Monday, February 18, 2008

WTS Blog Part II

Part II of Worse Than Slavery traces the history of Parchman Prison Farm from it’s creation in 1905 as a reform of the brutal system of convict leasing to his present incarnation as a modern prison with an emphasis on rehabilitation. Oshinsky maintains his compelling narrative style and deep scholarship in the second half of the book and I am intrigued by the following three questions or issues he raises. Please choose one for your response of at least 250 words and feel free to speak to comments offered by one of your classmates as well.
To what degree was Parchman, a so-called “farm with slaves,” an improvement over convict leasing? I guess what I am really asking is to which system—convict leasing or Parchman—does the title, Worse Than Slavery, apply? Convict leasing was horrifically violent and inhumane while Oshinsky describes Parchman thusly: “In design, it resembled an antebellum plantation with convicts in place of slaves” (139). How might a convict who had the misfortune to serve in both of these systems respond to this question?
Parchman was conceived, like convict leasing before it, as an extension of southern racial attitudes towards criminal justice. In other words all of the white beliefs about black inferiority, inclinations towards violence, and disinclinations towards work were woven into the institutional fabric of Parchman as Oshinsky writes: “White Southerners liked to believe that blacks did not much mind going to prison—that there was no shame to it, no loss of status, no fear of what lay ahead” (136). Therefore Oshinsky cleverly relies upon oral history, most notably songs, to understand the Parchman experience through the black inmates. Most of the songs he cites were recorded in 1939 by Alan Lomax, a folklorist working for the Library of Congress, who traveled throughout the country recording folk music. Follow this link to read Lomax’s field notes from his Parchman visit:
And check out this link for actual recordings of nearly twenty of these songs:
Read Lomax’s field notes and listen to five or six songs. What do these sources tell us about Parchman that might not be included in official prison records? Can any comparisons be made between these songs and Hip Hop?
Finally, I am curious about the quote that ends the book. Oshinsky interviews Horace Carter, a nearly fifty year inmate at Parchman. Carter says: “I’m not looking to go backwards. I know the troubles at old Parchman better than any man alive. I’m seventy-three years old. But I look around today and see a place that makes me sad” (255). If Carter doesn’t want “to go backwards,” why is he sad about the current state of Parchman? What did the “old Parchman” have that the new Parchman lacks?
So respond to one—or combine two as some of you did previously and successfully—of my questions. Remember to support your assertions with direct quotes from the text and thoughtful analysis. I look forward to reading your posts.

Friday, January 18, 2008

WTS Blog Part I

Part I of Worse Than Slavery explores in excruciating detail a brutal period in our nation’s history when vanquished white southerners and emancipated southern freedmen rebuilt (to some degree) their region and established new (in some respects) social and economic relationships in the latter half of the nineteenth century. David Oshinsky combines meticulous research with an engaging narrative style to paint a chilling picture of post Civil War race relations in Mississippi and by inference the entire South, even in our north Florida home.
Beyond the numerous and horrible descriptions of southern violence generally and racial violence specifically that pervade this story, I am intrigued by the virulent racial attitudes that evolved (or in many cases were simply unleashed) after the Civil War. Paradoxically, the oppressive institution of slavery suppressed the most intense manifestations of racism and race-based violence. Slavery was a system of rigid white control over most black southerners and it made black slaves more valued in a purely economic sense. Without these institutional constraints, freedmen were more vulnerable and less valuable to resentful southern whites as Oshinsky notes: The ex-slave had become a scapegoat for the South’s humiliating defeat. (14) and Emancipation had ended slavery but had not destroyed the assumptions upon which slavery was based. (17) Contrast pre and post-emancipation racial attitudes. Was there any real difference for southern whites?
Another striking aspect of Part I are the disturbing descriptions of mob justice and lynching. Lynching numbers are hard to know with any real degree of accuracy (many went unrecorded) but “officially” 3,446 black men (and a few women) were lynched in America between 1882 and 1968. Mississippi of course led the nation with 539. As Oshinsky points out, these were public events attracting hundreds of onlookers including women and children. Hundreds of pictures were taken and many, believe it or not, became postcards. For a glimpse into this grisly world, follow this link: What does this practice (in all its manifestations—mob violence, communal, picnic-like atmosphere, photographic records) reveal about Gilded Age southern society?
I’m also fascinated by the late nineteenth century efforts to justify, through the discipline of “scientific racism” segregation and convict leasing described in Chapter Four, Part III. Is this “good” science or merely an effort to manipulate science in order to satisfy or reinforce pre-existing racist attitudes?
Finally, the poisonous race relations described in Worse Than Slavery made me think about the relationship Twain establishes between Huck and Jim. Twain of course writes Huck Finn at the same time (1870s, 1880s) described in this book but his depiction of Jim is light years away from typical white southern perceptions about blacks (as described by Oshinsky) and revealed in this moment from Chapter 15 when Huck regrets fooling Jim about the dream: It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn't ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn't do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn't done that one if I'd a knowed it would make him feel that way. Discuss these differences between Oshinsky’s real world and Twain’s fictional one and try as well to distinguish between the racial opinions of various characters in the novel.
For your post, respond to one of the issues I’ve raised and work off the related questions I’ve posed. You may also include direct responses to some of your classmates’ postings if and when appropriate. Be sure to include specific references to the text in defense of your assertions. And finally, please read the "WTS Blogging Primer" for guidelines before you compose. It can be found under the "News" section on our Edline class page. I look forward to reading your posts.