Friday, October 7, 2016

My Face Is Black Is True, by Mary Frances Berry

Born a slave in the latter years of slavery, Callie House deserves to be remembered for her work on behalf of former slaves.  In My Face is Black is True, historian Mary Frances Berry tells the story House's efforts seeking reparations for former slaves.  Even while working as a washerwoman, supporting her large family, House travelled about to enlist other former slaves in the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association.  It was, in part, a mutual aid society, providing for burial and health care for its members.  In a larger sense, it was a lobbying movement, seeking to obtain pensions for ex-slaves, much like soldiers' pensions.

The military pension comparison was apt, since many slaves were recruited to serve the Union army as laborers, but received little if any pay.  For funding, House targeted a large pool of proceeds from the sale of confiscated cotton.  It was logical: the cotton was cultivated, harvested, and processed with the coerced labor of slaves.  The proceeds from the sale of the cotton should reasonably be returned to those responsible for its production.  Would that life were so simple. . . .

As you might expect, House and her colleagues faced opposition in the South.  More surprising to me was the repression she faced from the federal government.  Using laws against mail fraud, the postal service restricted her use of the mail to promote membership in her organization and to collect dues.  They claimed, falsely, that she was promising pensions when, in fact, she spoke about the efforts to persuade congress to enact a pension.

It's not clear to me that House accomplished anything tangible.  She was a role model, an inspiration, a pioneer seeking equal rights long before the equal rights movement, to be sure.  Unfortunately for her, the opposition was simply too strong.  Later leaders took up her mantel, but I think the reparations movement should be put to bed.  There are no living slaves or slave owners.  (I know there is modern slavery around the world.  I'm talking about U.S. slavery-era slaves.)  Determining who is eligible for reparations and who should pay is impractical.  Many blacks and whites in the U.S. are descendants of immigrants who arrived after the Civil War, thus would have no connection to slavery.  Some blacks perhaps should pay reparations, like Barack Obama, who is likely descended from slave traders in Africa and slave owners in the U.S.  I appreciate House's campaign, and am sickened by the treatment ex-slaves received after emancipation.  But the reparations movement has no place in the 21st century.

Berry does a wonderful job of telling House's story and placing her in context.  My Face is Black is True is a rich resource for both a personal and a political history of the decades after the end of the Civil War.  I especially enjoyed Berry's personalization of the story.  She grew up in the same area of Nashville where House raised her family.  The citizens and the government of the United States did not uphold the ideals of our nation in the post-Civil War era.  Reading about House and her co-laborers for justice should inspire us to look forward, seeking to leave our world more just and free tomorrow than it was yesterday, every day.

2016 Reading Challenge: A biography

No comments:

Post a Comment