The History of American Slavery

Blogging DuBois’ Black Reconstruction

“The Black Worker” and “The White Worker.”

The Freedmen’s Bureau / Drawn by A.R. Waud.
“The Freedmen’s Bureau,” drawn by A.R. Waud.

Library of Congress

I read a lot. And I’ve decided to try something new with my reading. In addition to my personal notes, and instead of short observations on Twitter, I’m going to blog my progress. I can’t promise a regular schedule of updates — my actual reading schedule is irregular — but I will try to use this space to give extended thoughts on what I’m reading, as I’m reading it.

Right now, I’m reading W.E.B. DuBois’ seminal work, Black Reconstruction in America, published in 1937. It was the first major corrective to “Dunning School” historiography, and even now, it is a vital piece of writing, history, and analysis. DuBois is nothing if not direct, and he begins with this note:

It would be only fair to the reader to say frankly in advance that the attitude of any person toward this story will be distinctly influenced by his theories of the Negro race. If he believes that the Negro in America and in general is an average and ordinary human being, who under given environment develops like other human beings, then he will read this story and judge it by the facts adduced.

If, however, he regards the Negro as a distinctly inferior creation, who can never successfully take part in modern civilization and whose emancipation and enfranchisement were gestures against nature, then he will need something more than the sort of facts that I have set down. But this latter person, I am not trying to convince. I am simply pointing out these two points of view, so obvious to Americans, and then without further ado, I am assuming the truth of the first. In fine, I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings, realizing that this attitude will from the first seriously curtail my audience.


DuBois titles his first chapter “The Black Worker,” giving you a sign of what’s to come. Black workers sit at the center of his analysis, both grounding his perspective and standing as the key actors. The second chapter, in turn, is titled “The White Worker.” And in the two chapters, DuBois sketches a broad picture of each class, their relationship to the larger economic system, and the racialized nature of that relationship. Black workers, free and enslaved, are black and workers. White workers, likewise, are white and workers. They sit in a class hierarchy and a race one.

To that, I wanted to point to two passages that seem to set the stage for a larger argument on the relationship between race and labor in the 19th century. The first is from that first chapter:

The giant forces of water and of steam were harnessed to do the world’s work, and the black workers of America bent at the bottom of a growing pyramid of commerce and industry; and they not only could not be spared, if this new economic organization was to expand, but rather they became the cause of new political demands and alignments, of new dreams of power and visions of empire.

The second is from the second chapter:

Indeed, the plight of the white working class throughout the world today is directly traceable to Negro slavery in America, on which modern commerce and industry was founded, and which persisted to threaten free labor until it was partially overthrown in 1863. The resulting color caste founded and retained by capitalism was adopted, forwarded and approved by white labor, and resulted in subordination of colored labor to white profits the world over. Thus the majority of the world’s laborers, by the insistence of white labor, became the basis of a system of industry which ruined democracy and showed its perfect fruit in World War and Depression.

Again, DuBois is direct. He is casting global capitalism as an inextricably racial enterprise, one built specifically on racial slavery and its analogues around the world. And which reflects the caste system that developed around that slavery. What’s provocative here, at least for more modern ears, is the suggestion (in that second passage) that white laborers were a key vector for the mores and institutions of this racial capitalism. Or, as historian Walter Johnson writes in a recent essay that leans on DuBois’ formulation:

The history of white working-class struggle, for example, cannot be understood separate from the privileges of whiteness, to which the white working classes of Britain and the United States laid claim in their demands for equal political rights. And it was the ever-expanding frontier of imperialism and racial capitalism that pacified the white working class with the threat of replacement and promise of a share of the spoils.

This is … heavy stuff. And going back to DuBois, it was a radical reformulation of the accepted wisdom of his time. Hell, even now, it’s a perspective that’s only now earning currency in popular scholarship and conversation.

This passage too, from the first chapter, illustrates something very important about the relationship of black labor to white labor in antebellum America.

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.” [Emphasis mine.]

The fundamental difference between black laborers and white laborers — between the enslaved and the free — was that the latter could own the former. And for many of those white laborers, that fact shaped their expectations. To put this in a different formulation, the vast bulk of black laborers were both labor and capital, which gives them a unique position that I’m still trying to grasp and articulate.

All right, that’s all for now. I’ll be back after the next two chapters: “The Planter” and “The General Strike.”