Thursday, February 28, 2013

Worse Than Slavery by David M. Oshinsky~★★★★★

Author: David. M. Oshinsky
Title: Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice
Release Date: April 4, 1996
Publisher: Free Press
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Jacket: "'Worse Than Slavery' is an epic history of race and punishment in the deepest South from emancipation to the civil rights era---and beyond. Southern prisons have been immortalized in convict work songs, in the blues, and in movies such as Cool Hand Luke and The Defiant Ones. Mississippi's Parchman Penitentiary was the grandfather of them all, an immense, isolated plantation with shotguns, whips, and bloodhounds, where inmates worked the cotton fields in striped clothing from dawn to dusk. William Faulkner described Parchman as "destination doom." Its convicts included bluesmen like "Son" House and "Bukka" White, who featured the prison in the legendary 'Midnight Special' and 'Parchman Farm Blues.'
Noted historian David M. Oshinsky draws on prison records, pardon files, folklore, oral history, and the blues to offer an unforgettable portrait of Parchman and Jim Crow justice---from the horrors of convict leasing in the late nineteenth century to the struggle for black equality in the 1960s, when Parchman was used to break the spirit of civil rights workers who journeyed south on the Freedom Rides. In Mississippi, the criminal justice system often proved that there could be something worse than slavery.
The "old" Parchman is gone, a casualty of federal court orders in the 1970s. What it tells us about our past is well worth remembering in a nation deeply divided by race."

Taryn's Review: My youngest sister is in college and is taking a history course. She asked me what I knew about convict leasing in the South after the Civil War. My answer to that was that I knew absolutely nothing about it. Zilch. Zip. Nada. My area of study ends around 1840, but her question had me interested. I wanted to know more.

David M. Oshinsky not only has thorough and engaging research material in his book, but his writing style had me hooked immediately. It is a history book, but it is not one that is unreadable to the general public. In fact, the book was incredibly reader-friendly. Oshinsky's book was phenomenal because he began with the years after emancipation, building up the background with the years that eventually led to the creation of Parchman Farm (1904). He easily could have discussed Parchman Farm as an isolated topic, but the context Oshinsky set up made the book so much more riveting than a simple focus on Parchman Farm would have been.

The situations and outcomes that Oshinsky discussed will nauseate your stomach, bring tears to your eyes, and have you shaking your head at the unimaginable horrors blacks endured during these years. The legal system of the South after Reconstruction, especially in Mississippi, was designed to subject blacks to perpetual states of legal bondage that also upheld white supremacy. In many ways, blacks were more vulnerable to severe punishment than they had been in slavery because it wasn't a master they were susceptible to anymore, but state punishment and white mobs. As slaves, there was a monetary value attached to each person, so the master had a motive to keep the slave alive. Punishment for slaves was brutal, but ultimately the master didn't want his slave to die because it was money lost. Convicts did not have that protection (for lack of better word); a dead convict could be replaced with a new convict. And Oshinsky provided an abundance of atrocious and grisly sources that discussed exactly what these men suffered through as leased convicts and at Parchman Farm. Many of the convicts had participated in petty crimes that resulted in obnoxious sentencing because they were black. The youngest convict I read about in the book was a black boy; he was sentenced to a two-year term for stealing from a dry-goods store. He was four feet, five inches tall, weighed 70 pounds, and was just eight-years old. Frighteningly, these disgusting acts against human beings didn't happen all that long ago.

I wish this book  or a portion of it was part of American history curriculums because it was so profound and highlighted a huge aspect as to why the Civil Rights Movement was so, so important. I strongly encourage anyone with any interest in American history to read this book. So many Americans know that the enslaved population of the United States was freed during the Civil War, but many know nothing of the ghastly aftermath that emancipation carried for many blacks.

While this book received a glowing review, I will admonish Free Press, however. The book jacket opened by both italicizing and using quotation marks around the title, Worse Than Slavery. No quotation marks were necessary! Come on Free Press! That's a grade school mistake!

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