or debt slavery?
Book pages 86-89
Later I visited this tenant farmer living close by. Both he and his wife
were 78 years old and should have stopped working years ago. But he said to me:
"I have to work until I drop dead in the fields. Last year my wife got heart
trouble so now I must do the work by myself."
Twice a year he walked to the
local store to buy a bit of flour and a little sugar. That's all he ever
bought. I asked what they got to eat for breakfast. He answered: "A glass of
tea and a little turnip greens." What then for lunch, I asked. "Just turnip
greens," he answered. – And what then for supper? "Mostly turnip greens" was
My attempts to find out about conditions for these sharecroppers ran
into an almost impenetrable wall of fear and intimidation. I had imagined that
this fear was entirely historically conditioned until one night after a visit
to such a sharecropper, on my 10-mile walk down a dead end road to my shack, I
was suddenly "ambushed" by a pickup truck with headlights turned on me and guns
sticking out. I managed to talk my way out of this situation, but little by
little I realized that such intimidation was deeply rooted in the violent
system of peonage, which traditionally has prevented sharecroppers and
farm workers from fleeing their "debt" by the use of beatings, jailings, and
During World War II (in which the U.S.A. was hailed as the Land of
Liberty) the U.S. Justice Department admitted that "there are more Negroes held
by these debt slavers than were actually owned as slaves before the Civil War."
Yet the Justice Department did nothing to prosecute these slave owners, who
even traded and sold the peons to each other. Although there were an increasing
number of peonage cases in the 1970's, it is only a few that end up in court;
and only the most cruel, such as a case in 1980 where a planter chained his
workers to prevent their escape, reach the press (and the American public).
The more I began to penetrate this undercurrent of dread and terror, the
more I began to feel that the first part of this century has had a far more
violent influence on the black psyche than the probably more paternalistic
I began to feel poles apart from the common white ignorance
which seems forever unable to understand why their own white ancestors could
"make it" in a short time while the blacks in 100 years of
"freedom" had been
"incapable of making it."
This banker, who is a recent beneficiary of this
violent ignorance, had unknowingly fit one more piece for me into the pattern
of hunger and dread I saw in the rural underclass.
In most places in the
Western world the economic system is so complicated that its inner dynamics are
hard to grasp. But in a few places the system is so simplified in its process
of exploitation that it is easy to see where, for instance, this banker's mink
fur is coming from.
The only thing the bank man could not buy for money was real
happiness. I saw again and again that the upper class is compelled to
substitute whiskey and tranquilizers for happiness.
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