First, let me acknowledge how difficult this book was for me to read. It was emotionally wrenching and Blackmon painstakingly filled each page with names and scenarios of the most cruelest brutalities…because he delved so deep into the research I found myself wanting to honor the men and women and children he had given name to by absorbing and reflecting as much as I could handle until I completed the book.
Have you ever experienced an understanding so vivid that you have difficulty even breathing? The continuum of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (widespread physical and psychic devastion and how it collectively effects the whole group) was laid before me and how the discrepancies and injustices present in our justice system just kept running rampant in my mind. I know we sometimes do not want to acknowledge how oppression has operated in our past and present and we want to isolate occurrences as if they have no history, and even when we do, we speak in generalized speech. Blackmon names names and ties those name to present wealth of today’s companies. He does so by researching legal, prison, and company documents and presenting details in a narrative form.
After making the connections to how many individuals and corporations gained wealth at the expense of unjust prison labor system that randomly subjugated Black men, women and children to enslavement and continued risk of brutal death, Blackmon even reached out to present-day corporations to enlighten them on how their companies were built on the backs and lives of unjust prison slavery that lasted well into the 20th century.
The book begins with the search for the details of the life of one person, Green Cottenham, who was killed in a prison camp while still a young man in his 20s. The search leads the reader through the lives of others on both sides of this horrendous practice with the revelation of how widespread this practice was across the South and how later on it was sustained by industrialists of the North and how the Department of Justice handled (or not) the investigations of the practice. He eventually takes us to his attempts to connect with Cottenham’s living descendants and personalizing his work by connecting it to his interest from when he was a 12 year-old child in Louisiana.
Amazon link to Slavery by Another Name
I was going to add The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander to my reading list, but I’m needing some firmer grounding and renewal, so I’m going to concentrate on completing Lion’s Blood and a book I started on jazz and visual arts.
This was a hard book for me to read. Each page is weighty and sometimes too raw for me and I almost gave up on it. With each page my gut tightened with anticipation of the ending.
This is the story of a family who lives on the outskirts of a fictionalized small town called Bois Sauvage, (can’t help to wonder if the name of the town is a play with the sound Boys Savage). Esch, the female sibling, of Skeeter, Randall, and Junior narrates the story. Their mother died giving birth to Junior but is given a presence in the story via Esch’s memories. The story is very testosterone driven and Esch gives the reader a great visual of the physical-ness of her brothers and moves with ease in connecting it to other aspects of her memories and surroundings and events.
Esch and Skeeter remind me of the Sankofa symbol with two crocodile heads who share one stomach. Esch’s observations and need to be loved/seen for who she is, gives off female energy while Skeeter’s gruff, heroic deeds provide the male counterpart…both of them are unflinching. Randall and Big Turner carry the nobility that can be found in the story and little Junior seems to be the trickster of the tale.
The main but not over-riding two backdrops to the story is it begins 12 days before hurricane Katrina and Esch’s comparison to the Greek story of Madea and the Argonauts which she is reading. The father is an side fixture in the story and almost seems to have no body but voice only. The most dominate physical presence is when he looses his fingers in an accident. And is that not signifying on the loss of presence? He shows little attention to the children as he goes about his fixation on preparing for Katrina and his beer drinking.
Ward uses the physical landscape in a way that makes me feel the humidity and heat of Mississippi in August, the swamp like conditions surrounding their home, the thick carpeted forest floor, the red dirt that gets into everything. The shallow pit of water that surrounds their land seems so thick and murky that when they are swimming in, I could almost choke. The book is written tight in that every page carries the heaviness of their lives but her matter of fact tone suggest the family is just living life as they know it.
One devoted man to two families, two daughters born months apart by two separate wives living in the same city. One daughter, who is the secret, knows about the other daughter all while growing up. Imagine that for a minute…going through all the changes and stages growing up girl and you know this story is filled with dramas…not way out there dramas for the entertainment of the community (i.e. reader or community inside the story), but deeply personal ones that show them wrestling, questioning, fumbling, seeking in earnest.
The first half of Silver Sparrow is narrated by the secret daughter Dana Lynn…whose formative years are deeply marked by the loss of a full fledged but loving father and his “other family” and her mother’s determination to ensure Dana Lynn has a better life than her “husband’s” other daughter who is only a few months younger than Dana Lynn. The second half of the book belongs to Chaurisse…whose formative years are marked by the lack of “specialness” which she refers to as “silver” and no sense of achievement and loneliness.
This is now the 3rd book I’m reading consecutively by Jones and what I’m loving is how well she pulls back the layers on personal agonies and dramas. She takes very few glossing overs or global leaps, opting instead to isolate circumstances, events, and thoughts into specific moments without burdening the story with a straight, flat linear style filled with unnecessary descriptions. The story has history, rooted in the lives of the parents and their parents and what occurs even before we arrive on earth shows up as baggage in our lives.
In all three novels, there is a strong theme that the unknown is way more powerful in our lives than the known…whether it is a future we can’t foresee or the weight of living with untruths, half-stories and lies. What also appeals to me is that the main characters grow and do not languish in some self-defacing pity. I’ll be keeping my eye out for future work by Tayari Jones.