Author Douglas A. Blackmon took a column he wrote a decade ago about slavery in this country and ran with that theme all the way to winning the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. In 2009, Blackmon won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for his dynamic storytelling of black Americans enslavement from the Civil War all the way up to World War II in the New York Times best-seller,” Slavery By Another Name.”
But Blackmon isn’t just a one-hit wonder when it comes to writing about race. Blackmon has written extensively about the Civil Rights Movement, school integration and other societal matters regarding racial issues in this country. “Slavery by Another Name,” however, is perhaps his most illustrious and notable work when it comes to race in America and the topic of slavery and oppression suffered by black Americans.
America still has yet to settle its debt with the millions of black Americans mired in the abominable act of slavery, entrenched in labor camps and working in bondage while at the behest of their white masters. Many of today’s esteemed businesses and institutions have benefitted greatly from the slave trade. Ivy League Schools Brown University and Harvard University have admitted their ties to slavery as well as the College of William & Mary.
Wachovia Bank, purchased by Wells Fargo Bank, was a major perpetrator and profited off of the slave trade. In “Slavery by Another Name,” Blackmon drops the dime on U.S. Steel, and how it targeted and exploited black men for free labor, forcing those individuals into a lifetime of drudgery, constant beatings and inhuman conditions.
For the last two years, Blackmon, senior national correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, has made his way to South Los Angeles in various settings, including participating in a couple of book fairs to tout his critically-acclaimed book. In an interview that took place in Los Angeles at the Leimert Park Book Fair with News4usonline.com editor Dennis J. Freeman, Blackmon, in a brief Q&A, goes into descriptive details about his outstanding literary project.
News4usonline.com: Why did you decide to write this book?
DB: “The book grew out of an article that I wrote in the Wall Street Journal. But that story was part of a theme that I had been interested in for many years…race in America, but how society grapples with the past. In particular, I’ve been interested in how companies that were involved in something bad…Companies can live forever. If we die, the bad things we do at one point in our lives, it dies with us. But a company can live for hundreds of years. So you get this company like U.S. Steel that is engaged in things that are terrible for one decade. But then fifty, sixty, seventy years later, what are the obligations of a company for the things it did even though all of the people are long gone? I have always been interested in that idea.
“I have done several stories that looked at the United States. We never really examined corporate conduct, in terms of the segregation era, the involvement of companies trying to fight the Civil Rights Movement, the role of banks-southern banks that worked with northern banks to fund opposition to the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 1960s. In the course of writing those [articles], I said I had to look further into this. I came across this reference place in Alabama where it sounded like not a prison mine but a slave mine. And so I started looking into that and then realized that the only mine at that time had been U.S. Steel Corporation. So here you have is one of the most iconic American businesses that there ever have been.
News4usonline.com: Has slavery been forgotten or do people view it as something that happened a long time ago?
DB: “There are a lot of people who think that. Certainly a lot of white people think that and a lot of black people do, too. It’s amazing how much of this has been forgotten, not just by white people, but by blacks. There’s also a kind of collective amnesia about just how bad things were in the beginning of the twentieth century that is shared by whites and blacks. Whites don’t want to remember what happened then for obvious reasons. I don’t really want to remember…it’s not my favorite thing to do to remember that my grandfather was a terrible racist and was involved in bad things in Louisiana in the 1930s. That’s obvious and sort of understandable.
“It’s more perplexing why African Americans sometimes don’t want to remember the past or didn’t have that history passed down to them. But part of the explanation for that I believe is that the events were so terrible…older African Americans who experienced these terrible events in the first part of the twentieth century, didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want it passed down. In the South, [African Americans] knew if they passed down their anger to younger members of their families that it would put them in harm’s way like Emmett Till or others. The idea of being a young, angry black man in Mississippi in the 1920s or 30s or 40s or 50s, was not a safe thing. And those reasons are part of this collective amnesia that everybody ended up being a part of. So we kind of forgot what happened in that long stretch between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.”
News4usonline.com: What did you hope to accomplish by writing this book?
DB: “My real interest at the beginning was just to get to the bottom of it. I grew up in this very segregated world in a little town in Mississippi. Even when I was a little kid I was powerfully perplexed by why the lives of the black kids I went to school with were so radically different from the life I was growing up in. Much of this has been just try to get to the bottom it. But I do believe that the truth is very powerful.
“If we ever want to have a legitimate shared vision for what America should be, what American life should be, how we should all relate to one another, then we have to be honest about what has happened before, how did we got to the place where we are. White people and black people, everybody, we have to be open and honest about the reality of what happened, the scale of the injuries that were done, the magnitude of the crimes that were committed. Until we’re able to do all of that, I don’t think we can ever really have a good-faith dialogue about the future.”