Looking out: To this day

Issue 

Looking out

To this day

"[Racists hate] any black writer who invokes black history ... [it is] tiresome to hear people deny truth that, in any other context, they would consider obvious. Namely, that we are all shaped by history. All challenged by it, ennobled by it, lifted and stained by it." — Leonard Pitts, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 28.

Washington, DC, syndicated columnist Mona Charen reports that a "group of black lawyers, including Johnnie Cochran, has announced plans to sue large corporations they claim have benefited from slavery, as well as the federal government".

I will restrain the mounting urge to hazard a few guesses as to which corporations, however, I will note here that in regard to the United States' involvement with slavery, the group is right on the money — no pun intended. The US government has, indeed, "benefited" long and well from black slavery.

If I can recognise, itemise and detail the government's involvement from one brief time period as far back as 1863 — despite the limitations of this death row prison cell — you would think that Charen could do that as well. After all, she is free to explore history in every manner of library.

Charen suggests that those of us (here read "African-Americans") who feel that the US government owes African-Americans a huge monetary debt in regard to the forced labour of our enslaved ancestors, are unreasonably mucking up the societal-works because of our repeated cries for reparations.

Charen makes a less than subtle effort to make America seem like a benevolent land for African-Americans in the 1860s: "To end slavery, the United States undertook the greatest and most devastating war of our history. More Americans were killed in the Civil War than in all of the rest of the wars we've fought put together. Those 620,000 dead represent the ultimate reparation for slavery."

She does not mention the taxes that the US government benefited from prior to the Civil War from the yearly export of more than a million bales of cotton. (I will not even bother the reader with the USA's sugar and tobacco exports during that time period.)

I could easily cite hundreds — no, thousands — of instances wherein the US government has engaged in, and continues to engage in, profiteering from slavery. Due to space restrictions I will cite only one.

In his book, Divided Waters: The Naval History of The Civil War (Castle Books; 1995), Ivan Musicant reminds us that when the US navy took complete control of the Mississippi river in 1863, the south-west was thereby opened up for the advance of Union ground and naval forces:

"The Red River country was prime cotton land, and [the Union Navy had heard] rumors of 300,000 bales [of cotton] lining the riverbanks [which] whetted everyone's [greed]. Even Lincoln was not immune...

"Seized cotton, that part of the crop bought and paid for by the Confederate government, was treated as a prize of war, and the profits of sale at the prize court went to the U.S. Treasury. Less, of course, the commission paid to the soldiers and sailors who took it. Cotton had an export value of $400.00 a bale."

As nearly as I can figure, those 300,000 bales were worth $120 million (in 1863 dollars), most of which went directly into the US Treasury as soon as a foreign market sale was arranged.

Now then, for clarity's sake, I would like the reader to know that the cotton picking process in the 1860s was much the same as it was as recently as in the 1960s. In 1958, during a trip to Greenville, Mississippi, I met Booker T. Scott, my uncle by marriage. He was known throughout the region as "one of the best cotton pickers in the state." By working from just before sunup until just after sundown, Uncle Booker routinely picked six to seven sacks of cotton per day. Each filled sack weighed in at 100 pounds (4.5kg). A bale of cotton weighs 500 pounds. Uncle Booker was paid one penny per pound in 1958.

If the reader is troubled that Uncle Booker had to work that hard and long, each day, to earn $7 (on a good day) as recently as 1958, then the reader should be outraged that less than five generations earlier Uncle Booker's and some of my ancestors did precisely the same kind of back-breaking work for no pay at all — as slaves!

In 1958, picking a bale of cotton a day was requisite for most adults who worked the fields in the Mississippi delta. A child was allowed to get away with picking only half a bale a day. As I have said in this space before, you have not seen the real United States of America until you have seen a child barely four feet tall pulling a 10-foot sack in a muddy Mississippi cotton field!

So yes! I feel that the United States government owes reparations to African-Americans who were slaves, as well as to those slaves' descendants.

Getting back to the point of reparations: the 300,000 bales of cotton that the US Navy seized in 1863 were worth, in 1990 dollars, more than $1 billion!

How anyone could pretend that reparations are not due to the men, women and children who picked those 300,000 bales of cotton boggles any logical and truthful mind. The only thing left to do in this particular case is to hunker down and determine what would have been a fair wage for those cotton pickers.

The US government's debt to those slaves in particular, and to all other black slaves in America in general because of those taxes paid and collected off of the fruit of their labours, is in no way diminished by the size of those slave owners' descendants' numbers today. The debt lives on because those slaves died without remuneration while the US government profited from their labour — and continues to do so to this day.

BY BRANDON ASTOR JONES

[The writer is a prisoner on death row in the United States. He welcomes letters commenting on his columns (include your name and full return address on the envelope, or prison authorities may refuse to deliver it). He can be written to at: Brandon Astor Jones, EF-122216, G3-77, Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison, PO Box 3877, Jackson, GA 30233, USA, or email <brandonastorjones@hotmail.com>. Jones depends entirely on donations. He welcomes contributions in any amount. In Australia, please transfer or deposit money directly into account #082-631 53 096 4691 at the Australian National Bank, Ltd. This account, under the name A. Frischkneckt, is entirely dedicated to receiving donations for him. US readers: please make a money order or cashier's check payable Del Cassidy, Jones' trustee, and send it to him at 142 Wilmer Street, Glassboro, New Jersey, 08028. Jones is seeking a publisher for his collected prison writings. Please notify him of any possible leads. Visit Jones' web page at <http://www.brandonastorjones.com>.]

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