By Milo Asay
Sounder is a young adult novel written by William Armstrong, that gives voice to inequality, grief, and fear of death. It depicts love, devotion, and vulnerability in an adult manner. First published in 1969, it still has distinct importance in today’s world with its captivating subject matter and relevance in a polarized society.
Another strong advocate for the equality of African-Americans is Douglas A. Blackmon’s book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Published in 2008, it reveals America’s untold history with African-Americans. Both books are a voice for the cause of the African-American movement for equality.
Armstrong and Blackmon capture how privileged individuals, in their quest for economic gain, held captive African-Americans. For centuries, African-Americans have fought for equality in America in a racially divided society. Dianne Glave writes, “African Americans struggled through boycotts, marches, freedom rides, sit-ins, and protests. People throughout the world witnessed the events of the 1950s and 1960s, hearing, watching, and reading the news media of radio, television, and newspaper, which shamed the U.S. government and white Southern citizenry.” (129).
As supporters in the African-American civil rights movement, Armstrong and Blackmon, both white southerners, demonstrate a literary shaming voice of moral intelligence in the rehabilitation of America after the Civil War. Reading Blackmon’s research adds a greater understanding and dimension of the history in Armstrong’s fictional novel.
It is important for us to face our history in the process of conciliation. Blackmon recounts, “On March 30, 1908, Green Cottenham was arrested by the sheriff of Shelby county, Alabama, and charged with vagrancy.” The county judge quickly found Cottenham guilty of vagrancy, “a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states.” In reality, “Cottenham’s offense was blackness” (1).
Similarly, Armstrong tells the story of an African-American father arrested for the smell of cooking ham. “Chain him up,” said the sheriff. “There are two things I can smell a mile [away]. . . One’s a ham cookin’ and the other’s a thievin’ nigger” (20). The father is locked up in the local jail and found guilty. Once again, the true offense is blackness.
Even today, it is impossible for African-Americans to live in security. They have been, and still are constantly in worry of arrest by authorities with unjust punishment. In American history, African-Americans were not only persecuted by the law, but there was an absence of protection of the law. This is apparent in Blackmon’s research as well as Armstrong’s novel. Perhaps this is why there now is a “black lives matter” movement in America. America’s pervasive criminalization of African-Americans leads us to question, is discussing the atrocities to African-Americans after the Civil War enough to heal cultural and racial divisions in America?
The need to rehabilitate the South’s economy and the collapse of the judicial system re-enslaved the African-Americans after the Civil War. After the emancipation, Blackmon writes, “The country was interested in neither rehabilitation nor long-term punishment, particularly in an era when every man was needed to staff the farms and enterprises of the country” (63). Large numbers of free workers caused the South to suffer economically. White authorities thought that the re-enslavement of blacks was a necessity to solve the downturn of the South’s economy.
Blackmon’s research reveals that authorities began to put into motion discriminative and oppressive laws that criminalized African-Americans. They became vulnerable to arrest. This “was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South.” The South had “a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation” (4).
Blackmon reports that the re-enslaved African-Americans received sentences of a year or two, but the majority were held by their new owners past their sentencing. It is revealing to note that forty years earlier, Armstrong, in his fictional novel, follows Blackmon’s research. In Armstrong’s novel, the boy searches for his father after his arrest, “The months and seasons of searching dragged into years.” His mother would say, “There’s patience, child, and waitin’ that’s got to be” (84).
Although, re-enslavement began to rebuild the South economically, it began to create a form of political terrorism against African-Americans that lasted well into the 20th century. The South and the North were complacent to the menial laws and arrests of thousands and thousands of African-Americans. Keeping the African-Americans silent was a way of rehabilitating the South’s economy. "That silence was an agonizing frustration in the writing of this book,” says Blackmon (9).
After the Civil War it is rumored that there was great lawlessness of the freed slaves and their children to justify criminalization of African-Americans. Blackmon writes, “According to many conventional histories, slaves were unable to handle the emotional complexities of freedom and had been conditioned by generations of bondage to become thieves” (5). In reality, Blackmon states, “as I moved from one county courthouse to the next in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, I concluded that such assumptions were fundamentally flawed” (5).
Blackmon discovered that there were large periods of time when no crimes had been reported, and then there would be a period of time when large groups of African-Americans would be arrested for vagrancy or other menial crimes and sold into labor camps. As a result, “Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South – operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial farmers” (7). In Sounder, the boy’s father had been sold to one such labor camp.
High fines that were incurred by the African Americans for their falsified crimes left them at the mercy of the law enforcement and began the economic rehabilitation of the South. “Revenues from the neo-slavery poured the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars into the treasuries of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina – where more than 75 percent of the black population in the United States then lived,” writes Blackmon (8).
More and more companies bought African-Americans out of jails or prisons. Blackmon writes, “Through the spring and summer of 1908, the number of men purchased for use in Slope No. 12 [a prison compound] steadily climbed – by August reaching nearly six hundred prisoners taken from county sheriffs and just under four hundred from the state” (313). The buying of African-American prisoners became a common occurrence in order to reestablish the economy of the South. Therefore, slavery did not, in fact, end at the end of the Civil War.
Green Cottenham died from the Alabama prison mines, just as the father in Sounder. Hopefully, Armstrong and Blackmon’s exposure of the highly offensive violations of the judicial system against African-Americans helps us move forward to a trusting society, and begin to heal cultural and racial divisions
Armstrong, William H. Sounder. New York: HarperCollins, 1969. Print.
Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Random House, Inc. 2008. Print.
Glave, Dianne D. Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage. Chicago. Chicago Review Press, Inc. 2010. Print.