American history often gets passed on in a too-simple narrative, especially in pop culture. It's presented as black and white; there were good guys and bad guys.
PBS's "Slavery by Another Name" (Monday night at 9 on WNET/13), based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by co-executive producer Douglas Blackmon, reveals a largely hidden history that belies the popular narrative that the enslavement for African-Americans ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.
This 90-minute documentary recounts -- through recreations and interviews -- how emancipation was a bitter economic pill for former slave owners to swallow. So they found a substitute.
LOOPHOLES AND LAWS A loophole in the 13th Amendment worked in their favor: Slavery was abolished except as punishment for a crime. "Slavery by Another Name" recounts efforts to retain the practice of slavery by enacting contrived laws that made it a crime for a black man to walk beside a railroad, to speak loudly in the company of white women or for an inability to prove his employment on a moment's notice.
This led to "convict leasing," in which the state would lease prisoners to be used as laborers by plantation owners and even corporations. It provided a new revenue stream for the state and inexpensive, union-free labor for companies.
"Slavery by Another Name," narrated by Laurence Fishburne, explains how conditions for these forced laborers were often worse than conditions for slaves in the pre-Civil War era.
"It was never in the economic interest of a slave owner to kill his own slaves or abuse them so terribly they couldn't work anymore," Blackmon explains in the film. "Their economic value protected them in certain ways. After the Civil War, someone working their forced laborers would push them to the very limits of human endurance."
LONG-LASTING FORCED LABOR Blackmon said his book grew out of a story he wrote for The Wall Street Journal about the use of forced labor in Alabama's Pratt Mines by Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. The use of convict labor continued there until 1912, Blackmon reported.
"Slavery by Another Name" shows the impact of this practice that wasn't investigated by federal authorities until 1922, with no prosecutions for it until 1942. In 1951, Congress finally passed more explicit statutes making any form of slavery a crime, Blackmon writes.
"A lot of people, particularly younger African-Americans, really realize, at a very fundamental level, that there's something about the standard version of American history that doesn't add up," Blackmon said. "To really understand why the country was the way it was then and is the way it is now, you have to realize that something much bigger, something much worse happened in that period of time."
Descendants of both African-American forced laborers and the white men who leased them are interviewed in the film, including Dr. Sharon Malone, wife of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Her uncle was a victim of forced labor.