Monday, October 11, 2010

Still Shocking

I don't mean to repeat myself, but it seems like I can't avoid it.

Y'all know I've been pushing the book Slavery By Another Name. I am struggling to finish reading about this country's dark history before the book is due back at the library. Anyway, I found a story in its pages that still managed to shock me even after reading about the horrible brutality and cruelty that was the norm during the de-facto slavery that continued after the Civil War.

The author told the story of Georgia landowner who had become prosperous "buying" convicts and forcing them to work on his farm. That wasn't unusual as much of the Southern economy was based on this practice. However, by 1920 the United States government had become more proactive in investigating claims of peonage and came to the man's farm to see his "workers."

The agents noticed the chains, whips and shackles common on peonage farms, but after interviewing the black people being held in captivity and finding that none of them would go on record against the landowner, they left them there to rot. The federal agents, both of whom were of southern origin, thought things might be a little shady, but figured that black folks being kept in captivity was fairly normal.

But, after listening to the agents explain the peonage statute, the landowner quickly realized he was violating the law. So, he gathered up some friends and gradually killed every black person on his farm through a mixture of drownings, ax attacks and other brutal violence. There were about a dozen workers on the farm at the time.

Somehow, officials learned of the deaths, and arrested the landowner and put him on trial for murder. He was convicted of murder by an all-white jury, which is of course shocking given the time and circumstances. But, here is what was even more shocking to me. From 1877 to 1966, that landowner was the only white man ever convicted of murdering a black person in the state of Georgia. The only one.

When I read that statistic, it was like I truly understood something important. The book drives home the systemic nature of racism and how much of a role it played in shaping early black life. But, it took that statistic to make me truly understand what my ancestors had to overcome.

For 30 years, white Georgians consolidated their power through the most violent means available to them, yet none of them were convicted of murder. Despite cases where evidence was overwhelming and the character and reputation of the black victims surely was better than the character of the suspect, no white man was ever held accountable by a jury of his peers. Ever.

Can you imagine what that does to the psyche of people? Not just the black people living under such terrible violence, but the white people who have their worst abuses ignored and justified? How many men reveled in cruelty and depravity? How many men and women cowered in fear and desperation?

It's all well and good to tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but when their very existence is threatened and they have nowhere to turn for assistance, is it shocking that disillusionment sets in? Is it shocking that many black folks learned to blame "The Man" for every failing?

It shouldn't be shocking at all. What should shock all of us is that this information is not part of our history texts and curriculum. It should be shocking that those who establish the standards for educating America's children don't deem this information crucial. How can we ever hope to heal the wounds and right the wrongs of the past if most of the populace remains ignorant? Doesn't ignoring the truth  make it more likely that things will never improve?

Viewed from that perspective, I guess the lack of information isn't that shocking at all.



BBCSR53 said...

A few post back when you orginally made me aware of this book; I checked it out. I too am having problems reading this book. If you don't know what I am talking about then I strongly suggest you get a copy and begin reading; the book tells it all; very informative.

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Mammyman said...

Excellent Post, while I have read about the injustice that happened at Rosewood in my homestate of Florida, this is simply amazing how nobody talks about it. I am going to have to run down and check this book out today!

Raving Black Lunatic