Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Art of Re-enslavement

A couple of days ago, I posted about a remarkable woman I've met here in the Louisiana parish where I moved last year. Today, I'm posting about another.Antoinette Harrell started out just studying her family history. She began with the arduous task of talking to elder members of her family and poring over public records. Then, she had her DNA checked and discovered that she is descended from the Tuareg tribe in Western Africa. But this didn't just become an interesting tidbit for her to discuss at family barbeques. It became the motivating force to send her to spend a month with the Tuareg in Niger, West Africa, reconnecting to her past.

In the process of this personal historical journey, however, Harrell developed an ever deepening sense of what African-Americans have suffered in this country over the past five hundred years. Most people that look like me and even many people of color have long since brushed aside this crucial information.

"Slavery ended over a hundred years ago," they flatly state, as if mildly irritated. "What does that have to do with us today?"

And this is the question Harrell seeks to answer for us all, whether we're ready or not.The fact is that even if slavery did end a hundred years ago (and Harrell and others argue that it did not), the effects of it, as I've often discussed in my blog posts, don't just linger on, but actually run rampant through the lives of all U.S. citizens. If you look like me, you benefit daily in a thousand ways -- without, as a rule, being forced to realize or acknowledge it -- allowed to live your life as a privileged member of this society (see the video in yesterday's post). And if you happen to be African-American, you just don't access those benefits and privileges. It's that simple.

But that's not all there is to it. Not by a long shot. In fact, I had the rare good fortune to be invited to the premiere of Harrell's documentary, "The Untold Story: Slavery in the 20th Century" at Loyola University in May and, believe me, this is something you're going to be hearing about.

Some years ago, at one of her many speaking engagements on the importance of tracking family history (even the painful parts), Antoinette Harrell was approached by Mae Louise Wall Miller, who told her that she was raised in what amounted to slavery and only escaped in 1963. That's right. Not 1863, but 1963.

Miller's family lived in a remote setting in Mississippi, far from cities or even roads, not being able to read or write and completely cut off from outsiders. The story Miller tells is harrowing and, as she told it at the premiere, you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium.

Miller talked about how they were treated worse than dogs. How they all spent their every waking moment "picking cotton, pulling corn, picking peas, picking butter beans, picking string beans, digging potatoes; whatever it was, that's what you did for no money at all." How the "Boss's" table scraps were tossed into a tub for days and then set out under a tree for them to eat out of like hogs. How the only drinking water they had access to was from a creek that was green with slime and whatever else might be floating in it. How they never had a spoon or a toothbrush or shoes. How, when they laid down to sleep at night, exhausted, on the dirt floor of their bare-bones shack, her father, Cain Wall, (seen in the photo at nearly 105 years of age) would lie flat on the dusty earth and the rest of the family would lie perpendicular to him, using his body (even when it was bloody) as the only pillow they ever knew. How she was raped so often and so brutally as a child that it left her incapable of having children herself. How they were beaten routinely and viciously and threatened with death if they even thought about trying to leave. How they were assured that if they did break free, the ones they left behind would be murdered. And on one occasion, when Cain Wall escaped in desperation, seeking help for his family, whoever picked him up actually returned him to his tormentors.

"We thought all Black people were being treated like that," remembers Mae Wall Miller now. "So where were we going to go?"

When Miller finally reached her breaking point and ran off in her late teens, she made it to a road where, still bloody from her morning beating for refusing to work, she was picked up by some folks in a horse-drawn wagon. That night, they all returned for the rest of her family.It was difficult for the Walls to acclimate to the world outside. Isolated for so long, they found it hard to trust people outside of the family. Miller has learned to read and write, but she says her feet still don't wear shoes easily. Nevertheless, the Wall family has moved on and Miller has bonded now with Antoinette Harrell and joined her in her work to make the world aware that the slavery of African-Americans in the United States (also called "peonage" or "involuntary servitude") is far from dead even yet.

Harrell has spent literally hundreds of hours crawling through private collections and public documents from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to the dusty, bat-infested attics of Court Houses in the rural South. She has found Justice Department records documenting cases of White people being prosecuted well into the twentieth century for holding people in involuntary servitude. She has copied more than 30,000 documents: case records, letters from people in bondage, and even letters to officials as high up as the President of the United States from lawyers and other credible sources (including the N.A.A.C.P.) requesting investigation of peonage in sixteen states. She has learned that the Department of Homeland Security now holds former F.B.I. files further documenting such cases under investigation as late as the 1970's. Unfortunately (and not surprisingly, under the circumstances), these files are closed to the public.

Why would they be closed? Well, one reason might be that Harrell and Miller, among others, have brought a class action suit demanding reparations. Not primarily personal reparations, you understand. But reparations to benefit the entire African-American community because of their centuries of unpaid labor, because of the physical, emotional, psychological, and economic devastation from the on-going effects of the past, and most importantly, because individual cases like that of the Wall family demonstrate that the paradigm of White Supremacy still functioning in this country has allowed these effects to continue into the present.

Harrell recommends to nay-sayers that they read Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon. Bill Moyers calls it "truly the most remarkable piece of reporting I've read in a long time."
Antoinette Harrell is off this week delivering food to destitute families in Mississippi. She rarely sits for more than a minute. If you want to know more about her on-going projects and research, including her documentary, "The Untold Story: Slavery in the 20th Century," and most particularly if you want to support her work in any way, you may contact her directly at

Posted by Changeseeker

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