By Rachel Thomas '14
CONWAY, Ark. (February 5, 2012) - Doug Blackmon, a 1986 Hendrix graduate, presented a preview of the documentary Slavery by Another Name, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning work of the same title, to a packed house in Worsham last month.
Blackmon, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, received the Odyssey Medal in 2009.
The book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize in General Non-fiction in 2009. It has since been adapted by a PBS affiliate in St. Paul, Minnesota, into a feature-length documentary, directed by Sam Pollard and narrated by Laurence Fishburne.
The documentary was selected for entry into the Sundance Film Festival, premiered there on January 23, and has received positive reviews.
Sean P. Means, a reviewer at the Salt Lake Tribune, gave it three and a half stars, and wrote, "Even in an age of cinema verite and advocacy documentaries, there's still a place for a well-crafted historical documentary." His full review is available through the Sundance Film blog at the Tribune's website.
Both the documentary and the book chronicle a period in American history that, according to Blackmon, people often prefer to forget. It was a time when, particularly in the South, state and city governments, as well as private citizens, worked to keep African Americans in a state of enslavement.
Blackmon estimated that some 800,000 African Americans were arrested for minor offenses or, in many cases, on false pretenses, and sentenced to imprisonment. The state or county then leased these prisoners to companies. They were sent to work in mines, in fields and on farms.
Businessmen and individuals would also force African Americans into debt slavery, over real or falsified debt. This practice, called peonage, was and is illegal in the United States.
This only tells part of wider story of victimization, for Blackmon.
"The threat of that happening to you and your family was the hammer hanging over the heads of millions of African Americans," he said in his presentation.
"It's fairly obvious why white Southerners and white folks want to forget about this," Blackmon said. "It goes against our mythology that Lincoln freed the slaves."
However, Blackmon says that this part of history can't be forgotten.
"This is a story that all of us need to know about in the world we live in today," he said of this chapter in U.S. history. "But it's a hard story, and it doesn't have a happy ending."
Blackmon faced challenges telling this story, he explained. The most significant of these was, perhaps, the lack of information on the victims.
Blackmon identifies a young man named Green Cottingham as one of the protagonists of his book. Cottingham was a leased convict who died in a mine in Georgia. Blackmon researched extensively, but could only find five pieces of paper that testified to Cottingham's existence.
This lack of information was one of the reasons Blackmon chose to focus on Cottingham.
"I realized that there were thousands of Green Cottinghams who had been nearly extinguished not just from life but from history," he said. "And that's when I realized he was an archetypal figure."
"There was no Anne Frank of the sharecropper farm," Blackmon said. While the documentary contains several firsthand accounts from African Americans, these are few and far between.
However, Blackmon stressed that it was important for him, as co-executive producer of the film, and for the rest of the production team, to have these "historical words."
"One of the most common failures on the part of great American historians," Blackmon said, "is to see poor black Americans as these inanimate objects."
He explained that this problem for historians stems largely from the fact that so much more information exists on the white people who participated in the system than on their victims.
Blackmon said that historians act like magnets, attracting the information that exists. However, he said that he finds "the absent places just as rich."
"The people who left no signs behind were nonetheless real people," Blackmon said.
Blackmon spent a significant amount of time tracking down descendants of the individuals he writes about in his book, both of victims and of victimizers.
He tracked down many of the victims' "sideways descendants" as he calls them, including relatives of Green Cottingham. He included interviews with some of these descendants at the end of his book, and he was insistent that they be interviewed and included in the documentary as well.
"They were the bridge to the present," Blackmon said. "They're the heart of the film, they're why it works."
He admitted that not all of these descendants responded positively to him, but many of them did, including many descendants of victims.
"They're people who in today's world have the most beautiful perspective," Blackmon said. "People who just realize that if we want to understand what our country is and why…then we have to understand the past."
The documentary will be broadcast nationwide on PBS on February 13, during Black History Month. Local station websites will provide exact times. Blackmon will be returning to Hendrix in May as the commencement speaker for the Class of 2012.
Rachel Thomas is a sophomore English studies major from Fayetteville, Ark.