resistance can people take when there is no system, government or social, that will support their cause for justice, freedom, and civil rights?

Question for the Week of Mar 5 – Mar 11
How are the Northern States and steel companies culpable for allowing slavery in the South to continue? What could the steel companies have done to change the situation?

Question for the Week of Mar 12 – Mar 18
These chapters focused in on the conditions of mining in the 1910s and the racial tensions the peonage system caused:

“Sometimes the convicts laughed at how the free miners so hated them, as if black laborers chained to their beds had chosen to be there. It was another sign that most white people seemed to be simply crazy when it came to the lives of black people. No sane man who had ever visited Flat Top, with its two thousand desperate black prisoners, or the slopes at Pratt City, filled with 1,500 emaciated African American laborers, black whipping guards, and the white captains who wielded the lash as mercilessly as any of the old slave masters, could believe such a thing.” (374)

And yet, at the same time, the slave labor these mines utilized squelched any attempts at successful strikes and negotiations for better work conditions and pay, causing free white laborers to harbor such resentment despite the terrible conditions these black men found themselves forced into. How can we come to see these issues as issues of intersectionality? And how do we go about engaging with and solving such intersectional problems?

Question for the Week of Mar 19 – Mar 25
In the epilogue, Blackmon asks us to consider what our responsibility to this history is in the present day. While we give plenty of time to other major events during the decades discussed in this book, no school teaches this history, and most aren’t aware of it, or don’t want to be aware of it. About this, he states:

“In some respects, it is little surprise that the long-lingering persistence of American slavery has been so largely ignored. Its longevity mars the mythology most white Americans rely upon to explain our past and to embroider our present. At the same time, it grieves and shames the descendants of its victims. They recoil from the implication that emancipated black Americans could not exercise freedom, and remained under the cruel thumb of white America, despite the explicit guarantees of the Constitution, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, and the moral resolve of the Civil War” ( 384).
We see this happening as Blackmon describes the people building the museum in Atlanta who insisted, even after Blackmon presented them with his research, “that no significant abuses of African Americans had ever occurred at the brick factory, coal mines, and lumber camps of a century ago” (388). Many people view coming to terms with this history and our privilege of prosperity brought at the hands of African American slave labor as a guilt trip that they just don’t want and shouldn’t be made to endure. But Blackmon wants to reframe that as something else: “It is not our ‘fault.’ But it is undeniably our inheritance” (395), and “hundreds of millions of us spring from or benefit as a result of lines of descent that abided those crimes and benefited from them” (396). Blackmon wants us to remember this history, to acknowledge it. He gives an example in the book about how cathartic this can be for people. Knowing what we know now after reading this book, what can we do to acknowledge this narrative? To change the conversation to include this massively important history?