Sunday, June 19, 2016

just brilliant: Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, by Talitha L. LeFlouria

University of North Carolina Press, 2015
257 pp


Just a heads-up: my perspective here is not at all academic. I haven't looked, but I'm sure this book has a number of scholarly reviews that will provide more of an in-depth, academic treatment.

I'm coming from the point of view of someone working to fill in gaps in my own knowledge of the history of African-Americans and of women in this country.  When I read that a major part of the author's purpose in this book was to "give voice to a group of women who had theirs taken away," I knew had to read it. Why?  As the author stated in 2015 in an interview where I first heard about this book, 
"We have to honor black women's voices from below and to honor their struggles, and their working bodies in particular helped to build modern America. We have to look at these prisoners who were bound, unwaged, abused and terrorized, and who also helped shape political struggles to resist the abuses, the trauma and the terror, and the violence that was visited upon them. So although their resistance may have been less organized, less structured and less formal, it was still very potent and worthy of consideration."
The relevance of this story to our own time cannot be understated -- as the author notes at the end of this book,
"Today black women are still afflicted by the social, political and economic vices that predisposed them to arrest, conviction and incarceration in the past...In order to better understand the modern carceral state and the complex relationship black women have with it, we must confront the past and listen even when it seems to be silent."
There are at least four main issues that permeate this book (and which continue to resonate over the course of more than a century later): gender, race, crime, and punishment.   In this study, the author also looks at African-American women in the "carceral state" and how as bound women they were affected by the ongoing assertion of white supremacy and control in the post-emancipation "New South." This book reveals, analyzes and most thoroughly discusses those contemporary "social, political and economic" factors while allowing some of the women's voices to be heard after more than a century of silence. As the author notes, her work  is "chiefly invested in rebuilding the historical viewpoint of the unwaged, bound black female worker."

The story of these unheard women is revealed, in large part, through an in-depth, wide-ranging study of a number of primary sources that include such records as "Corporal Punishment Registers Monthly Reports (Whipping Reports), 1884-89" from the Georgia Department of Corrections, medical reports of prison doctors, court dockets, contemporary newspapers, and most importantly, the personal accounts of women who became part of the convict labor system.  As the author tells us, black convict women were "Georgia's (and the South's) most inconspicuous workforce," but they were also a "fundamental asset  in the development of Georgia's postbellum industries," including railroads,  brick factories, mining, and other industries that were instrumental in establishing  "New South modernity" after the civil war.  However, they had to endure some horrific, demoralizing, and downright dehumanizing conditions during their incarceration.

There is so much to this book that I can't possibly cover the complexities within in any amount of depth, but the chapter headings will offer a clue as to what's here:

  1. The Gendered Anatomy of "Negro Crime " 
  2. Black Women and Convict Leasing in the "Empire State" of the New South
  3. "The Hand that Rocks The Cradle Cuts Cordwood: Prison Camps for Women
  4. Sustaining the "Weak and Feeble: Women Workers and the Georgia State Prison Farm
  5. Broken, Ruined and Wrecked: Women on the Chain Gang.

Don't expect a history for the masses sort of thing here.  Chained in Silence is an academic monograph and a solid work of history in which the author offers her arguments, supports them with personal accounts or other data, and then provides in-depth analysis to make her case.   In some areas her work is hampered by lack of data, but she makes this very clear in the telling.  She also realizes that there is much more work to be done and offers topics for future researchers.  At the same time, she makes this book very approachable for readers like myself who believe that the best history is told from the perspective of those whose voices never quite seem to make it into the historical record. This book, for lack of a better way to say it, is just brilliant and deserves widespread attention.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, by Andrés Reséndez: READ THIS BOOK!!

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
431 pp


"If we were to add up all the Indian slaves taken in the New World from the time of Columbus to the end of the nineteenth century, the figure would run somewhere between 2.5 million and 5 million slaves."(5)

Thinking about the subject of slavery in America will, for most people, conjure up horrific images of Africans taken from homeland and families, packed in confined spaces on ships and enduring unimaginable conditions and treatment once they reach their destination. It is a tragic and vile chapter in our history,  and a reminder of the horrors that humans can inflict on other humans in the name of economic power and gain. But, as the author of this book reveals, Africans were not the only victims of the slave trade in America  -- "the other slavery" involved indigenous people. This "other slavery" didn't replace African slavery; on the contrary, it was, as the author notes, "there all along."

This book is not only eye opening, but eye popping as well.  Not only does it offer us a glimpse at this most horrific, long-lasting chapter in history that most people, including myself, knew little about, but in tying it all together the author briefly calls our attention to why this study has potential  relevance in our modern world. For one thing, while slavery is prohibited "practically everywhere in the world,"  today there are "multiple practices of human bondage and trafficking that have some features in common, as well as others that are unique to each market and region of the world."  And, as he notes and in my opinion proves beyond a doubt, there are major similarities between the "unique features of Indian enslavement" and  the various  "forms of bondage practiced today."

 Beginning with  "The Caribbean Debacle," in which
"By the 1550s, a mere sixty years, or two generations, after contact, the Natives so memorably described by Columbus as 'affectionate and without malice' and having 'very straight legs and no bellies' had ceased to exist as a people, and many Caribbean islands became eerie uninhabited paradises." 
the author reveals that what little what we've actually learned about the history of this time doesn't necessarily agree with the reality.   For example, we are all told in our school years that the decimation of  indigenous peoples in this area came about through epidemics that overcame an "immunologically defenseless population." However,  by examining written records of the time, the author carefully makes the case for a combination of "slavery, overwork, and famine" between 1492 and 1550 as the major causes of death, rather than  "smallpox, influenza and malaria" that have been blamed. Of these "human factors," as he goes on to examine in some depth, he finds that "slavery has emerged as a major killer."

From the Caribbean, the rest of the book moves through parts of Central America and on  into North America to reveal that while slavery had already existed between tribes in these areas prior to European contact, it was the arrival of the Europeans that caused a major transformation in the practice itself.  As they spread throughout these areas, "the other slavery" was "never a single institution," but became a "set of kaleidoscopic practices suited to different markets and regions."  As the dustjacket blurb notes, "what started as a European business passed into the hands of indigenous operators and spread like wildfire across vast tracts of the American Southwest."   Human trafficking  moved people outside of their homelands into different places where they were expected to adapt, sometimes under the harshest conditions.    Slavery was  illegal, but the Spanish laws prohibiting Indian slavery , for example, could be gotten around under the banner of  religious justifications or by justifying the need for more labor for resources. Furthermore, they were made by people far removed from the realities of the situation and rarely enforced with any particular kind of vigor.     Even in North America, as he notes, neither the Thirteenth Amendment which clearly states that
"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude...shall exist in the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction"
nor the Peonage Act (1867) offered any sort of protection against "the other slavery."  One, there were always justifications for getting around any law if enough money was involved,  and two, labor coercion simply continued in a huge variety of other forms. In fact, as he says, it is this "variability of practices, supremely adapted to each social and legal context and region" that is one of "the defining characteristics" of the other slavery.

There is so much more to this book and it goes into way more depth  that I won't get to here, most especially  in understanding how the transformation of Indian slavery had a huge impact on and helps to explain "the shared history of Mexico and the United States,"  offering for one thing a new slant to historical events of which we are already aware, and making for a serious point to consider in light of today's political climate.   It is not a pretty story, but it is one that definitely needs to be heard.  Highly, highly recommended.