13TH | Official Trailer

The title of Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary and galvanizing documentary 13TH refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis.

 

The 13th debuts on Netflix and in select theaters on 7 October, DuVernay, best known for directing 2014’s Oscar-nominated Selma, had kept the project a secret from the public during its production.

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PBS: Slavery by another name

The Founding Fathers of the United States drafted and approved a Constitution that codified and institutionalized the American slaveocracy system without ever mentioning the word “slavery.” After the Civil War the authors of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (key among whom were were James M. Ashley, James F. Wilson, Lyman Trumbull, and Charles Sumner) not only mentioned the so-called “peculiar institution,” they furnished a giant loophole in the law that allowed slavery and indentured servitude to continue to exist in perpetuity as follows:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

With slavery redefined and sanctioned as “a punishment for crime,” the nation thereby maintained the legality of the system while promoting the fiction of emancipation. The existence of free black people in the U.S. has always been viewed as a mortal threat to white supremacy. Therefore, under cover of law, millions of African Americans were forced back into servitude in the decades after the Civil War. Racist police forces operating in tandem with racist and corrupt judicial officials and municipal courts systematically re-enslaved blacks with the tacit approval of the federal government—which followed an unwritten policy of allowing the states to decide cases involving peonage (forced servitude). The retention of involuntary labor policies and practices thus devastated the lives of African Americans, particularly those living in the South. For example, by 1908, of the 1.1 million African Americans residing in Georgia approximately half were living under the direct control and force of whites. Forbidden to move or seek different employment, the post-slavery generations of black southerners found themselves trapped in this new form of enslavement until the early 1940s.

The 1940s marked a decisive change in US government policy not as a result of a sudden concern for the injustices being done to African Americans, but out of fear of enemy propaganda about US racism during WWII. To protect the image of the nation abroad, the Justice Department and the FBI began to investigate charges of involuntary servitude and prosecute offenders. In 1948 the entire federal criminal code was revised, and by 1951, as the Cold War was coming to a boil, the US Congress passed several statutes making any forms of slavery in the U.S. a crime.

Douglas A. Blackmon, the Pulitzer prize winning author whose book provided the basis for the PBS documentary shown below, uses the label “Slavery by Another Name” to describe the laws enacted specifically to maintain white supremacy and black subservience following the Civil War. Scholar-activist Michelle Alexander refers to the more recent variation of neoslavery—the emergence of the prison industrial complex in the post-Civil Rights era—as The New Jim Crow. Taken together, and with other recent studies by Loïc Wacquant, David M. Oshinsky, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Robert Perkinson, and others, these works show clearly why we cannot relegate slavery to the distant past.

“Slavery by Another Name” provides stark evidence of our continued failure to recognize and address the history of slavery in this nation. It exposes the ghosts in our blood that infect and haunt each generation as it goes forward in ignorance of the past and its consequences for the future.

 

To view a previous post I made about “Slavery by Another Name,” which includes an excellent interview of Douglas A. Blackmon by Bill Moyers, click here.