From Slavery to Freedom – or – Why White People Need to Learn from Black History

I know your countrymen do not agree with me here and I hear them saying, “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear (James Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew”/The Fire Next Time).

One of Baldwin’s fundamental lessons for white America is that it needs to get its head out of the sand.  That’s true on a lot of different levels, but for me, one of the most straightforward, least theoretically complicated, least “social justice warrior”-ish, is the simple statement that most white people are not aware of the history of black Americans.  We know bits and pieces of it, especially as it intersects with events that are important in our preferred soft-core historical pastimes (like as a momentary pause in obsessive deep-dives into the military strategies and technologies deployed in the civil war), but for the most part, we were not raised to take the perspective of black Americans seriously.  We were not raised with the habit of listening to them, either in person or in writing.  If we grew up in a nearly all white community (and most of us did), we had little opportunity to get to know any of them.  And if that all white community constructed its educational institutions and curricula without reflecting on the ways that they came to live in an all white community within a country which has never been all white in its totality, well, we didn’t even give ourselves a chance to learn.  Which is what I think Baldwin means by our “inhumanity and fear.”

So instead of hearing from black people, if and when we had any exposure to them, it was because we heard about them – a huge difference in so many ways.

I just finished reading the massive From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, by John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss Jr.  This is a book I bought because when he died, the New York Times ran a front-page obituary of John Hope Franklin, and this book was mentioned there.  That was probably 5 years ago.  I finally had a chance to read it, end to end, and it took me almost a month.  Because it’s nearly 500 pages, and they’re dense, factual and refreshingly un-stylized–it was originally published in the 1940’s, and no attempt at “accessibility” is made beyond the facts themselves as they compel your attention.

Not to put too fine a point on it: what I learned from this book is that in every single single era in American history black people have been met with unrelenting resistance, hostile and violent, on the part of the white population.  Franklin’s approach is consistently materialistic: he says very little about “racism” in the abstract, preferring simply to illustrate it through the sequence of events he narrates.  Beginning with the abduction and forced enslavement of millions (yes, he does discuss the ways that in some ways, African leaders had a hand in this, but not in the ways that your racist uncle likes to bloviate about), the hostile, violent resistance put up by white Americans continued (and continues) in every corner of our society: in the workplace, the military, the church, the schools, real estate, political realm and everywhere in between.  Franklin does not argue that this is because of some vast and secret conspiracy undertaken by white people, or on account of a biological trait inherent in us.  Franklin actually does not try to address this question in any abstract way: the simple veracity of the events that have taken place works well enough on its own.

Reading a narrative history like From Slavery to Freedom is a very simple way for white people to understand what “white supremacy” is.  It requires no theoretical commitments, only a willingness to read, listen and believe what is reported.

Set against this narrative of violent oppressive force, is Franklin’s painstakingly assembled catalog of black efforts at empowerment, education, cultural recognition, political power, dignity and, most fundamentally, freedom and equality.  In long lists of political leaders, organizations, publications and city population data, one can feel Franklin reaching out from the page and saying “whatever you want to think about your country and my place in it, know that I have done my part not to have these people forgotten.”  In producing such lists, he has guaranteed that future generations, should they want to, can continue the work of excavating this history, not allowing it to be forgotten or under-emphasized by mainstream history.

Dostoevsky’s imperative — “judge a society by its prisons” has a more general form: the best way to understand the history and present day reality of a nation is to consider its history from the perspective of its least-advantaged members.  For the United States, that does not necessarily mean from the perspective of black people: Native Americans, Latinx, East Asians, Pacific Islanders, South Asians and Middle Easterners all have legitimate claim, at various times and in various ways, to be counted among the least advantaged.  And reading a history from the perspective of any of those groups would also yield a wealth of insight into American society.

But as Ta-Nehisi Coates has said in an interview I was fortunate enough to attend, if you want truly to understand America, you need to listen to black people’s experience and history.  Because black people were there, played an integral role, and were not given credit for that role (or were otherwise lied about in our culture’s dominant myth-making spaces), at every crucial juncture in the history of the construction of our republic.

If you are one of the legions of white people who believe that “identity politics” is bad, and that somehow looking through the perspective of black people is unduly “identitarian,” “relativistic,” too “postmodern,” too “Foucauldian,” or however David Brooks or Mark Lilla (or whoever your favorite condescending and willfully ignorant white “intellectual” commentator is) wants to put it, please consider reading Franklin’s book.  Because whatever else you might say about it, it is none of those things.  He sets out from the start to pursue a simple project: since there have been black people here in the United States, people the governing population referred to as “Negros” (or worse) for hundreds of years, and that act of race-naming and acting-as-though-it-were-real is undeniably present, in our country’s founding documents, published histories, census records, and its speeches, we are very reasonable in asking the simple question: what were things like for this group?  What were their experiences?  How were they treated?  What practices did they undertake?  Sure – the idea of such a group is a “social construction,” race is not “real,” but its construction is pretty much something that’s been underway for as long as this country has been a country (and before).  The construction has been undertaken in different ways and at different times by different people, but it has never ceased.  So we need to consider the effects it has had.  The best way to do that is to listen to the people whose existence has been defined as “black,” “Negroid,” “Afro-American,” and so on, for all these years.

Franklin does not seek to explain slavery as a phenomenon in anything other than materialistic terms: there was such a possibility for profit to be turned from cheap/free labor, that capital found a way for slavery to begin.  And once it began, ideological reinforcement (in the form of racism) was ready at hand.  From then on, the dialectical interplay between capital and ideology has been enough to sustain it:

In the beginning little social distinction was made in America on account of race.  As the racial justification for slavery developed, there began to creep into the mores of American society a distinction between blacks and whites.  One of its manifestations was the passage of laws against intermarriage.  More and more, however, the real distinction came to be that between whites and those blacks who had some claim to freedom.  In the nineteenth century, as the slave-holding class found it necessary to establish safeguards for effective control of the free Negro, a veritable wall was erected around the black man, and he found it necessary to develop his own life and his own institutions.  There existed between him and the rest of the world a minimum of communication, and even this communication steadily decreased (145).

That’s about as much “high theory” or “social-justice mysticism” you will find here.  It’s all Franklin really needs.  The facts themselves speak loudly enough.

If you’re like me, you learned history without any sense of perspective.  My history textbooks spoke from on high, trying to educate me about “America” and “Americans” without recognizing that a fundamental asymmetry in American history arose very early between white Americans, Native Americans and black Americans.  And that this asymmetrical structure grew to incorporate more and more immigrant groups as the centuries wore on.  Because if you are historigraphically naive enough to speak for “the American experience” they way that Boorstin and Kelley, or whomever, insist upon doing (how else could you have ONE historical textbook?), if you are arrogant enough to believe there is one American story, you will of necessity miss a fundamental aspect of that very story: the violent silencing and redefinition needed to make such a story coherent.

Of all the things that reading From Slavery to freedom showed me, it is the fundamental truth of how and why Donald Trump is the 45th president of this country, as expressed in these two brilliant paragraphs from Ta Nehisi Coates’ “Donald Trump is the First White President”:

The focus on one subsector of Trump voters—the white working class—is puzzling, given the breadth of his white coalition. Indeed, there is a kind of theater at work in which Trump’s presidency is pawned off as a product of the white working class as opposed to a product of an entire whiteness that includes the very authors doing the pawning. The motive is clear: escapism. To accept that the bloody heirloom remains potent even now, some five decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a Memphis balcony—even after a black president; indeed, strengthened by the fact of that black president—is to accept that racism remains, as it has since 1776, at the heart of this country’s political life. The idea of acceptance frustrates the left. The left would much rather have a discussion about class struggles, which might entice the white working masses, instead of about the racist struggles that those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of. Moreover, to accept that whiteness brought us Donald Trump is to accept whiteness as an existential danger to the country and the world. But if the broad and remarkable white support for Donald Trump can be reduced to the righteous anger of a noble class of smallville firefighters and evangelicals, mocked by Brooklyn hipsters and womanist professors into voting against their interests, then the threat of racism and whiteness, the threat of the heirloom, can be dismissed. Consciences can be eased; no deeper existential reckoning is required.

This transfiguration is not novel. It is a return to form. The tightly intertwined stories of the white working class and black Americans go back to the prehistory of the United States—and the use of one as a cudgel to silence the claims of the other goes back nearly as far. Like the black working class, the white working class originated in bondage—the former in the lifelong bondage of slavery, the latter in the temporary bondage of indenture. In the early 17th century, these two classes were remarkably, though not totally, free of racist enmity. But by the 18th century, the country’s master class had begun etching race into law while phasing out indentured servitude in favor of a more enduring labor solution. From these and other changes of law and economy, a bargain emerged: The descendants of indenture would enjoy the full benefits of whiteness, the most definitional benefit being that they would never sink to the level of the slave. But if the bargain protected white workers from slavery, it did not protect them from near-slave wages or backbreaking labor to attain them, and always there lurked a fear of having their benefits revoked. This early white working class “expressed soaring desires to be rid of the age-old inequalities of Europe and of any hint of slavery,” according to David R. Roediger, a professor of American studies at the University of Kansas. “They also expressed the rather more pedestrian goal of simply not being mistaken for slaves, or ‘negers’ or ‘negurs.’ ”

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