It’s Wednesday, which means we’re back for our weekly Reaction to Reconstruction Book Club. If you’re reading along with us, we hope you’re learning as much as we are. If not, check out the highlights of what you’re missing. We’re all at different points in the book, so there’s a little something for everyone (or, put another way, you’ve been warned that this will jump around). Ready, set, book club!
Lauren: I feel like I highlight every other sentence when reading this book. Du Bois’s writing is powerful, intense, and frank. Chapters 5 and 6 cover the immense influence of Black people during the Civil War and how planters immediately began creating “a new state of serfdom of black folk.” I don’t think I can do these chapters anything close to justice in summary, but I did want to pull out and share a few of the things that struck me most:
Favorite W.E.B. Du BURN: At one point, Du Bois is discussing how Black people are joining the Union forces, where they are proving essential for building, feeding, supplying, spying, and otherwise fighting the war effort. Quoth the Du Bois, “It would not have been American, however, not to have maintained some color discrimination, however petty.” Because, as you might expect, the folks in charge tried to short-change the Black soldiers. It nearly caused a mutiny when white troops were paid $16 a month and the Black regiments paid $7.
Best reminder that the North was not as unified as we might like to think: “The total desertions in the North must have been in the several hundred thousands.” Du Bois writes about the many forms of opposition to the war in the North, ranging from open sedition to desertion to riots that killed hundreds. “It was easy to transfer class hatred so that it fell upon the black worker.”
That toxic masculinity moment: Du Bois notes that few in the North expected Black people to fight. Despite the courage to daily face slavery to create the nation’s wealth, and despite the moving words of activists like Frederick Douglass who urged whites to see Black people as human, it was fighting and killing that made whites take notice. “Far from its being to the credit of black men, or any men, that they did not want to kill, the ability and willingness to take human life has always been, even in the minds of liberal men, a proof of manhood,” writes Du Bois. “But when he rose and fought and killed, the whole nation with one voice proclaimed him a man and brother. Nothing else made emancipation possible in the United States. Nothing else made Negro citizenship conceivable, but the record of the Negro soldier as a fighter.”
Most amazingly written “Same shit, different century” paragraph: “The world at first neither saw nor understood. Of all that most Americans wanted, this freeing of slaves was the last. Everything black was hideous. Everything Negroes did was wrong. If they fought for freedom, they were beasts; if they did not fight, they were born slaves. If they cowered on the plantations, they loved slavery; if they ran away, they were lazy loafers. If they sang, they were silly; if they scowled, they were impudent.”
I’m sure the modern take immediately comes to mind for many of us: We march, y’all mad. We sit down, y’all mad. We speak up, y’all mad. We die, y’all silent.
Renée: I’m working through the “Transubstantiation of a Poor White”, a chapter where Du Bois pulls not one punch.
It is 1865 and the war is over. As Du Bois reminds us, it was a war won through the labor of the Black men in the North: the “had made it possible for the North to win, and without their actual and possible aid, the South would never have surrendered..”
But of course those men were themselves uses as the “possible justification for an otherwise sordid and selfish orgy of murder, arson and theft.”
So now that the dust is settling on the war, Du Bois again reminds us (as we saw last week), that the North actually wants trade and wealth while the South wants cheap (Black) labor and “the political and social power based on it”. No one is particularly concerned with the lives, or the freedom of the just-freed slaves.
The thing that made me sit down was this statement he makes:
“Had no Negroes survived the war, peace would have been difficult because of hatred, loss and grief. But it’s logical path would have been straight.”
So… yeah. The “simplest” scenario that didn’t require introspection or change, would have been a war in which the power struggle of the North and South didn’t actually result in any lasting change required given that Black people now had ‘won’ the right to freedom.
Du Bois writes about how in the years after the war, “thinking Americans of the North believed in the equal manhood” of Black people, and as James Russell Lowell said: “We will fix the terms of peace ourselves and we will teach the South that Christ is disguised in a dusky race.”
Firstly, this really shocked me because in an earlier paragraph he states that “they did not free draft animals, nor enfranchise gorillas” as if the mere concept of freeing Black slaves was so strange that it would lead one to all these hyperbolic acts? (!!!)
The South had passed the Black Codes which were designed to restrict the freedoms of the (now supposedly free) African American slaves economically by compelling them to work in a labor economy based on low wages or debt.
Wait, WHAT? So the reaction to/rebelling against the freeing of slaves was to develop an economic system of oppression designed to curtail the future prosperity of Black people.
But then as he writes in 1873-76 there was a growing resentment and frustration at the world, partly driven by the protest of the South. President Andrew Johnson, who had previously called for punishment of the Southern states and the breaking up of plantations suddenly became silent on the matter and retreated into the opinion that we had to ‘get along’ and promote peace rather than action the free right to labor that had been at the heart of the War.
The silence of a leader on important issues when they realise a position will hurt their own interests (financial or otherwise) speaks volumes.
Du Bois throws Johnson under the bus with the closing of the chapter:
“This change did not come by a deliberate thought or conscious desire to hurt– it was rather the tragedy of American prejudice made flesh; so that the man born to narrow circumstances, a rebel against economic privilege died with the conventional ambition of a poor white to be the associate and benefactor of monopolists, planters and slave drivers.”
Brian: If past is prologue, if our behavior yesteryear helps to predict our actions in the future, then we will do well to study Du Bois’ analysis of how humans in America treated each other in the context of ‘work’ and limited resources. I key in on ‘humans’, because the future of our world will likely feature substantially increased automation — where robots and algorithms will easily replace a lot of what humans are currently paid to do. This will ignite or require a re-definition of work, or at least a more rigorous coming-to-terms with what ‘work’ means and how it is valued.
The question that we’re led to then is, if humans have worked so hard for so long to squeeze the most out of labor, going so far as to enslave it, what happens when there’s no more work for humans to do? Furthermore, as we build intelligent machines — in large part inspired by human intelligence and neural structures — how we will treat the machines if they pass the Turing test?
So, let’s look at the patterns and insights Du Bois lays out in Chapters 1 – 3, “The Black Worker,” “The White Worker,” and “The Planter” — which could easily be renamed the “The Enduring Enslaved,” “The Cowardly Rube,” and “The Cowardly Tyrant.”
“The Black Worker,” whether enslaved or free(d), provides the foundation of America’s economy since the inception. The country’s accelerated growth is literally made possible by the cheap and nearly free labor that picked the crops — at least as it played out in the 16th-20th centuries. It could have been that our forebears found another way to do it; alas, they were short-sighted. The humanity of my ancestors was squeezed through a vice into bushels of cotton and stacks of tobacco leaves — the remaining pulp survived by an enduring spirit that my people have learned from, if not the rest of our ‘countrymen.’ As such, their bodies became organic machines, but they symbolized forevermore both the darkest mirror put in front of the world, as well as a lost opportunity amidst the mirage of a revolution.
Du Bois quotes Frederick Douglass:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him [but not to the rest of America, yet], more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; … your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages …”
Douglass says it again:
“The [unthinking] White Worker” sought a pioneering role in the “New World” through work as managers of a system that would only bring them a shame and a damning condemnation that he still cannot see. As Du Bois put it, “Considering the economic rivalry of the black and white worker in the North, it would have seemed natural that the poor white would have refused to police the slaves, … [but] it gave him work and some authority as overseer, slave driver, and member of the patrol system. But above and beyond this, it fed his vanity because it associated him with the masters.
The “White Worker” could have been the very salvation they sought in this ‘new land’, they could’ve manifested their own destiny. However, rather than joining forces with the Enslaved, with whom they shared a real kinship as laborers in servitude, White workers — American-born southerners and European Immigrant northerners alike — became the jailers of Negroes for the rich Wardens of the 1%. Unable or unwilling to see the field for the crops, they relinquish(ed) a leverage that could (have) free(d) them: by refusing to glimpse, let alone acknowledge, the humanity of their laborer kin, the Negro, they invested their blood and ingenuity in an ultimately foreseeably bankrupt system that would never enjoy economies of scale. As a result, they uphold a corporatized America that would never allow them to be true shareholders, destroying the very meaning of citizenship.
Du Bois in Chapter 1:
“The result was that the system was held stable and intact by the poor white. … Gradually the whole white South became an armed commissioned camp to keep Negroes in slavery and to kill the black rebel.”
Du Bois again in Chapter 2:
“The wisest of the leaders could not clearly envisage just how slave labor in conjunction with free labor tended to reduce all labor toward slavery.”
“The Planter[s]” who control(led) the system, by orchestrating and taking advantage of the chaos, have done so with the consent of the cowardly silent white worker majority. Seeing both enslaved labor and cheap servitude as unliving technologies, the southern planter only ever learned to tighten the vice of this machine. Even faced with the potentially invigorating competition from the industrializing North, they failed to evolve their approach; they failed to convert adversity into opportunity, as imagined in the dreams of free-market, Libertarianism enthusiasts.
“The Southern planter in the fifties was in a key position to attempt to break and arrest the growth of this domination of all industry by trade and manufacture [in the North]. But he was too lazy and self-indulgent to do this and he would not apply his intelligence to the problem. … But the planter wanted results without effort, … and he insisted furiously upon a system of production which excluded intelligent labor, machinery, and modern methods. He toyed with the idea of local manufactures and ships and railroads. But this entailed too much work and sacrifice.”
The resulting system is one that squanders the inspirational ideas of self-actualization, ingenuity and freedom that the nation set out to prove.
But, I thought America was about freedom and innovation.
So, in the light of this historical pattern, how do we find our way in the dark room of modern labor?
During the 20th century’s industrial revolution, we found ways to replace the human worker with technologies and machines that were much more efficient at relatively menial or dangerous tasks, and the modern factory was born. With the advent of ‘intelligent’ algorithms, computerized automation is on the cusp of generating another inflection point in labor environments. During all of this, we continue to squeeze down the worker, run their bodies and minds through vices, with but meager recompense for them and fortunes for the modern slave-driver. Will we continue to squeeze as much as we can out of the obsolete technology of servitude? Or will see that, in the scheme of things, amidst the real potential of our ingenuity, it only produces truly worthless metals, so much as the flattened pennies that come out truckstop souvenir-makers? Will we embrace this opportunity to re-think human value and human work?
The solution was right in front of the faces of our slave-mongering forebears. I think a similar class of solutions is right in front of ours.
Du Bois again speaks from the past, seemingly about today: “Here is the real modern labor problem. Here is the kernel of the problem of Religion and Democracy, of Humanity. Words and futile gestures avail nothing. Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts which, in cultured lands, the Machine and harnessed Power veil and conceal. The emancipation of man and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.”
Lucianne: It’s been a slow week for reading for me (hello and goodbye, proposal-writing hell), so I’ve been working my way through Chapters 4 & 5 (“The General Strike” and “The Coming of the Lord”). Chapter 4 builds on what caught my eye last week, the framing of Black workers fleeing slavery as a strike, and the importance of Black labor to the outcome of the Civil War. It’s clear in DuBois’ writing that, from the point of view of Black people at the time, both the refusal of labor, and the acceptance of labor played major roles in both the outcome of the Civil War, and in claiming the right to self-determination that slavery had denied Black people for so long. It is equally clear that white perceptions of Black labor also played a central role: DuBois discusses at length how the narrative around emancipation was developed not by white leadership in the North (e.g. Lincoln et al.) but by the emergent recognition that the war could not, by sheer arithmetic, be won without the participation of Black people– and that that participation would only be motivated by actual freedom. Something I hadn’t previously appreciation was that Europe also continued to loom as a potential factor– aristocracy and manufacturers in England and France (who relied on the cotton trade) were largely in support of the South, but English working class sentiment sided with freeing the slaves. This vocal movement made English intervention in the Civil War an unpopular option. Still, even after Lincoln’s (reluctantly given) Emancipation Proclamation, interpretations of how to treat incoming Black refugees varied wildly amongst the Union officers. Some sought to treat newly freed Black people as, once again, tools– better fit for chopping wood than fighting alongside white soldiers for a cause that Black would-be soldiers were far more invested in. The quote that Lauren noted above, regarding fighting as a hallmark of manhood, also stood out to me as well– the irony that a person’s right to be seen as such, and to live as such, would also be reliant on their willingness to die. This also was the argument Frederick Douglass made, reprinted in part by DuBois (you can read Douglass’ remarks in their entirety in the Library of Congress’ online archive),
“Once let the Black man get upon his person the brass letters US; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”
I find myself recalling all the times in recent history when Black and brown people (Americans, immigrants, and otherwise) have had to affirm their worth just to be counted as human– and I think also of what it means to bear arms for both Black and white Americans (for example, the utter silence of the National Rifle Association when Philando Castile was shot in the course of legally exercising his 2nd Amendment rights, or the response by white Americans to the Black Panthers’ armed patrols). Here again are the roots of the trade Black people are constantly forced to make: the security (or peril) of their bodies, as though the possibility of harm is what defines a human being.