If readers of the People’s Weekly World are looking for a book that explores the role of the African American people in our nation’s history, they should look no further than Stephen Hahn’s “A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration.” This impressive historical study sits comfortably with such masterpieces as W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Black Reconstruction” and Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.”
Both of these earlier books, informed by the Marxist tradition, showed that slaves and later freed African American people in the South had a hand both “in their own making” (to borrow a phrase from the great Marxist historian, E.P. Thompson) as well as the making of the political, economic, and cultural universe in which they lived. In both books, the authors portray the former slaves as deeply embedded in a complex of social relations, but not rendered invisible by or passively absorbed by those relations. In fact, both Du Bois and Foner, with an abundance of historical evidence, convincingly show that the freed slaves were at the center of the tumultuous upheavals of those years.
African Americans as makers of history
Hahn employs a similar methodology, backed up by painstaking research, profound analysis, and, above all, historical imagination. While social structures and relations figure prominently in his account of the road traveled by African Americans in the rural South over six decades, Hahn makes crystal clear that African American men and women in shifting settings were — what other histories too often have denied them — subjects, not objects, in the historical process and powerful agents of change in the unfolding drama in the South.
Of course, they didn’t make history as they pleased. The terrain on which they remade themselves and organized their struggle for freedom, Hahn tells us, was changing, sometimes dramatically, and cluttered with other social actors, institutions, relations, and pressures that offered both opportunities for and limitations to that struggle.
Three major periods
Hahn maps three distinct, but interconnected periods in the freedom struggle. The first begins with the Civil War years and goes to the winning of the vote; the next is the period of Reconstruction; and finally, Hahn concludes his magisterial work with the decades following Reconstruction until the Great Migration.
Across this canvas, the author gives us a close-up look and intimate feel for what is peculiar to each period — the wider context, social relations of production, balance of political and social forces, forms of struggle (which were creative and varied), alliance relationships, biracialism, impulses to separatism and emigration, political possibilities, and so forth — and what the political dynamics were that account for one period of struggle giving way to another. Sometimes these struggles unfolded in ways that advanced the interests of the newly freed slaves and their allies, and sometimes in ways that narrowed down their ability to construct new social relations in what was a transitional era in the rural South.
Political power was key objective
If I read Hahn’s book correctly, at the core of this process was the struggle for political power. The freed people in rural communities understood that without such power the possibilities for remaking themselves and their world were narrowly circumscribed. By the same token, they keenly appreciated that with such power the parameters of freedom for themselves and their children and grandchildren could be stretched in real and material ways that their ancestors, living and toiling on slave plantations, could have only dreamt of.
Armed with this understanding, they engaged and re-engaged the political process at the grassroots, first as slaves and then as newly freed people, with a singular eye to winning political influence and every possible white ally, no matter how temporary and unreliable. While there were many moments when they yielded ground to overwhelming strength, intimidation, and violence, they never yielded the political arena altogether to the defeated planter class and its power bloc who were determined to impose relations of peonage, segregation, and dependence on the former slaves. In fact, even when their political space was reduced to not much more than a sliver and even when some of their own leaders counseled them to retreat from politics, they insistently clung to and occupied that sliver. And they did it not simply to defend their interests and community, but also to push outward once again — inch-by-inch, if necessary — the boundaries of freedom, biracialism, economic independence, self-governance, and autonomy.
A chronicle of courage
Admittedly, this story has been told before, but with Stephen Hahn’s book we have a history of the African American people that reveals in sensitive, complex, and new ways how real, live, overwhelmingly working-class rural people in the most difficult of circumstances shaped and reshaped themselves, their social environment, and their political aspirations.
Moreover, it shows that the African American people acquired and displayed extraordinary political acumen and courage in the course of fighting for their freedom, both of which are still evident today. But they also continued the process of constituting themselves as a distinct nationality, defined by a common history, culture, language, sensibilities, values, customs, and a dense network of social institutions and infrastructures based on family, church, work, and struggle.
As Hahn makes clear, none of this was encoded into the historical process or “objectively lawed,” but rather was a product of self-organization and self-activity of an oppressed people in a fluid set of circumstances and social relations. It was a product of a people’s unyielding attitude of struggle.
Illuminating the path to popular power
It probably comes as no surprise that I highly recommend this book. Reading it will bring a deeper understanding of the role and struggles of the African American people in the past and present. It will bring new insights into how the African American people themselves formed a distinct national and racial identity and culture. It will bring new awareness of the primacy of political power to any transformational social process. It will bring a new depth to the observation that the struggle for freedom and democracy (and I would add socialism) proceed only through complicated phases and stages during which new constellations of political forces are formed and reformed. And it will bring fresh inspiration to all who are engaged in today’s struggles against an authoritarian regime that has its grip on our nation’s political structures and the support of significant sections of the capitalist class.
Sam Webb (email@example.com) is the national chairman of the Communist Party USA. **(see related story below)
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Du Bois on Slavery
Easily the most dramatic episode in American history was the sudden move to free 4 million black slaves in an effort to stop a great civil war, to end 40 years of bitter controversy, and to appease the moral sense of civilization. From the day of its birth, the anomaly of slavery plagued a nation which asserted the equality of all men, and sought to derive powers of government from the consent of the governed. Within sound of the voices of those who said this lived more than half a million black slaves, forming nearly one-fifth of the population of a new nation. …
The true significance of slavery in the United States to the whole social development of America lay in the ultimate relation of slaves to democracy. … Was the rule of the mass of Americans to be unlimited, and the right to rule extended to all men regardless of race and color? This was the great and primary question which was in the minds of the men who wrote the Constitution of the United States and continued in the minds of thinkers down through the slavery controversy. It still remains with the world as the problem of democracy expands and touches all races and nations.
Above all, we must remember the black worker was the ultimate exploited — that he formed that mass of labor which had neither wish nor power to escape from the labor status in order to directly exploit other laborers, or indirectly, by alliance with capitalists to share in their exploitation. To be sure, the black mass, developed again and again, here and there, capitalistic groups in New Orleans, in Charleston and in Philadelphia; groups willing to join white capital in exploiting labor; but they were driven back into the mass by racial prejudice before they had reached a permanent foothold; and thus became all the more bitter against all organization which by means of race prejudice, or the monopoly of wealth, sought to exclude men from making a living.
It was thus the black worker, as founding stone of a new economic system in the nineteenth century and for the modern world who brought civil war in America. He was its underlying cause, in spite of every effort to base the strife upon union and national power.
That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States that great majority of mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry — shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned and enslaved in all but name; spawning the world’s raw material and luxury — cotton, wool, coffee, tea, cocoa, palm oil, fibers, spices, rubber, silks, lumber, copper, gold, diamonds, leather — how shall we end the list and where? All these are gathered up at prices of the low, manufactured, transformed and transported at gain; and the resultant wealth is distributed and displayed and made the basis of world power and universal dominion and armed arrogance in London and Paris, Berlin and Rome, New York and Rio de Janeiro.
Here is the real modern labor problem. Here is the kernel of the problem of Religion and Democracy, of Humanity. Words and futile gestures avail nothing. Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts which, in cultured lands, the Machine and harnessed Power veil and conceal. The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.
From “Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880” by W.E.B. Du Bois (New York, Atheneum, 1992), pp. 3, 13, 15-16.