My first reaction to this book was that Blackmon was absolutely right. My image of slavery was limited to the plantation. I had no idea about industrial slavery or the extent of it, much less how well-organized it was. I knew that sharecropping was largely another name for slavery, but again, the way that Black Americans were arrested for crimes that were often as vague as they were unsubstantiated, was completely new to me. And I had to and have to wonder why that is.
At times, it seemed like Blackmon backtracked unnecessarily, to provide the backstory of someone he’d introduced into his narrative. Other times, it seemed like he went into too much detail. But I think, like Ondaatje, Blackmon knew that he “must get this book right, [because he] can only write it once.”
This book is a compelling story, one too little told, right to the end, when Blackmon teases out his own family’s intersections with the era he wants us to know as Neoslavery (and not the Jim Crow era). He also asks the compelling question about the responsibility those of us in the present have to that which happened in the past. (The Wachovia Bank story is memorable here.) In this section, I was reminded of Ta-Nahesi Coates’ outstanding piece on “The Case for Reparations” (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/). It is one thing to say that slavery happened a long time ago, and I had nothing to do with it. But when you can say that it didn’t end until both technology and war combined to make it at least slip beneath the surface (I would argue, thanks to Michelle Alexander and others, that it’s not over even now), that makes its existence uncomfortably close to present day.