Reconstruction and Re-Enslavement

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    By the first years after 1900, tens of thousands of African-American men and boys, along with a smaller number of women, had been sold by southern state governments. An exponentially larger number, of whom surviving records are painfully incomplete, had been forced into labor through county and local courts, backwoods justices of the peace, and outright kidnapping and trafficking.

    The total number of those re-enslaved in the seventy-five years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War II can’t be precisely determined, but based on the records that do survive, we can safely say it happened to hundreds of thousands.

    How many more African- Americans circumscribed their lives in dramatic ways, or abandoned all to flee the South entirely, to avoid that fate or mob violence? It is impossible to know. Millions. Generations.

    This is not an easy story for Americans to receive, much less accept. The idea that not just civil rights but basic freedom itself was denied to an enormous population of African-Americans until the middle of the twentieth century fits nowhere in the triumphalist, steady-progress, greatest-generations accounts we prefer for our national narrative.

    That the thrilling events depicted in Steven Spielberg’s recent film Lincoln-the heroic, frenzied campaign by Abraham Lincoln leading to passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery-were in fact later trumped not just by discrimination and segregation but by the resurrection of a full-blown derivative of slavery itself.

    This story of re-enslavement is irrefutably true, however. Indeed, even as Spielberg’s film conveys the euphoria felt by African-Americans and all opposed to slavery upon passage of the amendment in 1865, it also unintentionally foreshadows the demise of that brighter future.

    On the night of the amendment’s passage in the film, the African American housekeeper and, as presented in the film, secret lover of the abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, played by the actress S. Epatha Merkerson, reads the amendment aloud. First, the sweeping banishment of slavery. And then, an often overlooked but powerful prepositional phrase: “except as a punishment for crime.”

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