Tag Archives: slavery

Eric Williams: Capitalism and Slavery

Eric Williams on Capitalism and Slavery is, of course, a classic, and yet another one I wish I had read some time ago. It’s key points — racism emerged out of the economic relationships of slavery, not slavery from racism. That economics remained primary to the motivations of UK statesmen as they first instituted then abolished slavery, as they supported Colonialism, turned against it, then returned to the carving up of Africa. I am more used to the complexities of culture and hegemony and social formations in thinking about race and capitalism, they are still at play here but not explored as much as they are elsewhere. That doens’t stop this from being bad ass.

A quick overview of the narrative, that cuts much out for which I apologise.

Origin of Negro Slavery

Eric Williams notes how the practice of white indentured servitude prepared the way for slavery — and no, it wasn’t the same. But it established  a profitable pattern that could be improved upon.

The servant expected land at the end of his contract: the Negro, in a strange environment, conspicuous by his color and features, and ignorant of the white man’s language and ways, could be kept  permanently divorced from the land. Racial differences made it easier to justify and rationalize Negro slavery, to exact the mechanical obedience of a plough-ox or a cart-horse, to demand that resignation and that complete moral and intellectual subjection which alone make slave labor possible. finally, and this was the decisive factor, the Negro slave was cheaper. The money which procured a white man’s service for ten years could buy a Negro for life. .. But the experience with white servitude had been invaluable…white servitude was the historic base upon which Negro slavery was constructed.

Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial… (19)

The crux of it all really, but there is so much more here of course. A little on the rationalisations of the times. Climate is a familiar one — it was just too hot and unhealthy for Europeans. But really, all that indentured white servitude had already proved that wrong. As the economy came to be all about sugar in the Carribean, tobacco and cotton on the mainland, plantations grew and labour needs changed.

I can still be shocked by how quickly these changes took place, how fast small farms (and the hopes and dreams of white men often fleeing desperate poverty, even if founding their dreams on conquest) were swallowed up by big ones: Barbados in 1645 — 11,200 small white farmers, 18,300 whites fit to bear arms and 5,680 Negro slaves; 1667 — 745 large plantation owners, 8,300 whites fit to bear arms, and 82,023 slaves (23). I can’t actually imagine that shift in 27 years. This happened on island after island. Nevis, white men decreased by 3/5 between 1672 and 1708, Montserrat over 2/3 between 1672 and 1727 (24). We see a steady process of the dispossession of the dispossessors in a way that works contrary to all myths of meritocracy and promise, even if you are able to take at face value a civilization based on enslavement, rape and genocide.

The end of slavery did not mean the end of the plantation. But Black people got the hell out of there, whites were too high status for that work, so new labour sources had to be found — East Indians. Trinidad imported 145,000 East Indians, British Guiana 238,000 between 1833 and 1917. It boggles the mind. These things boggle my mind even now.

The Development of the Negro Slave Trade

Of course, slavery was a long time developing. The 1st English slave-trading expedition was led by Sir John Hawkins, 1562. It continued, though in a small way, until the establishment of the Caribbean colonies and the introduction of sugar. Eric Williams, like Rodney Walters, ties the development of England tight to the slave trade and its destruction of Africa and the New World, one country profiting from the exploitation of many others. I am going to depart from Williams here to separate out the different cities, trace their individual connections. But without forgetting how they are woven into the whole of this history — see post two for that. This initial step was under the banner of mercantilism.

The slave trade [as compared to East India or China] was ideal in that it was carried on by means of British manufactured goods and was, as far as the British colonies were concerned, inseparably connected with the plantation trade which rendered Britain independent of foreigners for her supply of tropical products. (37)

Under such a profitable system, the courts very quickly inscribed the lives and bodies of slaves as property, Judge Mansfield ruling in 1783 that ‘the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard‘ and awarding thirty pounds to the ship’s investors for each of the 132 slaves thrown overboard when the vessel grew short of water. No homicide charges were contemplated. (46)

British Commerce and the Triangular Trade

So Williams moves on to the rise of the triangle trade we learned about in school, returned to it all of the horror our textbooks stripped away along with a deeper understanding of its profitability: (1) Negroes purchased with British manufactures, (2) transported to plantations to produce tropical goods which created new industries in England, and (3) their maintenance and that of their owners provided another market for British industry, new England agriculture and Newfoundland fishing industries. This wealth did more:

The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution. (52)

This led to the growth of Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow first, that would go on to be invested in manufacture and machinery. Thus these cities of original wealth ‘occupied…the position in the age of trade that Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield occupied later in the age of industry‘ (60). I learned more about British manufacturing here than I ever knew before.

Until the tremendous development of the cotton industry in the Industrial Revolution, wool was the spoiled child of English manufactures. It figured largely in all considerations affecting the slave trade in the century after 1680. The cargo of a slave ship was incomplete without some woolen manufactures–serges, says, perpetuanos, arrangoes and bays. (65)

Which led to some absurdities still with us as a manner of custom:

That woolen goods should figure so prominently in tropical markets is to be attributed to the deliberate policy of mercantilist England. … Woolen undergarments are still common in the islands today, though more among the older generation, and suits of blue serge are still a sign of the well-dressed man. (67)

The West Indian Interest

And so for a while, before this rise of the industrial revolution, the West Indian planter was the great wealth and power, and they much preferred England.

The West Indian planter was a familiar figure in English society in the eighteenth century. The explanation lies in the absentee landlordism which has always been the curse of the Caribbean and s still one of its major problems today. (85)

The curse of the absentee landlord seems ubiquitous. There is also this:

The wealth of the West Indians became proverbial. (91)

They held a monopoly of all seats but one in Bristol for a long time, and represented various other areas in parliament, which I can also still find bewildering. For example, John Gladstone represented Woodstock then Lancaster:

it was his pleasure to listen in May, 1833, to the maiden speech of his son, MP for Newark, in defense of slavery on the family states in Guiana. (93)

These families of slave-generated wealth also entrenched themselves in the House of Lords, and married into high families — ‘There are few, if any, noble houses in England…without a West Indian strain.’ (94)

British Industry and the Triangular Trade

Williams goes on to look at where this power was directed and wealth invested:

Banking: helped provide the large sums needed for cotton factories and building of canals connecting Manchester and Liverpool

Heavy Industry: West Indian trade capital financed James Watt and the steam engine. Antony Bacon early war profiteer — engaged in trade in both victualing troops and ‘supplying seasoned and able Negroes for government contracts in the West Indies‘. Set up iron works in Merthyr Tydfil, rapidly expanded to fulfill government contracts during the American war, set up another furnace at Cyfartha. (103) Just a few examples.

Insurance: Obvious this one.

The American Revolution

This played a big role in the politics of the new world, and not in the way that Americans are taught to understand our early history.  New England in particular had problematic relationship with England as it grew to become a competitor with British goods rather than a consumer — which in some ways was what the revolution  was actually all about. But initially it was well integrated into the triangle trade as another exporter to the West Indies (with British policy ensuring the West Indies did not produce for themselves, of course).

I just hadn’t realised how closely connected the islands were with the mainland. Alexander Hamilton was born on Nevis. Many owned plantations both in the islands and in the South.  American succession had a huge impact on them, and one thing I do wonder is why they weren’t incorporated in the new US… I suppose perhaps because they were already in decline. Instead, they were just left.

Fifteen thousand slaves died of famine in Jamaica alone between 1780 and 1787, and American independence was the first stage in the decline of the sugar colonies.  (121)


‘The Caribbean ceased to be a British lake… The center of gravity in the British Empire shifted from the Caribbean Sea to the Indian Ocean, from the West Indies to India. In 1783… prime Minister Pitt began to take an abnormally great interest in the British dominions to the East. In 1787 Wilberforce was encouraged by Pitt to sponsor the proposal for abolition of the slave trade. In the same year the East India Company turned its attention to the cultivation of sugar… (123)

Jesus. Profit falls and people starve.

The Development of British Capitalism 1783-1833

This becomes the period of the huge growth of cotton manufacturing (see Manchester), wool suddenly becomes an import, primarily from Australia whose whole economy shifts. Profit interests shift from West Indies to South America and India as UK becomes exporter of manufactured goods worldwide — thus exploding the need for earlier Mercantilism wisdom of monopoly. Manchester and others wished to trade with everyone, no barriers — and so, the rise of free trade movement. Well, it was coming soon.

Mercantilism had run its course. It was necessary only to give political expression to the new economic situation. (133)

It would be good for the West Indies.

The New Industrial Order

That’s because the West Indians stood for monopoly and mercantilism, and both were going down.

The attack on the West Indians was more than an attack on slavery. It was an attack on monopoly. Their opponents were not only the humanitarians but the capitalists. The reason for the attack was not only that the West Indian economic system was vicious but that it was also so unprofitable that for this reason alone its destruction was inevitable. (135)

The attack falls into three phases: the attack on the slave trade, the attack on slavery, the attack on the preferential sugar duties. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, slavery in 1833, the sugar preference in 1846. The three events are inseparable. The very vested interests which had been built up by the slave system now turned and destroyed that system. (136)

It’s an extraordinary about face.

The growth of Anti-Imperialism

There’s this strange period that I never knew about, after the loss of the original colonies, when the West Indies no longer of any importance to anyone but its plantation owners, when prevailing attitudes were against Empire. It didn’t last that long, obviously. But it did exist for a while, while greater profits were to be found in free trade.

The colonial system was the spinal cord of the commercial capitalism of the mercantile epoch. In the era of free trade the industrial capitalists wanted no colonies at all, least of all the West Indies.

The trend dated back, as we have seen, to the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Its development paralleled the development of the free trade movement. The whole world now became a British colony and the West Indies were doomed. The leader of the movement was Cobden. Cobden referred approvingly to Adam Smith’s chapters in his “immortal work” on the expense of colonies. (142)

And part of the global politicking? Destroying the immensely valuable French colony of Saint Domingue.

Pitt’s plan was twofold: to recapture the European market with the aid of sugar from India, and to secure an international abolition of the slave trade, which would ruin St Domingue. (146)

He failed in both — West Indians managed to keep import duties high, and he couldn’t get the Dutch, Spanish and French to abolish slavery. After the French Revolution, England attempted to take the colony by force — as Williams notes, Pitt couldn’t then have had a successful sugar colony and the abolition of slavery.

But instead, they didn’t capture the colony, just helped destroy it. Abolition wasn’t so important, and Pitt stepped back from it. The slave trade doubled in fact, and Britain conquered Trinidad and British Guiana. It became clear that sugar was most profitable in new territories, with its slash and burn agriculture dependent on fresh soil. Old colonies were saturated, even with destruction of St Domingue the West Indies were still not profitable, instead Cuba and other islands succeeded in producing cheaper sugar.

Wilberforce rejoiced: West Indian distress could not be imputed to abolition. Actually, abolition was the direct result of that distress. (150)

West Indies unable to compete,with Brazil and Cuba. Williams writes:

Overproduction in 1807 demanded abolition; overproduction in 1833 demanded emancipation. (152)

British Capitalism and the West Indies

And so a remarkable change:

Whereas before, in the eighteenth century, every important vested interest in England was lined up on the side of monopoly and the colonial system; after 1783, one by one, every one of those interests came out against monopoly and the West Indian slave system. (154)

“The Commercial Part of the Nation” and slavery

News flash. Capitalists only occasional abolitionists.

The “Saints” and Slavery

So we can’t completely forget the actual abolitionists, Williams admitted it was ‘one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time‘ (178).  Of course it wasn’t sentimentality but economics that were the main driving force, but it’s nice to believe it was ‘justice, humanity and sound policy‘ as the bill said it was.

There is an indictment of Wilberforce in here, not that he’s hard to go after…I loved it though, having read quite a bit about the awfulness of the Clapham Sect.

There is a certain smugness about the man, his life, his religion. As a leader, he was inept, addicted to moderation, compromise and delay. He deprecated extreme measures and feared popular agitation. He relied for success upon aristocratic patronage, parliamentary diplomacy and private influence with men in office. He was a lobbyist, and it was a common saying that his vote could safely be predicted, for it was certain to be opposed to his speech. (181)

Their campaign was only directed at abolishing slavery in the West Indies, and only of Blacks. The Clapham Sect had various interest in East India and they didn’t want those troubled.

The Slaves and Slavery

Can’t leave out the agency of slaves themselves, of struggle, of uprising. And of course Eric Williams doesn’t. This is because:

Contrary to popular and even learned belief, however, as the political crisis deepened in Britain, the most dynamic and powerful social force in the colonies was the slave himself. This aspect of the West Indian problem has been studiously ignored. (201)

This despite the power and inspiration of the Maroons of Jamaica, Bush Negroes of British Guiana, the revolt of St Domingue. And endless revolt. In 1808: a slave revolt in British Guiana. 1816, Barbados. 1823, British Guiana again — fifty plantations, 12,000 people. Continued unrest. 1831, Antigua then Jamaica over Christmas that spread. 1833, emancipation.


So a few ideas and principles in the form Eric Williams gives them:

  1. The decisive forces in the period of history we have discussed are the developing economic forces

  2. The various contending groups of dominant merchants, industrialists and politicians, while keenly aware of immediate interest, are for that very reason generally blind to the long-range consequences of their various actions, proposals, policies.  (210)

  3. The political and moral ideas of the age are to examined in the very closest relation to the economic development.

  4. An outworn interest, whose bankruptcy smells to heaven in historical perspective, can exercise an obstructionist and disruptive effect which can only be explained by the powerful services it had previously rendered and the entrenchment previously gained.

  5. The ideas built on those interests continue long after the interests have been destroyed and work their old mischief, which is all the more mischievous because the interests to which they correspond no longer exist. (211)

Next post, a bit more on how city by city the UK was linked and remains linked to slavery in the New World. All of these the kind of insights that stay with you.

[Williams, Eric (1989 [1944]) Capitalism and Slavery. London: Andre Deutsch.]

Frederick Douglass: My Bondage and My Freedom

I read the short version of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography many years ago and it impressed me so deeply, I had always meant to read the longer version — one of them at least. Too many years separate them for me even to be sure of the differences, apart from the recounting of the scene where Douglass stands up to Covey — much expanded here, but I am not sure more powerful for that. Still. The moment where enough is enough, where resistance is embraced fully, where everything changes. An incredible moment. But this is a book of powerful moments. So much of what is theorised over the next 150 years is here already, though always in a way that pathologises slavery not those bound and tortured by it. If only we had kept to that tradition.

Geneological trees do not flourish among slaves. A person of some consequence here in the north, sometimes designated father, is literally abolished in slave law and slave practice. It is only once in a while that an exception is found to this statement. (34-35)

Of course, Douglass’s father was white. Master or overseer, he is not explicit — does not know, does not wish to know, does not wish to say.

The practice of separating children from their mothers, and hiring the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with a brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and the heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution. (37-38)

Frederick Douglass belonged to the Lloyds, a plantation along the Wye river named after the river in Wales whence they came. Knowing the Wye river — it brings these connections home. From rural wales to owning slaves in Maryland.

Frederick Douglass grows up. Always cold. Always hungry. Always questioning.

The old doctrine that submission is the best cure for outrage and wrong, does not hold good on the slave plantation. He is whipped oftenest, who is whipped easiest; and that slave who has the courage to stand up for himself against the overseer, although he may have many hard stripes at the first, becomes, in the end, a freeman, even though he sustain the formal relation of a slave. (95)

There is, of course, a line to be walked here because too much and they will just shoot you — this is clear in the text despite the numerous forceful statements like the one above.

I’ve just finished re-reading Du Bois on The Souls of Black Folk, and found it powerful that Douglass too spends time on the songs sung by slaves and their meaning and importance. It was often demanded of them that they sing, you cannot plot while singing, you cannot run away. But song transformed into something else. Douglass relates that it is not until after escaping slavery and looking back that the real meaning of the songs struck him.

They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of these wild notes always depressed my spirits and filled my heart with ineffable sadness… Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery… (99)

But then, still a child, he is sent to Baltimore, and it is strange to think, that without this arbitrary decision the future course of his life might not have been possible. For here he has opportunity to learn to read, to play with poor white children, to ask questions, to obtain knowledge, to see a world beyond the plantation. And, in the beginning, to have a taste of something different.

At first, Mrs Auld evidently regarded me simply as a child, like any other child; she had not come to regard me as property. This latter thought was a thing of conventional growth…it took several years to change the natural sweetness of her temper into fretful bitterness. (144-145)

Douglass illustrates time and time again how the structures of slavery constrain the humanity of both slave and slave-owner. The nature of slavery is such that there can be no good owner, no kind mistress because to own a slave is to deny the humanity of another human being. Mrs Auld begins kindly — begins to teach him to read, and is stopped in her tracks by her husband. It becomes fully brought home to her that reading and slavery are incompatible. In bowing to this, she loses her own self as she must.

As Douglass comes to understand this, the bewildering changes from kindness to bitterness, the reminders of his place in the household, he is also working out the nature of his own morality under slavery. That within a structure that has robbed him of both liberty and all reward of his labour, his right to steal for self preservation cannot be questioned. With no freedom of choice, no slave can be held morally responsible or accountable, rather all responsibility lies with those who created an enforce slavery.

There are insights too, into slavery’s impact on the class distinctions made in the South:

Slaves, too, readily distinguish between the birthright bearing of the original slaveholder and the assumed attitudes of the accidental slaveholder; and while they cannot respect either, they certainly despise the latter more than the former. (192)

Refusing to call him Master only one of many subtle ways of showing this. But it is so clear that status is entirely bound up in ownership of other human beings at this time, even though a certain level of privilege is granted to all those with white skin. Douglass is thinking all of these things, but can do little. At the age of 16 he is sent to work for a man named Covey for year, to be broken. And after 6 months of being broken, he stands up, refuses to be whipped, fights back.

…this battle with Mr Covey–undignified as it was, and as I fear my narration of it is–was the turning point in my “life as a slave.” It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I was A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN. (246)

He was never whipped again. He does wonder why he wasn’t just killed — the punishment decreed by law for such defiance. The loss of face that Covey would have incurred is most likely the reason, but he himself has seen someone murdered for less. He describes the price of being a man — being willing to die. He also notes the many other things that work to keep human beings enslaved. Ties to family and friends, to place and familiarity. The granting of holidays, and other things that keep ‘minds occupied with thoughts and aspirations short of the liberty of which they are deprived. A certain degree of attainable good must be kept before them’ (253).

One of teh most powerful sentences I think:

The thought of only being a creature of the present and the past, troubled me, and I longed to have a future–a future with hope in it. (273)

I think this is perhaps the terror of poverty as well, though it cannot be compared to slavery. But it appears again in one of the speeches at the end. A future could only lie in freedom. He plans an attempt at escape with a group of dear friends and is betrayed, but without quite the proof needed to convince his owner that the freedom break was actually going to be attempted. So while threatened with sale to the South, he is not in the end taken there. He is sent back to Baltimore, and apprenticed in the shipyards.

He has the shit beaten out of him by white apprentices there,  partially at the instigation of the white carpenters who stand and watch it all. He notes that one of the elements in slavery is this:

the conflict of slavery with the interests of the white mechanics and laborers of the south. … The slaveholders, with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeds in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black man himself… The slave is robbed, by his master, of all his earnings, above what is required for his bare physical necessities; and the white man is robbed by the slave system, of the just results of his labor, because he is flung into competition with a class of laborers who work without wages. (309-310)

Douglass writes this will set the white laborers in the vanguard against slavery — it’s curious that he is right and wrong, for in much of the north and in California they surely are against slavery, but equally against Black labour. Still, we see here the intersections of race, economic systems, labour, struggle…

He escapes. Wanders lost in NY afraid for his life and recapture, no money, no friends. He doesn’t wonder that some return South. But he reaches safety with the abolitionists and they recommend he move to New Bedford. Which sounds bad ass. He tells a story in which a newcomer threatens one of the community with informing on him to his old master. A meeting is called of the whole Black community, and at the end of it

…at the close of his prayer, the old man (one of the numerous family of Johnsons) rose from his knees, deliberately surveyed his audience, and then said, in a tone of solemn resolution, “Well, friends, we have got him here, and I would now recommend that you young men should just take him outside the door and kill him. (348)

He escapes, sadly. But Douglass writes

A slave could not be taken from that town seventeen years ago, any more than he could be so taken away now. the reason is, that the colored people in that city are educated up to the point of fighting for their freedom, as well as speaking for it. (348)

That brings a tear.

So Douglass comes to the attention of the abolitionists as a speaker, begins to travel and lecture. He reads more, speaks more, thinks. He is fucking brilliant, far more so than those around him and they don’t like it, tell him to speak more like a slave, to just give his story and let them denounce the wrongs and provide the solutions. Whites in the audiences start murmuring at his eloquence, refuse to believe that he is a slave as he doesn’t speak like one or act like one. Makes you want to throw things.

And so Douglass writes the first version of his autobiography to free himself from these insinuations…which is, of course, a huge risk and means his almost certain recapture. And so he goes to England. where like many others before and after, he is treated as an equal (though all this would change for other generations of Black people coming to England). Money is raised to buy his freedom so he can return to the US without the threat of recapture hanging over him. (He is criticised for allowing this, by those who don’t know what it is like to be owned or to have the fear of being taken back hanging over them.) More money is raised to provide him with a printing press, so he can begin his own paper. And the white abolitionists really fucking hate that, as you can imagine — they argue it’s not needed, that it will interfere with the lecturing they have planned for him, that he is a better speaker than writer, and that it can’t succeed. William Lloyd Garrison has his own paper after all. So Douglass moves to Rochdale to avoid competition with them. They hate it even more when, upon deep thought, Douglass decides that they are wrong in their analysis of the issue and in their tactics of refusals to vote and demands that the slave-states be cut free from the union.

He notes near the end, the many instances of racism in the north. The prejudice that existed even among abolitionists and the awkwardness of their denials underlining how deeply it ran. Like their insistence they were ‘not afraid to walk with him’. He resists the existence of ‘Jim Crow’ cars in trains and trams, refusing to move and fighting any attempts to so remove him. Jim Crow this early, in name and in segregated carriages. I had forgotten. He is such a well-connected figure by this time, his battles are successful.

At the end are a collection of speeches and damn. They are incredible, what a thing to have heard him speak. Above all the speech for the 4th of July, which I have read before. But some excerpts, first from his reception speech at Finsbury Chapel.

I am here to say that I think the term slavery is sometimes abused by identifying it with that which it is not. Slavery in the United States is the granting of that power by which one man exercises and enforces a right of poetry in the body and soul of another. The condition of a slave is simply that of the brute beast. He is a piece of property–a marketable commodity…to be bought or sold at will and caprice of the master who claims him to be his property; he is spoken of, thought of, and treated as property. His own good, his conscience, his intellect, his affections, are all set aside by the master. The will and the wishes of the master are the law of the slave. He is as much a piece of property as a horse. If he is fed, he is fed because he is property. If he is clothed, it is with a view to the increase of his value as property. Whatever of comfort is necessary to him for his body or soul that is inconsistent with his being property, is carefully wrested from him, not only by public opinion, but by the law of the country. He is carefully deprived of everything that tends in the slightest degree to detract from his value as property. He is deprived of education. God has given him an intellect; the slaveholder declares it shall not be cultivated. If his moral perception leads him in a course contrary to his value as property, the slaveholder declares he shall not exercise it. The marriage institution cannot exist among slaves, and one-sixth of the population of democratic America is denied its privileges by the law of the land. What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage? (408)

And then this rousing finale

The slaveholders want total darkness on the subject. They want the hatchway shut down, that the monster may crawl in his den of darkness, crushing human hopes and happiness, destroying the bondman at will, and having no one to reprove or rebuke him. Slavery shrinks from the light; it hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest its deeds should be reproved. To tear off the mask from this abominable system, to expose it to the light of heaven, aye, to the heat of the sun, that it may burn and wither it out of existence, is my object in coming to this country. I want the slaveholder surrounded, as by a wall of anti-slavery fire, so that he may see the condemnation of himself and his system glaring down in letters of light. (418)

There is the letter to his old master, written on the anniversary of his escape. It is excoriating, and also moving…

The fact is, there are few here who would not return to the South in the event of emancipation. We want to live in the land of our birth, and to lay our bones by the side of our fathers’; and nothing short of an intense love of personal freedom keeps us from the South. For the sake of this, most of us would live on a crust of bread and a cup of cold water.(424)

At this moment, you are probably the guilty holder of at least three of my own dear sisters, and my only brother in bondage. These you regard as your property. They are recorded on your ledger, or perhaps have been sold to human flesh mongers, with a view to filling your own ever-hungry purse. Sir, I desire to know how and where these dear sisters are. Have you sold them? or are they still in your possession? What has become of them? are they living or dead? And my dear old grandmother, whom you turned out like an old horse, to die in the woods—is she still alive? Write and let me know all about them. (426-427)

Speech on The Nature of Slavery:

First of all, I will state, as well as I can, the legal and social relation of master and slave. A master is one—to speak in the vocabulary of the southern states—who claims and exercises a right of property in the person of a fellow-man. This he does with the force of the law and the sanction of southern religion. The law gives the master absolute power over the slave. He may work him, flog him, hire him out, sell him, and, in certain contingencies, kill him, with perfect impunity. The slave is a human being, divested of all rights—reduced to the level of a brute—a mere “chattel” in the eye of the law—placed beyond the circle of human brotherhood—cut off from his kind—his name, which the “recording angel” may have enrolled in heaven, among the blest, is impiously inserted in a master’s ledger, with horses, sheep, and swine. In law, the slave has no wife, no children, no country, and no home. He can own nothing, possess nothing, acquire nothing, but what must belong to another. To eat the fruit of his own toil, to clothe his person with the work of his own hands, is considered stealing. He toils that another may reap the fruit; he is industrious that another may live in idleness; he eats unbolted meal that another may eat the bread of fine flour; he labors in chains at home, under a burning sun and biting lash, that another may ride in ease and splendor abroad; he lives in ignorance that another may be educated; he is abused that another may be exalted; he rests his toil-worn limbs on the cold, damp ground that another may repose on the softest pillow; he is clad in coarse and tattered raiment that another may be arrayed in purple and fine linen; he is sheltered only by the wretched hovel that a master may dwell in a magnificent mansion; and to this condition he is bound down as by an arm of iron.

From this monstrous relation there springs an unceasing stream of most revolting cruelties. The very accompaniments of the slave system stamp it as the offspring of hell itself. To ensure good behavior, the slaveholder relies on the whip; to induce proper humility, he relies on the whip; to rebuke what he is pleased to term insolence, he relies on the whip; to supply the place of wages as an incentive to toil, he relies on the whip; to bind down the spirit of the slave, to imbrute and destroy his manhood, he relies on the whip, the chain, the gag, the thumb-screw, the pillory, the bowie knife the pistol, and the blood-hound. These are the necessary and unvarying accompaniments of the system. Wherever slavery is found, these horrid instruments are also found. (429-430)

It is only when we contemplate the slave as a moral and intellectual being, that we can adequately comprehend the unparalleled enormity of slavery, and the intense criminality of the slaveholder. I have said that the slave was a man. … The first work of slavery is to mar and deface those characteristics of its victims which distinguish men from things, and persons from property. Its first aim is to destroy all sense of high moral and religious responsibility. It reduces man to a mere machine. It cuts him off from his Maker, it hides from him the laws of God, and leaves him to grope his way from time to eternity in the dark, under the arbitrary and despotic control of a frail, depraved, and sinful fellow-man. (431)

What to the slave is the 4th of July? (listen to James Earl Jones read it here)

Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? (441)

Those words are still pretty true.

America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! (442)

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? (444)

Words cannot express my admiration or respect. Yet I am still full of questions, about the wife who came from Maryland also, about her life, about the day to day…more to read, always more to read.

Frederick Douglass, Syracuse, New York, July–August 1843; whole-plate daguerreotype by an unknown photographer, from Picturing Frederick Douglass

Douglass, Frederick (1969 [1855]) My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Origins of Fear…from Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

Cora rarely thought of the boy she had killed. She did not need to defend her actions in the woods that night; no one had the right to call her to account. Terrance Randall provided a model for a mind that could conceive of North Carolina’s new system, but the scale of the violence was hard to settle in her head. Fear drove these people, even more than cotton money. The shadow of the black hand that will return what has been given. It occurred to her one night that she was one of the vengeful monsters they were scared of: She had killed a white boy. She might kill one of them next. And because of that fear, they erected a new scaffolding of oppression on the cruel foundation laid hundreds of years before. That was Sea Island cotton the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and that crop grew fast. The whites were right to be afraid. One day the system would collapse in blood (206)

Loved this book.

[Whitehead, Colson (2016) The Underground Railroad. London: Fleet.]

Wendell Berry on Racism: The Hidden Wound

Wendell Berry The Hidden WoundIn 1968, Wendell Berry wrote The Hidden Wound — a fascinating look at U.S. racism and its connection to land and work from this incredible environmentalist who grew up in a family that still remembered owning slaves. I’ve been trying to get my head around the way that the current terrifying onslaught of policies of hate and fear are so closely tied to Christianity — and yes I know Crusades and witch burnings and pogroms and the Inquisition and… I know. But this helped explain the particular moment we are in as Americans better than anything I’ve read in while from a point of view that I don’t often read.

It opens with a frank admission:

I have been unwilling, until now, to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound–a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life….If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound unto himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society. (3-4)

This damage now erupted brutally into the open keeps me up at night.

Berry writes of the casual stories told by his family, remembering the past. There is one story in particular of a slave that had to be sold because he would not be good (and how much Black pain lies in that white concept of ‘good’?):

The story has passed from generation to generation in flight from its horror. It has been told and retold, surely, because in the depths of our souls we all have recognized in it an evil that is native to us and that we cannot escape. (8-9)

Still, slave owners tried to escape its consequences, and this required particular habits and manners of thought. Berry describes the double nature that had to exist in religion, for example. We all know the Bible says to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies, to ‘lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth’, to do unto others as you would have done unto you — all things Southern society would be glad that slaves (and their descendants) should live by. But whites clearly did not, could not live these beliefs, without freeing slaves (or returning all that land to Native Americans rather than attempting their total destruction). This shaped white Christianity in very particular ways, and Berry’s description of it resonates so strongly today…

Thus the moral obligation was cleanly excerpted from the religion. the question of how best to live on the earth, among one’s fellow creatures, was permitted to atrophy, and the churches devoted themselves exclusively and obsessively with the question of salvation. (17)

I think current events have been ripping the covers off, revealing the fruit of this.

Berry also shares thoughts on language, how this double nature existed there too and shaped the words people used, how they thought.

Within the context of prejudice and segregation, the two races had to get along, and so there was an etiquette of speech that one learned from the cradle: one “respected the feelings” of Negroes, when in their presence one did not flaunt one’s “superiority” or use the word nigger… But more important, within the language there was a silence, an emptiness, of exactly the shape of the humanity of the black man; the language I spoke in my childhood and youth was in that way analagous to a mold in which a statue is to be cast. The operations, then, were that one could, by a careful observance of the premises of the language, keep the hollow empty and thus avoid the pain of the recognition of the humanity of an oppressed people and of one’s own guilt in their oppression; or one could, willing or not, be forced by the occasions of sympathy and insight to break out of those premises into a speech of another and more particular order, so that the hollow begins to fill with the substance of a life that one must recognize as human and demanding. (19)

Later he writes:

The word nigger might be thought of as rattling around, with devastating noise and impact, within the silence, that black-man-shaped hollow, inside our language. (50)

This is so chilling, makes so much sense. There is so much to undo, and Wendell Berry writes about the difficulties of undoing it:

I am trying to establish the outline of an understanding of myself in regard to what was fated to be the continuing crisis of my life, the crisis of racial awareness–the sense of being doomed by my history to be, if not always a racist, then a man always limited by the inheritance of racism, condemned to be always conscious of the necessity not to be a racist, to be always dealing deliberately with the reflexes of racism that are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak. (48-49)

This is a process deeply rooted in history, in the origins of the country, in the ways that whites sought to take what was not theirs, and then to force others to work on it.

From the beginning also, as the white man made his drive into the continent, to take it from its wilderness and its original inhabitants and possess it, there were two great necessities: one was to own the land, to establish and maintain a legal claim; the second was the enormous and continuing labor it took to convert such ownership into the profits which would preserve and augment it. In the parts of the country where there was a black labor force these necessities were divided, in theory at least; the white man was to be the owner, the black man was to be the laborer. (80)

The results could only be a twisted and misshapen society whose ultimate values had been conquest and profit. Berry writes:

The white man, preoccupied with the abstractions of the economic exploitation and ownership of the land, necessarily has lived on the country as a destructive force, an ecological catastrophe, because he assigned the hand labor, and in that the possibility of intimate knowledge of the land, to a people he considered racially inferior; in thus debasing labor, he destroyed the possibility of a meaningful contact with the earth…The history of the white man’s use of the earth in America is a scandal. (105)

He also writes:

Whereas the whites, as a group, have produced here only a pernicious value system, based on greed and egotism and the lust for status and comfort, without either an elemental knowledge on the one hand or a decent social vision on the other. What the whites have produced of cultural value had come into being in the face of either indifference or opposition on the part of most whites… (81)

And yet for so many years, race has been seen as the ‘Negro Problem’ (or the Mexican problem, or the Asian problem…), when not only is it a problem of all Americans, but resonates through each and every one of our relationships:

It seems to me that racism could not possibly have made merely a mechanical division between the two races; at least in America it did not. It involves an emotional dynamics that has disordered the heart both of the society as a whole and of every person in the society. It has made divisions not only between white people and black people, but between black men and black women, white men and white women; it has come between white people and their work, and between white people and their land. It has fragmented both our society and our minds. (91)

This not least because

Whites fear what they feel, secretly or otherwise, to be the righteousness of the anger of blacks; as the oppressors they feel, secretly or otherwise, morally inferior to those they have oppressed. (92)

Where does wholeness lie? A better future? In recognising that

…no man is alone, because he cannot be; he cannot arrange it so that either the good or the bad effects of his life will apply only to himself; he can only live in the creation, among the creatures, his life either adding to the commonwealth or subtracting from it. Men are whole not only insofar as they make common cause with each other, but also insofar as they make common cause with their native earth, which is to say with the creation as a whole, which is to say with the creator. (104)

It involves recognizing the crimes against native peoples, and in all humility learning from them.

For examples of a whole and indigenous American society, functioning in full meaning and good health within the ecology of this continent, we will have to look back to the cultures of the Indians. That we failed to learn from them how to live in this land is a stupidity–a racial stupidity–that will corrode the heart of our society until the day comes, if it ever does, when we do turn back to learn from them. (107)

It involves recognising the humanity of all.

As soon as we have filled the hollow in our culture, the silence in our speech, with the fully realized humanity of the black man–and it follows, of the American Indian–then there will appear over the horizon of our consciousness another figure as well: that of the American white man, our own humanity, lost to us these three and a half centuries, the time of all our life on this continent.

It is not, I think, a question of when and how the white people will “free” the black people and the red people. It is a condescension to believe that we have the power to do that. Until we have recognized in them the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity we will be able to set no one free, for we will not be free ourselves. When we realize that they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain, then the wound in our history will be healed. Then they will simply be free, among us–and so will we, among ourselves for the first time, and among them. (108)

There is more here I want to write about, about race and land, work, memory… but later. For now I will end with a quote from the Afterward, written in 1988, a plea to recognise the only things that could possibly make us truly safe and secure:

There is no safety in belonging to the select few… If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbors’ prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities – and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared. We would be looking too for another another kind of freedom. Our present idea of freedom is only the freedom to do as we please…But that is a freedom dependent upon affluence, which is in turn dependent upon the rapid consumption of exhaustible supplies. The other kind of freedom is the freedom to take care of ourselves and each other. The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.

Our place of safety can only be the community, and not just one community, but many of them everywhere. (129)

[Berry, Wendell (1989, 2010) The Hidden Wound. Berkeley: Counterpoint.]











Septima Clark — The Glorious Complexities of Identity

Ready From Within - Septima ClarkSeptima Poinsette Clark’s background is found in the second part of Ready From Within, you can read more about the first on her life and work here. Once again I found myself bumping against my own unconsciously contained ideas of identity.  The editor Cynthia Brown noted her own surprise when she saw Rosa Parks let her hair down and it fell below her waist… Rosa Parks smiled at her, and said kindly she was part Native American. How had I never heard that before? Septima Clark’s background is just as wondrously complex — exactly the complexity that the U.S. brand of racism strips away by reducing everything to the absurdity of a drop of blood defining a status that whites have long tried to hold forcibly down at the bottom.

Clark writes that her mother was born free, and that she:

…had three distinct sets of brother and sisters. The first set was mulatto, two girls with soft curly brown hair. then came three ginger-colored boys with soft black hair. Then came three girls including my mother, Victoria. They were medium-brown with soft straight black hair. Their father was Indian, from the Muskhogean tribes who lived on the sea islands from Charleston to Savannah, Georgia.

Born free, her mother, and then raised in the heart of the 3rd great revolution (and much more revolutionary than the US revolution if we’re at all honest):

My mother was born in Charleston but reared in Haiti…those three little girls were sent to Haiti to be raised by their older brothers, who were cigar makers there. (89)

Her mother was very proud of this claim, that she never was in slavery. Very unlike Clark’s father who was freed by the civil war as a teenager, and remembered this freedom as a worrying time. His surname Poinsette came from his former master, a botanist for whom the Poinsettia is named.

I think about the connections between language, culture and place embodied in the intertwinings of this single family’s history — and the simple identity assigned to Septima Poinsette Clark fairly boggles the mind. How soon can we leave these damn binaries behind us?

There are also fascinating insights here into the early traditions of education and how they play into these complexities. There was a local public school, but Clark would have been one of 100 students for the one teacher. Her mother worked to get her into a private school:

There were lots of black women who had little schools in their homes–in their kitchens, in their dining rooms, or in little shed rooms. (98)

These schools ran on their own hierarchies — and this whole story of education resulted in a class pride that Clark had to work hard to undo through the rest of her life in struggle. She remembers that her teacher:

didn’t take  just anybody who had the money for tuition. She chose her pupils from the blacks who boasted of being free issues, people who had never been slaves. These people constituted a sort of upper caste. (99)

From there she went on to the Avery Institute, getting her teaching certificate in 1916. The Avery Institute is hell of fascinating — itself emblematic of the complexities of identity and the immense possibilities opened up by Reconstruction. Francis Louis Cardozo founded it, his father the Jewish editor of a newspaper, his mother half black and half Native American. They sent their son Francis to school in Europe; after his return he became the first black Secretary of State for South Carolina during reconstruction. (101)

The racist laws against marriage meant Cardozo’s parents never officially married — two such interracial families lived on Clark’s street while she was growing up, but her mother always looked down on them for living together outside of wedlock. Not everything was nice and friendly back in the day.

Clark’s first job was on Johns Island, part of a network of islands along the South Carolina coast. It took nine hours in a boat to get there from Charleston. She talks about the prevalence of African words, Gullah. She taught how that idiom as spoken related to ‘correct English’ (de to be written down as the…). She worked there several years, and then moved back to teach in Charleston.

How did she become fully radicalized? It took a little while:

I want to start my story with the end of World War II because that is when the civil rights movement really got going, both for me personally and for people all over the south. After World War II the men were coming home from fighting in Europe and Africa, and they weren’t going to take segregation any more. (23)

It was still some time before a fellow teacher introduced her to Highlander, the kind of space that encouraged her to step into her full potential and change the course of the growing civil rights movement. From there she never looked back, and never lost her faith in the ability of people to develop:

You know, the measure of a person is how much they develop in their life. Some people slow down in their growth after they become adults… But you never know when a person’s going to leap forward, or change around completely. (103)

One of my favourite quotes from her, and I’ve used this once already, is on growing old, and the opportunities that change and chaos bring:

But I really do feel that this is the best part of life. It’s not that you have just grown old, but it is how you have grown old. I feel that I have grown old with dreams that I want to come true, and that I have grown old believing there is always a beautiful lining to that cloud that overshadows things. I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift, and this has come during my old age. (125)

Maybe if more righteous elders were like her and celebrated such things, we would be in a better place. To end, the one thing we all have to remember:

The only thing that’s really worthwhile is change. It’s coming. (126)

You want to see my new favourite photos?

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks:

Image Courtesy of Highlander Research and Education Center
Image Courtesy of Highlander Research and Education Center


Senior power!






John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea at Bristol’s Arnolfini

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaVertigo Sea, a solo exhibition of two films showing through 10th April, 2016 at Bristol’s Arnolfini, its UK premiere. Where better to see such films exploring the connections between oceans and Empire, slavery and migration and the killing of our natural world than this city built with slavery’s profits?

We saw Vertigo Sea first, sat confronting the sea and movement and death and forced migrations on film across three screens. The sounding of waves. The vastness of ocean. The smallness of our own stature in the face of it. The wonder of the creatures who live within it. I imagine the feeling of always being held, wonder if that sounding of waves is something that lives within you if you live within the ocean, if your heart beats to it. Birds, thousands and millions of birds swirl across its surface, like algae, like the shoals of fish that dive and spin.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah “Vertigo Sea” (2015). Installationsview. Nikolaj Kunsthal. Foto Léa Nielsen

Water is here too in the form of snow, vast expanses, glaciers, landscapes we all know are fast disappearing.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Arnolfini. Photo Stuart Whipps

Always the vastness of the world, the ocean, the water. Moisture as great banks of cloud upon the earth. Then the vastness of death we ourselves leave behind. The killing of wild things, the carving up of whales, the rivers of blood.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea

There are those who travel oceans to kill alongside the desperation of others traveling the oceans prised lose from land by war and famine and searching for life and hope. The desperation of others traveling the oceans ripped from all they know, plundered for work and death in lands far away. The oceans connect us in so many ways. Look how we have moved across them, look how we have died in them, look how we have hunted and killed in them. This is a unique meditation on human violence in the face of great, impersonal force.

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaFrom the exhibition guide:

The inspiration for the work came from a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian migrants who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. They expressed the feeling of being faced by something vaster and more awesome than they had thought possible. While the sea is mesmerising, universally compelling and beautiful, it is also a uniquely inhospitable environment. It is difficult for us, as humans used to having control over our surroundings, to grasp the enormity of this constantly changing element, and the word ‘vertigo’ perhaps refers to this unfathomable reach.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the middle of the desert, but I love the feeling of being small, love the feeling of being just a tiny part of the world, in the world rather than in control of the world. We are never in control of the world. But I imagine this installation feels different to me than to others, I wonder if it does provoke a sense of control being absent. An overwhelming. I hope so.

But how I mourned through this film, mourned the death and all of those lost. Now and then, too, I turned my eyes from the killing.

We couldn’t see both installations the same day, seemed to us Vertigo Sea was too powerful. So we went back to watch Tropikos two weekends later.

Situated in Plymouth and the Tamar Valley – locations with significant, though largely forgotten connections with the expansion of European power and influence – Tropikos is an experimental drama set in the 16th century.
Akomfrah’s starting point for the film was the connection between the waterways of the South West and the slave trade. In this film, the river landscape is transformed into an historic English port to re-imagine some of the first British encounters with people from Africa.
Again, the pounding of oceans. Elizabethan costumes vs white draped simplicity, the deep roar of passage and rending, black skin in water and warmth but there is the looming English presence behind and you long to call out, to warn. Too late.
John Akomfrah, Tropikos,
John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016 | Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Black faces are seen in frigid English landscapes, floating still and silent down the Tamar, landscape passing in emerald fields and grey skies behind these people stolen and surrounded by goods stolen with them. Bowls overflow with pearls and precious things, corn, roots and tubers. Dressed first in simplicity, but later boxed into new finery.

Tropikos, John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Always there is the sounding of oceans.

Only one table shows what England gave in return: wildflowers, a bible, a sword.

Death is here too, it is hanging. Birds and fish with glassy eyes and bodies cut to let them bleed. Other trees hung with pineapples and daikon radishes. Always the cold arrogant English faces in contrast, husband and wife unable to speak to touch to share the same spaces. Sidelong glances at the others come among them.

Words from Hakluyt, Shakespeare, Milton, Gaston Bachelard….they mingle with Melville from Vertigo Sea. Both are powerful, both had moments so reminiscent of his other work, particularly Last Angel of History, but perhaps it is because I saw that not too long ago. But there are these stills, posed, surreal elements of physical things with a huge weight of symbolic meaning. The detritus of our lives washed up on the stones, yielded by the water. The ending of time.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea (2015). Still. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy

Go see them if you can.

For more on race, environment and empire…



The Mysteries of Paris (a la Eugène Sue )

Poster announcing the publication of Les Mystères de Paris (1843), a French language novel by Eugène Sue (1804-1857)
Poster announcing the publication of Les Mystères de Paris (1843), a French language novel by Eugène Sue (1804-1857)

Eugene Sue has raised himself above the horizon of his own narrow world view. He has delivered a slap in the face of bourgeois prejudice.
–Karl Marx

How could anyone resist a back-cover blurb like that? Along with a slap, Sue also delivered a fairly rip-roaring story of good and evil and murder and love and hate and an immensity of sentimentality as it involves both princes and thieves, but really, you can’t care too much about that because it is what it is and it’s entirely enjoyable.

Well, until the last few chapters, maybe even the last third. Sue was just dragging shit out by then. You can tell it was published in 90 installments as one of the first serial novels, but there is something quite wonderful about this sprawling art form published in the Journal des débats from 19 June 1842 until 15 October 1843.

I am so glad Karl Marx found it irresistible.

It opens on the streets in the cité:

a labyrinth of obscure, crooked, and narrow streets, which extend from the Palais de Justice to Nôtre Dame.

Wretched houses, with scarcely a window, and those of worm-eaten frames, without any glass; dark, infectious-looking alleys led to still darker looking staircases, so steep that they could only be ascended by the aid of ropes fastened to the damp walls by iron hooks; the lower stories of some of these houses were occupied by sellers of charcoal, tripemen, or vendors of impure meat; and notwithstanding the little value of these commodities, the windows of the miserable shops were barred with iron, so much did the owners fear the bold robbers of this quarter. (9)


And so we come to the Rue aux Fèves, where our hero Rodolphe saves our heroine La Goualouse (but wait, it’s probably not quite what you think):

Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer - Le cabaret du Lapin Blanc, rue aux Fèves, 1875-1882
Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer – Le cabaret du Lapin Blanc, rue aux Fèves, 1875-1882 (after it had been demolished through Haussmanisation around 1860)

and they go to the Lapin Blanc:

It was a long, low room into which they entered, with smoky ceiling and black rafters, badly lighted by the murky rays of a miserable lamp. The whitewashed walls were covered with vulgar sketches, or with sentences in slang; the floor of beaten earth and salt was covered with mud; an armful of straw was placed at the foot of the counter or bar of the Ogresse instead of a carpet, and this was situated near the door, and under the lamp on each side of this room there were placed six tables, one end of each, as well as the benches, nailed to the walls. (15)


They just don’t build shit like this anymore. Nor would it remain standing much longer. Of course, Sue was probably paid by the word and thus paid to describe in detail, but I am so glad he did. The ogresse watches the bar, rents rooms, and rents clothes to young women — the book never calls her a procures but it is clear she also plays this kind of role. But I won’t give the plot away, wikipedia does that quite well.

This all takes place only a few years before the uprisings and barricades and attempts at revolution in 1848, those heady years fomented in just such small cafes in the cité. It is why Haussman was so determined to demolish them, along with the narrow labyrinths of streets so easily defended. But that all comes later.

There is no hint of revolution here, just greed and some terribly involved crimes and some very simple ones. This is, in fact, rather a reactionary tale — like in the way that blood defines character for example, so when La Goualouse ends up back in prison

I asked some of them who slept in the same room with her what was the cause of the difference [deference? Sic] shown her. ‘That’s more than we can tell,’ they answered: ‘it is plain she is not one of us.‘ ‘But who told you so?’ ‘No one told us: we see it in a thousand things. For instance, lat night, before she went to bed, she went on her knees and said her prayers; as she prays, as La Louve said, she must have a right to pray. (218)

God, the good old days when only the better classes with their blameless lives had the right to pray.

There is a black physician, rescued from American slavery, who is kind and good and wise. That’s a nice change, and almost undoubtedly a jab at America (this nationalist pride probably also explains the English nobleman in humble service of the European Prince). This book is reactionary on the subject of race in every other respect — there’s noticably no mention of Haiti here and I’ll get to Algiers in a bit. But first there is David’s wife who is a creole light enough to pass, and of course she is beautiful and unbalanced and Sue makes a fine art of insulting people here:

Her detestable predilections, for some time restrained by her real attachment for David, were developed in Europe; civilisation and the climactical influence of the North had tempered the violence, modified the expression. Instead of casting herself violently on her prey, and thinking only, like her compeers. to destroy as soon as possible their life and fortune, Cecily, fixing on her victims her magnetic glances, commenced by attracting them, little by little, into the blazing whirlwind which seemed to emanate from her… (283)

There is a great deal more in this vein and she causes an evil man to lose his reason entirely as part of a plot of vengeance on the side of good. That gets a bit confusing, but she’s clearly just in here to ratchet up the sex quotient (hard to do with everyone so good and pure). This involves some quite extraordinary detailed descriptions of her Alsatian costume (she’s in disguise involving a shortish skirt showing some leg and a laced up bodice) that would please the most OCD of fetishists. I know a lot more about race, class and corsets in 1840s France than I did before this book.

There is a whole lot here about female purity and the ways that shame can never be forgotten nor forgiven, the infuriating view that rape is always somehow the woman’s fault and she is never pure as a woman should be after. In fact, she’s better dead or in a nunnery. There’s a whole lot of stupid aristocratic nonsense. The Saxe-Gotha almanach makes an appearance. Another unbalanced woman. Once this story starts heading for these exalted shores it becomes much less interesting I confess. But given my interest in the intertwined histories of Europe and its colonies, it is fascinating that Rodolphe sends the thieves who have repented of their past off to Algiers to forge their new future.

I think in some ways this is the dream that Europeans and white Americans (and white Africans and Australians and etc etc) held to most — that opportunity to go somewhere, find some land, leave behind what you were and reinvent yourself anew. A new chance, a new and better future you define for yourself rather than entrapment into the one you were born into.

…they mutually congratulated each other on the agreeable prospects before them in Algiers.

And so everything was sacrificed, above all those occupying the land that financed and made reinvention possible. Those original occupants had to be made less. Even the infamous empathy of our heroine does not even give a quiver at this:

To end your family of protégés, my lord, I will add that Germain has read in the papers that Martial, a planter in Algiers, has been spoken of with great praise for the courage he has shown in repulsing, at the head of his farmers, an attack of thievish Arabs, and that his wife, as intrepid as himself, had been slightly wounded in the side while she was discharging her gun like a real grenadier. From that time…she has been called Madame Carabine. (365)

That’s one for the women, but only in defense of white privilege to take over farms by conquest. Here the roots of the pied noirs and the bloody conflict stretching across years and decades and as formative of France as it would be of Algeria. As a footnote, but I am always fascinated by just how much the colonies infuse the consciousness and the stories of the colonisers when you look.

For more on Paris…



The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole

Mary Seacole's House, Soho SquareThey are wonderful indeed, and surprising in their content. I knew Mary Seacole only vaguely as a Black nurse — as brave as Florence Nightingale in service of the soldiers in the Crimea, but too-much forgotten by history because of her race. I found her plaque in Soho Square ages ago, which is when she went onto my reading list, moved up by encounters at the Black Cultural Archives and thinking about Empire. I read this seeking London and Black experience here as much as anything else, and didn’t find it at all but I was not sad about that.

London seems most tame, a stopping place between New Granada and the Crimea, which is a novel place for this city, and not a bad one at all.

709969In her life she did everything possible to burst the constraints placed on her by gender and race, while also clearly enjoying her own femininity — I love that she redefines an understanding of ‘feminine’ to include long and dangerous travels, courage under fire, intense compassion for all human beings, immense curiosity about the world, and a love of beautiful dresses and home comforts.

I cannot forget her temper, either. It carries her through swashbuckling-wise.

In this she subverts other long-held feminine conventions in her love of war and its pageantry, which she sees as adventure even after experiencing it — had she been born a man in this period she would have been a soldier as her Scottish father was I am sure. That was one boundary she was not prepared to cross as a handful of other women did by giving up their identity as women all together. So instead she learned how to heal, and sought out adventures — the Crimean War being only one of them — where her talents would do the most good.

A watercolour painting of Mary Seacole (c. 1850)
A watercolour painting of Mary Seacole (c. 1850)

Restless and wishing to see the world (while also fleeing tragedy in the death of her mother and husband), she follows her brother from Jamaica (her place of birth) to New Granada — a centralist republic that has since been divided into pieces of modern-day Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador (I knew this old history of South America once, but it was a jolt to recover it again, I had forgotten these older divisions, a good reminder of how shifting nations and boundaries really are).

New Granada
New Granada

Her story reminded me so much of the works by B. Traven — but without that discomfort I sometimes get, that feeling of just another European slumming (though he was better than most, I know). There, in Cruces then Gorgona, Panama, she opened up a hotel and restaurant, while also battling outbreaks of cholera.

The early ties between this country and the US are fascinating — many Estadounidenses travelled from the East Coast to California by sea, making the hard trek across Panama to travel by sea once more. This included both US troops and the goldrushers seeking California.

I knew some of this, vaguely, but before reading this I had no sense of what that might entail. I am newly fascinated by the slaves who fled South to freedom — we never learned about that road in school. Seacole writes:

I may have before said that the citizens of New Granada Republic had a strong prejudice against all Americans. It is not difficult to assign a cause for this. In the first place, many of the negroes, fugitive from the Southern States, had sought refuge in this and other States of Central America, where every profession was open to them; and as they were generally superior men–evinced perhaps by their hatred of their old condition and their successful flight–they soon rose to positions of eminence in New Granada. In the priesthood, in the army, in all municipal offices, the self-liberated negroes were invariably found in the foremost rank; and the people, for some reason–perhaps because they recognised in them superior talents for administration–always respected them more than, and preferred them to, their native rulers. So that, influenced naturally by these freed slaves, who bore themselves before their old masters bravely and like men, the New Granada people were strongly prejudiced against the Americans. And in the second and third places, they feared their quarrelsome, bullying habits — be it remembered that the crowds to California were of the lowest sorts, many of whom have since fertilised Cuban and Nicaraguan soil–and dreaded their schemes for annexation (51).

She gives a particular example of a toast from a Southern man — and it gives a sense of her spirit and character. The toast:

So, I say, God bless the best yaller woman He ever made…I calculate, gentlemen, you’re all as vexed as I am that she’s not wholly white —, but I du reckon on your rejoicing with me that she’s so many shades removed from being entirely black —; and I guess, if we could bleach her by any means we would —, and thus make her as acceptable in any company as she deserves to be… (47)

Her response:

…I don’t altogether appreciate your friend’s kind wishes with respect to my complexion. If it had been as dark as any nigger’s I should have been just as happy and as useful, and as much respected by those whose respect I value; and as to his offer of bleaching me, I should, even if it were practicable, decline it without any thanks. As to the society which the process might gain me admission into, all I can say is, that, judging from the specimens I have met with here and elsewhere, I don’t think that I shall lose much by being excluded from it. So, gentlemen, I drink to you and the general reformation of American manners. (48)

The round goes to Mother Seacole.

In Gorgona she ran a hotel for women only. She returned to Jamaica, came back, still restless. On Navy Bay she writes:

my friend Mr. H—- … carefully piloted me through the wretched streets, giving me especial warning not to stumble over what looked like three long boxes, loosely covered with the débris of a fallen house. They had such a peculiar look about them that I stopped to ask what they were, receiving an answer which revived all my former memories of Darien life, “Oh, they’re only three Irishmen killed in a row a week ago, whom its nobody’s business to bury.” (63-64)

That hurt my heart. Her descriptions are wonderfully evocative of place — her restlessness drives her to a tiny town called  Escribanos, 70 miles from Navy Bay, and here follows the most surprising adventure, at least to me:

As I was at this place for some months altogether, and as it was the only portion of my life devoted to gold-seeking, I shall make no apologies for endeavouring to describe the out-of-the-way-village-life of New Granada. (65)

She writes:

And I once did come upon some heavy yellow material, that brought my heart into my mouth with that strange thrilling delight which all who have hunted for the precious metal understand so well (67).

She became a prospector! I and my family know that delight, and this resonated curiously with the two African American women who were prominent prospectors in Arizona’s Superstitions.  This was only ever a brief sideline however, her central occupations as always being running a comfortable(ish) place offering room and board, and healing all those who came to her. Charging those who could pay, but never failing to attend those who could not. A good thing too, as she had found what must have been pyrite.

Her descriptions of life there are wonderful, and here is a glimpse, too, of the lives of those who escaped slavery — Carlos Alexander, the alcalde:

He was a black man; was fond of talking of his early life in slavery, and how he had escaped; and possessed no ordinary intellect. He possessed, also, a house, which in England a well-bred hound would not have accepted as a kennel; a white wife, and a pretty daughter, with a whitey-brown complexion and a pleasant name — Juliana. (66)

Hers is a curious matter-of-factness, especially around race, and is not untainted by the racism of the times. She has a servant she calls Jew Johnny, there are numbers of uncomfortable descriptions of Greeks and Turks and her own black servants (she saw herself as creole). There is no way to know, now, if this was just part of an easy and joking familiarity, if there was a sense of shared oppression, or if her relations were as regulated by the strict hierarchy of skin colour and nationality as any others.

We won’t know in part because this book is not just a description of her life, as she says, but a defense of it — and a defense of her own capacity both as a nurse and a woman (and it still needs defending from the likes of the Daily Mail). I cannot help but feel she believed she was defending the capacity, courage and intelligence of all women of colour, along with traditional medicine and the knowledge that comes with experience rather than Oxbridge.

We are still fighting all of these things.

She had her own battles every step of her journey, especially to get to the Crimea where she felt called. She marshals a number of short and formal notes of recommendation from important men as credentials in her support. She highlights this near the end:

Please look back to Chapter VIII, and see how hard the right woman had to struggle to convey herself to the right place. (134)

But my favourite letter is from a common soldier, it is warm and personal and gives you a true sense of her courage and compassion and what she meant to those fighting. Makes me wish she had not been under those constraints of bankruptcy along with general disrespect and disbelief both for her gender, and for her race.

Sketch of Mary Seacole's "British Hotel" in the Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818-1913).
Sketch of Mary Seacole’s “British Hotel” in the Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818-1913).

A last photo of her:

The only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873)
The only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873)

And a final note that Mary Seacole recommended butter in coffee over a century before the hipsters did.


On Slavery and Abolitionists: The History of Mary Prince

mp-book-204x300Autobiographical yet co-produced, this is as much an autobiography of the indomitable Mary Prince in all that is said, as the evangelical abolitionists who supported her bid for freedom in all that is left unsaid.

Mary Prince–born into slavery in Brackish Pond, Bermuda in 1788, she lived with her mother and siblings with the Williams family, helping take care of a little girl named Betsy who ‘used to lead me about by the hand, and call me her little nigger’ (57).

No images survive of Mary Prince herself, but this is the photo that has often been used to illustrate her story.

But with the death of Mrs Williams the family split, as a young girl she was auctioned away from her family (though she maintained contact with them, even as her mother retreats into madness), and into a string of homes where she would be worked and starved and suspended naked from the ceiling and whipped. Every day there is a stream of abuse, of name-calling, pinching, slapping, beating that is said, and a subtext of sexual abuse that goes unsaid. She is almost killed by one master, falls ill and is essentially left to die by another. All of it is heartbreaking, horrific, rings with truth, yet few of her time wished to believe it.

My favourite sentence:

Mrs. Wood was very angry — she grew quite outrageous — she called me a black devil, and asked me who had put freedom into my head. ‘To be free is very sweet,’ I said… (86)

This is a graphic tale of oppression and a proud spirit pushing back against it as hard as she could, making her stands where possible, working always towards buying her freedom. It is also clearly stripped of all sexual content. Some of this is perforce put back in again, through the lawsuit of her last owners the Woods against Thomas Pringle, the abolitionist who had taken Mary Prince in as a servant and published her life history.

Her bad moral character becomes part of their case against her in defending their own good name after Mary Prince leaves them in London and petitions Parliament to force them to sell her her freedom. She testifies before the judge, and thus emerges in the frigid light of Victorian morality some of what was left unsaid by those who helped her share her life–but surely not all. It initiated a small level of discussion of slavery and morality (but of rape nothing is said of course), and the defense submitted a letter from Joseph Phillips of Antigua stating the following:

Of the immoral conduct ascribed to Molly by Mr. Wood, I can say nothing further than this — that I have heard she had at a former period (previous to her marriage) a connexion [sic] with a white person, a Capt.– which I have no doubt was broken off when she became seriously impressed with religion. But, at any rate, such connexions are so common, I might almost say universal, in our slave colonies, that except by the missionaries and a few serious persons, they are considered, if faults at all, so very venial as  scarcely to deserve the name of immorality. Mr. Wood knows this colonial estimate of such connexions as well as I do; and however false such an estimate must be allowed to be, especially when applied to their own conduct by persons of education, pretending to adhere to the pure Christian rule of morals… (letter from Mr Joseph Phillips of Antigua,1831,  p 111)

I found this somewhat jaw-dropping, I don’t know why. Perhaps its openness in comparison to the brutal public adherence to Victorian morals by everyone else, even though guilty of so much. There is a great deal in here — beyond what is censored from Mary’s account — showing the abolitionists in all their moral high-handedness and racism as well. Moira Ferguson (the editor) shares an anecdote from Peter Fryer in Staying Power:

When members and friends of the African and Asian society dined at a tavern in 1816, with Wilberforce in the chair, the token Africans and Asians invited to the gathering were separated from the other guests by a screen set across one end of the room.

And this is from the letter of Thomas Pringle in Mary’s defense:

Her chief faults, so far as we have discovered them, are, a somewhat violent and hasty temper, and a considerable share of natural pride and self-importance; but these defects have been but rarely and transiently manifested and have scarcely occasioned an hour’s uneasiness at any time in our household  (p. 115-116)

She had every right to be proud, had survived more and won more than Mr Pringle could have ever dreamed of. Yet he still relegated her to her ‘place’ as servant obedient to his will. It says more about his character than anything else I think, and his wife and her sister also, who themselves examined and testified to the terrible scarring of her body and still expected her to serve them.

His letter ends with a comparison with Brazil — to underline the moral contamination of slavery, the dehumanization of the owner wherever it is found in words more trustworthy because not those of a former slave:

I never walked through the streets of Rio, that some house did not present to me the semblance of a bridewell, where the moans and the cries of the sufferers, and the sounds of whips and scourges within, announced to me that corporal punishment was being inflicted. Whenever I remarked this to a friend, I was always answered that the the refractory nature of the slave rendered it necessary, and no house could properly be conducted unless it was practiced (Dr Walsh, ‘Notices of Brazil’ quoted on p 122)

This is a queer mix of Mary Prince’s own voice, her own recounting of horrors suffered and resistance waged, and a considered petition to the consciences of the British. It is unclear how much of that is shaped by the Pringles themselves and how much by Mary’s understanding of what they wanted. I imagine that was quite acute, who could better gauge the realities of her life and desires and their distance from what the Pringles and others would accept? I just hope she was able to find her own peace beyond their condescension and their judgments of all she had been through and all she had done not just to survive, but to break free.


Black Marxism – Cedric J. Robinson

Black MarxismBlack Marxism is a book of immense scope and impressive in its immensity. It felt absolutely overwhelming as I read it, but going back over it, it feels more like some kind of treasure trove that will continue to yield new things every time I open its cover — so some initial lengthy yet also paradoxically brief notes…

The European Roots of Capitalism

It begins at the European beginning of Capitalism, going through the rise of the bourgeoisie through first cities, then absolutist and colonial states. As Robinson states: “European civilization is not the product of capitalism. On the contrary, the character of capitalism can only be understood in the social and historical context of its appearance.” [25] And because this is true, the age-old conceptions of race, enemy and exploitable other simply translated itself into new terms as the world changed: “As an enduring principle of European social order, the effects of racialism were bound to appear in the social expression of every strata of every European society no matter the structures upon which they were formed. None was immune. [29]”

He moves on then to look at the English working class, and how their formation was also entwined with racialism. Marx and Engels both acknowledged the existence of racial divisions, but believed that these would be erased as capitalism developed, even though there did not appear to be signs of it happening. As Robinson pointedly notes:

Neither Marx nor Engels were unaware of the proletariat’s failure to become a universal class.76 Both studied the Irish Question closely, were active in the attempt to resolve its destructive impact on the historical processes of English working-class formation, and commented on its import for future proletarian organization. Nevertheless, the impact of their experience with the English proletariat on their theory of the proletariat’s historical role appears to have been slight. [51]

He’s scathing of the whole Socialist tradition really, particularly in its early stages, and in my opinion entirely rightly. Its solid basis lies in the bourgeoisie itself, with no connection to the working classes:

It is a period dominated by eccentrics, visionaries, and didacts. The wistful trails of Godwin, Paine, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Cabet, Pecquer, lesser and grander lights, preoccupy the historians, along with the most often short-lived utopian communities associated with some ofthem. The agitations, rebellions, riots, and struggles of artisans, wage laborers, peasants, and slave laborers are largely irrelevant to the tradition in the early nineteenth century and mostly constitute a background “noise” in this the era of the socialist writer. … Their work becomes a demonstration of the independence of socialist theory and social movements from one another. When once again they collide, in the 1840S, 1870S, and early 1900S, each had assumed forms and prerogatives only slightly tolerable to those of the other.

He returns Marx to his time and place, from 1848 to the rise of Bismarck in 1862. He traces the ambiguities of Marx and Engels’ positions on nationalism, and argues that they did not understand it, in the same way that they failed to understand racialism: that it was neither an aberration nor a stage, but something as determined by history as their world revolution failed to be. He argues that ideologies have in fact “helped to abort those social and historical processes believed to be necessary and inevitable; have catalyzed rebellions and revolutions in often unlikely circumstances and among unlikely peoples; and have assisted in extraordinary historical achievement where failure was “objectively” immanent.” [82]

Only then do we return to race:

In short, there were at least four distinct moments that must be apprehended in European racialism; two whose origins are to be found within the dialectic of European development, and two that are not:

1. the racial ordering of European society from its formative period, which extends into the medieval and feudal ages as “blood” and racial beliefs and legends.
2. the Islamic (i.e., Arab, Persian, Turkish, and African) domination of Mediterranean civilization and the consequent retarding of European social and cultural life: the Dark Ages.
3. the incorporation of African, Asian, and peoples of the New World into the world system emerging from late feudalism and merchant capitalism.
4. the dialectic of colonialism, plantocratic slavery, and resistance from the sixteenth century forward, and the formations of industrial labor and labor reserves.

It is now a convention to begin the analysis of racism in Western societies with the third moment; entirely ignoring the first and second and only partially coming to terms with the fourth. … In each instance, the root of the methodological and conceptual flaws is the same: the presumption that the social and historical processes that matter, which are determinative, are European. All else, it seems, is derivative.

Black Marxism is a refutation of such a framework.

Moments of Black struggle

And so on to rebellion and uprising in Africa and its diaspora flung across the world by the European slave trade. He writes:

Black radicalism, consequently, cannot be understood within the particular context of its genesis. It is not a variant of Western radicalism whose proponents happen to be Black. Rather, it is a specifically African response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era and framed by orders of human exploitation woven into the interstices of European social life from the inception of Western civilization: [97]

Robinson finds how this was ignored in a deep historical look at previous contacts between Blacks and whites, the shift of Blacks being seen as Islamic militants and soldiers to slaves and a very different set of stereotypes. From there he looks at the long history of the slave trade, mentioned earlier was the Italian trafficking of ‘Tartars’ and ‘Poles’ and ‘Cathays’, but now it has expanded into the extraordinary movement of tens of thousands of people in the trans-Atlantic trade. Thus we arrive at black radicalism. As he states at the opening of chapter 6:

However, Marx had not realized fully that the cargoes of laborers also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs, and morality. These were the actual terms of their humanity. These cargoes, then, did not consist of intellectual isolates or deculturated Blacks-men, women, and children separated from their previous universe. African labor brought the past with it, a past that had produced it and settled on it the first elements of consciousness and comprehension.
This was the embryo of the demon that would be visited on the whole enterprise of primitive accumulation. [173]

And thus follows a whole splendid history of Black resistance through the ages, uprisings and revolts, some of the marron comunities you might have heard of like Palmares but many that you probably have not. It ends with Africa: Revolt at the Source. In delving deeper into the nature of the Black radical tradition, he finds in fact that “one note has occurred and recurred: the absence of mass violence.” [242], in contrast to the ‘massive and often indiscriminate’ brutality of the Europeans in quelling such revolts. He claims that such an absence shows that

This was a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism.
It becomes clear, then, that for the period between the mid-sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, it was an African tradition that grounded collective resistance by Blacks to slavery and colonial imperialism.

He goes on to argue for a particularly African tradition of granting primacy to the metaphysical, not the material. A tradition of resistance through collectivity. I’m not entirely convinced by the psychology of it, but there’s definitely something there. “They lived on their terms, they died on their terms, they obtained their freedom on their terms.” He argues that this cast doubt on the idea that capitalism was able to ‘penetrate and reform’ all social life, or strip life down to bare survival.

The Formation of the Black Intelligentsia:

Black Marxism then moves on to the third section to look at W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James and Richard Wright. It is an immensely rich look at Du Bois, my favourite passage distilling some of the wealth in Black Reconstruction:

And in every instance, peasants and agrarian workers had been the primary social bases of rebellion and revolution. Nowhere, not even in Russia, where a rebellious urban proletariat was a fraction of the mobilized working classes, had a bourgeois social order formed a precondition for revolutionary struggle. Revolutionary consciousness had formed in the process of anti-imperialist and nationalist struggles, and the beginnings of resistance had often been initiated by ideological constructions remote from the proletarian consciousness that was a presumption of Marx’s theory of revolution. The idiom of revolutionary consciousness had been historical and cultural rather than the “mirror of production.” The oppositions that had struck most deeply at capitalist domination and imperialism had been those formed outside the logic of bourgeois hegemony. [324]

C.L.R. James loved fiction! Who knew. This section looks more at his critiques of Marxism, some interesting reflections on Black Jacobins and this interesting passage: “It implied (and James did not see this) that bourgeois culture and thought and ideology were irrelevant to the development of revolutionary consciousness among Black and other Third World peoples. It broke with the evolutionist chain in, the closed dialectic of, historical materialism.” [386]

And the section on Wright, so rich on how writing and experience and political consciousness fold together, there is so much here, I can’t sum up. There’s this:

For Wright, it was not sufficient for Black liberation that his people come to terms with the critique of capitalist society. He had observed: “Marxism is but the starting point. No theory of life can take the place of life.”55 As a critique of capitalist society, Marxism was necessary, of course, but it was ultimately an internal critique. The epistemological nature of historical materialism took bourgeois society on its own terms, that is, presuming the primacy of economic forces and structures.56 As such, the historical development from feudalism of the bourgeoisie as a class served as a logical model for the emergence of the proletariat as a negation of capitalist society. Wright appeared quite early to have understood this thesis as a fundamental error in Marxist thought. Even as early as 1937, he had begun to argue that it was necessary that Blacks transform the Marxist critique into an expression of their own emergence as a negation of Western capitalism.

Brilliant stuff on ideology and violence, the importance of experience, but I will let Robinson himself do the final summing up of the contributions of each to a valid theory of liberation:

Du Bois

It was, Du Bois observed, from the periphery and not the center that the most sustained threat to the American capitalist system had materialized. … Just as important for him, however, was the realization that the racism of the American “white” working classes and their general ideological immaturity had abnegated the extent to which the conditions of capitalist production and relations alone could be held responsible for the social development of the American proletariat. The collective and individual identities of American workers had responded as much to race as they had to class. The relations of production were not determinant. [448]


No revolutionary cadre, divorced from the masses, ensconced in state bureaucracy, and abrogating to itself the determination of the best interests of the masses, could sustain the revolution or itself. [449]


Wright evoked in his writings the language and experience of”ordinary” Black men and women. In this way he pressed home the recognition that whatever the objective forces propelling a people toward struggle, resistance, and revolution, they would come to that struggle in their own cultural terms. [449]

And my final quote which I believe deserves much thought:

Western Marxism, in either of its two variants-critical-humanist or scientific-has proven insufficiently radical to expose and root out the racialist order that contaminates its analytic and philosophic applications or to come to effective terms with the implications of its own class origins. As a result, it has been mistaken for something it is not: a total theory of liberation. [451]