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.