The history books tell us that slavery in the United States ended in 1865 with the end of the Civil War and the 13thAmendment. But not quite. The first clause of the Amendment reads:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
So the Southern folks switched tactics. Keep black folks downtrod and beaten-down, withhold jobs to force them into ongoing poverty, which breeds violence and theft to survive. Then arrest them, deny them anything approaching a fair trial, throw them in prison and voila! now the chain gang can keep the roads in good shape without wasting the taxpayer’s money.
Then in 1971, Richard Nixon and his cronies hit on the idea of the War on Drugs as a means for mass incarceration of black folks. As described in an interview with John Ehrlichman, one of the plan’s designers:
“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
And so came the New Jim Crow (details in the book of the same title), putting one out of every eight black men in jail and labeling these crimes as felonies, assuring that they would never be able to vote. A sinister devious plot that ignorant citizens bought hook, line and sinker. And still do today. As a business plan, it works brilliantly. Now Victoria’s Secret can have prisoners make their sexy lingerie virtually for free. The new face of slavery’s unpaid labor which benefits the white, rich and powerful.
“Follow the money” was the theme our eloquent guide Ali revealed in his tour of the Whitney Plantation, the only one in America that tells the real story of slavery from the enslaved human beings point of view. (Most point out the beautiful architecture and make a passing reference to the cabins where the “workers” lived). If you viewed the system of slavery as the business proposition it was and agreed with the bottom of line of efficiency and profit, all the brutality and terrorism and inhuman treatment makes perfect sense and allows everyone to sleep comfortably at night. Except for the enslaved people, who had to work from sun-up to sun-down so people in Europe could have sugar in their coffee.
While we could have played jazz as we did so joyfully without ever touching on the purposeful misery that strangely birthed this triumphant music, I insisted that my Jazz Course students go to the plantation, making it a required part of the course that the course paid for instead of an option. Tears were shed—as they should have been—and there was a deep silence in the cars driving back to finish out our extraordinary 10 days. My hope was that people would never again accept a history class that casually talked about the facts of slavery without the real story and the real feelings the subject deserves.
Afterwards, I spoke with one mixed-race student who talked about how his ancestors were on both sides of the line. The perpetrators and the victims both flowed in his blood and what did that make him? He also had a second stunning insight. He noted how the tour guide spoke about the hierarchy of power in the slave system. At the bottom were the black unskilled workers purposefully kept ignorant and forced to do the heavy labor that required no thinking. The next level up were the black skilled workers—the cooks, the blacksmiths and others that had certain privileges and a higher status. Then came the white overseers managing the day-today tasks to make sure it all ran efficiently and punishing anyone who didn’t follow their program. At the top of the hierarchy was the Master, who kept a distance from it all except to occasionally check in to see how the crops were doing and to collect the money.
My friend’s deep insight? The above well describes some of our schools! At the bottom are the children, purposefully kept ignorant about the things that would raise doubts and questions and only given enough knowledge to keep the system going. The skilled workers are the teachers. The overseers are the administrators. The Master is the Superintendent who doesn’t know the children or the teachers, might show up at a concert or a PTA meeting to give the illusion of being involved, but purposefully keeping a distance and collecting the money.
Now that is some food for thought.