Southern History

I hate lies. History books are still full of them.

Lies about the founding of this country. Lies about the treatment of Native Americans. Lies about the Civil War and slavery.

One of the most important things that takes place each year in Black History Month is the outing of lies and attempts to correct the distorted history we have been taught.

So as Black History month draws to a close, let’s examine one of the big lies and together help spread some simple truths.

Slavery in the US did not end with the emancipation proclamation.

Slavery did not end in 1865.

Thanks to PBS, we have an accessible documentary to address the truth. But too many of our citizens don’t watch public television (though polling suggests they back it) and PBS is facing major cuts. Too many textbooks distributed to schoolchildren are as yet unrevised. So we have to take it upon ourselves to spread some truth.

If you have not yet seen it, Slavery By Another Name, is available in its entirety online.

Slavery By Another Name

Directed by Sam Pollard, produced by Catherine Allan and Douglas Blackmon, written by Sheila Curran Bernard, the tpt National Productions project is based on the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Blackmon. Slavery by Another Name challenges one of our country’s most cherished assumptions: the belief that slavery ended with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The documentary recounts how in the years following the Civil War, insidious new forms of forced labor emerged in the American South, keeping hundreds of thousands of African Americans in bondage, trapping them in a brutal system that would persist until the onset of World War II. Based on Blackmon’s research, Slavery by Another Name spans eight decades, from 1865 to 1945, revealing the interlocking forces in both the South and the North that enabled this “neoslavery” to begin and persist. Using archival photographs and dramatic re-enactments filmed on location in Alabama and Georgia, it tells the forgotten stories of both victims and perpetrators of neoslavery and includes interviews with their descendants living today

The book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas Blackmon, received a 2009 Pulitzer Prize, the 2009 American Book Award, the 2009 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Non-fiction Book Prize, and the 2008 Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights Book Award. It was on the New York Times Bestseller List. And yet, with all this acclaim, its content has failed to trickle into American History curricula and our children’s textbooks.

My college students can cite dates by rote. But few have a clue about the period of reconstruction, and frankly, almost none of them watch PBS. I asked. They have little time to watch television. They rarely read the news. One student said to me “unless you show us something, we probably won’t learn it.”

So unless I assign this, or show it in class, there is little likelihood that they will learn this history.

The first book to expose this travesty in our history was written as a novel, by James L Spivak and serialized in several newspapers in the 1930’s.Spivak was a firebrand leftist journalist. Many of the photos Blackmon has used are from his groundbreaking book. His papers are housed at Syracuse University. He was

an investigative reporter and author whom fellow muckraker Lincoln Steffens described as “the best of us,” was most concerned with the problems of the working class and the spread of fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States from the 1920s through the 1940s…Spivak traveled throughout the South in the early 1930s interviewing prison camp officials and photographing camp atrocities and their corresponding punishment records. His novel, Georgia Nigger, depicting the brutality of prison camp chain gangs was serialized in the Daily Worker. His 1935 exposé in the New Masses charged a congressional committee with deliberately suppressing evidence of an offer made to Maj. Gen. Smedley D. Butler by Wall Street financiers to lead a military coup against the U.S. government and replace it with a fascist regime. He also investigated the anti-Semitic and financial activities of Charles E. Coughlin, the Catholic radio priest who founded the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan.

It’s been a long time since the 1930’s. And in spite of Spivak’s exposes which created a stir at the time, the ripple in the water of history subsided, smoothed over into the glassy smooth false face we see reflected at us even today.We still hear people mutter “black people should get over it—slavery was a long time ago.” Was it really? Is it over? What say you then about the continuing inequity of our Criminal Injustice system, our stop and frisk laws and the bogus war on drugs which is essentially a war on poor people—many of whom are people of color?

No it has not ended.

And yes we are still being fed lies.

While we are talking about lies, it may be time for us all to get the revised edition of this worthy book, which I have sitting right next to my copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

As long as history books are bland or censored, as long as Americans are fed a steady diet of faux news, and sugar-coated entertainment via corporate media outlets, as long as liberal and progressive citizens don’t invest time in their local school boards and curriculum decision making we will continue to be enmeshed in a tissue of lies.
Perhaps we need to #Occupy our schools.

Till then, please pass this on.

Each one, teach one.

And while you’re at it, support Public Broadcasting.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published February 26, 2012, at Daily Kos. Photo from the Library of Congress.
Denise Oliver Velez

Denise Oliver Velez

Feminist, Activist, former Young Lords Party and Black Panther Party member, applied cultural anthropologist.  See her diaries at Daily Kos.