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Saturday, July 9, 2011


In 1935, Du Bois published a massive scholarly work called Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, in which he undertook to rewrite the story that mainstream historians had been telling about slavery and its aftermath. In a brief statement “To the Reader,” placed at the very beginning of the book, Du Bois announced his intention to challenge the story accepted and repeated by America’s White scholars. Listen carefully to the last paragraph of that challenge:

"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 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."

At the center of Black Reconstruction is a startling thesis that completely rewrites the story told by the Southern historians and their followers, North and South, about the Civil War. In their account, the slaves were perhaps the object of the war – that is to say, they were in great part what the war was fought over. But they were not subjects in the war, they did not exercise the choice, deliberation, and agency that are the mark of human beings. In the standard accounts of Du Bois’ time, the war was fought by two groups of White men. At issue were the union, or disunion, of the American Republic, and the disposition of the core of Southern property – the four million chattel slaves. But though these historians might have used less highly charged language, they all agreed with Woodward that the slaves became free “without any effort of their own.”

The core of Du Bois’ challenge is a dramatic and highly controversial claim. During the Civil War, he insisted, the slaves played an active role in the struggle against the South, and in the last years of the conflict, their actions proved the decisive element that enabled the North to win. How was this possible, confined as they were to plantations and farms where their daily lives were controlled by the whips and chains of their masters? In three ways, Du Bois suggested.

First, drawing on European theories of working-class struggles against capitalism, Du Bois argues that the slaves withheld their labor from the productive activities of Southern agriculture, thereby fatally weakening the ability of the South to supply its troops in the field. The slaves could not strike, as free workers did in the North or in Europe, but they slowed down the temp of their work, sabotaged the raising and bringing in of the crops, secretly set smokehouses and storage barns afire, and in all the ways they could, worked against rather than for their owners. This was not a coordinated effort centrally planned, of course. As Du Bois points out, the slaves were isolated in rural settings, for the most part unable and indeed forbidden by law to read or write. It was extremely difficult for them even to communicate with their fellow slaves at the next plantation down river, let alone organize across the entire South. But, Du Bois insists, the slaves understood what was happening and what was at stake, and they took every opportunity they could to sabotage the essential supply of the Confederate Army.

The second thing the slaves did was to run away from the plantations whenever the Union Army forces got close. Scores of thousands of slaves made it to the Northern army camps. There, they were put to work doing much of the essential work of maintaining an army in the field. The Northern troops were scarcely less contemptuous of Black men and women than their Southern opponents, needless to say, but they needed the labor, and understood that it weakened the South to lose so much of its labor supply.

The third, and perhaps most important, way in which the slaves fought the South was by taking up arms in the Union Army and going into battle. As the terrible war ground on, year after year, Lincoln found it ever harder to draft men into the army to replace the hundreds of thousands who were wounded or killed. The runaway slaves became an essential component of the Northern force, and by many accounts made the difference between victory and defeat in the final year of the war.

Returning to the image with which I began these remarks, we can think of Du Bois as climbing to the crest of the hill, surveying the events on the great plain, and calling back to those below: “I see things that my fellow historians on this crest have not told you of. I see Black men and women taking their fate into their own hands. I see them struggling against great odds for their freedom. I can see that they, like their White counterparts, are capable of labor and of sacrifice, of heroism and of cowardice. In fine, I can see, and I am now able to tell you, that Negroes are ordinary human beings.”

The historical profession was not ready to hear Du Bois’ story. By and large, mainstream historians ignored it, and continued to tell the old tale well into the 1960's. As it turned out, Du Bois was just about fifty years ahead of his time. In the 1980's, a distinguished group of historians at the University of Maryland undertook a massive research project, examining, with the aid of many graduate students, two million documents lodged in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. as part of the Library of Congress. They made a selection of the documents, which dealt with the actions of runaway slaves and the Northern armies, publishing them in a series of thick volumes. Each volume was introduced by a lengthy, detailed historiographical essay, and three of those essays were published as a short book in 1992 under the title, Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War. The lead authors of this collective project were Ira Berlin and Barbara J. Fields.

Their conclusion, to sum it up very briefly, was that Du Bois had been right all those years before. There in the archives was the documentary evidence to support his claims – that the slaves had withheld their labor in the fields, that they had run away by the scores of thousands to the Northern lines, and that they had been recruited into the Union Army, enabling the North to win the war.

What is so remarkable, looking back on this evolution, is that Du Bois had virtually none of the archival materials at his disposal when he wrote Black Reconstruction. I do not think it exaggerates the case to say that the ability of Du Bois to see the truth, with only the scantiest of original materials on which to draw, is explained by his fundamental recognition that, as he put it, “Negroes are ordinary human beings.” Once we take this simple fact as our starting point, it is not difficult to find evidences of their active engagement in the unfolding of their own fate. Indeed, it would be very odd indeed if a group of people were to stand idly by while their very freedom was in the balance. Historians as distinguished as Morrison and Commager were unable to see this truth because, whatever they might say, they did not really consider Black people to be fully human.


Murfmensch said...

A friend of mine, Chad E. Uchtmann, posted this poem by Miller Williams on July 4th. I am struck with how it sits alongside the point Dr. Wolff has been making.

(Chad is a remarkable photographer who seeks to use Facebook as a means of presenting his work well. He's at

The next paragraph is Chad's followed by Williams work:

Written by Miller Williams for the inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton and read by the author on January 20, 1997. Its message is one about the past and potential, memory and future of America, written by one of America's finest living poets, Arkansan Miller Williams.

Of History and Hope

We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.

But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands -- oh, rarely in a row --
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become --
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.

All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit -- it isn't there yet --
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.

- Miller Williams

English Jerk said...

Doesn't that penultimate stanza reproduce the spurious story about the Idea of Freedom gradually attained? Or are you pointing to the way it contrasts with Dr. Wolff's argument?

Murfmensch said...

I think Williams' poem may be part of the idea of a nation "conceived in liberty".

I can't help but think that he shows here the complex relationship b/w that idea and reality.