Bucking the System

Recently, in honor of Black History Month, one of my former students posted an essay on “buck breaking.” I had never heard of that. Here is research I found, oral histories of former slaves recorded at the time of the WPA in 1937. The pieces require real concentration, as the chronicler honored the dialect of each speaker, but the stories are horrifying and make for utterly necessary reading.

AMERICA: As Miss O’ used to point out to the white students who would ask (and ask and ask and ask) why 1) blacks just don’t “get over it”; and 2) why we don’t have a WHITE History Month–I could only point out that we had 350 years of slavery, and (today) only 50 years of civil rights; the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were passed in MY lifetime. But I didn’t know the half of it: THIS is the history of slavery that needs to be taught in every high school. 

For your further edification, in case you missed it in your history classes, I am including photos and engravings I found on Google Images which further show the history of abuses chronicled at the time of slavery.

  1. This was the photo which appeared in a newspaper to galvanize the Abolitionist Movement in this country:1095374

Prior to the publication of this story, Americans at the time of the Civil War had no notion of the cruelties. These weren’t even the beginning of them–the accounts of sodomy (a white slave owner in front of his male slave’s family, to “break” his spirit) and rape, to say nothing of a white master standing over an unwilling “buck” and female slave to “breed” them. How does one recover from 7 or 8 or 9 GENERATIONS of this treatment in this country? HOW?


2. Slaveowners “broke” “bucks” in any number of ways–torturing strong black men into “complying” with the “system”.


Did that look familiar? It should:


3. And white slave owners forced other slaves to do the breaking for them:


A friend of Miss O’s maintains to this day: “Lisa, slaves were lucky. How would they give up that way of life? They were nothing, and we took care of them.” And Miss O’ throws up a little in her mouth. Too many Southern whites (and other whites) feel this way–they dehumanize blacks and know nothing of the true history of slavery. Even in colleges and universities–particularly Southern ones–professors preach the old story of “states’ rights”, stating that the real cause of the Civil War was about state autonomy, though the South surely couldn’t have cared less about the North’s rights to house free men and women who made it North.

4. The above reasoning for the war’s cause is, frankly, BULLSHIT. The war was about slavery–the human rights abuses and the economic stranglehold the South held because of “free labor,” in the form of slaves. I hope that American schools today are teaching this, or will change if they have not already–to teach the truth of this horrifying practice of slavery as it really was, and then to acknowledge the PTSD suffered for generations. The police forces need this education, as do our politicians. ALL of us need this education, as ugly as it is–and at its ugliest.


It’s Black History Month. (And if for even a fleeting second you thought, “Why isn’t there a WHITE History Month, you need to read this piece more than anyone else. And also the ones I’m linking to below.)

Here’s a current piece that reflects the legacy of slavery, for as you ought to know, 42% of Black men are incarcerated, many for life. Read and contemplate, from The Guardian:

Albert Woodfox released from jail after 43 years in solitary confinement

From the article:

“Woodfox, who was kept in solitary following the 1972 murder of a prison guard for which he has always professed his innocence, marked his 69th birthday on Friday by being released from West Feliciana parish detention center. It was a bittersweet birthday present: the prisoner finally escaped a form of captivity that has widely been denounced as torture, and that has deprived him of all meaningful human contact for more than four decades.”

It’s worth noting:

“His murder conviction was twice overturned – once in 1992 on grounds that he had received ineffective defense representation, and again in 2008 because of racial discrimination in setting up the grand jury that indicted him. Last year, Louisiana announced it would put him through a third trial despite the fact that all the key witnesses to the killing have since died. Woodfox’s lawyers argued the lack of witnesses would render such a retrial a legal mockery.”

That’s right: TWICE overturned. Because white-owned and operated prisons don’t give two shits about justice, fairness, or following the law when it comes to Blacks. They don’t traditionally see Blacks as people. I say that with love, though Whites make it really hard.

So if you are a White person reading this, and especially if you count yourself among the  White people who have been outraged by the very existence of #blacklivesmatter; or are incensed that Black people are upset about the murders of other black people at the hands of cops, just because they wouldn’t “comply”; or who agree that the police should never indicted (unless the cop is Asian) for such murders; and who cannot understand why Black people don’t get that Trayvon Martin was killed rightly for being male, black, young, and wearing a hoodie; and who think that Tamir Rice deserved to get shot dead for playing in a park with a BB gun, without warning, and in an open-carry state; and who found yourselves baffled or “turned off” by the brilliant Kendrick Lamar’s shattering performance at the Grammys–read every single thing I shared in this little post.

And then:

Watch Kendrick Lamar Own the Grammys With a Stellar Performance Honoring Trayvon Martin

Again. And again. And again. Until you are sobbing like the ignorant White person you have been all these years.


Miss O’s friend Sylvia saw a sign on a college campus:  “Yes, all lives matter – so if your black brother feels his doesn’t, help him carry his sign.” This is your Miss O’ saying, “Make an effort.” For America.

Here’s to Black History Month.


With all this in mind, the contributions of Black artists to American and world culture are all the more extraordinary. For Black History Month, I would also like to honor poet Nikki Giovanni. Back in the summer 1987, just after my extra year at Virginia Tech for student teaching and education classes, and before becoming a teacher, I was recruited to do a couple of stand-up comedy routines to introduce sessions at a national Women’s Symposium held on the campus. Ms. Giovanni was the featured poet. I didn’t care much for poetry–maybe because I was limited, but I rarely understood a poem without help–but I decided to go. I sat in front of Nikki Giovanni, who directed her poems to three people, mainly: all the black woman poems were delivered to a young black woman behind me; the black man poems to a young black man to my right; and all the creative/lonely woman poems were directed to me, my eyes. She read “Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day” to my face, and she opened something in me–she opened all poetry for me. And that fall (I think it was), she began teaching at Virginia Tech, and is still there today. (Her poem in honor of the massacre, delivered to a stadium, helped heal the campus.) Thank you, Nikki Giovanni.

Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day  (thanks to the the Tumblr “A Poem a Day” for posting)

Author: Miss O'

Miss O' is the pen and stage name of writer and performer and spinster Lisa O'Hara. Miss O' was an American high school English and drama teacher for 15 years, and she appreciates her freedom to leave it behind for a new life in Queens, NY. Her eBook, Easier to Live Here: Miss O' in New York City, is still available, after ten years, on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook. Her stage show, The Miss O' Show Teacher's Edition: Training Pants, will someday arrive in small works-in-progress venues to be announced, maybe; and in the meantime the work continues.

One thought on “Bucking the System”

  1. Thank you for this powerful reminder to actively, and consciously demonstrate openheartedness and inclusivity to those in whatever world we happen to live in from day to day through our thoughts, words, actions–including the micro actions. What people have suffered for generations takes generations to live beyond. But the suffering can end. Those who have been privileged don’t have to pass on to those who come after us the attitudes and behaviors that dehumanize others. Though humility isn’t a quality much sought after these days, by humbling ourselves, we can live beyond our blindnesses so we can all live with greater wholeness.


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