Today we feature our individual responses to Black Reconstruction in America. We are reading individually and without ‘structure’ per se, so you don’t have to be reading at any particular pace, but we hope that this resonates with your own experiences as you read the book. We encourage you to add comments and thoughts as you go too!
The peculiar experiment that is America has a suitably peculiar memory. It is peculiar because it is selective. On the one hand, Black America has selected the option to remember the reality of what has transpired for several centuries on this continent. We chronicled and observed for survival, not just of individuals but future generations. We choose to remember so that we can prevent it from happening again.
Within the first two chapters, “The Black Worker” and “The White Worker,” Du Bois details the colonial voting rights of Blacks, and how they were “disfranchised” year by year, state by state. He incisively describes the multiple stakeholders who refuse(d) to take responsibility for the “Negro problem.” More importantly, with biting clarity, Du Bois identifies those who actually bore (bear) responsibility: the rich white folks on top, the poor white folks on the bottom, and everybody else in the middle who said, that ain’t my problem.
“…. The worker in America saw a chance to increase his wage and regulate his conditions of employment much greater than in Europe. … This thought, curiously enough, instead of increasing the sympathy for the slave turned it directly into rivalry and enmity.”
“The white laborers realized that Negroes were part of a group of millions of workers who were slaves by law, and whose competition kept white labor out of the work of the South and threatened its wages and stability in the North. When now the labor question moved West, and became part of the land question, the competition of black men became of increased importance.” Moreover, “The immediate competition became open and visible because of racial lines and racial philosophy and particularly in Northern states where free Negroes and fugitive slaves had established themselves as workers, while the ultimate and overshadowing competition of free and slave labor was obscured and pushed into the background.”
“The result was that the system was held stable and intact by the poor white.”
The clear pattern lies in the power over limited resources and the lengths to which people would go to achieve their conception of survival and success.
“The wisest of leaders could not clearly envisage just how slave labor in conjunction and competition with free labor tended to reduce all labor toward slavery.” More than this, the economic elites used the competition (literally, to the death) of the have-nots and have-nothings to their benefit: they filled our coffins to fill their coiffures.
Does any of this sound familiar? Were you awake during 2016 Presidential election, or the last 10 years of Republican dog whistling? Were you woke during 2017? White Supremacy is on the rise again in America, while a kleptocracy dismantles the government and updates its methods for disenfranchisement.
And sometimes, I gotta ask, “what the hell are the rest of these folks doin?” Because, on the other hand, the rest of America has perhaps chosen to forget — though more likely they never looked in the first place. It has required our writers and thinkers to tell the story as it happened. Black people see the reality of America, because we’re willing to look at it. We’re willing to look it in the face, we’re willing to look at its dark heart. Whites, particularly, in America refuse to even look in the mirror. I get asked by white colleagues if I think there has been measurable improvement in race relations and equality. When I offer an iota that there has been improvement, I see a rush a relief wash over their faces. When I claim there hasn’t been really much change, I get argued with. They’re looking for a way out of their own responsibility. The particular and peculiar cowardice of this scenario endangers not just the American dream for Blacks, but it risks the entire American experiment: this country was born on the backs of Blacks, and it was founded on an idea of freedom that will remain a lie until my fellow citizens own where they come from.
Have ye leisure, comfort, calm
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?
The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.
Du Bois concludes the second chapter of Black Reconstruction in America with this poem “Men of England by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and it really felt to me like the crystallization of what he writes about there. I’ll return to why I feel that way in a moment, but before then, let me begin with an anecdote: I bought my copy of Black Reconstruction online, but from a seller of used books. As I was reading these first few chapters, I turned a page, and came across this:
Look at the date: November 20, 2016, just 11 days after the election. I tried to imagine what this talk must have been like, not only to attend, but for Coates to give– I also tried to find a copy of it online, but unfortunately the recording is only available for the Xavier community. In searching for the event video, I discovered that Coates’ talk had originally been scheduled for September 26, but was cancelled and subsequently rescheduled to the November date, after the election. In the time since the 2016 elections, I feel like much has been made of the election as a turning point– there was the world before Trump in power, and the world after. But I often wonder: how much of a turning point was it? It is my (entirely subjective) impression that white and Black America view the 2016 election very differently, at least as far as seeing it as an “inflection” point. I know so many white Americans who were not only shocked, but see Trump’s election as the beginning of some sort of new racist time in our history. Now, it is certainly true that racists and racism (along with many other forms of discrimination) has been emboldened– hate crimes are up, for example. But for those who didn’t have the sunniest outlook on white America’s handling of race for the past several hundred years– i.e., most Black people– the vibe is more “same shit, different century”.
And that, my friends, is what they should title any new editions that might be published of Black Reconstruction in America: Same Shit, Different Century. In the year+ since the election, I feel like I have read and/or rolled my eyes at the headlines of hundreds of thinkpieces centering class issues and the feelings of the white working class, in some sort of Herculean effort to wrestle the reality of the role of race in the election into submission. Never mind that the racial breakdown of voters makes very clear that race was an essential predictor of how people voted, and that the election would not have been won for Trump without racist middle- and upper-middle class white voters. After reading these first few chapters, where Du Bois lays out the roles of Black workers, white workers, and planters in the years before US independence and then through slavery and reconstruction, I feel like maybe the writing staff of the Atlantic etc. should have sold their laptops and bought enough copies of Black Reconstruction in America to give to all their friends and families. Because here it all is: the insightful, prescient telling of the relationship between slavery, and the will of both poor and wealthy whites to profit at the expense of human misery.
One of the most interesting aspects of these chapters to me was the framing of slavery in the larger context of labor movements at the time, particularly as influenced by European visitors and immigrants to the United States. In his chapter on the Black worker, Du Bois writes extensively about the soul destruction of Black people being treated as property– the complete dehumanization that was perpetrated on slaves. When he comes to discuss how various labor movements either did or did not see slavery as a part of their struggle (and for the most part, they did not), it is clear that this concept was in play for labor organizers– that slavery was to many an issue concerning capital, and most were content to leave it entirely out of their movements. Similarly, I also hadn’t previously appreciated the relationship between the availability of land in the US (as the country continued to press its occupation into indigenous peoples’ lands westwards), and how white people saw their fortunes in relation to the “threat” of free Black people who might also want said land. European philosophy was particularly influential there too, as the concept of “free” land was mostly unknown in Europe, thus immigrants saw its potential in a way that white Americans didn’t appreciate to the same extent. I think often of the relationships between the Black and white working class and poor because of my own family history (both sides immigrated to the US a few years on either side of 1900)– the horrible consequences of white people trading solidarity with Black workers for their own betterment. And there it is, in that Shelley poem: the summation of mutual plight, contrasted with the greed of white people.
I’m a few pages into Chapter IV now, titled “The General Strike”, which frames Black escaped slaves joining the Union army upon the army’s arrival as a general workers’ strike, and I’m really excited to keep reading.
I’m a few pages into Chapter 5 of Black Reconstruction in America, and (as expected) I’m learning a lot of things I feel like I should have known. Some of them are things I feel reallllly didn’t come up in history class back in the day. Like Lincoln’s statement, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would also do that.” Is that taught alongside the Emancipation Proclamation these days? I feel like I’ve had some rosy picture of Lincoln as an abolitionist hero who deserves to grace the penny, but the reality (as is almost always the case) is much more nuanced. (Was this covered in the movie Lincoln? I’m sorry, Daniel Day Lewis, I should have made time to watch you).
My lack of history chops aside, there have been numerous things in the first few chapters of the book that make me think “Same shit, different century.” Again and again, white people that are supposed to be allies and lifting up their fellow man toward equality are just looking out for themselves. I found this passage from Du Bois particularly striking:
“The guns at Sumter, the marching armies, the fugitive slaves, the fugitives as “contrabands,” spies, servants and laborers; the Negro as soldier, as citizen, as voter – these steps came from 1861 to 1868 with regular beat that was almost rhythmic. It was the price of the disaster of war, and it was a price that few Americans at first dreamed of paying or wanted to pay. The North was not Abolitionist. It was overwhelmingly in favor of Negro slavery, so long as this did not interfere with Northern moneymaking.”
And also this one:
“Thus the planters led the South into war, carrying the five million poor whites blindly with them and standing upon a creed which opposed the free distribution of government land; which asked for the expansion of slave territory, for restricted functions of the national government, and for the perpetuity of Negro slavery.”
Yet again, we have a political system and party heavily influenced by the rich and powerful that is relying on racist, nationalistic rhetoric to unite mostly white people (who are economically well below the 1 percent) with supposed threats and an imagined superiority to an “other.”
“Notwithstanding these perfectly clear and authenticated facts, the planter persistently denied them. He denied that there was any considerable interstate sale of slaves; he denied that families were broken up; he insisted that slave auctions were due to death or mischance, and particularly did he insist that the slave traders were the least of human beings and the most despised.”
Sound familiar? Denial of facts about real issues facing the country? People painting themselves as the victims despite possessing the power? The tactics haven’t changed much, but people are still using them and others are still falling for them – whether it’s denying climate change or growing numbers of hate crimes against vulnerable groups like immigrants or people of color, the rise of the Men’s Rights Movement to protect disenfranchised men from “evil feminists,” or spouting the idea that “racism is no longer an issue and everything is equal for everyone, so chill out, social justice warriors.” Du Bois was an amazing activist, writer, and sociologist – I feel like we could also add prophet to the list.
I’ve been concentrating on a few different parts of the book, alternating between the setting of the scene (Du Bois introduces the various ‘actors’ at the time, The Black Worker, The White Worker, The Planter), but also jumping ‘forward’ as it were to how those at the end of the Civil War saw as the future, in ‘Looking Forward’. What Du Bois’ writing has really made me think about is the unthinkingness of many of the actors involved (and of course as always this makes me think of similar things today). When discussing how the more than 4 million slaves would be happier in America than in their own land, Du Bois repeats a quote from the Richmond newspaper, the Examiner:
“Let us not bother our brains about what Providence intends to do with out Negroes in the distant future, but glory in and profit to the utmost by what He has done for them in transplanting them here…”
It’s so chilling to read the willful ignorance of the Whites at the time. This is perhaps unsurprising, but it resonated so strongly with me when I think of the way that injustice is tolerated in a ‘wait and see how bad it gets’ approach today, as if we have some switch which will flip once we see the treatment of others get ‘bad enough’?
Another theme which Du Bois repeats in a few of the chapters I’m working through is the fact that the North wasn’t reaching some pivotal moment of not tolerating the injustice of slavery: it largely wanted to curtail and restrict slave labour. Those in the North ‘were determined that it should be territorially restricted, and should not compete with free white labor.’ This push back against the idea of a moral imperative that could no longer be ignored really made me think of the stories that we might spin to give the end of this terrible time in history a softer ‘landing’. But as Du Bois reminds us:
“The true significance of slavery in the United States to the whole social development of America lay in the ultimate relation of slaves to democracy. [..] If all labor, black as well as white, became free – were given schools, and the right to vote – what control could or should be set to the power and action of these laborers? Was the rule of the mass of Americans to be unlimited [..] and how would property and privilege be protected?”
This brings me to the Chapter entitled “Looking Forward” (from the end of the Civil War). Du Bois frames the thinking at the end of the war as described by two very different visions of the future, which I hadn’t really considered before. One was the “prolongation of Puritan idealism”, which was espoused by the Abolitionists as universal democracy. The other vision of the future was that of the development of industry in America, put forward by the ‘Capitalists’, which had accepted the change in the system as a ‘fact forced on the world by revolution and the growing intelligence of the working class.’ The key here is that it makes the distinction between those who were ‘morally called’ to end slavery, and those for whom it seemed an economic imperative. The issue here with the capitalists is that entrenched a hierarchical labor system even while supporting universal suffrage by making the highest paid and highest educated (Black) workers “allies of capital and left its ultimate dictatorship undisturbed”. Put another way: suffrage was not about true freedom for slaves in all respects. The control of labor (and by extension or power) of Black people even while giving the appearance of freedom was the name of the day.
Given all we’ve read this week in other posts, how much does that continue? The appearance of change without action. The appearance of democratic process supporting injustice. The appearance of policing without being held to account.
Du Bois reminds us that these two sides (the moral position of those who wanted abolition democracy and those in business who wanted to support capitalism) are often mixed and confused when thinking of the end of slavery. I want to end with a quote he highlights words by Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune:
“We would consent to submit to the suffrage only those who could read and write or those who pay taxes or are engaged in some trade. Any standard which could limit the voting privilege to the competent and deserving would be acceptable to us.”
It was freedom for Black people, on White people’s terms.