The Pulitzer-Prize winning book by Douglas Blackmon Slavery By Another Name (Doubleday, 2008), has also become a documentary film (and Sundance Film Festival selection). In this epic research and media project, Blackmon and his collaborators bring to light a period of time when slavery had officially ended, yet a new form of was being reinstated. Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel Corp.—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of “free” black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery. In the following (long for the web at just over 8 minutes) video clip, Blackmon describes how he came to write the book and why he thinks it’s important history for everyone in the U.S. to consider today:
In addition to the devastating historical account of the brutal oppression of African Americans by white overlords, there is a meta point to be made about the project as well. What Blackmon, along with filmmaker Sam Pollard and unnamed web production staff at PBS, have created here is a triumvirate of knowledge production in the digital age: a book, a documentary film, and an interactive website with additional materials. This, my scholarly friends, is the wave of the future in knowledge production. Doctoral students in the social science and humanities, take note: time to begin forging those collaborative working relationships with your friends in visual media, art and interactive design (and/or, cross-training on skills).
Interestingly, Blackmon has done this innovative scholarly project as a journalist and with the largess of his employer, the Wall Street Journal. One of my graduate school advisors used to say that “sociology is slow journalism,” but the reality is that really good journalism takes a long time – Blackmon says he thought this project would take him 2 years, but it ended up taking 7 years (the average length of time to complete a PhD dissertation). It would be great if more PhD-degree granting institutions began to recognize the potential for such cross-platform forms of knowledge production.
You can watch the entire film, “Slavery By Another Name,” along with the “Making Of…” on the PBS website, here.