Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ignorance is Bliss

Have you ever learned something that you immediately wished you could forget?

Some tidbit of information that changes your entire view of a situation? My best friend and I often joke that when women meet men they should keep information about their past to themselves no matter how much a man may beg and plead for the dirt. Both of us can remember times when we've developed feelings for a woman only to have her let some nugget about her past drop in casual conversation that causes a terrible sinking feeling in our guts. When this happens it's hard not to wonder if the woman's whole persona, or rather the persona we created for her, is based on a series of lies and fabrications.

You can never unlearn the truth.

I thought about that recently while reading a book by Douglas Blackmon called "Slavery by Another Name" on how de-facto slavery continued in America long after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. I'm just beginning the book, but already I've learned stuff that's made it hard for me to see the world in the same light. How many northern conglomerates, like U.S. Steel, were built on the backs of black men sold into indentured servitude because they happened to be walking down the wrong street on the wrong day? Not only did black folks have to contend with widespread domestic terrorism in the form of the KKK and other groups, but now I learn that they had to deal with the disappearance of loved ones who spent some of their most productive working years slaving in dark coal mines to re-build the Southern economy that was decimated by the war that granted them their freedom.

Can you imagine that existence?

The book's author notes that many black people have contacted him and thanked him for providing them with a reason for the slow march of progress in the black community in the decades following Reconstruction. For them, there was always the hidden fear that all the lies told about black people's inherent inferiority were somehow true, and the proof was in our failure to advance once the slaveowner's manacles were loosed. In his book, Blackmon reveals that those manacles were actually in place up until World War II in a variety of forms.

The thing is, while it's good to learn these types of stories because it fleshes out my understanding of the lives my ancestors lived, it is still jarring. It's tough to know that authorities used crimes like vagrancy, or loud talking, or curfew violations to imprison black people, and then tacked on unfair fines to force them back into slavery. I wasn't ignorant about the venal nature of humans, but I was still shocked that I could live so long in this country and never really understand just how widespread and longstanding this practice once was.

More importantly, it has some uncomfortable similarities to our current prison system. I can't help but notice which crimes black prisoners are overwhelmingly incarcerated for, and how their bodies are used once they are imprisoned. I can't help but see the connection between vagrancy and loud talking and crack possession and three strikes laws.

Sadly, it's obvious that while some of the surface details have changed, the mindset and underlying aims of the power structure has not. I always suspected, but with this new information it's just been confirmed as truth.

And sometimes the truth doesn't set you free, it just weighs you down.



LisaMJ said...

Wow. I'd heard about the chain-gangs and knew they had to work on public infrastructure but never knew it was this deep and that folks were used for private companies. Part of me really wants to read this and part of me really doesn't. Thank you for sharing this.

Big Man said...


That's exactly how I feel. I want to read this book to learn more, but honestly, it's very painful to read. It's hard to avoid bitterness while learning about the systemic nature of these abuses and their future impact.

Anna Renee said...

Hello Big Man. It's very difficult to learn the truth, but it's even more painful to believe a terrible lie about one's essential nature.
There are so many of us who believe that we are simply inferior. No holds barred, just deficient.
These very painful truths help us to rebuild our broken psyches.
That being said, I still would have a very hard time reading this book. I usually have to prepare myself over a period of time for this kind of truth seeking.

Deacon Blue said...

Difficult, yes. Painful most certainly.

But this seems to me less an example of ripping a scab off a healing wound as perhaps another step toward lifting the bandage off to notice the infection, treat it, and help the healing along.

It's the kind of thing that can incite bitter feelings, no doubt. It's yet another thing that many non-blacks will ignore or downplay in their own minds.

But at the same time, it's a chance for some people who care and didn't know (black, white and otherwise) to see how entrenched things were, and still are.

I'd rather see more truth emerge until (hopefully) those who enjoy the most privilege in this country can no longer deny that the system is stacked against certain people. People who are made out to be losers but are forced to march up a hill with weights attached to them as they do.

BBCSR53 said...

I just went to my local library and I have indeed check this book out. I intend to read it in the comming days. Thanks for letting me know that it was out there.

Big Man said...

Please share your thoughts with me by email. I'm really struggling to read it.

Anonymous said...

You have the country's 'first black president' Bill Clinton to thank for that 'three strikes' bulls**t law. And you're shocked does the name Oscar Grant ring a bell?! How about Amadou Diallo or Bernard Monroe that kind of behavior and being allowed to get away with it didn't start in police departments overnight. That ish has been going on for YEARS but since black people wnat to spend more time yacking about Tiger and Micheal Jackson[pre death] it's our own damn fault. I have known for a while now that the 'Emancipation' didn't do a damn thing for black people. Especially since there were NO follow up laws Lincoln just signed a bogus piece of paper then let the chips fall where they may. There also a s##tload of former slaves being killed by their former and angry owners yet Lincoln is still seen as some champion of civil rights. When nothing could be further from the truth maybe if we stop playing follow the leader to every pretty boy white male politician we wouldn't keep having stuff still happen.

lifelearner said...

I hear you BigMan, yet I feel like this book should be read by all! It is a heavy burden, but it is also the fuel to ignite us to greatness! For me when I see what my ancestors went through it gives me the strength to endure the pettiness of today's world. Thank you for sharing this story. And the Truth does set you free eventually!!

cinque said...

Big Man,
I bought this book two days after reading this post and have gotten about three chapters in. I would have gotten farther had it not been for the physical pain and illness I feel when reading just a few pages. It makes me ill....physically, to read the silent suffering of black people AFTER!! slavery supposedly ended. It might take awhile but I will manage to get throught it all but I bought 10 more copies for friends, family and enemies alike to highlight a point I make all the time...That we are not as far along as many would like to think. There is strength through pain.

Big Man said...

I almost broke down recently when I got to a part in the book in the 1920s. Taht's right, the 1920s. It was about the slaughter of a dozen black people working as de-facto slaves on a farm just because the landowner didn't want the feds to come in and prosecute him. But, here's the kicker.
The landwoner was eventually caught and convicted of murder.
Do you know that from 1877 to 1960 he was the ONLY white man ever convicted of murdering a black person in the entire state of Georgia? Crazy.

Raving Black Lunatic