A Study of Race in the US – DuBois on Black Reconstruction

Week 2:

WEB DuBois, Black Reconstruction, “Black Worker” and “The General Strike”

dubois“Black Worker”

From its inception, US founded on principle of liberty for all and consent of the governed while maintaining millions of black folks in slavery. Initial justifications were a matter of race and color – that slave trade would cease bringing Africans to the continent so slavery would “naturally die.” But in the U.S. there was emphasis on reproduction.

Then slavery became a matter of social condition – eventually slaves would be freed to could set up their own country somewhere (because co-existence with whites was unthinkable). Then industrial revolution and:

“Black labor became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure, but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce of buying and selling on a world-wide scale; new cities were built on the results of black labor, and a new labor problem, involving all white labor, arose both in Europe and America.” (p 5)

Then exploitation of white workers in Europe sent wave after wave of immigration of the US.

On the South vs North:

“As slavery grew to a system and the Cotton Kingdom began to expand into imperial white domination, a free Negro was a contradiction, a threat and a menace. As a thief and a vagabond, he threatened society; but as an educated property holder, a successful mechanic or even professional man, he more than threatened slavery. He contradicted and undermined it. He must not be. He must be suppressed, enslaved, colonized. And nothing so bad could be said about him that did not easily appear as true to slaveholders.” (p 7)

In the North, black folks were enfranchised with the white laboring classes. Then matters changed state by state. “Thus, at first, in Kansas and the West, the problem of the black worker was narrow and specific. Neither the North nor the West asked that black labor in the United States be free and enfranchised. On thc contrary, they accepted slave labor as a fact; but they were determined that it should be territorially restricted, and should not compete with free white labor.” (p 8)

On pp 8-9 DuBois shows that slavery is degradation of different names – whether black slaves or “free workers” of industrial society. But there was something specific to the content of slavery in 1863:

– psychological: helplessness, defenselessness of family, submergence below will of any other individual
– not usually cruel, often slaves lived under conditions comparable to that of “free workers” in the north (with regards to living conditions, work hours, education levels). in other ways it reflected better conditions (some type of health care provided by owner, never unemployed)
– yet slaves were lowest paid workers in the country. they represented the “ultimate degradation of man.” (p 9)

The slave owner had to search for profit not in high cost of cotton but in beating down the cost of slave labor. This led to conditions mentioned above and to “contradictory” movement – emphasis on breeding of slaves and the mixing of white and black blood.

Slavery demanded a special police force which was made possible by the presence of poor whites (which wasn’t present in the West Indies). This meant there were more whites than blacks in the South, hence the infrequency and ineffectiveness of Slave revolts similar to those occurring in the WI. While poor whites natural ally was laborers in north and south, they allied with class of white masters b/c it provided him work, gave him some authority as overseer, allowed him to transfer his dislike for toil and system of slavery onto black workers.

“Safety Valve of Slavery” = running away to the north. This created new leadership for abolitionist struggle, showed possibilities for a free black race.

Black worker was founding stone of New economic system in 19th C and modern era, and was cause of the Civil War.

“The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor, and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black…” (p 16)

“The General Strike”

Both north and south ignored the black worker in the south but the war was fundamentally about slave labor.

The southern worker – black and white – held the key to the war and the black worker was more strategic b/c they raised the food and raw materials. To fight black workers engaged in a general strike not just to stop work but to protest the conditions of work.

Initially Northern commanders took in slaves as laborers in the camps and informants. Then due to need, they accepted slaves as soldiers. But a soldier must be free.

…agrarian democracy, experiments with state run fugitive colonies, origins of Freedmen’s Bureau, putting fugitives to work on the land and sell the products for profit for the federal govt (freed were willing to be taxed to help support those with less)…

Freed blacks in the south also strategic for bringing sympathy from Europe against supporting an independent southern nation founded on slavery. Draft riots in he north and a population of northern white workers unwilling to fight meant replacements were needed, and blacks fighting for their freedom fit that gap.

Role of poor whites in the south? There was some race mixing before the war. Racial lines hardened with the war and slaveholders reminded the poor white that slavery was in their interest, otherwise they would be worse off like poor whites in Europe. Hence during the war, poor whites demanded that blacks be excluded from skilled labor in the new confederate constitution. This animosity drummed up during the war becomes the backbone for racial antagonism after the war.

Yet it was clear this was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” (p 81) Economic rivalry with black workers drove many white workers to rebel against the confederacy and flee to the north.m

Other Commentary

“In the chapter entitled “The General Strike,” Du Bois presents the Negroes’ physical movement from the Underground Railroad to the mass enlistment in the Union Amy, not as the flight of a broken people, but as a purposeful weakening and paralysis of Southem economy, as the necessary prelude to its fundamental reconstruction. This was part of a larger conception that the Negro in the South was not simply a long-suffering but essentially a revolutionary laboring class which attempted “prematurely” to remake Southern society. in its own image through land seizures and government based upon mass political participation. And if the prosperity of European imperialism was built on the massacre of the Paris Communards, America’s rise as a participant and leader in world plunder was built on the unbridled deceit and terror which broke Black Reconstruction in the South.”


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