Slavery By Another Name Book Cover

Humbling Response

The reaction to the book has been so gratifying this past week. I’ve heard from dozens of people, white and black, who have their own stories of how Neoslavery touched the lives of their families. I’ll start posting some of those messages over the next few days.

A blog at NPR.com connected to my appearance on Talk of the Nation drew a long and energetic exchange. Some of the posters were historians wanting to make sure that other scholars’ research into issues in my book weren’t overlooked. Below is the response I posted to that traffic:

“To Kathleen Murray and Alex Lichtenstein, I hope you’ll read “Slavery by Another Name” and see that it energetically acknowledges many scholars, such as Pete Daniel (“who wrote the seminal work on twentieth-century peonage”), Mary Ellen Curtin (“no work rivals the research” for prior to 1900), Jack Bergstresser, the industrial archeologist who first postulated the identities of those buried in the great unmmarked burial grounds on the edge of Birmingham–each of whom gave me valued advice during the seven years of work on this project.

But the book also expands beyond past research, offers a reinterpretation of events over a much longer period of time and wider geography, and demonstrates how this history directly ties to the present. It is unapologetically a challenge to the views of some conventional historians. It begins with an analysis of how the new slavery was rooted in specific events before the Civil War and follows the chain of events through the end of World War II, a full century of social history, and a period I argue we should call the “Age of Neoslavery.” What most distinguishes my book, though, is that it confronts historical realities that few U.S. scholars have been able to reconcile themselves to–that huge numbers of black Americans across the South were re-enslaved through interlocking mechanisms deep into the 20th century and that these were not inevitable or accidental. Southern blacks were not merely abused, politically deprived or inconvenienced, as history has taught most of us. They were enslaved into coerced labor, by fair reckoning of the evidence. Some historians and researchers have inadvertantly minimized this reality, partly by analysis that failed to see the interconnection between forms of neoslavery, partly through a failure to tap untouched evidence in courthouses across the South, partly because this interpretation challenges some pillars of American mythology. Some have also accepted a presumption that it is impossible to re-animate the lives of the impoverished and illiterate millions of African-Americans drawn into neoslavery–or establish the severity of the limits imposed on their lives. My book builds upon the extraordinary past work of many scholars whom I enormously admire. But it rejects any suggestion that because slavery as a legally defined condition no longer existed, we cannot call the resubjugation of these African-American families what it truly was: a new slavery. And it is simply untrue that we cannot reconstruct the lives of those who were crushed by these events–and the vast scale of the injuries they received.

Historians should not be unnerved that this largely unknown past is being shared with a broad audience. Based on the exchanges here and dozens of emails I have received in recent days, few Americans understand these events–whether the interpretation offered by most scholars or mine. This is not a topic about which everything has already been said. The millions of neoslaves abandoned by history deserve many more books yet.”

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