Still (Re-Constructing): From Civil War to Civil Rights to Today
It’s the last day of February, the last official day of Black History Month 2018, and the last day of our W.E.B. DuBois Book Club! We set ourselves a mammoth task: reading the lengthy and brilliant “Black Reconstruction in America.” And since life, uh, finds a way (of distracting you), it looks like most of us will have some bonus reading to do in March. But that’s great – because thinking about issues affecting Black communities and our role in white supremacy should never be constrained to a single month. We should incorporate it into our daily lives as we strive to make change in the world and in ourselves. We’ll be continuing with these weekly reflections on “Black Reconstruction” past this last day of February (and hope you join us!), but for now, here’s our final reflection for Black History Month:
I made it to Chapter 11, more than halfway through the book! I’m excited to carry on reading into March. For my final reflection, I can’t stop thinking about a small section that I read during this last week. This reflection isn’t really about race, which I hope you’ll all forgive. I was reading this part shortly after the Parkland shooting, so it really hit home when, for a few paragraphs, DuBois addresses the “fetish-worship” of the Constitution, and whether or not things like Reconstruction (or the Civil War) are considered “constitutional.”
“If one means by ‘constitutional’ something provided for in that instrument or foreseen by its authors or reasonably implicit in its words,” he writes, “then the Reconstruction Acts were undoubtedly unconstitutional; and so, for that matter, was the Civil War.” And after the revolutionary measures, together people “formed a new United States on a basis broader than the old Constitution and different from its original conception.”
DuBois knew this a century ago, but people are still struggling with it now. Ideas and laws in this country need to be adaptable and flexible to work in modern times. The founders did not foresee the internet or semi-automatic rifles. They couldn’t have made provisions against internet fast lanes or mass shootings at schools and movie theaters. But we’re here, and we can.
“And why not? No more idiotic program could be laid down than to require a people to follow a written rule of government 90 years old, if that rule had been definitely broken in order to preserve the unity of the government and to destroy an economic anachronism. In such a crisis, legalists may insist that consistency with precedent is more important than firm and far-sighted rebuilding. But manifestly, it is not. Rule-following, legal precedence, and political consistency are not more important than right, justice and plain common-sense.”
I don’t pretend to be a constitutional scholar. I know a lot of smart people spend a lot of time learning and reflecting on constitutional issues. But man, it has always seemed odd to me to hold such reverence for things written for another time. As with most documents (and DuBois’ book!), I think we can pull lessons and themes and apply them to our modern experience. And the literature we craft today can address our concerns and plan as best as possible for the future. But much as we reflect these days on the wrongs of the past, and wonder how we could ever have been so blind, foolish, or cruel, surely we are imperfect now. People of the future will look back on us and wonder the same thing. [Side challenge: try to pinpoint the bullshit you’re a part of right now and get to fixing it. Predict the future, my lovelies.] Relying on strictly literal interpretations of often outdated materials that could never have predicted the modern conditions has always seemed like a recipe for disaster – especially when those laws contain prejudice, implicit or explicit bias, or otherwise stack the system. We should build on and, yes, revise (or tear down and throw out) old rules and practices to create a more just and equitable present (and future) that cares for the vulnerable in our society. And we don’t need a Civil War every time to make that happen.
Reconstruction: a time with potential for change, a time to (re)build in the wake of conflagration, a moment to move the dial, if even just a little, irrevocably toward justice. The question at the heart of this is, “how do you do that?” How do you drive change?” So, in our current era of tumult and revolution of America, how do we learn from the past to construct a new vision of the future. I think this is the aspect of DuBois’ book that I’ve heretofore most under-appreciated. He teaches us the elements of what causes the emergent phenomenon of irrevocable transition — if not a law of nature, a tried and true method. And, while rooted in pragmatism, it is fuelled by passionate ethical decisions — the decisions of people to do things, and the decisions of people to do the right thing. This is best shown in Chapters 4 and 5, where DuBois discusses the emancipation of the Negro, which occurred not because of the benevolence of a majority of whites, but because of a multitude of actors and events, the confluence of which effected such pressure on a system that change resulted.
So, what do we think are the routes to effecting change? In this day and age, we see a lot of arguing — tweet-to-tweet more than face-to-face (except for dime-a-dozen pundits on cable TV). We watch people arguing directly past each other, attempting to change minds with words alone, to somehow magically draw our debate counterparts to the other side with the right turn of phrase, or the right show of verbal force or violence: “Believe that I am right, and join me on my side!” Surely, meetings of minds can sway those who may waiver, get to the people on the fence, or the folks who are just one tick away from a tipping point into doing the right thing, or just a thing — or even bring catharsis. Debate is great as one tool amongst many, but alone, it just doesn’t get shit done.
While we can educate folks or debate with them, there are also folks making things — cultural touchstones, galvanizing art, new practical policies, RESEARCH, that can be used as tools to effect change. And how does it effect change? By creating another element of pressure on the system. And when pressure comes from multiple directions, when there is a confluence at the right time, then we tip and we move forward, arguably irrevocably at times.
This is the practical, not the philosophical. If you want to get ish done, sometimes you only need a small number of people to make a thing, and that thing might be loud enough that then everybody listens. Or it could be one thing among many that applies the right pressure at the right time to push the ball over the goal line.
What does this have to do with DuBois’ book? It’s about cause and effect — but really causes and effect. It’s about how things come together in a moment to tip events over. We see this play out in Chapters 4 and 5, “The General Strike” and “The Coming of the Lord,” respectively. In each, DuBois provides critical analysis of the collection of factors that brought about the end of the Civil War. While abolition of slavery was among the drivers, it was not magnetic North for the country’s moral compass — remaining a union was.
President Lincoln himself is well known as willing to do just about anything to preserve the Union. In Lincoln’s words:
“If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless the could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it would help save the Union ….”
In the end, freeing the enslaved proved its utility as a way to starve out the Confederacy by depriving it of workers to produce materials for their rebellion: “In the North, the Emancipation Proclamation meant the Negro soldier, and the Negro soldier meant the end of the war.” DuBois also quotes the adjutant-General Lorenzo Thomas:
“The administration has determined to take from the rebels this source of supply — to take their negroes and compel them to send back a portion of their whites to cultivate their deserted plantations — and very poor persons they would be to fill the place of the dark-hued laborer. They must do this, or their armies will starve …”
Of course, there were staunch abolitionists who sought full equality for Negroes in every aspect. Their voices provided a crucial flanking at the right time, that enabled an official leader (Lincoln) to use abolition as a means to an end.
DuBois’ dispassionate analysis of facts (correspondence among generals, timelines, etc.) reveals the real causal relationships underlying these historical events. He uses his passion for the truth to interpret them equitably, cleverly, and transparently.
This isn’t the only time we’ve seen this. If we take this strategy, we can learn to look beyond the veil at other eras in our history. Fast forward to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. President Johnson shared with Lincoln the role of a leader who was in a given place at a given time, and both held non-radical positions on racism and America’s systemic White Supremacy. And they were both vectors for change. During the 50’s there were abolitionists; there was also an economic blockade that brought about protests and boycotts.
All these forces combined to provide the conditions for change, and people, like presidents, can solidify the change.
But what if there’s a different president with different proclivities? What if a White Supremacist is president, ready to solidify the efforts of other forces that would try to reverse the moral arc of history?
That’s how this works.
We have to continuously plan, to continuously resist, so that at the right time, we are ready to push the needle just a little bit, but that little bit that is over a critical goal line. We select the practical means to achieve the ends we aim for. Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals details a perspective on the philosophical underpinnings of this methodology; check out the chapter “Of Means and Ends,” in which he notes how the non-violent tactics of Gandhi and the American Civil Rights Movement were at least as much strategic as they were moral in their reasoning.
This process isn’t a secret, but not errybody understands how crucial the multiple avenues are, or how crucial disruption is. In the chaos resulting from disruption, new realities can take hold. That’s also why people who don’t know they need to be resisting hate protests, and other kinds of disruption. You can read more here from Mariame Kaba (Twitter: @PrisonCulture).
If you use this material, you can also send some cash to Mariame!
We are not just here to resist, we are here to continuously create the environment for change, to prepare for the time when we can move the bar toward justice.
It’s the end of the month and I’m really sad. Luckily the thinking, reading and learning can continue tomorrow (YAY!). But for today I wanted to make sure I got to the end of the book to read the closing parts, how DuBois pulls it all together. So I actually took a bit of a jump from last time to discuss the final parts of the book.
Chapter 16 starts with this incredibly sad and also hopeful passage:
How civil war in the South began – indeed had never ceased; and how black Prometheus bound to the Rock of Ages by hate, hurt and humiliation, has his vitals eaten out as they grow, yet fights and lives.
This is so true today – resilience and success in the fate of near constant obstacle. Similarly to Brian, what I also love about this book is about the non-emotional description of the forces that brought about the Civil war and the end of slavery, and also the forces that would keep (have kept) slavery in existence.
DuBois talks about the post-Civil war wage of the Black worker, “reduced to the level of bare subsistence by taxation, peonage, caste, and every method of discrimination. This program had to be carried out in open defiance of the clear letter of the law.”
In a parallel to that time in the late 1860s, we are living in a post-Civil war world, and in America the ugly shards of racism and violence have been all too obvious recently (not that they were absent before). DuBois reminds us that
“Before the wide eyes of the mob is ever the Shape of Fear. Back of the writhing, yelling and cruel-eyed demons who break, destroy, maim and lynch and burn at the stake is a knot, large or small of normal human beings, and these human beings are desperately afraid of something. Of what? Of many things, but usually losing their jobs […] most ubiquitous in modern industrial society is the fear of unemployment.”
Notice that DuBois isn’t excusing it or condoning it, but he highlights the way labor (and profit) was the root cause of the war and that those same fears are at the heart of people today.
DuBois asks how might then quell the mob and end violence?
He suggests that one way people take is by proving that “the Fear is false, ill-grounded and unnecessary,” but advises against that approach (hey liberals, he’s talking to us) because: “there is scarcely a bishop in Christendom [..] a president, governor, mayor [..] teacher in a classroom who does not in the end stand by War and Ignorance as the main method for the settlement of our pressing human problems [..] despite the fact that they deny it with their mouths every day.”
He then speaks about underground organization as a way to “quell the mob”, but in this instance, he mentions the underground organizations like the Ku Klux Klan that wanted to ‘fight the fearful thing’ rather than overcoming any fear, and highlighted their efforts to “undermine any mass movement towards the union or white and black labor.”
And (SURPRISE!) one way they were effective was by affecting voting in the South, by counterfeiting the ballots of Black voters in order to select people like all round asshole, voter suppressor and member of the Redshirts Wade Hampton as Governor of South Carolina in 1874.
Hampton and others talked about catching Black voters ‘unaware’, but again DuBois is clear and academic when he speaks about the many issues that affected Black voters at the time – those who wanted to work and make a living couldn’t be seen to “dabble in politics”. Positions of influence were only open to Black people who were certified, people who were “safe”, who wouldn’t rock the boat. If we surround ourselves with Black people who don’t challenge us, don’t make us look at the issues that we perpetuate, we change nothing. DuBois says that from the 1880s Black people who wanted to make a living and make money were “compelled to give up political power.”
Hey Colin Kaepernick, I’m so sorry.
He dreams perhaps of a different world, but reminds us that we are not yet in it:
“If the Reconstruction of the Southern states from slavery to free labor and from aristocracy to industrial economy, had been conceived as a major national program of America whose accomplishment at any price was well worth the effort we should be living today in a different world.”
We can only move towards that world if we admit the world we do live in, with all its racism, white supremacy, aristocracy, capitalism and greed. With a focus on labor equity, opportunity and not just the emotional response of changing the ‘minds of a nation’ to slavery or the incorrect narrative around ‘freeing ignorant slaves’, we might hope to push for that better world.
I’m sad that February is ending, but also really excited to continue reading Black Reconstruction. I feel like every time I open this book, I am transported into some sort of slipstream outside of time, where even as DuBois writes to a very specific moment in history, on one part of this Earth, I see echoes of his insights applying throughout more recent times, and up to the modern day. I’ve been reading slowly, so I’m still on the chapter entitled “Looking Forward”, wherein factions of the post war US grapple with one another to decide where to draw their lines on what it means to be free. Does it mean a vote? Does it mean education? Reparations? All of the above? As DuBois discussed in the previous chapter, fittingly entitled “Looking Backward”, the South immediately began “reconstructing” slavery in all but name. Today, as I did my own bit of looking forward to March, a friend tagged me on Twitter with an article chronicling how some Black people were kept as slaves up until the 1960s. Yes, the NINETEEN sixties. And while horrible to think about, I wasn’t surprised– just as DuBois’ insight echoes through history, our current systems have the fingerprints of slavery’s architects all over them. What else is the carceral system, but a warehousing of human beings who are then disenfranchised– not only literally from voting, but from participating as full members of the community? In many ways, people are still debating whether Black people truly have the right to have their needs met as human beings, be it through safe and affordable housing, education, voting, you name it.
I truly see now why Angela Davis talks about this period of time being so essential to understanding race relations in America– it remains a fairly accurate description of race relations in America, albeit couched in past history. That is why it was so radical for the Black Panther Party to lawfully carry firearms, and to provide free food to their communities. That is why it still radical (apparently to half the country) to say that Black Lives Matter. And that is why it is so radical to see Wakanda brought to life on the screen– a vision of what might have been, but also some version of what could be.
I confess I took a page out of Renée’s playbook (hey-o, terrible pun!) and peeked at the final paragraphs of Black Reconstruction. I’ll tell you now that the book has a bitter end, but that shouldn’t come as any surprise. However, there is a tiny glimmer in there that I realize more and more is necessary to hold on to, just as it is necessary to see Wakanda writ large on the screen:
“One reads the truer deeper facts of Reconstruction with a great despair. It is at once so simple and human, and yet so futile. There is no villain, no idiot, no saint. There are just men; men who crave ease and power, men who know want and hunger, men who have crawled. They all dream and strive with ecstasy of fear and strain of effort, balked of all hope and hate. Yet the rich world is wide enough for all, wants all, needs all.”
That’s all for now, but we’ll see you in March.