For those interested in an alternative history of American slavery,
the first installment of PBS’s new four-hour series, “Slavery and the
Making of America” (February 9 and 16) began on a promising note. The
first American bond-laborers, we are shown in vivid color and told
by narrator Morgan Freeman, were a rather mixed group: English, Scottish,
Irish, and African. Rarely do U.S. history texts start with this crucial
fact in telling the story of America’s so-called “Peculiar Institution.” In
the main, U.S. slavery is presented as either an embarrassing aberration
or a painful yet necessary stage in the nation’s triumphant march toward
democracy and equality for all. In both conceptions, American slavery
is always racialized, creating the false impression that Anglo-American
slave-owners imposed a system of chattel slavery on Africans and African
Americans because of their phenotype (or skin tone), not their labor
For students of the history of colonial Virginia, the PBS documentary’s
unorthodox beginning was exciting for another reason. For next would
be one of the most remarkable moments in all of American history: Bacon’s
Rebellion of 1676, the largest and most consequential slave revolt
in the history of the continent. At first a small opposition movement
within the Anglo-American ruling class, over profit-making opportunities
in Virginia, the revolt became hurriedly a mass rebellion of bond-laborers,
their sights set on the chief garrison and magazine at West Point.
Nathaniel Bacon was a member of the colony council and a militant
opponent of Virginia land policy. He had prepared the revolt a few
years earlier by organizing an armed mutiny of angry taxpayers at Lawnes
Creek Parish, and, in November of 1676, proclaimed freedom to all bond-laborers,
in anticipation they would join his cause against the big tobacco bourgeoisie.
He was right. Thousands of bond-laborers – six thousand European Americans
and two thousand African Americans – took up arms against the numerically
tiny Anglo-American slave-owning planter class. Seizing the day, dramatically,
they drove Governor Berkeley back to England, hat in hand, and shut
down all tobacco production for fourteen straight months.
The slave rebellion introduced a near terminal crisis in the young
British imperial system, and, for the Anglo-American slave owners and
planters, the frightening prospect of losing forever the entire Chesapeake,
home to some of the richest tidewater land on the planet, which they
had been exploiting massively and ceaselessly for the previous sixty
years, through a system of bond-labor servitude known as chattel slavery.
But the American bond-laborers – English, Irish, Scottish, and African – had
had enough. Throughout the seventeenth century, the death toll in the
Virginia colony had been around 80 percent, due to the nightmarishly
harsh conditions of labor and the vicious punishments inflicted by
magistrates on resistant tobacco workers. The bond-laborers were not
Most significant about Bacon’s Rebellion is the fact that the
bond-labor rebels took up arms together without the slightest regard
for each other’s complexion. A month into the successful rebel takeover
of the Virginia colony, the British crown sent one Thomas Grantham,
a Navy captain, to bribe the rebel leaders. The rebel leaders weren’t
having it, and, according to Grantham himself in the official report
he penned weeks later, recommended “cutting me in peeces.” Grantham
described the rebel leaders as “foure hundred English and Negroes in
Armes.” This is no small point, as the historical record of Virginia
The British would eventually crush Bacon’s Rebellion through a relentless
bombing campaign of the Chesapeake.
Allen argues that Grantham’s report is one
of the most important documents in the whole archive of colonial Virginia.
In his two volume history of U.S. racial slavery and oppression, The
Invention of the White Race (Verso, 1994 and 1997), Allen argues
convincingly that Grantham’s specific description of the rebel leaders
indicates the American chattel bond-laborers did not accept any social
partition of themselves into “white” and “black” – that, in fact, the “white
identity” did not yet exist. The bond-laborers worked together,
ate together, slept together, escaped together, and fought together.
(See Allen’s second volume for a complete account of the rebellion,
including systematic forays into the colonial record to substantiate
his original thesis.) According to Allen, the invention of “whites” would
come in the immediate aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion, in the beginning
of the eighteenth century, during which time the plantation bourgeoisie
faced the greatest crisis of its life: how to avoid another rebellion
of bond-laborers? For there could be no tobacco monoculture without
bond-labor. To put it differently, how do you run a social control
system in a civil society based on chattel-bond slavery?
When I ask this question to students in my early American literature
course, the answer comes easily: divide the bond-laborers in two by
letting one half go free and the other half – keep them in bondage
and have the “free” half patrol them. This common sense has escaped
most U.S. historians, but not Allen. “The solution,” he writes, “was
to establish a new birthright not only for Anglos but for every European-American,
the ‘white’ identity that ‘set them at a distance,’ to use Sir Francis’s
phrase [Francis Bacon], from the laboring-class African-Americans,
and enlisted them as active, or at least passive, supporters of lifetime
bondage of African Americans” (vol. 2, p. 248). From this point forward,
the pattern was set: “the appeal to ‘white race’ solidarity would remain
the country’s most general form of class-collaborationism” (Allen,
vol. 2, p. 253).
The deeper you go into this line of thinking, the clearer things become:
the quick overthrow of Reconstruction and restoration of white supremacy;
a brutal century of lynch law; the endurance of Jim Crow; the “white
backlash” against the civil rights agenda; the resegregation of public
schools; the incarceration of a generation of African American young
men; racial profiling; redlining; the assault on black women through
the systematic de-funding of public education and healthcare; the re-election
of Bush; a U.S. class struggle in which the capitalist class wins every
Allen puts it precisely in his discussion of the revision of the Virginia
code of 1705:
“The exclusion of free African Americans from the
intermediate stratum was a corollary of the establishment of the ‘white’ identity
as a mark of social status. If the mere presumption of liberty was
to serve as a mark of social status for masses of European-Americans
without real prospects of upward social mobility, and yet induce
them to abandon their opposition to the plantocracy and enlist them
actively, or at least passively, in keeping down the Negro bond-laborers
with whom they had made common cause in the course of Bacon’s Rebellion,
the presumption of liberty had to be denied to free African Americans” (vol.
2, p. 249).
This is one of the main theses of the African American tradition,
beginning with David Walker’s Appeal, down to Dr. DuBois’s Black
Reconstruction, the second chapter of which is titled “The White
Worker”; the first is “The Black Worker” and the third is “The Planter.” The
thesis continues in Margaret Walker’s masterpiece Jubilee,
where a white plantation driver named “Grimes” has his own chapter
(“Grimes: ‘Cotton is king!’”), complex interior monologues, and persists
like a deadly plague until the end of her epic novel. A year before
the publication of Black Reconstruction, Langston Hughes published
his own masterpiece, The Ways of White Folks, which argues
the same thing: that the poor whites are not only politically bamboozled
(race conscious over class conscious) and psychologically deluded
in alarming ways (constant fear of, and intense lust for, “The Blacks!”),
which is problematic enough, but they constitute the majority of
the American working class and are heavily armed.
It’s a miracle we’re still alive as a species: this is the logical
corollary of the main thesis, which can be found in Octavia Butler’s
popular, multi-award-winning fiction, and in Toni Morrison’s great
monograph Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.
In the 1950s, Hughes had put it sharply, in his lugubrious, sexy
blues mode, when he opened one of his Chicago Defender columns
with the title “Hold Tight – They’re Crazy White!” He argues in the
piece that white workers need “mass psychoanalysis” (see Christopher
DeSantis’s invaluable collection of Hughes’s essays for his “Crazy
White” column, in Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender).
The important not-white American thinkers (John Brown, Twain, Melville,
Thoreau, Sinclair Lewis, Gore Vidal, Clint Eastwood), as well as
many European intellectuals – essentially people who are able to
observe objectively the white government, free of what DuBois called
in Black Reconstruction “the Blindspot” (read: the “white” blindspot) – have
been baffled that more people don’t appreciate the people responsible
for the Miracle. DuBois calls them
into existence in The Souls of Black Folk: “the tired climbers,” African
American workers: “the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in
a dusty desert of dollars and smartness” (Souls, ch. 1). Moreover,
if this “dyspeptic blundering” of the whites doesn’t cease soon,
the self-extinction of humanity is near at hand. DuBois’s formulation
in Black Reconstruction is arguably the most important thing
ever said about the American class struggle:
”The race element was emphasized in order that
property-holders could get the support of the majority of white laborers
and make it more possible to exploit Negro labor. But the race philosophy
came as a new and terrible thing to make labor unity or labor class-consciousness
impossible. So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced
to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a
labor movement in the South made impossible.” (680)
It’s obvious by now that PBS’s “groundbreaking” documentary on U.S.
slavery forgot to mention Bacon’s Rebellion. Sadly, as the first
hour dragged to a lugubrious close, it became apparent that the omission
of Bacon’s Rebellion was strategic, since to acknowledge it at all
would destroy the premise of the series: that the enslavement of
African Americans was a result of natural racism.
So how does the documentary, assuming as it does that Bacon’s Rebellion
never happened, attempt to explain the fact that the first bond-laborers
were both European American and African American and yet by the beginning
of the eighteenth century all the bond-laborers were African American
and none was European American?
It’s quite a work of smoke and mirrors but the producer, director,
and writer of the series, Dante
James, pulls it off smoothly.
He simply disappears the poor and propertyless European Americans
through a staple of American pop culture: a staged courtroom scene
in which a terrible injustice is carried out with impunity. The injustice
was against John Punch, an African American bond-laborer who, along
with two fellow bond-laborers, both of whom were European American,
had escaped, in 1640, the plantation. They’re caught and hauled back
to face sentencing. The judge gave Punch lifetime bond-servitude
but to the two European Americans he imposed just three additional
years on their bondage. For James, this is the “turning point” of
racial slavery in America: it marks the beginning of the ordeal of
racial oppression. This is the last time in James’s first installment
that the European American bond-laborers are to be seen.
Yet what the Punch case showed was that the big tobacco planters
were trying to see if a system of white skin privileges could work
in the Virginia colony. Thirty-five years later the Punch case was
totally nullified by the unified action of eight thousand bond-laborers,
who proved to the slave-owning tobacco planters that such a distinction
among workers held no significance with them. They would have to
try much harder to divide the first American working class, to make
race consciousness supercede class consciousness, if they were to
continue reaping huge profits off chattel slavery. On this historic
task the Anglo-American bourgeoisie began to work, right down to
James said recently in an interview that, in his view, “slavery
could be seen as a festering wound on America which needs to be opened
up and cleansed before it can begin to heal. And I am hopeful that
looking at slavery from the point of view of the enslaved will make
a contribution to the beginning of the healing.”
It’s an unchallengeable assertion yet it sounds a bit too familiar,
like John Kerry’s concession speech. Indeed, the politics of the
PBS series can be summed up in this connection: just as Kerry blew
the election by ignoring the persistence of white racism and its
integral relation to American working-class powerlessness, in the
face of massive ruling class enrichment, so did James squander his
own opportunity to “heal” America’s “festering wound” by omitting
from history the real turning point in colonial America, when poor
European Americans and poor African Americans were of equal social
status and fought precisely that way.
So what is America's real “Peculiar Institution”? For James, in
conformity with U.S. historiography and “white” common sense, it’s
racial slavery: chattel slavery imposed exclusively on African Americans.
Yet what’s so peculiar about capitalists in pursuit of present profit?
Under this logic, sweatshop labor is peculiar too, as is making workers
pay for their own raises. Moreover, was it also “peculiar” that the
English imposed slavery on the Catholic Irish in Ireland?
Rather, isn’t the peculiarity of U.S. history and society that the
masses of European American bond-laborers were not kept in
a condition of lifetime bond-servitude? Why not? Why would a capitalist
let a worker up from a condition of servitude if it didn’t serve
his particular class interest to do so? What was this particular
class interest all about?
In James’s version of American slavery, these illuminating questions
never arise because, for him and PBS, racial slavery and white racism
are part of nature – a sorrowful destiny that cannot be changed.
For if it wasn’t for specific class reasons that the slave-owning
tobacco planters let poor European Americans out of slavery – i.e.
to divide and demoralize a rebellious multi-ethnic working class
by producing from within it an oppressing social control group, the “white
race” – then it must be that they did it because they “naturally” hated
blacks and “naturally” liked whites. The rest is history, because
there’s no other conclusion to draw.
James’s PBS series is, in this way, another sign of the times: the
return of gloomy biological and religious arguments to explain vitally
important political, social and historical questions. Worse, the
regression into fatalistic interpretations of history produces
a weary structure of feeling that narcotizes Americans, in such a
way that they give up all hope of changing anything.
If racism is natural, how could we do anything about it?
Jonathan Scott is an assistant professor of English, at the City
University of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College.
He can be reached at [email protected].