social construct

Reconstruction 1 of 2

There really is a lot to this lecture, man. I had to listen to it probably four times before I caught enough to find an avenue to respond; there is just so much.

Hollowell opens with the plight of the capitalist: how to get my property to work for me when I want, and what can I do to ensure it, legally. The audacity of this perspective is so ridiculously entitled, I can hardly believe I’m hearing it. But then I started to think: I hear this all the time.

I hear it today: Master wants his slave to be a machine but still hold the artisanal quality of craftsmanship. Master wants to know where you are all the time. Master doesn’t want you to look him in the eye. Master wants you to clock in and clock out exactly at the time Master expects. Master doesn’t care if traffic is tight: leave earlier. Master doesn’t care: get the job done at your expense, not his. Master wants to tie your thumbs.

Not all of us are to this same degree of subject to work, but for much of my working life this has been the case. It begs the question of actual freedom.

When I think of the Reconstruction era, I don’t think of only the five-ish post-war years, but I think of the following one hundred years all the way to the assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. King (two of my favorite iconoclasts). I recognize that Hollowell is talking about Reconstruction proper as a timeline (he reiterates its importance):

There were a number of things I didn’t know about in this lecture. First, I didn’t know about the 10% plan, neither Lincoln’s nor Johnson’s (Presidential Reconstruction) version. Hollowell claims that Johnson was “a man of the people,” but the people of which he was “a man” were pretty much the agrarian class, small farm-owners, which did not include the newly-freed blacks. I will admit to not knowing enough about this, and I look forward to learning more about it.

One thing I can appreciate is that Johnson didn’t want the large-scale farmers to have a say in the 10%, I presume (but am willing to be corrected) because they already hold much of the power? How I have synthesized this: he wanted to distribute power to the middle-class.

It really doesn’t matter what Johnson wanted, though, because the South didn’t care. They responded by developing the Black Codes, the short-lived precursor to the Jim Crow Laws. The Black Codes govern the conduct of the newly-freed blacks.

Southern Whites were very afraid of black people asserting newly-found freedom: and why shouldn’t they be, really? Americans have this very ugly habit of thinking of everything as tangible objects. One man’s equal freedom somehow invalidates the current owner of said freedom. That’s not equality; it’s not logical, and it’s not how it works.

I remember thinking about this during our most recent civil rights case: Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) which upholds the right for same-sex couples to marry. Somehow, in some strange logic, opponents of same-sex marriage felt (or maybe feel?) that these marriages somehow invalidate heterosexual matrimony. It doesn’t make any sense. What people are defending is the superiority of a type of sexuality, not equality. Marriage is a legal contract, not a sexual position (besides, plenty of heterosexuals have no problem playing gay when the tide is right). The strangest part is that I have heard with my own ears people decrying the marriage of another couple, yet, in some other fashion, claim to be for equal rights. It’s not logical.

We see this same attitude during Reconstruction. We have the moneychangers worried that about their culture, and their culture is squarely built on superiority. What is to come of the White man? What would they have left? What identity? What fortunes?

“If I be the queen, and you be the queen, who will bang the butter?”

I don’t recall who said this, and the quote is paraphrased, but I remember hearing it about ten years ago.

I also didn’t know that the North actually occupied the South during Reconstruction proper, and would remain until The Compromise of 1877. I thought they just worked it out by mail, but that’s my 20th century lens on a 19th century situation, again. I mean, of course they would occupy to ensure that the rules of the North were adhered. It makes perfect sense, but I missed that part.

Actually, this is why I’m so grateful for these open courses. I love being able to fill in the patchy areas to give a clearer picture of our situation. Maybe it will help me understand our current situation better.

So the Black Codes were state-level laws, much like the Jim Crow Laws; likewise, different states had different verbiage offering different levels of freedom: the right to property, marriage, make contracts, sue and be sued, testify in court (not against Whites, tho), but essentially it’s another way to reframe the same power structure that enforces a type of labor while simultaneously granting some level of autonomy to the laborer.

One surprising (how?) bit I learned about was the required employment contract of free blacks. Honestly, I’m not even sure how this passed in a state congress: wouldn’t freedom inherently mean that you would not have to work if you didn’t want to? I’m sure people wanted and needed to, but I have some concerns: What if a black person had drawn up a contract, but no white accepted it? With the Black Codes, couldn’t the black be then considered a grifter, and fined or jailed? Let’s say the contract was approved, but the white terminated it early: now the black loses all the earnings they had already accrued. Oh, but they could sue, now, right? Under the Black Codes, blacks could only sue or testify against other blacks, never whites.

I’m keen to recall some anti-vagrancy laws before, too, now that I’m thinking about it, but I’m not really sure because during my whole lifetime it has never been against the law to be without a job. I want to remember to revisit this.

Economic power is actual power. To keep blacks in line, the Whites came up with another Ponzi scheme which echoes into modern slavery: sharecropping.

19th century sharecropping is savage. Moving backward in time, I’m reminded of the forced labor of the Imokalee tomato farmers from the early aughts, and the concerns of Oklahoma homesteads (and later) California labor camps of the 1930s where labor is exploited and necessities are purposely overpriced to keep a marginalized group in debt to their oppressor. I’m sadly reminded of for-profit prisons, where similar tactics are employed. It’s the same story, over and over.

So these later forms took the spark notes directly from sharecropping. A tenant (freed black or poor white) rents a home and lot from the landlord (Master). The renter is under contract to produce x product, and x% goes to the landlord for the use of the space. The provisions to grow/ raise the product have to be purchased or borrowed from the landlord (getting squirrely) which can be priced at whatever the landlord should decide (feeling wrong). The tenants get to keep their share of the product to live on, so they don’t starve (under good conditions, fine); the rest goes to the landlord to be sold at market (with a good landlord, fine).

Hollowell gives a good example: Let’s say your product should retail for $1000 at market, then you have satisfied your contract. That’s awesome! But you’re not allowed to go to the market because you’re a tenant. You give the required share to the landlord; he takes it to market, but, “gee, your crop only brought in $900.” Now the tenant owes the landlord $100, and that gets tacked onto the next year, rinse and repeat. It’s a debt cycle that one can’t really get out of.

It is unlawful to not pay back a debt, and the Masters know this. They keep their tenants in a perpetual cycle of debt as a way to keep their tenants under their thumbs. Doesn’t it sound familiar?

Exploitation of labor is not only a black and white struggle, but in the context of the time, we can see this sharecropping is definitely an attempt to keep the power structure status quo.

The Freedman’s Bureau was essentially the first welfare (to help fare well) group, helping poor whites and freed blacks to negotiate fair-wage labor contracts, but they didn’t really hold up on their promises, either by their own accord or by pressure from state officials looking to keep America great.

Hollowell notes that one thing everybody agreed on (well, maybe not everybody) was education. The Freedman’s Bureau was able to set up schools for blacks, which is awesome, even if it’s separate, because everyone agrees that education is the key to mobility.

Hollowell reminds us that there are two pieces of property at stake: slave labor and White women: both are owned by the White man.

Shortly after the Compromise of 1877 which removed the occupation by the North to settle the argument between the popular vote (Tilden) vs. the electoral vote (Hayes), propaganda explicitly depicting miscegenation lit an actual fear flame under the southerners: not only will they take our jobs, they’ll take our women, too. Both are property.

Visual media is the primary tool for propaganda. We see it today, we saw it during WWII, certainly, and we saw it during Reconstruction. A lot of people didn’t know how to read words, but they certainly knew how to read images. Sometimes it’s very overt:

Depictions of the white man in contrast of the grotesque, bloated figure of the black man send nuanced information about a people. The black man’s collar is upturned: he is lazy. He doesn’t appear to be wearing a jacket: he is slovenly. His head is large: he is fat. His eye is looking behind him: he is weak and afraid. Look how tidy the white man is. He is groomed with a proper suit. His eyes are focused: what a thinker! He is looking forward to a wonderful tomorrow.

As he is wont to do, Hollowell leaves us with crude drawing of the KKK donkey and two lynched bodies hanging from a tree. This kind of material would be left about town to “keep people in check.” In many ways, this kind of exploitation of the poor and poorly-choiced is expressed in that television show, C.O.P.S. which was finally taken off the air earlier this year. The connection is in the subversive methods of division: these people are different; these people are not us; these people deserve what they get.

Funny how some things stay the same.

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