Channel Surfing: ‘Slavery by Another Name’
By NEIL GENZLINGER
Programming for Black History Month often seems to cluster around two periods of history: the slavery era and the civil-rights movement. “Slavery by Another Name,” Monday night on PBS (check local listings), is a stark reminder of what sprang up in the South in the years between the two: an economic system that was its own kind of slavery, exploiting black labor under often brutal conditions.
The film, directed by Sam Pollard and based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s
Pulitzer Prize-winning book, details the use of peonage, but it also explores the ugly manipulation of laws just after the Civil War to ensure an endless supply of black prison inmates, who were rented out by states to serve as forced labor in industry.
“It was a crime in the South for a farmworker to walk beside a railroad,” notes Mr. Blackmon, one of a number of experts who appear in the film. “It was a crime in the South to speak loudly in the company of white women. It was a crime to sell the products of your farm after dark.”
Inmate laborers, the film suggests, may actually have had it worse than slaves.
“It was never in the economic interest of a slave owner to kill his own slaves or abuse them so terribly that they couldn’t work anymore, so their economic value protected them in certain ways,” Mr. Blackmon says. “After the Civil War, someone working these kinds of forced laborers would push them to the very limits of human endurance.”
The inmate-labor system affected the labor movement, social views of blacks and crime, and other areas that still ripple in the present day.
By filling in an overlooked part of black history, this sobering film
enhances our understanding of why race issues have proved so intractable.