Reading Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction – Chapter One, The Black Worker

This will be necessarily sketchy – but I hope to share what stands out to me while I listen to Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction which was published in 1935 (a universally acclaimed masterpiece). The two things I’ll mention are disfranchisement and the making of “the deplorables.”

Du Bois begins with suffrage, and this seems surprising. Which is just to say, I never thought of this slave nation allowing black men to vote.

  1. But it is a fact that black men were actively disfranchised by law. Which is to say that black men were able to vote in the USA until legislative bodies passed laws against that.

In 2016 Indiana celebrated becoming a state – Bloomington, where I live, really stepped into this and Interchange, the show I produce on WFHB, even did a show on the Hoosier state about, I suppose, the character of the Hoosier, and those historical/materialist factors that fashioned those characters. That program was not a paean to Indiana’s greatness as we did discuss the Black Codes that were enacted as well as the fact that Indiana was not a slave state primarily for two reasons: 1. Slavery made the unpropertied white settler poor(er) and 2. No race mixing can happen if there are no black people present. How’s that for an anti-slavery position?

But Du Bois points another aspect of why statehood might not be seen as something to celebrate: “The Western States as territories did not usually restrict the suffrage, but as they were admitted to the Union they disfranchised the Negroes: Ohio in 1803; Indiana in 1816; Illinois in 1818; Michigan in 1837; Iowa in 1846; Wisconsin in 1848; Minnesota in 1858; and Kansasin 1861.”

That’s right. This is one of the ways we institutionalized racism. Speaking of the Black Codes, here is the 7th proposition of Article XI of that 1816 Constitution:

“There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this state, otherwise than for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. Nor shall any indenture of any negro or mulatto hereafter made, and executed out of the bounds of this state be of any validity within the state.”

You’ll recognize this from the nation’s 13th Amendment which became law in 1865. As a punishment for crime, black people can be enslaved and be made to labor for the benefit of a “landlord.” Talk about a public/private partnership! Also, see how that second sentence sounds almost “progressive” – he we don’t recognize any other state’s claims of indenture! All this means is that the state retains the power to hold the newly criminalized and enslaved as its own property even if said person is “escaped” from a slave state. Beautiful.

I wonder if this supports women’s claim that it is woman who is treated the lowest of the low in western societies? Black men could vote long before women could. And of course women have almost universally been considered property throughout written history. I suppose I am suggesting that capitalism (piracy, land theft, human theft) created a new form (or at least an updated version) of human chattel that was, basically historically “bounded” and defined as an economy; where women have always been chattel and serving the same purpose really – free labor without the means of independence, and until recently, absolutely zero protection from their “owner” (ie father then husband). So, you might say, the enslavement of Africans and the creation of the “production” of those “born slaves” (primarily in Thomas Jefferson’s home state Virginia, and through the legal machinations of Jefferson) had a model to follow already millennia-old .

2. Poor whites are still doing the master class’s bidding in ALL ways. Du Bois points out that while the population of the enslaved grew to roughly 4 million, there were about 5 million poor whites in the South. That is to say that the labor opportunities of poor whites included “minding” the enslaved. This created a proximity effect to the poor white ego. It’s also to point out, once again, that the many are controlled by the few. Nine million pissed off people were kept in check by what? Class habituation? Fear?

‘The system of slavery demanded a special police force and such a force was made possible and unusually effective by the presence of the poor whites. This explains the difference between the slave revolts in the West Indies, and the lack of effective revolt in the Southern United States. In the West Indies, the power over the slave was held by the whites and carried out by them and such Negroes as they could trust. In the South, on the other hand, the great planters formed proportionately quite as small a class but they had singularly enough at their command some five million poor whites; that is, there were actually more white people to police the slaves than there were slaves. 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 two considerations led him in the opposite direction. First of all, 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. Slavery bred in the poor white a dislike of Negro toil of all sorts. He never regarded himself as a laborer, or as part of any labor movement. If he had any ambition at all it was to become a planter and to own “niggers.” To these Negroes he transferred all the dislike and hatred which he had for the whole slave system. The result was that the system was held stable and intact by the poor white. ‘

This is the man or woman of “authoritarian” bent. This is a Trump supporter attending a rally with great enthusiasm.

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