Issue 129 - March 10 2005



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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 power.

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 going back.

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 verifies.

The British would eventually crush Bacon’s Rebellion through a relentless bombing campaign of the Chesapeake.

Historian Theodore 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 time.

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 the present.

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].

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