Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith is one of the most thought-provoking and terrifying books I’ve read this year. That’s both a good thing and a disturbing thing. Especially as I’m reading it in the aftermath of Ferguson.
Martin is invited to join an elite group of black businessmen, but he discovers they’re part of a secret society that wants to repay the evils of slavery by enslaving whites.
Every evil committed by white slave traders and owners against black slaves is being brought to bear on the ancestors of those slave traders and owners. Literally abducted from the streets and taken to this stronghold that purposefully resembles a Southern plantation—except the slaves are white and the masters are black.
So we’re talking servants, manual labor, treating humans like cattle, rape, abuse and more.
In some ways the story is completely implausible—a secret slavery stronghold, hidden in the middle of the United States? But that’s not the point. In other ways it’s brutally realistic. Martin is forced with a terrible choice and he has to do the unthinkable to even stay alive. The story also avoids the Hollywood approach with perfect plans and a Jason Bourne style escape. That makes it all the more real.
The story is a fast-paced thriller, but it’s wrapped around this thought-provoking and terrifying idea.
It’s terrifying in the way you’d expect. Any time I’ve read about slavery the evil is so apparent, so gruesome and revolting. It’s hard to understand how anyone could justify it. But it’s a part of history. People did do those things. Society accepted it. People were taught that those things were acceptable.
So Forty Acres is doubly terrifying because you have a group of people enslaving another group of people knowing full well the terror of what they’re doing. There is no societal justification. Just their own brutal vengeance. It’s an eye for an eye taken to it’s own logical end. And it’s not a pretty place to be.
But as I read it, I felt a deeper sense of terror as well. This is what white people fear. Whenever anyone talks about reparations for slavery or affirmative action or trying to find some measure of equality, there are some people who ask when is it enough?
There’s an unspoken fear in that question of giving up power. Making society equal means someone has to give up their power. Forty Acres presents an extreme answer to that question, an answer that’s morally abhorrent. But it’s also raising a serious question. No one would seriously suggest the scenario in Forty Acres, but there is a hidden fear that these conversations and questions would lead there.
Part of what I found disturbing about this story was my own reaction to seeing white people enslaved by black people. Somehow it seemed more unjust than the reverse, which is ironic since one happened and one is a work of fiction. I’m not saying this reaction reveals some kind of closeted racism, but I think it reveals bias and white privilege within myself that I’m barely aware of.
Let me put it this way: The image of a white man beating a black man, while vile and repugnant, isn’t that jarring to me because it happened over and over again as part of our ruthless history of slavery. But the image of a black man beating a white man, I found completely jarring. Both are horrible, but I have an easier time moving past one of them. And I think that’s a product of institutional racism or white privilege or whatever bias I bring to the table.
An Evil Legacy
In 1865—149 years ago—slavery was fully abolished in the United States with the passing of the 13th Amendment. But the legacy of that evil institution continues to haunt us today. Despite many advances in civil rights, racism and prejudice persist. It’s not something we simply move past. There’s often unconscious prejudice we don’t even realize we have. Forty Acres taps into all of that, making it one of the most powerful books I’ve read this year.