As I watch the blackface controversy unfold in Virginia, I am stunned that both the governor and the attorney general were ever oblivious to its profound offensiveness when used for a skit, performance or as part of a costume. It has always been an insidious caricature, once used in minstrel shows and later film and reinforced appalling stereotypes.
And I wonder how much time must pass before America will be free from the dark legacy of slavery, the Civil War and all that followed: Jim Crow, “Separate but equal,” and the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson, a decision which validated racist attitudes, prejudices and overt violence such as lynching, all carried out with impunity.
Examine any photograph of a public lynching of a black man or woman. Let your gaze settle on the people gathered like a carnival crowd beneath the lifeless, often mutilated body, study their faces, recognize their chilling lack of humanity framed by an unvarnished racism that stalks us still.
If men and women were brought to our shores in chains and sold like so much chattel, then their chains became our own and their stories became ours, and search as we might we have yet to find surcease from this dark, painful history.
Last year, the New York Times published a story about Sugar Land, Texas. A school construction crew had discovered the remains of 95 African Americans whose graves date back more than a century, victims of what was then referred to as convict leasing, a system of free labor utilized after the Emancipation Proclamation. African Americans were arrested on fraudulent charges, imprisoned, and then turned over to sugar cane plantations that proved to be one of the most lethal forms of agriculture in the south. Forensic anthropologists have been able to study the remains and thereby able to determine the prisoners’ condition prior to death.
Sugar cultivation during the 19th and early 20th centuries was considered to be the slaughterhouse of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, killing more people more rapidly than any other kind of agriculture. Florida, Texas and Louisiana plantations were the most infamous.
The Times piece quoted Solomon Northrop, the free black New Yorker who was kidnapped into slavery. He later described in his memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave,” the cruelty and barbarity that defined the yearly sugar cane harvest. The harvesters were worked relentlessly, he wrote, in the heat and scorching sun, cutting down 10-foot stalks of sugar cane using machete-like knives, preparing it for transport to the plantation mill where it was processed.
Former slave Frederick Douglass called it a “life of living death.” It was estimated that the average life span of a mill hand was seven years, and enslaved workers feared, above all, being sold to a sugar plantation.
Jacob Stoyer, slave and later memoirist, wrote, “When a train lurched out of a South Carolina station carrying slaves to Louisiana, the colored people cried out with one voice as though the heavens and earth were coming together it was pitiful ...”
Eventually, growers used mechanized rollers to crush the cane into juice, which was boiled and dried, turning it into sugar. The demand by owners and foremen was to make haste, despite the long hours and the to-the-bone fatigue. The boiling house was rampant with maiming injuries: the splatter of boiling sugar, the high risk involved in feeding the stalks of cane into the rollers, hands and arms lost or workers pulled into the rollers and dismembered.
The high death rate, according to prison records, was due to malnutrition, edema, dehydration, sunstroke, heart failure and disease. It was a reprehensible, depraved system that remained profitable due to the use of slaves and later prisoners. The disregard for human life was pervasive and all but incomprehensible.
The above narrative is but one page in a grim history that continues to haunt us. Slavery, and all its attendant horror, still threads its way through our society. Blackface is but one example.
Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.