Saturday, May 17, 2008

A "60s" view of African-American history

I can't help but be fascinated, this year especially, by "the 1960s", which has defined the views of present-day Republicans to a remarkable extent.

I've mentioned before that there is an online archive of the journal Radical America, which began as "An SDS Journal of American Radicalism", SDS being Students for a Democratic Society, one of the more explicitly radical organizations of the time, with primarily white membership. The initials SDS are still enough to trigger apocalyptic nightmares among our "culture warriors", although they seem to have more fun obsessing about its violent offshoot, the Weather Underground.

This post is about an article that appeared in the July-Aug 1968 issue of Radical America, "The Historical Roots of Black Liberation" by Marxist historian George Rawick (1929-1990). (The link is to a PDF of the entire issue.) The article is also online in HTML format, The Historical Roots of Black Liberation (July 1968) at the Marxists' Internet Archive. So if you are afraid of catching demons in your head or some other part of your body from seeing a Marxist writer quoted, you should stop reading now. Rawick is best known in his profession as editor of the 29-volume The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. He was apparently associated for at least some years with the largest of the American Trotskyist groups, the Socialist Workers Party.

There's an appealing earnestness about much of the left activist writing from that period, not to be equated with the false innocence of which psychologist Rollo May warned. Rawick, born in 1929, was no kid in 1968. But this article addresses an audience that was focused on both developing an honest understanding of racism in American and on finding effective ways to combat it.

In that, they were acting out the heritage of the democratic ideology of the Second World War as well as the best of American religious and political-radical traditions. Yes, trolls, this is the kind of stuff scary black preachers sometimes talk about.


Rawick frames his approach as a way of understanding the "Black Revolution", which is how he understood the civil rights and Black Power movements of 1968. He seeks to throw light on the historical context in which the contradictory yet complementary impulses of rebellion and conformity have developed in the US.

The image of "Sambo" the compliant slave is one of the most discussed topics in studies of American slavery. Sambo was a contemporary term under slavery and it is still commonly used in discussing that phenomenon. Historian William Freehling, who discusses this topic in detail, uses a different contemporary term, "Cuffee", in a similar way but uses it to emphasize that the whites in slave states were uncomfortably aware that Sambo was at least in part an act put on for the benefit of whites.

Rawick writes quite perceptively about the historian Eugene Genovese, who was then regarded as a "left" historian, even a rising star among left historians. Genovese has long since developed into a genuinely reactionary historian who defends the slaveowning class in the South. Rawick wasn't calling him a reactionary then, but he did see aspects of Genovese's work that tended in that direction:

All previous indication of rebelliousness in San Domingo [before the Haitian Revolution of 1794] is relegated by Genovese to unimportance: "We find a Sambo stereotype and a weak tradition of rebellion ... when the island suddenly exploded in the greatest slave revolution in history, nothing lay behind it but Sambo and a few hints."

This conclusion is fundamentally absurd, the absurdity of sincere but pessimistic radical scholarship.
Rawick argues that those who claim that the Sambo mentality prevented slaves from engaging in more active revolts than they did in the US are trying too hard. Applying a version of Occam's Razor - giving preference to the simplest explanation that explains the known facts - he writes:

Slaves in North America were in every respect far outnumbered by the whites, who in any area could successfully hold off an attack until help came from elsewhere.

The slave revolt was not the usual method of direct action on the part of slaves in the United States because it was obvious that such a small, isolated minority could not successfully struggle this way. Rather the slaves usually chose other, more suitable tactics. While the slaves did not engage, particularly after the defeat of Nat Turner in 1831, in large revolts, they did struggle in a most conscious fashion and in a most successful manner through the Underground Railroad, strikes, and acts of individual withholding of or destruction of production. Most important, they fashioned their own independent community through which men and women and their children could find the cultural defenses against their oppressors.

The black community was the center of life for the slaves. It gave them, marked off from the rest of society, an independent base. The slave did not suffer from rootlessness – he belonged to the slave community and even if he were sold down the river, would usually be able to find himself in a new community much like his previous one, in which there would be people who shared a common destiny and would help him find a new life.
Rawick's essay stresses the role of African-American culture in keeping alive dignity, self-respect and the will to be free among the slaves. Revolutionary movements like the Haitian Revolution of 1794 led by Toussaint L'Ouverture seemed to many to spring suddenly from nowhere. This is a widespread phenomenon. To take just one more recent example, the Shah of Iran was also surprised by the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

But Rawick argues that in reality, to understand the roots of such surprising, seemingly sudden outbursts of revolutions, reform movements or just large-scale acts of social disruption, one has to understand the cultures that gave rise to them. While that may seem obvious, we're dealing in 2008 and for years to come with American involvement in Iraq's civil war(s) that came about with President Bush not considering it especially important to understand so much as the difference between Shi'a and Sunni Islam before he invaded and occupied that country. Rawick references another Marxist historian, C.L.R. James, who was apparently a favorite among SDSers (he has an article in the same issue of Radical America), on this question:

Despite Genovese’s stated respect for C.L.R. James, he seems to be turning the historian upside down. For the point James is making in The Black Jacobins – a point which cannot be missed by the careful reader – is that the oppressed continuously struggle in forms of their own choosing and surprise all mankind when they transform the day-to-day struggle into monumental revolutionary deeds. The pre-revolutionary activity was a necessary predecessor to the Haitian revolt; and without Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vessey and Nat Turner, there could have been no Fredrick Douglass, Rap Brown, Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver.
This question of understanding where such surprising events originate was a matter of no small concern in the 1960s, even to conservatives. Between urban riots, mass antiwar protests and student demonstrators, a lot of people wondered why such unexpected outbursts were suddenly disrupting their established views of how things worked in American society.

Understanding the role of slave and free-black culture is also critical to understanding the abolitionist movement. While it often impinged on the political process in the form of disputes among whites - since the vote was restricted to white men - that can distort our view of the movement. Certainly, there was antislavery/abolitionist sentiment among whites which could and did go along with racist, white supremacist ideas and feelings. But, as Rawick writes:

Through the instrumentality of the African cult [another term for slave culture], a concrete expression of a philosophy most adequate to the task at hand, the Afro-American slave prepared the ground and built the community out of which could come the struggles of the abolitionist movement. Abolitionism was at all times dominated by Afro-Americans, not by whites. Every abolitionist newspaper depended upon the support of Negro freedmen for its continuation. And these black freedmen received their impetus from the struggles of their brothers and sisters in slavery. Rather than stemming from the New England Brahmin conscience, abolitionism grew from, and carried, the necessity of black liberation whatever the cost. And in liberating the black community abolitionism transformed American society; it took the lead in creating a new America.

Although it will seem outrageous for those who think of movements as primarily organizations, offices, finances, printing presses and newspapers, writers and petitions, the heart of abolitionism was the slave community itself. The Underground Railroad, the efforts of the slaves for their own liberation, and their struggles’ impact on Northern Whites [sic] and slave blacks – these were the movement’s indispensible [sic] core. In the South, it gave the slaves the hope that enabled them to engage in the daily struggles that won for them that amount of breathing space which made more than mere continued existence possible. (my emphasis)
Rawick also talks about the dynamic relationship of slave culture to that of the masters:

The slaves themselves created the conditions for the inner corruption of the Master Class. While the rulers portrayed the institution of slavery as beneficent, the constant rebellion of the slaves made them know they lied. And when there is no way in which men can believe in the fundamental morality of a social system, even one they profit by, that system begins to die because the masters lose their ability to defend it. The slaves, in the struggle to the death with the rulers, repudiate the latter’s claim of moral justification, demonstrate to all the bad faith of the masters. (Seen from this vantage point, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn depicts the superiority of the moral claims of the runaway slave, Jim, to those of the masters based on property rights.)

The southern slave owner was denuded of civilization by the very system he fostered. Instead of the southern plantation owner and the classes close to him being made up of the knights in armor of racist folklore, slavery produced a society in the American South dominated by a class who lived in corruption and within an atmosphere worthy of the Marquis de Sade. ...

The myth of the gracious South dies hard, but die it must. (my emphasis)
I like this description of the inner turmoil between the urge to rebel and the fear of doing so:

This is not to argue that the slave was in no sense Sambo. A man is Sambo precisely when he is at the very point of rebellion he is fearful of being the rebel. Rebel he must be, but self-confident he is not. The greatest of all abolitionist leaders, the ex-slave Fredrick Douglass, tells repeatedly in his autobiography that when in the very act of fleeing, he was not only afraid – he also felt he was doing something wrong. Everything seemed to tell him that he was incapable of being a freeman; but at the same time, everything told him he must be a freeman. Unless we understand the contradictory nature of the human personality in class societies, we can never portray reality. One never knows whether the victim or the rebel will manifest himself again, but then again one need never know. It does not matter. In real life, men engage and then they see. The man of courage is not afraid to act, not because he is certain he will not be the coward, but only because he knows that, if he does not act, he most certainly will be the coward.
What he is describing here is a psychological condition, not a prescription for rebellion whenever one feels like it. Rawick's article makes clear that rebellion is not only or even primarily about dramatic events like the fabled storming of the Bastille.

I've emphasize in this post that Rawick was a Marxist historian because of the context in which I'm quoting him. But writing this got me thinking about whether there are particular advantages for an historian in taking a Marxist approach to understanding history.

Volumes could be written on this, and probably have been. I'll restrict myself to paragraphs here.

My basic answer is that the Marxist viewpoint doesn't confer any advantage not available to historians with an understanding and appreciation of democratic movements. But Marxist historians are possibly more interested in the history of rebellions and revolutions and popular movements than others, although the decades-long trend of academic interest in the history of daily life may mean that even that is no longer the case.

But, however one weighs the various forms that 20th-century Marxism took, from social democracy to Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (to name some of the most consequential variations), Marx and Engels saw themselves as part of the radical cutting-edge of the democratic and labor movements of the 19th century. So historians working in that tradition presumably are alert to the importance of those movements, their dynamics and contradictory aspects.

But it makes sense in that way that historians like W.E.B. DuBois and Herbert Aptheker, both of whom were members of the orthodox, Soviet-line Communist Party in the US, made significant contributions to the history of slavery. Aptheker's work, American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), can perhaps serve as an example of risks and opportunities in that approach. His book is respected and widely cited on that topic. But he is generally regarded as having overstated the significance of overt slave revolts. If your ideology values such occurrences highly, it can affect the empirical historical work.

Also, Marxist historians are as capable of writing junk as anyone else. Conforming one's historical work to a current party program can also present challenges of its own. Political science geeks might enjoy picking apart Leon Trotsky's position on the Confederacy, for instance. But so far as I'm aware, that particular dispute hasn't added greatly to our understanding of the Civil War.

And I was quite interested to see Rawick's takedown of some of Genovese's early work. I read one of Genevese's essays from the late '60s not long ago. I'm not sure if he called himself a Marxist then. But I came away thinking, this doesn't sound either very "left" or very well-founded to me. And although William Appleman Williams was not a Marxist historian, he was an influential historian among left activists and writers, especially his work before 1970. But he also managed to find room in his framework for elaborate praise for Herbert Hoover's economic policies and for the ne-Confederate view of the Civil War. And some of his anti-imperialist analysis of late 19th century American history may not have had the empirical rigor one might have hoped.

So I suppose my bottom line on that would be, you have to take good research and analysis where you find them. And you have to recognize bad ideas wherever they pop up.

And, in this particular case, it's a reminder that some of those scary hippie radicals of the 1960s were thinking about more than just sitting around saying, "Down with the racist pig power structure." Although they were known to say things like that, too, on occasion.

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