Black History is American History and It Lives On

The Shortest Month of the Year


We’re more than half way through Black History Month. Should it exist? Is it worthwhile? There’s something to be said for designating a period of time each year when people are encouraged in various ways to reflect on the black American historical experience. My wife recently gave me the obvious answer to the standard complaint of a local Caucasian curmudgeon who likes to say that “while [he’s] not a racist,” he doesn’t see white folks calling for a White History Month: “every month,” Janet observes, “is white male history month.” Especially rich white males, I added.


Still, I can’t shake a certain discomfort with the notion of taking one month (the shortest of the year) and assigning it to black history.  Whatever the good intentions behind and positive results of Black History Month, there’s a downside: a tendency to downplay the centrality of black experience, consciousness, and agency – and the persistent if shifting history of racism that has shaped that experience – to the overall 12-month-a-year record of United States History


If we must or should retain Black History Month and separate high school and college classes on black history, let us do so with a strong awareness that black history is not some benevolently white-granted side-story or footnote in the bigger narrative of the national experience.  Let us make no mistake: American history is black history to no small extent and black history is at the heart and soul of the entire American historical record.  American history is wedded and deeply indebted to and scarred by an often very dark black history and to the living (even with a black U.S. president) history of deeply entrenched anti-black racism. 


Tobacco Slavery and Freedom


I’m not just talking here about how the White House that Barack Obama now inhabits was built by slaves. Look back to the early economic development of British colonial North America and the early American republic.  It depended fundamentally on North America’s first cash crop, tobacco, grown down in the Chesapeake.  The work involved in planting, tending, and harvesting tobacco was too exhausting and difficult for white indentured servants and freehold farmers to endure without resistance.  They rebelled over the miserable working and living conditions. The wages and other benefits these “free born Englishmen” required to stay reliably yoked to the tobacco fields were cost-prohibitive for the tobacco planters of Virginia and Maryland – the ancestors of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison.  Native Americans were unavailable to perform the toil because of the ease with which European germs killed them off and the ease with which those who survived could escape into their native hinterland.  By the end of the 17th century, the planters found the final solution, so to speak, to the labor problem in southern tobacco: permanent black chattel slavery, entrenching full denial of basic rights to black human beings designated both labor and capital at one and the same time by their permanent owners.1


Grown by black slaves, tobacco was a vital resource for the early republic.  Proceeds from tobacco permitted the U.S. government to pay France for the critical military assistance it provided the Americans during the War for Independence.  Curiously enough, one of the grievances that Virginia slaveholder and tobacco planter Thomas Jefferson listed against England’s King George on July 4, 1776 was that the “royal brute” in London had “excited domestic insurrection among us” – a not-so veiled charge that England had encouraged slave rebellion.


Black tobacco slavery’s contribution to the American Revolution was more than economic. As the American historian Edmund S. Morgan showed in his magisterial book American Slavery, American Freedom, there was no real paradox in the fact Virginia in the 1770s was at one and the same time (a) a locked-down slave colony (home to fully 40 percent of all slaves in America) and (b) home to the American Revolution’s most eloquent spokesmen for freedom and equality.  The strange marriage of slavery and freedom in Virginia made sense, Morgan showed, in two ways. First, the fact that most of the laboring force on which it depended was un-free, considered less than human, and branded by color meant  that Virginia’s gentry was free to couch its opposition to the British Empire in particularly democratic- and egalitarian-sounding terms.  As one British diplomat observed, the Virginians “can profess unbounded love of liberty and of democracy in consequence of the mass of the people, who in other countries might become mobs, being there nearly altogether composed of their own Negro slaves…”


“There it was,” Morgan wrote. “Aristocrats could more safely preach equality in a slave society than in a free one.  Slaves did not become leveling mobs, because their owners would see to it that they had no chance to.  The apostrophes to equality were not addressed to them.  And because Virginia’s labor force was composed mainly of slaves, who had been isolated by race and removed from the political equation, the remaining free laborers and tenants were too few in number to constitute a serious threat to the superiority of the men who assured them of their equality.”


Thanks to slavery, Jefferson and Madison were free to spin the flowing rhetoric of equality to a degree that that the British gentry and manufacturers – justly frightened by their freeborn workers and tenant farmers – of the time would never have dared.2


Second, the rhetoric of freedom resonated with particularly great strength among the Virginia planter elite because their own slave system provided them with such a graphic example of freedom’s opposite. “The presence of men and women who were, in law at least, almost totally subject to the will of other men gave to those in control of them an immediate experience of what it could mean to be at the mercy of a tyrant.  Virginians,” Morgan noted, “may have had a special appreciation of the freedom dear to republicans, because they saw every day what life without it could be like.” 3


King Cotton


Some optimists like Jefferson felt that chattel slavery’s centrality to the economic life of the sprawling new American empire would fade with the exhaustion of tobacco and the closing of the international slave trade in 1808.  The opposite occurred, thanks to Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, the planters’ success in encouraging the natural “domestic reproduction” of black slaves, and the British-led early industrial revolution’s insatiable demand for southern cotton.  A sea of white cotton and black slaves spread across the South, providing a leading source of capital accumulation and economic growth in the young republic (not to mention vital raw material for British textile manufacturers and the early industrial revolution in New England). As with tobacco, the essential labor tasks were too hot, difficult, and exhausting to have been conducted profitably except with the branded labor of slaves.  The Holocaust of slavery critically underwrote the development of North American capitalism in the early and mid 19th century.


Southern blacks would remain tied to the yoke of King Cotton, “pa[ying] the price and carr[ying] the burden of the nation’s need for cheap and abundant cotton” (Stephen Steinberg) well into the 20th century. Southern agricultural and northern industrial elites and the national political class collaborated in “the reconstruction of black servitude” in the South after the Civil War. As Stephen Steinberg noted in his classic historical study The Ethnic Myth, “through the Civil War ended slavery, the underlying economic functions that slavery served were unchanged,” calling for the construction of “a surrogate system of compulsory labor” enforced by the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, and the regular use of violence to prevent the movement of blacks to northern labor markets.  As long the giant new industrial employers of the northern states had access to cheap European immigrant labor, those employers “saw no reason to raid the labor supply of the South, especially when [the North’s] own economic well being depended on an abundant supply of cheap cotton” with its price depressed by the super-exploitation of Jim Crow black labor. Southern racist cotton productionism continued to support the economic expansion of the American capitalist state and helped create some of the northern labor demand that gave rise to historic migration of millions of East and south-central Europeans to the United States from the 1880s through World War I.4 




During WWI and WWII, black southern labor fled (often at no small risk during the first conflict) to northern cities, helping industrial capitalists meet production needs in a time when immigration had been cut off.  U.S. success in both wars depended significantly on super-exploited black labor south and north, from Mississippi cotton fields to Chicago packinghouses, Detroit auto and tank plants, and Pennsylvania steel mills. The U.S, military engaged in the significant direct exploitation of black labor and soldiers to attain victory in the two wars that together handed the United States victory over Germany in the great 20th century struggle to succeed England as the hegemonic power in the world capitalist system. 


WWI was not the first time that black working people contributed to an American military victory, of course.  During the Civil War, many of the South’s 4 million black slaves undermined the Confederacy from within by stopping work, deserting plantations, walking into Federal camps. Discipline broke down in southern fields as more southern planters and overseers went off to fight and slaves sensed the possibility of slave owner defeat. The great black academic and author W.E.B. DuBois discovered what he called a “general strike” in which hundreds of thousands of slaves left their plantations, ending the South’s ability to supply its armed forces. Two hundred thousand blacks enlisted in the Union Army and Navy and 38,000 died in the Civil War.  “Without their help,” the leading American historian James McPherson noted, “the North could not have won the war as soon as it did, and perhaps could not have won at all.”5


The Civil War and its aftermath Reconstruction – epic moments in the expansion of federal government power – were about race to no small extent. The great military conflict (600,000 killed on both sides in a national population of 30 million) grew out of a life or death conflict between two models of westward expansion, one (by no means anti-racist) based on dynamic entrepreneurial, industrializing wage-labor capitalism and the other based on a decrepit, hopelessly inefficient, and in some ways pre-capitalist and agrarian system of bound, chattel slavery – a system that depended fundamentally on the savage and deeply racist, systematic dehumanization of millions of blacks.6


Realignment: The Party of Lincoln Becomes the Party of Jefferson Davis


In the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, race and memories of the war shaped party allegiance and voting behavior across the country. The “third American party system” of the late 19th century pitted Republicans (heirs to the defunct Whigs) against Democrats.  From Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt, the Republicans were the national party of industrial liberalism.  Based on an alliance of the Northeast and the Midwest with southern blacks, it called for a strong federal government, a corporate-industrial political economy, and (if only sporadically) for federally protected civil rights for nonwhites. The Democratic Party was based on a coalition of the South and the West with the North. It stood for states’ rights, agrarian capitalism, and (if just intermittently) regulation of big industry in defense of farmers and northern workers.  This party divide was both sectionalized and racialized. The northern “party of Lincoln” (the Republican Party) was identified to some degree with the cause of black rights and the southern “party of Jackson” (the Democratic Party) was identified with the Confederacy and the dehumanization of blacks. One of the Democratic Party’s main historical functions was to keep southern blacks powerless. 7