Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon

This is a grim but fascinating book. Obviously I knew that black people in the southern states of the US had a pretty rough time of it in the period between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, what with disenfranchisement and segregation and lynching. But I didn’t appreciate that slavery re-emerged and continued right up to the 1940s.

How it worked was this: a black man would be arrested and charged with some minor offence like vagrancy or carrying a concealed weapon, and ordered to pay a fine plus costs, which would be more than they could afford. Their debt would then be paid off by a company or an individual, and the black man would be sent to work off the money he ‘owed’.

And even that legal process was a complete sham, so the effect was that any black man could, at any time, be picked up off the streets and sold into forced labour on plantations or in coal mines or whatever, where they would be shackled, kept in appalling conditions, thrashed regularly, and if they tried to escape they would be hunted down with dogs. And if they had nominally worked off the debt they owed, their ‘masters’ could always claim they had incurred costs and extend their time at will — not that anyone seems to have been checking the paperwork anyway.

I suppose what I found so shocking is that this isn’t just analogous to slavery: it’s the full slavery experience. There’s even an argument that these men were treated even worse than antebellum slaves, because at least those slaves were valuable assets that their owners could sell or use as collateral for loans. The debt slaves were effectively rented rather than owned, and it was no particular financial loss to their renters if they died. And die they did, particularly in the mines, by their dozens.

There were many thousands of African Americans living in these kinds of explicit forced labour; and that is on top of the much larger number living as sharecroppers and similar exploitative arrangements.

It makes for interesting, depressing reading. And it provokes all kinds of thoughts about power and race and America and so on, but one broad conclusion I would pick out is this: major societal change is hard and slow. Perhaps the situation could have changed faster, with more political will from the North and the federal government, but there was no enthusiasm for another huge internal conflict on the subject of race, and the one serious attempt to crack down on forced labour petered out as the scale of the problem became clear.

But even with all the political will in the world, it would surely have taken decades to normalise the situation of black people in the south as full citizens. Which is something we should bear in mind when we blithely talk about intervening in other countries with enormously entrenched social problems.

Another thought that occurs to me: it’s kind of interesting that Washington DC has a holocaust museum rather than a slavery museum. There’s nothing wrong with a holocaust museum — they could have both! — but it does seem like it might be easier to confront the horrors of a a great sin and a great tragedy when they happen in another country rather than your own.

And that in turn provokes a line of thought about my own country’s history, and to what extent the British have come to terms with the murkier implications of having been an empire. But that will have to wait for another day, I think.


The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley, is a selection of letters between the various Mitford sisters, who were an extraordinary bunch. From oldest to youngest: Nancy was the novelist who wrote Love In A Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love; Pamela was least remarkable; Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists; Unity went off to Germany and became a personal friend of Hitler; Jessica ran away from home to join a cousin fighting on the communist side in the Spanish Civil War, and became a civil rights activist and writer in America; and Deborah, the only surviving sister, is now Duchess of Devonshire and spent most of her life working to make Chatsworth House into a profitable outfit.

Among the notable names that crop up: Hitler, Goebbels, Churchill, Harold Macmillan, General de Gaulle, JFK, John Betjemen, Evelyn Waugh, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Queen, the Queen Mother, Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Noel Coward… so there’s lots of good material there. 

The main interest in the early part of the book is the Big History stuff: the Nazis and Hitler most of all. I read it trying to get some sense of what appealed to Unity and Diana about Fascism, but although there are lots of letters about Hitler, and going to rallies and so on, I never quite got a handle on it. I suspect that for Diana, it was as much because of her attraction to Oswald Mosley as any ideology, but it can’t have just been that. And Unity seems to have had an with Hitler before she met him in the way someone might have an obsession with Elvis or Princess Diana. She found out where he regularly went to eat and kept going there until she had the chance to wangle an introduction.

I suppose since half of Europe went Fascist in the thirties, there’s no need for a special explanation. The same thing appealed to them as to everyone else: whatever that was. It’s perhaps easier to look back and empathise with the appeal of communism, but still, with that too it would be interesting to know what triggered it: was there some particular conversation or book? What would be enough to make Jessica run off to Spain in pursuit of it?

As the book goes on and the sisters get older and less active, the focus narrows down from these Big Issues onto their family dynamics, which are often made rather tense by the growing interest in them and the various books and TV programmes made by themselves and others. It’s still fascinating, though. 

It helps that they all write well: their letters are chatty, funny, sometimes serious, and frequently quite bitchy. Nancy had the sharpest edge, but they all had their caustic moments. I probably ought to quote something, so here’s a fairly random bit that I thought showed a sharp eye. This is Diana writing to Deborah in 1960; Max is her son. He’s the Max Mosley currently in the news, as it happens.

Yesterday Max fetched me in the Austin Healey Sprite & drove me to Oxford where Jean had made a delicious middle day dinner. The flat is marvellous, not one ugly thing, & a view over playing fields to real country & a garden with an apple tree. ALL the wedding presents were being used — your car, Desmond’s china, Emma’s Derby ware, Viv’s pressure cooker, Muv’s pink blanket on the bed and (pièce de résistance) Wife’s coffee set — also of course Freddy Bailey’s canteen of silver.

Oh Debo, the pathos of the young. Don’t let’s think.

Charlotte Mosley, who edited the book, is daughter-in-law of Diana, so one wonders if she is, or could be, completely objective — it’s impossible to know whether she has quietly laundered anything out, and apparently, even at 800 pages, what appears in the book is a tiny percentage of the total — but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

» the image, which has nothing to do with the Mitfords beyond the obvious, is POSTER – WOMEN OF NAZI GERMANY, posted to Flickr by Bristle’s Film Posters [ W1 ]. If it’s working, that is: Flickr seems a little flaky today.