Same Kind of Different as Me tells the true story of relationship between a white, wealthy art dealer named Ron, and Denver, a black man who suffers homelessness, poverty, racism, and even modern-day slavery. Although Ron, like many readers of the novel, assumes that slavery disappeared from America after the Civil War, Denver’s story reveals that the practice is alive and well in American society, albeit in different forms. Contrary to the common belief that slavery—and the racism that enabled it—is a relic of a bygone era, Same Kind of Different as Me proves that such a wicked institution has survived and exerts new forms of control over the lives of poor black families.
Through the progression of Denver’s life story, both Ron and the reader gain a revealing window into multiple avenues of modern-slavery that were established soon after slavery supposedly ended. Born in the 1930s, Denver spends three decades of his life as a sharecropper, which he calls “a new kinda slavery.” As a sharecropper, Denver lives on the property of a wealthy white landowner—whom Denver calls “the Man”—and works his cotton fields. In all the years Denver spends there, he is not free to leave nor is he ever paid actual money, making him effectively a slave. Even after Denver escapes the sharecropping life by hopping a train, he lands in Angola prison for ten years. Denver recounts that the prison assigns him and the other inmates to forced labor for white landowners, saying, “I was back in the fields again […] this time I really was a slave ’cause that's how they ran the prison—like a plantation.” This forced labor was legalized by the 13th Amendment, which states that “involuntary servitude” is banned, unless it is mandated as punishment for a crime. Denver’s combined forty years of outright slavery—under the guise of productive discipline—are proof that, far from being extinct, the institution has managed to persist in various forms and oppress people long after its formal abolition, despite the oft-held belief that America has moved past its sordid history.
Same Kind of Different as Me reveals that although slavery still persists, the form is different: rather than owning another human being outright, as was practiced in traditional slavery, twentieth-century slavery maintains control over people by keeping them dependent or ignorant of their opportunities and thus trapped, without freedom. As a sharecropper, Denver’s house, food, and clothing are all loaned from the Man on credit, and he must work in the Man’s fields to pay off his debt. However, Denver cannot read, write, or do math, and so cannot verify that the Man is being honest about what he owes. The Man thus perpetually increases Denver’s debt to keep him trapped there, never able to escape, move on, or turn a profit for himself. Furthermore, Denver is never even paid a wage, making this a prime example of debt-bondage as a tactic of modern-slavery. Also archetypal of many modern slave masters, the Man purposefully keeps Denver ignorant. For Denver’s entire time as a sharecropper, the Man conceals from him the fact that there are numerous opportunities available for him to gain an education and improve his standing, such as schools for black men or places to learn a trade. Worse still, Denver, not knowing that the rest of the country has moved on to a far higher standard of living, feels satisfied with what he has for several years: two pairs of clothes, a windowless, waterless shack, and a little bit of food. Ron later implies that even outside of sharecropping or prison, Denver and people like him are still oppressed by a symbolic version of the Man in the form of drugs, alcohol, or poverty—the things that keep them stuck in their position of dependence and ignorant of opportunities to escape, implying that a figurative form of slavery continues to haunt them.
Through talking with Denver and doing his own research, Ron sees that the racism that enables and encourages such modes of slavery, as well as broad discrimination in general, is still alive and well, hidden amidst traditions and authorities. Denver recalls, “Folks says the bayou in Red River Parish is full to its pea-green brim with the splintery bones of colored folks that white men done fed to the gators.” This intense threat of violence hangs as a constant oppressive force over Denver and people in his position. The fear of retribution that this creates discourages sharecroppers and modern slaves from demanding their due. Even the federal government is complicit in such racial violence: Ron discovers that although the FBI knew that people were trying to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. and wanted to intervene, President Hoover refused to let them and demanded that they let the plans play out as they will. Rather than the government protecting its own citizens from racist violence, this indicates that the government was instead complicit in such acts.
Although many in America would like to believe that the country has left slavery and the racism that compelled it behind, Denver’s experience clearly proves that it still exists even if it is less overt than it once was. As Ron astutely observes, “Denver had lived in an unplumbed, two-room shack with no glass in the windows nearly until the time his country put men on the moon,” suggesting that, despite what many may think, slavery and its endemic poverty are not bygone relics of a past, less-progressive era, but modern issues to be honestly confronted and addressed.
Slavery and Racism ThemeTracker
Slavery and Racism Quotes in Same Kind of Different as Me
Folks say the bayou in Red River Parish is full to its pea-green brim with the splintery bones of colored folks that white men done fed to the gators for covetin their women, or maybe just lookin cross-eyed. Wadn’t like it happened ever day. But the chance of it, the threat of it, hung over the cotton fields like a ghost.
As far as I knew, their first names were “Nigger” and their last names were like our first names: Bill, Charlie, Jim, and so forth […] none of them were ever called by a proper first and last name like mine, Ronnie Ray Hall, or my granddaddy’s, Jack Brooks.
A lotta folks called [sharecropping] a new kinda slavery. Lotta croppers (even white ones, what few there was in Louisiana) didn’t have just one massa, thye had two. The first massa was the Man that owned the land you was workin. The second massa was whoever owned the store where you got your goods on credit. Someimes both a’ them was the same Man; sometimes it was a different Man.
Purty soon [Bobby’s] people figured out we was friends, but they didn’t really try to keep us from associatin, ‘specially since I was the only boy on the place right around his age and he needed somebody to play with and keep outta trouble. They detected he was givin me food, so they put a little wood table outside the back door for met to eat on. After a while, once Bobby’d get his food, he’d come right on out and me and him’d sit at that little table and eat together.
Things was a-changin. Uncle James took sick and died, and Aunt Etha moved away. Last time I seen her, she was cryin. I couldn’t figure out why God kept takin all the folks I loved the most.
Lookin back, I figure what them boys done caused me to get a little throwed off in life. And for sure I wadn’t gon’ be offerin to help no white ladies no more.
It got to be the 1960s. All them years I worked for them plantations, the Man didn’t tell me there was colored schools I coulda gone to, or that I coulda learned a trade […] I didn’t know about World War II, the war in Korea, or the one in Vietnam. And I didn’t know colored folks had been risin up all around Louisiana for years, demandin better treatment.
I didn’t know I was different.
In those days, a man in Angola without a knife was either gon’ wind up raped or dead. For the first few years I was there, at least forty men got stabbed to death and another bunch, hundreds of em, got cut up bad. I did what I had to do to protect myself.
It was at Starbucks that I learned about twentieth-century slavery. Not the slavery of auction blocks, of young blacks led away in ropes and chains. Instead, it was a slavery of debt-bondage, poverty, ignorance, and exploitation. A slavery in which the Man, of whom Denver’s “Man” was only one among many, held all the cards and dealt them mostly from the bottom of the deck, the way his daddy had taught him, and his granddaddy before that.
The campfires and camaraderie worked magic on Denver as he began to know what it was like to be accepted and loved by a group of white guys on horseback with ropes in their hands. Exactly the kind of people he had feared all his life.
What kind of man was the Man? For decades, one Man kept sharecroppers barefoot and poor, but let a little colored boy earn a brand-new red Schwinn. Another Man let an old black woman live on his place rent-free long after she’d stopped working in the fields. A third Man kept Denver ignorant and dependent, but provided for him well beyond the time he probably could have done without his labor.
“Mr. Ron, they’re livin better than I ever did when I was livin here. Now you know it was the truth when I told you that bein homeless in Fort Worth was a step up in life for me.”