Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"Slavery by Another Name" Comes to PBS

Doug Blackmon formerly served as Atlanta Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal. Several years ago the Journal carried a long front-page article based on Blackmon's research into a pervasive system of involuntary servitude that persisted long after the end of the Civil War. This article was a forerunner of Blackmon's Pulitzer Prize Winning Book, Slavery by Another Name. In the Introduction to this remarkable book, Blackmon describes the reaction to the Journal article:

"The article generated a response unlike anything I had experienced as a journalist. A deluge of e-mails, letters, and phone calls arrived. White readers on the whole reacted with somber praise for a sober documentation of a forgotten crime against African Americans. Some said it heightened their understanding of demands for reparations to the descendants of antebellum slaves. Only a few expressed shock. For most, it seemed to be an account of one more important but sadly predictable bullet point in the standard indictment of historic white racism. During an appearance on National Public Radio on the day of publication, Bob Edwards, the interviewer, at one point said to me: 'I guess it’s really no surprise.'”

"The reactions of African Americans were altogether different. Repeatedly, they described how the article lifted a terrible burden, that the story had in some way—partly because of its sobriety and presence on the front page of the nation’s most conservative daily newspaper—supplied an answer or part of one to a question so unnerving few dared ask it aloud: If not racial inferiority, what explained the inexplicably labored advance of African Americans in U.S. society in the century between the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 1960s? The amorphous rhetoric of the struggle against segregation, the thin cinematic imagery of Ku Klux Klan bogeymen, even the horrifying still visuals of lynching, had never been a sufficient answer to these African Americans for one hundred years of seemingly docile submission by four million slaves freed in 1863 and their tens of millions of descendants."

"How had so large a population of Americans disappeared into a largely unrecorded oblivion of poverty and obscurity? They longed for a convincing explanation. I began to realize that beneath that query lay a haunting worry within those readers that there might be no answer, that African Americans perhaps were simply damned by fate or doomed by unworthiness. For many black readers, the account of how a form of American slavery persisted into the twentieth century, embraced by the U.S. economic system and abided at all levels of government, offered a concrete answer to that fear for the first time."

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