Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Four Slaveries

“Slavery and enslavement are the state and condition of being a slave, who cannot quit their service to another person and is treated like property. In chattel slavery, the enslaved person is legally rendered the personal property (chattel) of the slave owner.”


In my Jazz History course last night, I said that Scott Joplin was born in 1868, three years after the end of slavery. And then corrected myself. “Three years after the end of the first American slavery.”


May I suggest we begin speaking this way? Call the subsequent purposefully-crafted laws and practices crafted by those who could not accept the end of the first by it's true name—slavery.  I think it would be more fitting to talk about the Four Slaveries, the last of which we’re still in.


The first slavery, according to the definition above from Wikipedia, could properly be called chattel slavery and lasted in the U.S. from 1619 to 1863 (Emancipation Proclamation) or 1865 (the end of the Civil War) depending on how you see it. 


The second slavery was called The Black Codes, a series of laws designed to keep blacks at the mercy of whites and often continuing to work for little or no wages. These were immediately enacted in Southern states after the Civil War and included excluding blacks from the work force, then arresting them for vagrancy. A white boss would pay the fine to get them out of jail and then force the black prisoner to work for free to pay off the debt. (You can read the sordid details in the book “Slavery By Another Name.”) 


The third slavery was the era (and error) of Jim Crow. Overlapping with and drawing from the Black Codes and officially sanctioned by the Supreme Court ruling in 1896 of Plessy vs. Ferguson, “separate but equal” was another strategy to keep black folks “in their place,” which meant without access to the liberties, rights and privileges promised in the Constitution that white folks enjoyed. While not technically slavery in the definition above, it continued the practice of black servitude as the available jobs were often maid, butler, railway porter, factory worker, etc. at lower-than-normal wages. Access to voting, quality education, housing, benefits of things like the G.I. Bill after fighting in the war was limited and always separate, but unequal. This era technically ended with the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


The fourth slavery was the ear of the school to prison pipeline begun by Nixon, continued by Reagan and given another boost by Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill. This was a purposeful attempt to make a felony out of drug offenses and imprison a high percentage of black males, who then would work for pennies for companies like Victoria Secret, not be allowed to vote because of their felony status and have limited job opportunities when released. (See the book “The New Jim Crow.”) This is where we are now.


And so every time the government leaned toward doing the right thing, there was another faction who simply shifted the oppression and then legally sanctioned it. During the 12 years of Reconstruction, blacks could vote and there were black senators at both the local and national level. But when Rutherford B. Hayes struck a deal with Southern senators in a contested election to removed the Federal troops from the South, that whole forward progress collapsed, the Ku Klux Klan rose with a vengeance and the Black Codes continued in full force. 


When there was heroic resistance from people like Ida B. Wells and Homer Plessy, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to promote a more just and integrated society and instead chose the Jim Crow path that would cause havoc for the next 70 years. After pressure from the heroism of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and thousands and thousands of people marching for justice in the 60’s, Johnson finally signed the bills once again affirming the rights the 13th, 14thand 15thAmendments 100 years earlier had promised. To be followed by Nixon and his cronies' nefarious plan to hide their real intentions to disenfranchise black (and radical white) voters with their deliberately crafted “War on Drugs,” a euphemism for the next chapter of slavery. And throughout it all, an ignorant public letting it pass while convincing themselves that race was no longer an issue. 


And so yesterday, Trump praised his almost all-white audience for “their good genes” and last week, NFL players joined in solidarity for Black Lives Matter were booed. Here we are, black folks still enslaved by the unquestioned and unhealed deliberate laws, practices and attitudes we’ve inherited and white folks enslaved in a different way, our way of thinking and non-thinking showing that “we cannot quit our service to another person,” that we are the property of the wrong-headed and wrong-hearted thinking of our ancestors. But unlike the real slavery that black folks have suffered, there is no obstacle keeping us bound to these masters other than our own choice to remain ignorant. 


We might begin by investigating these histories above and then changing the way we talk about slavery, as suggested above. 


Just a thought.

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