“Toussaint, the most unhappy man of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den;-
O miserable Chieftain! Where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; no thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou has great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.” (Jones, The Common Wind, p. ix).
This podcast has several sections. First I’m going to discuss conjure feminism and my appreciation of it from the standpoint of a Spinozist, myself, who believes in eternal life. Then I’m going to discuss the history of the United States through its most important part being the history of Black liberation, and the role that socialists played in it. Then I’ll discuss my own specific place in all of this, starting from a sociological study of southern racism to the history of Memphis TN as I know it. Let’s dive in.
“Kinitra D. Brooks is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio” reads the back cover of her 2018 collection of essays entitled Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror. It’s a book about recognizing the accomplishments of Black women in horror fiction. It’s a book that reveals a new canon of writing that one hopes is entering the mainstream. People may recognize names such as Octavia Butler, Gloria Naylor, Tananarive Due, Nnedi Okorafor and others. It is also a book about people who come back to life, about zombies and ghosts. I found this book after attending a conference, the Spindell Philosophy conference in 2019 entitled: "Black Feminist Figures: Interventions and Inheritances." I felt like I was a freshman just learning about Philosophy for the first time, like a new world was being revealed to me. The world that was being revealed to me was folded into the one I lived in, somehow corresponding point for point with my own but hidden until now. Dr. Brooks was articulating a system of thought called conjure feminism. Now, I’m not an expert on this newly developing school of thought. You should read Kinitra D. Brooks. But I was struck by a couple of ideas she was putting forward from this discourse: they have become an important part of how I, with a very different identity, have come to see the world. The first idea was that of the epistemological exclusion of Black women’s knowledge traditions, and the second idea that goes along with it is the idea of intergenerational ethics, a collective responsibility for the actions of our family, our community. What was done by and to Black women in the past has been written out of history, often with the intention of hiding crimes or of ignoring human endeavors of real merit. Conjure feminists are excavating the knowledges of their ancestors in a project that gets at the core of and questions the foundations of philosophy. The project of lifting up the voices of Black people from the past has become for me a sine qua non, an essential condition, of any progressive politics. Consider the first sentence of Black Lives Matters activist Charlene A. Carruther’s canonical 2018 book Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements: “Unapologetic is an offering to our ancestors, my family, our movement, and the generations who will hold the struggle for Black liberation to come.” (XIII).
Kinitra Brooks wrote a must read article about epistemological exclusion and embodied knowledge in emergence magazine. https://emergencemagazine.org/story/myrtles-medicine/ In that essay Dr. Brooks discusses her journey of self discovery as she unearths a knowledge of her own great-grandmother. “Existing within me is a powerful urge to rediscover the folkways that transitioned with her death. It’s an urge that helps direct me to discover spiritual traditions through which my Mama Myrt may guide me from the ancestral plane. It is for me to help reconnect the line of healers in our family: to strengthen what has frayed and to reveal what has been covered by my family’s own fight for respectability and formal education. And so I use the formalized intellectual pursuits so hard-won by my grandparents and parents and interweave them with the folk traditions and medicines that were privileged by my great-grandmother. The more I learn about my great-grandmother, the more I come to understand the rootworking tradition to be a vital yet undervalued form of knowledge for our times. My family’s journey to recover our ancestral lineage reflects the active and ongoing search for lost knowledge in the work of generations of Black feminist thinkers.” In terms of intergenerational responsibility for past actions, Dr. Brooks’ great-grandmother Myrtle gave us a useful shorthand for the problem. From Brooks: “Hey baby, who’re your people?” It’s a very personal story, but in the making public of what Dr. Brooks knows from her great-grandmother the reader is taught about a story that had been pushed away, suppressed and considered unimportant. Black women’s stories, the excluded stories of oppressed people in general, stories in my life that are not traditional cis white male, normal, publicly owned and affirmed, these stories are an enormous part of all of us. It’s maybe the majority of what our lives are made of.
I was also struck by the apparent tension between this work and what one would call a rationalist position. During the Q&A people wanted to know if the assertion that conjure feminists are making that they communicate with their ancestors doesn’t contradict reason. Dr. Brooks took a nuanced view, claiming that her people are practical and that rather than her thought being irrational she prefers to call it non-rational. (https://hutchinscenter.fas.harvard.edu/event/colloquium-kinitra-brooks-conjure-womans-garden-black-womens-rootworking-traditions). She’s keeping a connection to the rational, as the bringer of science and food, but challenging our understanding of the rational as exclusionary towards Black women’s knowledge, connection to the ancestors.
I didn’t find anything irrational about the idea of communicating with the ancestors, but it’s because I am convinced by Spinoza’s proof of eternal life.
Here is that argument in a nutshell. All that happens materially is part of an infinite sequence. One way of getting an idea of the infinity of the material sequence is to perceive that we do not know the beginning of the events we experience, and we do not know their end. Likewise the mental events we experience are part of an infinite sequence. The events of our lives are physical and mental, and sometimes both, in the happy event that we correctly understand something. Both sequences begin before and continue after the limited experience we would have to call our self. That self is a finite part of the whole, meaning it is limited in space and time, but the sequence extends infinitely before and after our lives. That sequence is something we partake in but cannot exhaust. Just as the physical consequences of our lives go on after our death, so too do the mental consequences. The ideas we have do not come from us alone, come to us from an infinite past and contribute to an infinite future. To put all of this in simpler terms, we survive our death in the consequences of our life for other people, in the impact we’ve had on them and in their memory of us. On Spinoza’s account the more we uplift our fellows the closer we grow into the likeness of God, who Spinoza identifies with the power of the Universe, the path towards a greater personal freedom lying straight through the struggle for collective freedom. This isn’t an afterlife that will satisfy the simple religious scriptures: it is not the persistence of our limited, finite selves in some other world. But it does mean that we are always in communication with what came before, most proximally our ancestors, and that our actions continue to contribute after our death to the ongoing creation of world history. Conjure feminists are relevant to all of us, not just to Black women, because Black women lived, acted in their own right, in ways that still impact all of us though we may be unaware of them. As a white anglo-saxon protestant Southern male, not knowing and recognizing the importance of Black history is to not know myself. That this intergenerational movement tends towards a greater freedom for all of humanity is my faith, and that’s why I claim Harriet Tubman or Toussaint Louverture. Their fight is mine, because the fight to put an end to the historical consequences of slavery is the fight white southerners must fight to reclaim their own humanity. We are together in that our fate hinges on that of these United States of America.
These days you watch the news and have to wonder what does it mean to be an American. The President has decided that the federal government can do nothing to prevent or address the crisis. Is America just a great big pyramid scheme where Trump and his family sit atop a throne of bones? I’ll start with the big picture of what I take to be the meaning of American history, and then I’ll narrow the focus in all the way down to myself. The meaning of America is the liberation of the slaves. So there are competing Americas, and that’s why we should all be grateful that in 2019 Eric Foner blessed the world with the enlightening and erudite history of the reconstruction entitled The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.
As discussed previously, the enslaved people of the United States took advantage of the opportunity the civil war presented them to take up arms, to stop work and strike against the monstrous southern economy and then to organize to fight for their rights. The whites who fought the civil war on the side of the North were transformed by their experience. They had started fighting the war to preserve the union, but then they fought and died side by side with Blacks in a terrible war. The experience of the civil war and the continued southern resistance to reconstruction pushed the politics of the Republican party to the left. Remember that the Republicans then were the progressives, the party of Lincoln, the party of preserving the union, and then by the mid 1860s the party of abolition. To demonstrate the intensity of this political shift, consider that Lincoln was the left wing of the possible in the Republican party in 1860 and his plan was (1) not allowing the spread of slavery west, and (2) slowly liberating the slave while forcing them to leave the US in a scheme they called ‘colonization.’ By 1870 the Republicans had, over armed resistance of half the country, passed amendments that ended slavery, defined the formerly enslaved as birthright citizens and formally gave them the right to vote. I would suggest that these were not moral giants who by the force of intellect and will gained enlightenment. It was in the fight itself, in being seized by the machinery of history, that they found old beliefs and attitudes would no longer serve. They revisited the foundation of this nation, its constitution, with three key amendments, 13, 14, 15.
The 13th Amendment states that slavery or “involuntary servitude” shall not exist in the United States “except as punishment for a crime.” If you haven’t seen the documentary “13th” you should. It’s about how our justice system systematically targets black people and how once they are in that system they can lose their freedom and their right to vote. The language for this exemption was very common in American law going back to Thomas Jefferson’s never enacted Land Ordinance of 1784 (p. 46). The 13th amendment has allowed racist individuals to abuse their positions in the legal system to reenslave Black people. Incidentally, the left needs to start running progressives for sheriff everywhere: we’re really abandoning black people to racists when we disengage from races where law enforcement officials are voted into office. The early founding fathers thought that forced labor would give prisoners a reason to be proud and was preferable to solitary confinement, branding or execution, but by the 1860s this language was adopted unconsciously because it was such common legal language. Jefferson had failed to convince the other draftees of the Declaration of Independence to accept his statements there denouncing the institution of slavery, so he tried to pass what legislation he could to limit it, hence the land ordinance. Philosophically, the idea of making criminals work is premised on natural rights: if you infringe on someone’s rights, say to property or life, then by the logic of your own act your rights are forfeit. Ta Nehisi-Coates makes this same kind of argument in favor of reparations: that a formerly enslaved people had the product of their labor systematically taken from them via red lining, Jim Crow and mass incarceration, and that the rest of society has benefited from that expropriation and should repay that wealth. This is an argument that Marx makes, and before him Locke: the property rights of the very wealthy can be violated without breaking the spirit of property rights, because that wealth was built on the exploitation of the labor of the very poor. The right to property, according to Locke and Adam Smith, is based on the idea that when you mix up your labor with natural objects you have a right to the product. Now, the 13th amendment said that the slaves were free according to the highest law of the United States, in an Amendment that could not be overturned by Congress, the President or the Supreme Court. What exactly it meant to no longer be a slave is an ongoing debate. There was an enormous body of law that applied to the slaves, and deeply entrenched social practices on top of that. The case law after reconstruction that addressed what it meant legally for slavery to be ended produced a “separate but equal” justification for segregation, but it also gave us language to the effect that the second article of the 13th amendment gave congress the power to legislate to get rid of “the badges and incidents of slavery.” That language, the constitutional right that congress has to address the ongoing material legacy of slavery, has mostly remained a dead letter (p. 170). The biggest thing to come out of it was the law in 2009 defining a hate crime. It’s staggering to imagine that congress had the legal power to oppose Jim Crow on the grounds that it was a holdover from slavery and chose not to until the middle of the 20th century. The 13th amendment for all of its clear flaws, gives us resources to fight legally against mass incarceration, and if anyone is interested in addressing all the unpaid labor that women traditionally have done in the domestic sphere, the 13th amendment gives us resources to fight for that also because it explicitly outlaws “involuntary servitude.” The enforcement of the 13th amendment was all but nil in the US after reconstruction, and what that enforcement could mean or look like is still very much an open question, and one that will be decided by future elections.
Because the republican congress during reconstruction passed some laws that let some black people vote, the 14th amendment was the first amendment that black people could vote for or against. The 14th is the first place in the constitution where citizenship is defined, and it’s very broadly defined as people born in the United States. The 14th is the first place where the constitution guarantees citizens equal protection under the law, which was the principle for instance behind the recent decision that gay marriage should be legal. The 14th also guarantees equal protection not to citizens, but to persons and that is why immigrants have legal rights even if they aren’t citizens. All of this is undeniably progressive, but the 14th casts a shadow as well. The 14th also says that states who deny the vote to black males will have the number of representatives they are allowed reduced proportionally. They never enforced that part, but it had an important impact anyway. It explicitly uses the term “male,” and thereby excludes women from voting. The debate over this language split the abolitionist movement. Wendell Phillips is famous for having said they had to take on one issue at a time and that “this hour belongs to the Negro.” To which Elizabeth Cady Stanton replied “Do you believe the African race is composed entirely of males?” (Kazin, p. 55). She used some racist language while arguing that Black men shouldn’t be given the vote before white women. Later, the women’s suffrage movement advanced in the 1910s in part through an alliance with Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, a party that explicitly excluded black people (Lepore, p. 387). Some, even a great many, suffragettes used the argument that more white women voting would help strengthen white centered identity politics, and even had success in this way getting women the right to vote. Holy White Feminism Batman! I’m not going into it very deeply. That’s a subject for a whole nother set of podcasts. I just want to point out that coalition politics is hard, and that if the interests of different groups intersect in places it’s likely they diverge in others. This is why it’s important to know what you’re about, and what your coalition partners are about - and how far they support what you support. When the Combahee River Collective in 1977 proclaimed “We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity… If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression” they were pointing out that freedom for Black women would require freedom for both Black men and white women, and they were echoing Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s point. Black women are at the intersection of race and gender. I don’t read that as an intentional erasure of how whiteness has been used as a wedge between abolitionists and feminists, or of how Chinese immigrants were regularly thrown under the bus in compromises like the 14th amendment that said you couldn’t deny voting rights to Black men but didn’t say that all persons or citizens had voting right.
The language of the 14th and 15th amendments doesn’t provide a positive affirmation of voting rights, and that has been the cause of much evil. The Republican majority that passed the 15th amendment explicitly believed that the south would not pass requirements for voting registration that would be so difficult that Blacks would be disenfranchised, which is exactly what happened. Those reconstruction Republicans thought so long as requirements had to be equally applied the south would refrain because prohibitively high bars for voting registration would limit the voting rights of poor white southerners too. In the event, wealthy and politically powerful southern whites rather liked the fact that poor southern whites would also have great difficulty voting. The whole dynamic in the post war south was that the powerful had to split poor whites from Blacks to maintain the rigid social hierarchy. The great difficulty of the 15th amendment was that though it’s second article gave congress the power of enforcement, the supreme court case law that interpreted that amendment left enforcement to the states. In the south that meant disenfranchisement until the civil rights movement in the 1960s. But at the same time that civil rights movement was successful in part because Black people who moved out of the south could vote based on 15th amendment protections and voted together with Northern liberals. It’s a bit like rock climbing: you have to get a foot hold before you can lift yourself up.
In 1865 General Sherman famously gifted confederate land to some of the formerly enslaved, but the land was taken back by confederates later. In the years immediately following the civil war in a very few places formerly enslaved Blacks squatted on the land. Michael Kazin’s 2011 book American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation cites Bayley Wyatt, spokesman for one of these initiatives in Yorktown, Virginia: “We has a right to the land were we are located… Our wives, our children, our husbands has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; that the reason we have a divine right to the land… And then didn’t we clear the land, and raise the crops of corn, of cotton, of tobacco, of rice, of sugar, of everything?” (p. 59) Such initiatives were the exception rather than the norm. For the moment, the majority of Black folk put their hopes in the newly acquired rights of voting and of individual property. When those rights seemed elusive the fight for them tended to preoccupy progressives. Socialist takeovers of factories and collectivization of agriculture were not on the horizon, but social progress was. The whole country seemed to have been exhausted by the effort of freeing the formerly enslaved. Many abolitionists retired from political life. Others like Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony went on to focus on fighting to protect and expand voting rights.
Other abolitionists like Wendell Phillips moved from abolition to the fight for labor rights. The struggle for the eight-hour day had begun. Karl Marx had written a letter to Abraham Lincoln congratulating him on the emancipation proclamation and had gotten a very nice letter back from the state department. In the late 1860s with Marx’s encouragement the headquarters of the International Workingmen’s Association moved from London to New York (p.54). The IWA and Marx were important to keeping Britain out of the war on the side of the south. English industry at the time was particularly dependent on cotton, and the workers of Manchester suffered terribly during these years. The British ruling class was sympathetic to the southern cause, but could not overcome the public’s sympathy for the northern cause and for the plight of the enslaved Blacks in America. Marx’s abolitionism is not well enough understood, but lucky for us that in 2010 the University of Chicago Press published Kevin B. Anderson’s Marx at the Margins: on Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies, which includes an entire chapter devoted to Marx’s thinking about the Civil War and race. The 1860s was the decade Marx finished Capital Volume 1, and during this time Marx also produced a great deal of writing about the Civil War, writings that sadly have not gotten much attention. He believed that the civil war had prepared the way for future socialist revolutions, but he didn’t simply apply class categories to the US. He didn’t try to recast enslaved people as some kind of proletariat before he started thinking. He started with the actual conditions in America. The usual European categories didn’t apply. Instead, the constant influx of immigrants deepened the divide between skilled and unskilled labor. Indeed, when the next mass labor movement occured in America it was with the leadership of the Knights of Labor whose great innovation was organizing skilled and unskilled labor, including Black and White workers. That generation led massive labor strikes embracing a multi-ethnic labor movement, a movement that founded May Day to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre (Mason, pp. 108-147) and that founded International Proletarian Women’s Day to commemorate a 1908 protest of women workers in NYC (Marik, p.111). I’m going to post a bibliography in the transcripts so that people can read all of the books.
Socialists may have agreed on better labor conditions for white workers, but not all socialists were as sympathetic to Black workers or as interested in issues of race. There was plenty of material to muster an argument against support for the North in the Civil War. As of 1860 the northern United States was advancing a colonialist project in the west and exploiting wage labor in a growing industrial sector organized along capitalist principles, but Marx was early and consistent in his support for the northern war effort. Other Marxists, like Eugene Genovese would denounce this Marx as an aberration and as a liberal (p. 82). Genovese is not the only Marxist who preferred a Marx that put class over race: he was part of a tradition of white socialism. Many of the German emigres to the United States were silent about slavery or openly in opposition to abolition (p.84). I want to challenge socialists to give Marx some serious study, because he was a democrat who opposed slavery and because that set him apart from his fellow radicals and from many who carry his flag today. The reduction of all political contests to class has blinded many socialists to the very real vulnerability race and racism poses to all working people, and led many socialists to sacrifice helping oppressed people in order to sharpen contradictions, heighten tensions or accelerate history and other such nonsense.
I can hear my old comrades now lecturing me about the limits of reform and the need for revolution. They would say that you don’t have to be an accelerationist to see that incremental change exists to preserve more fundamental inequalities. I would say that incremental change helps us reach new horizons and gives us strength to address fundamental inequalities. Real quick let’s get something straight. The world needs revolutionary change. But telling people that revolution is what they need right now right now, at a moment when fascists control the White House, is like telling someone who just had a heart attack that they need to run a marathon. Yes, if they could run a marathon that would be better, but there has to be something they can do now to prepare themselves for running a marathon. There has to be a political equivalent of eat more fruits and vegetables and go for a walk every now and then.
That being said I still believe voting is not enough. People tend to think that we have power because we have representation in government. But this is actually not correct. Our representatives have power because we give it to them. Lincoln is the prime example. His emancipation proclamation was simply legal recognition for a free state the former slaves had already achieved in part. Lincoln was not even the most progressive Republican running for the nomination. His opponent William H. Seward was the only abolitionist candidate for President, but Lincoln could be managed by the democratic upsurge of the people. The Democrat, read conservative and proslavery, candidate John C. Breckinridge later ended up fighting for the Confederacy. A Breckenridge presidency would have been a disaster. You don’t get a civil war if Breckinridge is president, and for much the same reason that you won’t have a civil war if there’s a second Trump term. A reactionary president who wants to undo reconstruction has plenty of ways to legally and illegally advance that agenda. The period from reconstruction to the civil rights movement saw the accumulation of a mountain of legal precedent to allow states to strip Black people of almost every right they enjoy today, and all of that is in the realm of political possibility. White supremacy doesn't have to declare war at that point to get what they want. Trump wins by crippling our government and destroying legal norms. Lincoln was the moderate who could be forced to radical action in the face of events created by we the people. As Frederick Douglass said of him: “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed hardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him from the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesmen to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.” (Blight, pp. 7,8).
Marxists who are class first fundamentalists misunderstand the concept of class as such. Marx developed the concept of the working class to express human solidarity in a novel way. It was normal in his day for white people to act together in their own interests, or for British people to act together in their own interests. During Marx’s time in England he noticed that the struggle to better the lives of British workers was constantly undermined by the existence of an Irish undercaste. Engels wrote extensively about the plight of the Irish under British colonial rule even before the great famine of 1845-1849 during which England exported massive amounts of food from Ireland as a potato blight ravaged a basic Irish staple food. A million and a half people died and another million emigrated (pp. 117-118). Marx and Engels came to understand that Irish nationalism and the fate of the British working class were entangled. The stronger the Irish nation was, the better able Irishmen would be to demand a fair wage, and British workers then wouldn’t have to accept lower wages to compete with impoverished Irishmen. But so long as the British ruling class could convince British workers to take pride in their social position over the Irish, they would be unable to win shorter working hours and better pay. Racism was a trap to keep the working class divided and conquered. It’s probably from these considerations that Marx was able to perceive that emancipation in the southern United States was a victory for the workers of the whole world. The idea of an international working class is based on humanistic, that is liberal values of democracy and human rights. Marxists who think from humanistic values consider the material conditions first, use class categories to better understand the tensions in society that allow for the possibility of change, and then act to build momentum to lift up the most vulnerable. Marxists who start the other way around, with ossified class categories they impose on the facts, often believe that people of one nation are more proletarian than people of another nation are, and reproduce the same racist divisions the capitalists use to divide us. We’ll be speaking more about this dynamic in podcasts to come.
In so many ways the second founding, still incomplete, brought America back to what it had always claimed it was. Because slavery was so clearly a contradiction of the explicit ideals the founders had put forward in the Declaration of Independence, of freedom, equality and democracy, the constitution before the 13th amendment only refers to slavery euphemistically. The amendment outlawing slavery is the first time the word “slavery” appears in the constitution. Now, all those years the southern states denied the right to vote to black people with poll taxes and such. If you haven’t seen the movie Selma, you really ought to. There is a heartbreaking scene where the character played by Oprah Winfrey tries to register to vote, and they make her recite the bill of rights from memory, and they continue with such tests until she inevitably fails. All that time no state was ever penalized as provided for under the 14th amendment, but since the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act have been struck down and Alabama recently wanted to close all the offices in majority black counties where you could get a drivers license at the same time that they made having a drivers license mandatory to vote, maybe we ought to look at enforcing that part of the 14th amendment? What’s clear is that the intentions of the framers of the second founding amendments, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments was not really honored until the civil rights movement, and those amendments have a lot of potential that remains untapped. Those amendments disrupted racist social patterns and thereby racist attitudes in the North and West. The changed attitudes of whites in the North and West gave the civil rights movement a base of support broad enough to pass legislation protecting civil rights in the 1960s. It should then be expected that this legislation would change racial attitudes in the south, and lucky for us 2018 saw the publication of a deeply researched book that documents just that.
I need to uplift here for all of you the excellent 2018 book Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics by Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen. You guessed it: it’s a book about the way the history of slavery has crippled democracy in the US South. If you don’t have time for the whole book, you can watch the authors discussing it from a link I’ll post in the transcripts. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZiMiq2rxJPk
There’s an impulse among white Americans, and this is true of Southerners and Northerners, to believe the legacy of slavery is largely in the past. There’s another impulse to believe that the politics and culture of white supremacy haven’t changed at all since the founding of the United States. Both of these attitudes are wrong, and they both lead us to inaction. Narratives that declare that nothing ever changes allow us to never try and change anything. They are lazy narratives and should have no place in progressive organizing. The antidote is more knowledge to see how things have changed and to see the present moment as dynamic and charged with potential. Let’s go back to Epicurus and understand that at the bottom of everything is the swerve.
I am a Southerner born and raised. I’m a white cis male. Most everyone I know in that category had an uncle who swore up and down that the civil war was not about slavery, but about states rights. The history books happen to be unequivocal on this subject: the civil war was fought because the southern states felt they had the right to uphold slavery. Later, after the passage of the 15th amendment giving black men the right to vote, congress had to pass laws in 1870 and 1871 to protect southern blacks against the violent terrorism of the Klu Klux Klan. Southerners cried that this was a violation of states rights. States rights arguments are not always and necessarily about race, but after the civil war white supremacy always used arguments based on states’ rights. In those first few years the federal government sent agents into the south and arrested hundreds of klansmen, brought thousands of criminal cases, forced the klan’s leadership into exile and effectively broke the organization. But the northern states lost their taste for enforcing reconstruction, and by the end of the century Jim Crow descended on the South. The Civil Rights Movement was largely an attempt to call the United States back to order, back to enforcing the legal rights secured in the second founding, which was explicitly an attempt to recall the country to its rationalist ideals of human rights, freedom and democracy.
It won’t be a surprise to many of you that racism in the South goes together with conservative politics and states rights like beans and cornbread. But there are places and times in the south when a progressive politics has asserted itself. Acharya et al. offer us an explanation for why white people living in the Black Belt where chattel slavery was most prevalent have remained much more conservative than white people living anywhere else. They explain this by way of “Behavioral Path Dependence,” which basically says that social practices are self reinforcing. The attitudes and beliefs that made white identities in the context of slavery and then Jim Crow were prevalant in these regions and did not simply disappear with the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. That is fairly intuitive. It is keenly interesting that the passage of these laws did disrupt patterns of white supremacy and thereby changed attitudes, especially in places that before the civil war did not rely intensively on slave labor. We often think that it works the other way around: that we have to change the culture and then the laws will easily follow. But while progressive ideals, at least certain ones, seem to have carved out a fiefdom on social media and in entertainment, they’ve largely left racist and reactionary attitudes intact: conservatives have their own media.
Deep Roots is not a work of popular nonfiction. It is a deeply researched reference of hard data that meticulously documents (1) “that Southern whites who live in areas where slaveholding was more prevalent are today more conservative, more cool to African Americans, and more likely to oppose race-related policies that many feel could potentially help blacks…  that these attitudes grew out of the historical incentives to subjugate African Americans -- incentives that strengthened through the antebellum period and morphed in the postbellum period into significant institutional and social customs designed to keep blacks in socially, politically, and economically marginalized positions… [and 3] that these divergent historical attitudes have been passed down over generations to create, in part, the contemporary political cultures we detect today. In other words, Americans’ political attitudes are in part a direct consequence of generations of ideas that have been collectively passed down over time, via institutions such as schools and churches and also directly from parents and grandparents… As we shall see, however, some outcomes have attenuated over time with interventions such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.” (p.14). There is a chain of mental events that began long before us and continues long after us, and the more we participate in it the closer we are to God. These laws helped to change racist attitudes. We tend to think that we have to change peoples’ attitudes before we can hope to pass laws, but the historical evidence is that attitudes formed over centuries of white supremacy are only superficially changed by persuasion campaigns. A lot of political science and political thought revolves around asking how can people be mobilized or persuaded. Instead, Deep Roots discusses how social practice and historical institutions like slavery can dominate public opinion across generations. In the words of Acharya and company: “Scholars and political analysts focus on… what contemporary factors serve to change people’s minds… the bulk of this research, which focuses on contemporary factors and contemporary interventions, implies that large changes in the political attitudes and behaviors of Americans are rare, costly, and short-lived.” (pp. 12-13). In a later podcast we will talk about how a well organized group of liberals were able to pass the Civil Rights Act, etc., but for the moment I just want to underscore that the research shows this legislation is one of the most important factors shifting public opinions on racial matters. The leaders of the civil rights movement can be applauded for pushing for these laws, and so I wouldn’t want to feed the narrative that white America was the agent behind any of this change. It’s complicated. We’ll get to it. We live in a political climate where people on the right and left more and more doubt that government can do anything to change the world we live in. It is good to point out how wrong that is, so that we don’t miss real opportunities to help.
The data leads the authors to conclude that the Civil War polarized the south between places with a low and a high slave population before the war. Before the Civil War density of slave population was a poor indicator of political leaning, with everyone who could vote tending to be pro-slavery (p. 110), but from the Civil War on the places where there had been higher numbers of enslaved people tended strongly to be more conservative (p. 116).
Acharya and company point out that East Tennessee had a lower slave population than West Tennessee. William Brownlow was from East Tennessee and served as governor from 1865 to 1869. His political path was typical. “Himself a slaveholder, Brownlow at that time argued that ‘God always intended the relation of master and slave to exist’ and that church and state ‘provided for the rights of owners, and the wants of slaves.’ However, Brownlow’s support for slavery conflicted with his strident pro-Union sentiment in the years leading up to the Civil War, during which he campaigned vigorously across the state trying to unite Tennesseans against secession and to cast slavery as an economic wedge issue. ‘The honest yeomanry of these border States, four-fifths of whom own no negroes and never expect to own any,’ he incredulously complained, ‘are to be drafted, forced to leave their wives and children to toil and suffer, while they fight for the purse-proud aristocrats of the Cotton States.’ After the war, Brownlow’s position on slavery changed yet again, and he aligned with abolitionist and republican institutions.’ Brownlow eventually became a Republican governor of Tennessee, developing an extremely testy relationship with cotton interests from the eastern parts of the state. His attitude throughout was representative of that of many upcountry whites: once defenders of the institution of slavery, they later came to oppose secession over the issue, all the while holding firm racist beliefs.” (p. 106). In the immediate aftermath of the civil war it was not clear if southerners who had not owned slaves would have more solidarity with white former slave owners or with their fellow toilers the newly freed slaves. Jim Crow came about to maintain the flow of wealth to a white minority by splitting the southern working class along race lines, and to ensure that the Black vote never communicated into political power. But Jim Crow took time to impose on the South because the North governed the south for several years after the Civil War as an occupying army. The eventual reintegration of the rebel Southern states after the Civil War was premised on a compromise whereby the South gave up outright slavery but was allowed to remain segregated in a strict racial hierarchy. The disciplining of black bodies by their slave masters became a public task, and the reliance on slave labor was in large part preserved by the way that the 13th amendment was applied in the South. That Amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In other words, anyone who broke the law could be impressed into forced labor. The state took over the relationship of master to slave in the southern economy. A huge number of things was made illegal for black people, things like not having a job. If someone didn’t work, they could be arrested and forced by the state into servitude. Black people who organized for better wages or working conditions were lynched. Black people who tried to buy houses or land or who tried to vote could be lynched. Black people who went to the law for justice were lynched. The whole white community would publicly lynch such people in a carnival atmosphere. The resulting shared guilt reinforced racist attitudes which led to more lynchings. On February 23rd of 2020 in Brunswick Georgia Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead after two white men, not police, tried to arrest him while he was out jogging. Brunswick Georgia is part of Glynn County, which had an antebellum slave population of 2,839 and a white population of 825 according to the 1860 census, which is a very high slave population. The two murderers Travis McMichael and his father Gregory McMichael saw Ahmaud run past their house and followed him on suspicion that he was responsible for a break in where Travis’ handgun was stolen from an unlocked truck. Gregory McMichael was a former cop, but the presumption that as a civilian they had the right to convict and execute Ahmaud without any evidence speaks to an older tradition of Jim Crow. The first prosecutor recused herself from the case, because she was friends with Mr. McMichael. The second prosecutor refused to arrest McMichael saying that McMichael’s actions were legally sanctioned under Citizen’s Arrest. Yes, we know that is how Jim Crow works: selective application of the law to give white people the power of life and death over black people. It’s unlikely McMichael would have been arrested and charged if a video of the lynching had not caused a public outcry. That being said, here’s a quick Public Service Announcement:
ahem My fellow white people,
When a video of a lynching comes out, don’t share it on social media. Share the story or a petition or a group to organize for justice, but do not share the video. Sharing a lynching snuff film on social media will cause terror to black people who see it, fulfilling the purpose of such a murder, which is to terrorize black people and reinforce the idea that their bodies are available for abuse by white people. I posted the video of Ahmaud Arbery in a moment where I was outraged at the injustice of it, and I immediately took it down when I saw black people on my timeline calling for us not to post it. They are right. End of PSA.
Shelby County in Tennessee is where I live. It had a population in 1860 that was 35% enslaved, which is fairly high. The story in Memphis is a little different. Here is how I understand it. If you want to know more, you should read Wanda Rushing’s Memphis and the Paradox of Place, Globalization in the American South, from which I learned most of what follows regarding Memphis history, and then follow that with Zandria Robinson’s This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South. One great thing about Zandria Robinson’s book is that as you read it you can take breaks to listen to some of the great Memphis hip hop she discusses. I learned a lot there about the recent cultural achievements in my own hometown.
Memphis was not the site of any major Civil War battle, though it was a major hub for trading cotton. The Yellow Fever epidemic destroyed the old city government. The place had no government for a decade during the 1870s. Anyone with money left town. What was left was a lot of poor Irish, Italians, Jews and Blacks who had to work together somehow to bury the thousands who were dying of the plague and thereby try to stop the disease from spreading. The way it was told to me was that locals sent out handbills to all the area around complaining that we had no hospital and no police. This attracted every imaginable sort of criminal. We still name certain neighborhoods after the men who came into the vacuum of legal institutions to establish themselves as city bosses: Rozelle-Annesdale for instance. E.H. Crump was probably the most important, and there’s a statue of him at the entrance to Overton Park. The parks and sewer system date from this time, when wealthy people from outside came in to make Memphis their property. They wanted big luxurious park spaces in the European style. They also wanted to commemorate a legacy of white supremacy which did not entirely fit the actual history of Memphis, but the idea of that legacy was important for justifying the dominance of the new regime which was white supremacist. That’s why they had the cotton festival. There was a parade where at each station some racist psychodrama was played out. At one station a Black man was depicted averting his gaze from a beautiful white woman. They named one of the parks after Nathan Bedford Forest, the founder of the KKK, buried him there and put up a statue of him riding a horse. In the sixties, when the city wanted to build an interstate through Overton Park some hippies and ladies clubs banded together and won a court case to stop it. That’s why Sam Cooper Boulevard dead ends at Overton Park. It was a landmark case that affected a lot of other places as well. In 1968 the national guard was called in to put down a sanitation workers’ strike, during which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In the decades since there’s been a lot of white flight to the suburbs, and south main was gentrified, or what they used to call urban renewal. After decades of activism trying to get the city to take down the statue of Nathan Bedford Forest, some of which I took part in, the statue was finally brought down thanks to social pressure generated by local activists like Tami Sawyer and political machinations by Mayor Jim Strickland. They sold the park to a private company who took the monument down. Privatization was used to dismantle white supremacy, how’s that for a plot twist?
I love my city. The food is good. The people are friendly, and there’s plenty of injustice to fight. I like to think we started out fighting the Yellow Fever together, and that all these uppity carpetbagging white supremacists are just hanging out until they can find their next grift somewhere else. Events here don’t usually make national news, and the local radical scene tends to be vaguely drawn back and forth by the larger progressive movement, but I think people have tended to focus on our local issues for better and for worse.
1977 was the year Elvis died, and a year later I was born. After I’m gone that big river will keep flowing without me, but I’ll have been a part of it. There is a chain of events that began long before us and continues long after us, and the more we participate in it the closer we are to God. If Spinoza is to be trusted then I’ll live on to the measure that my actions helped other people, and I like to think I’ve done some of that. I may do more, but I’ve learned to be humble. I found out trying to be the whole thing keeps you from even being as big a part as you can be. Just show up and work is my advice.
I’m not particularly attracted to activism that is specific to my identity. I haven’t been active working for veterans rights, although it’s a real crisis in this country. I’m a socialist, so all of these oppressions matter to me. In any given moment I lift up the most urgent issues, and usually that’s not anything personal to me. To me socialism is the idea that we are more free together, and that all of the problems matter. Deciding what to focus on at any given time is more about judging where one can make progress against the worst injustices. This podcast is part of an ongoing project of mine to understand and account for the socialist tradition. It requires some congratulations and some apologies. What ties all of this together for me personally is the idea of grace.
Spinoza’s idea of the afterlife includes a concept of grace, that when we make our lives about helping other people we participate in God, that the more we participate in God the more connected we are to that big river of time. I have to say I haven’t always made myself proud, but I’m going to keep trying until the day I die. My attitude to that is the attitude of all stoics: I don’t intend to be around when my death happens so it is of no concern to me. My time in the Navy, and my encounter with the people of the Middle East, changed the course of my life, and I hope we here in this country never lose sight of the million ways our fate is tied intimately to the fate of all people everywhere. I drank from the Nile, so the legend is I’ll always return there.
As noted before Spinoza’s conception of an afterlife doesn’t really satisfy people who want their small identity, who they are specifically, to go on up to heaven and continue to be them. In fact, according to Spinoza the more we let go of the idea that our little ‘me’ is important the more we participate in what never dies. It also doesn’t exactly satisfy people who worship their ancestors. The infinite sequence of events that we make up a small part of includes mostly people whom we are not directly related to. Spinozan grace, or a close relationship with God, is directly translatable to Marx’s idea of international solidarity. It includes all of the people who contributed to make the world you inhabit, all of those who grew the food and built the machines, all of those whose thoughts inspired the actions that created our nations, businesses, clubs and movements. All of those people are part of the past we inherit and bequeath. It includes the common wind that whispered ‘freedom’ to Toussaint Louverture and the sky over Epicurus’ garden. Look up any time you like and catch a glimpse of forever. No one person can see it all, and the more we participate in it, the more of ourselves we give to the course of human history, the more we have a share in eternal life.
If Ms. Myrtle were to ask me “Hey baby, who’re your people?” I might have to answer Spinoza. My great-great-grandfather was kidnapped by Norwegian pirates and jumped ship in NYC, but my family doesn’t speak Norwegian or celebrate constitution day on May 17th. I had to google when Norwegian independence day was. I might have to say Don is my people. Don is one of the great Memphians interviewed by Zandria
I attend to the African American experience in particular. The experience of having been enslaved, and now being less so, is the core of the rationalist experience and the best of the American project. The idea of Freedom is the highest passion, the passion we call reason. Reason demands of us that we work most of all for a greater share of freedom for the most downtrodden. The more you do that the greater share of grace you will have, the closer to the progressive action of God and the greater share of eternal life you will have. The Black experience of liberation, still incomplete, is something that always brings us back to this passion for freedom, something that always brings us back to reason.
Until our next episode, go join the activity of the social mass towards freedom and win for yourself riches in heaven.
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Art: Erin Bakken
Music: Fire, Then Nothing by Da Sein