by Bob Cesca
The violation was known as “vagrancy.” If you were a black man in the South following Reconstruction, and you were unable to show proof of employment on-demand to the police, you could be arrested and delivered into what Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name, called “Neo-Slavery.”
“Papers, please” in the vernacular of the late Nineteenth Century through World War II involved furnishing pay stubs or, if you were lucky, the word of your employer — any kind of evidence proving to a police officer that you were employed. But what if you forgot to carry your employment records with you when you left the house that morning? What if you were — like so many regular citizens — unaware of the anti-vagrancy law? Hell, what if you were simply unemployed? It might be your last mistake as a free citizen of the United States.
Like so many other African-American males of that era, you might be incarcerated, convicted and perhaps sold to a farming, mining or lumber operation. Yes, sold. After the Civil War. After the abolition of slavery and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Slavery, it turns out, survived.
In the Spring of 1908, a young African American son of slaves living in Alabama named Green Cottonham was arrested at a train station. We don’t know for sure what specific law Cottonham had violated to warrant his arrest because, at his trial, the arresting officer literally forgot the reason why Cottonham was picked up in the first place. So the charge of vagrancy was substituted. Cottonham was convicted and sentenced to 30 days of hard labor, but since he was poor and couldn’t pay several intentionally impossible-to-pay fines, the 30 day sentence grew into a year. He was carted off and “legally” sold for twelve-dollars-a-month to U.S. Steel. At age 22, Green Cottonham was shoved into a coal mine as a manual laborer — occasionally whipped and tortured, eventually dying before the end of his sentence.
Vagrancy and a wide variety of other similar violations were intentionally broad and trivial, not intended to clean up the streets, but, instead, to suppress the advancement of blacks, as well as to feed the engines of agriculture and industry in the South with cheap forced labor.
This was a back-door slave trade, ensnaring hundreds of thousands of African American men. The Southern judicial system, fueled by ridiculous laws and even more ridiculous trials, became an above-boards means of rebuilding the South on the backs of slave labor. And it flourished until just after Pearl Harbor when President Roosevelt asked the Justice Department to shut it all down, not because it was morally and constitutionally wrong, but for fear the German Nazis and the Japanese imperialists would use it against us in their propaganda.
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In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, historians, public figures, poets and authors formulated the Lost Cause mythology, which, in what would be one of America’s most insidious disinformation campaigns, rewrote history and defined the Confederacy and the South as victims, rather than the instigators of the Civil War and the subjugators of an entire race of people. In order to truly reunify the nation, Southern whites would have to be reevaluated and redefined as the ones who had been subjugated.
While Green Cottonham served his unjust sentence at the hands of the white male power structure in the South, the movie industry was doing its part in suppressing black advancement by routinely producing harrowingly racist movies. The goal was to help reunify white America around a common enemy: blacks.
By the first decade of the Twentieth Century there were ten thousand movie theaters in America, and many of the very short, very awful silent movies exhibited in those theaters make D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation seem tame by comparison. There were of course the relatively “harmless” shorts by the Pathé brothers, who created bastardized versions of minstrel shows. These shorts featured stereotyped black characters like Rastus, Mammy and Little Black Sambo. The Rastus films, in particular, sported offensive titles like How Rastus Got His Chicken and Rastus in Zululand (the latter is described as a story about “a darky who needs warmth”).
Filmmakers who carried on the reunification effort presumed that African-Americans didn’t possess a cultural identity and therefore their identities could be entirely invented for them, without their consent. What emerged was wholesale cultural fiction for the purposes of reflecting preexisting white bigotry and fear: the manufacturing of the stereotype of the black man as a lazy, shiftless, unpredictable, sex-crazed thief. The mid-Nineteenth Century legend of the aforementioned Sambo, for example, was that of a slow-witted, subservient “darky,” who could at any moment transform into a frothing rapist.
The synopsis for the film Minstrels Battling in a Room (1896) reads: “black minstrels beating up a white man with bottles.” There was Prize Fight in Coon Town, described in the distribution catalog as featuring “two bad coons.” Again, these were all legitimate movies. There was The Interrupted Crap Game: a movie about two black men who interrupt a round of dice in order to capture a chicken. The African-American characters in another film are described like so: “These darkies are of the ‘Old Virginny’ type.” Another movie is summarized as, “the catching, tarring and feathering and burning of a Negro for the assault of a white woman.” Again, the Sambo-rapist stereotype is carried on from one film to the next.
It’s worth noting that there was a chain of “Sambo’s” fast food restaurants in U.S. until around 1983.
And then there was the movie that’s more responsible for modern stereotypes and racism than just about anything else from Twentieth Century American culture: the aforementioned Birth of a Nation. Based on a play by Thomas Dixon called The Clansman, Birth of a Nation is a watershed document of racial intolerance and demonization, of sociological projection and white rage, a movie that set the table for another hundred years of American racial animosity that continues, and is perhaps prospering in the terrible age of Trump.
Birth of a Nation is largely the story of a Southern family, the Camerons, who endure the horrors of the American Civil War and Reconstruction and eventually find a way to reclaim their way of life through terrorism and fear-mongering. But the Cameron story is really just a Trojan Horse for the racism and Lost Cause revisionist goals of the film.
The main character, Ben Cameron, forms the Ku Klux Klan with his fellow Confederate veterans as a way to reignite his white Southern heritage. Even the formation of the white ghost-like KKK regalia is depicted in the movie using racist imagery. In the “idea for the costumes” scene, Ben sits near a cliff, contemplating his “unfair” southern white hardships, when he observes a group of white children hiding under a white sheet. Several black children come along and the white children frighten them away by acting like ghosts. A-ha! Black people are afraid of ghosts! Clever.
Cameron’s Ku Klux Klan is portrayed as an avenging army of swashbuckling heroes who flock to the rescue of a white woman being surrounded in her cabin by a platoon of lascivious black soldiers. Naturally, the black soldiers are played by white actors in blackface who behave in offensively stereotypical ways. Black Union soldiers are also shown suppressing and intimidating white voters: several bayonet-wielding black soldiers are seen yanking a pair of white voters away from a ballot box. As we all know, the exact opposite occurred in the South during Reconstruction, not to mention the decades that followed.
Black politicians, including the Silas Lynch character, are unanimously elected to the state legislature via the intimidation of white citizens at the hands of black soldiers. The all-black legislature goes on to pass laws that strip white people of their right to vote. The politicians, meanwhile, ogle and harass white women in the street, but only when they aren’t getting drunk and eating chicken. The through-line of the entire movie is as follows: black men, who can only really be controlled under banner of slavery, seek to overthrow the government so they can freely dominate white men and rape white women. The solution? The KKK.
In other words, without white vigilance, blacks will destroy America.
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The marginalization, oppression and unfair stereotyping foisted upon blacks by white supremacists, including our recently inaugurated president, still pulses through the American bloodstream today. How can it not? Start with slavery, toss in the rise of neo-slavery, then a library of silent films combined with a series of Jim Crow laws giving rise to another set of trespasses including modern Voter ID laws and the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act — each building upon the previous roster of humiliations. When white people talk down to blacks, telling them to “get over” the past, they fail to see the concentric ripples of slavery, neo-slavery, Jim Crow, pop culture stereotypes and courtroom injustices, and how it’s all cumulative — how it’s all relevant today. They not only fail to see the long shadow of racial tensions, but they’re frustratingly blind to what’s happening right in front of their faces, even though it’s more visible and louder than in recent history due to the visibility of the internet and the anonymous shield of social media.
Today, one of our two major political parties, via Trump’s overt and unapologetic usage of the Southern Strategy, continues to employ white racial animosity as a means of scaring up the aggrieved white vote, thus legitimizing racial bigotry.
Clearly, we’re not talking about ancient history here. If you really don’t understand why anti-Nazi, anti-KKK protesters in Charlottesville turned out to oppose the racist thuggery of the past, then you simply don’t understand history, regardless of whether it’s 100 or 200 years ago, or whatever happened in the lobby of Trump Tower yesterday. It’s impossible to not see the echoes of Green Cottonham in the stories of Treyvon Martin and Michael Brown, or the echoes of Sambo, Rastus and minstrel shows in today’s “thug” and “looting” media stereotypes. It’s impossible to not see the blinding insanity of Donald Trump’s pathetic words in defense of these Nazi villains.
And it’s staggering to think there are still too many Americans, including Donald Trump, who are willing to attach their names and their privileged white faces to the defense of statues and flags honoring Confederate commanders who committed treason against the United States — commanders who are responsible for defending slavery by murdering hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers in the fields and forests of Gettysburg, Antietam, Cold Harbor, Shiloh and Spotsylvania Courthouse. These statues and the accompanying rebel flag are direct artifacts of the Lost Cause myths that gave us the lynchings, Jim Crow laws, neo-slavery and horribly racist “entertainment” of the early 20th Century.
They’re are all parts of the same whole and yet, according to too many white people, African-Americans are expected to simply move along and ignore a system that’s always been unfairly stacked against them.
Ironic, isn’t it, that the enduring symbol of white power and racism in this country is the Confederate flag, yet blacks are told they need to move on and forget about the past.
Just because white people aren’t as horrible as they were 100 years ago, doesn’t mean systemic racism doesn’t exist today. Case in point: a General Social Survey poll from a few years ago revealed, among other findings, that 42 percent of whites believe that they’re harder working than blacks; 22 percent of whites said they’re more intelligent; 53 percent say blacks lack will power (echoes of the stereotypes manufactured by the silent films and minstrel shows); 28 percent of whites believe they should be allowed to discriminate based on race. To be fair, these numbers are lower than they were 40 years ago, but they’re still way too high, especially knowing that African-Americans bump into these people every damn day, now including our president — and guess who’s holding all the cards in those interracial confrontations? It’s not the black people.
I’ll never really know what it’s like. As a privileged white man myself, I’ll never truly understand the experiences of oppressed men and women on the American continent. But I do, however, understand history and how it manifests itself in different ways, using different language, while still managing to heap insult onto injury. As a fair-minded, independent thinker, it’s clear to me that the past isn’t confined to textbooks, and that social injustice for African-Americans continues to exist today. To deny it, and to deny African-Americans the justifiable right to be outraged by it, only contributes to their oppression and indefinitely delays the achieving of a true racial unity.