“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Oftentimes I am amazed at how little Americans in general, African-Americans in particular, know about this nation and its storied history of racial oppression. This daunting perspective is consistently reaffirmed whenever I speak about this nation’s Reconstruction era, particularly when the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is raised. Most of my students are shocked to discover what Ava Duvernay’s recent documentary 13th clearly displays; that being, slavery/involuntary servitude is permissible in this nation as a punishment for those convicted of a crime.
To be convicted of a crime in this nation if you are any combination of poor, Black, and male, bestows upon you a most peculiar status. For many you are a social pariah, for others you are unemployable and a wasted life.
Malcolm X once quipped that many people seek to slander him by highlighting that he was once a incarcerated in Charlestown Prison (Mass.); of course, this was prior to him developing into the foremost Black Nationalist of his era.
I am in many ways like Brother Malcolm in that I am unashamed of my past. Now I do not want you to get the idea that I was incarcerated in some prison or penitentiary, quite the contrary; however, I was not only raised in a prison community (Mansfield, Ohio — the location that the epic film The Shawshank Redemption was filmed), but also provided the unique perspective of having uncles who were continually in-and-out of prison and more importantly able to view the effect that incarceration had upon them, those who loved them, and how difficult it was to start a life anew after their confinement. I must tell you that this experience was more educational than any book, commercial, or political speech regarding their perils of being a Black man in America. I learned that we live in a most unforgiving society.
As a historian, there is an innate part of me that almost, and I do emphasize ALMOST, cannot resist the urge to draw clear distinctions between the impact of the 13th Amendment on Black America during Reconstruction/the Nadir period of this nation and it current impact upon African-American males. However, my experiences, and the experiences of others around me, preclude me from making such distinction.
It is obvious that the 13th Amendment reflects Southern politicians and plantation owners dogged determination to extend their historic exploitation of African-American laborers ‘by any means necessary’. Make no mistake about it, despite all of their in-fighting, white businessmen in the northern and southern regions of this nation understood that the well-worn path to wealth is paved with underhanded business practices that pivot off of the suppression of Black and white workers regardless of the industry.
When one examines the harsh realities of American labor practices for African-American agricultural workers, the irony of the centrality of the alluded to Black bodies to indispensable industries such as clothing (cotton) and feeding (farming) this nation is obvious. Although demonically inspired, one can understand white landowners steadfast desire to re-enslave African-Americans via an exploitative system designed that was greatly buttressed by the 13th Amendment to prevent their escape. Put simply, what would this nation be if it had not been able to extend one of its greatest traditions of unfair labor practices that exploited persons of African descent?
One-hundred and fifty years after its creation, the 13th Amendment is still being used for the primary purpose that it was originally designed, controlling African-Americans. If one believes the brilliant sister Michelle Alexander — and there is most definitely no reason not to believe her — the 13th Amendment is a Excalibur wielded by a conglomerate of white corporations and businessmen aimed at increasing greedy avaricious Capitalists financial bottom line. According to Alexander, once an individual is ensnared in the American criminal justice system there is no escape from the stigma of being a criminal. It is this stigma that haunts African-Americans who have become involved in the criminal justice system like a shadow; everywhere they go and everything they attempt to do will occur in the presence of this looming negative shadow.
For African-American men and women alike, a criminal past, regardless of how petty the charge, is akin to being the Puritan woman in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter who was stigmatized by her community after an illicit affair by wearing a ‘Red A’ so her transgression would not only never be forgotten, but also easily discernible by a harsh and judgmental community that she was forced to call home.
It is truly an awkward and peculiar position to be a member of a judgmental society that refuses to allow you to ‘turn the corner’ and move toward the most American of all traditions, that being, ‘the pursuit of life, liberty, and property’. Unfortunately, the innate bias toward a large segment of our populace in a nation founded upon criminal acts and blatant betrayal will most likely never end and thereby guaranteeing that those adorned with the equivalent of a modern-day ‘Scarlet Letter’ will continue to be locked out of American society to varying degrees. Most troubling of all is that it appears that today’s politicians care little about the alluded to population and are therefore unwilling to do anything to aid them in their struggle to not be discriminated against by employers on a moment-by-moment basis. It does not take much insight to realize that our failure to intercede on their behalf not only increases, but also makes recidivism a inevitability.
All that I can say about this matter is what a terrible situation we have created in a nation that can be most appropriately characterized as the “land of the thief and home of the slave.”
Dr. James Thomas Jones III
© Manhood, Race and Culture, 2016