Noel Ignatiev's Blog

Slaves and Workers, Workers and Slaves

By Noel Ignatiev

Recently a world geography textbook used in Texas high schools sparked protests. In a section of the book dealing with immigration, the caption to a map of the United States referred to Africans brought to American plantations between the 1500s and 1800s as “workers” rather than slaves. A student, Coby Burren, read the book and sent a photograph of the caption to his mother, Roni Dean-Burren, along with the comment, “we was real hard workers, wasn’t we.” She was outraged, and posted her objections on Facebook and Twitter. The posts, along with a video she made while flipping through the book, were widely shared, the video alone reaching nearly two million views.

The publisher, McGraw-Hill, responded by posting a statement on its Facebook page that it would change the caption. In a memo sent to employees the president and chief executive of the textbook division issued an apology, calling it “a mistake” and saying the company was reviewing its internal procedures and increasing its list of textbook reviewers to reflect greater diversity.

McGraw-Hill’s response was cowardly pandering to what the publisher perceived as public opinion. If the caption was offensive, so was the title Du Bois gave the first chapter of Black Reconstruction in America, “The Black Worker” (not “The Black Slave”).

What difference does it make? To Ms. Dean-Burren, and to many who share her outrage, to call the people of African descent who labored on the plantations workers is to conceal the horrors of slavery. “This is what erasure looks like,” she said. [New York Times, October 5, 2015] To me, on the contrary, to call the people who grew tobacco, rice, cotton, sugar and other commodities workers is to reveal the true history of the country and the global economy that developed based on their labor. Because he thought of the slaves as workers, Du Bois could see the general strike of black and white labor (invisible to most historians) and accord it a major role in determining the outcome of the Civil War, could recognize the revolutionary implications of Reconstruction, and could conclude, “the rebuilding, whether it comes now or a century later, will and must go back to the basic principles of Reconstruction in the United States during 1867-1876— Land, Light, and Leading for slaves black, brown, yellow and white, under a dictatorship of the proletariat” (BRA 635). If seeing the slaves as workers led Du Bois to proletarian revolution, refusing to see them that way led McGraw-Hill to… “diversity.” (Neither McGraw-Hill nor its critics noted the real error in the caption: the first people of African descent to arrive in what would become the United States came not in “the 1500s” but in 1619, not as slaves but as free persons temporarily bound to service, with a legal status higher, in theory, that of the indentured servants of European ancestry already in Virginia [Lerone Bennett, Jr., The Making of Black America, chapter 1].)

C.L.R. James once addressed a group of young black street folk about Marx. He chose for his text Volume I of Capital, chapter ten, “The Working Day.” When he had finished going over the chapter, one of the young people said, “Now I understand why we call the job ‘the slave.’” Those who cannot see the slave as a worker will never see the worker as a slave.

Now a similar controversy has broken out, this time in relation to two children’s books, A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins (illustrations by Sophie Blackall) and A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram (illustrations by Vanessa Brantley-Newton). The two books sparked a petition from demanding that the publisher, Scholastic Press, remove them from circulation.

The first depicted an enslaved mother and daughter making blackberry fool. The child was shown smiling as she picked berries, whipped cream, and, after serving her owners, hid with her mother in a closet to lick the bowl clean. It was not long before critics began to speak out against what one called “a candy coated depiction of a multi-generational crime against humanity” representative of “how the brutal realities of slavery are downplayed in this country.” The author eventually apologized, saying, “I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive. I own that and am very sorry.”

The author of the second book took a different course, writing:

A Birthday Cake for George Washington, tells the story of a real American—Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved chef. He was a man renowned for his skill; a man respected by President Washington, a man who lived with pride and dignity…

We know from first-hand accounts that Hercules was famous in his day as a towering culinarian—admired and in-charge, despite his bondage.

Yet, the discussion and criticism of the book has, instead, been focused on the literal face value of the characters. How could they smile? How could they be anything but unrelentingly miserable? How could they be proud to bake a cake for George Washington? The answers to those questions are complex because human nature is complex…

The historical record shows that enslaved people who received “status” positions were proud of these positions—and made use of the “perks” of those positions…

In a modern sense, many of us don’t like to consider this, fearing that if we deviate from the narrative of constant-cruelty we diminish the horror of slavery. But if we chose to only focus on those who fit that singular viewpoint, we run the risk of erasing those, like Chef Hercules, who were remarkable, talented, and resourceful enough to use any and every skill to their own advantage.

In our modern society, we abhor holding two competing truths in our minds. It is simply too hard. How could one person enslave another and at the same time respect him? It’s difficult to fathom, but the fact remains it was true. We owe it to ourselves—and those who went before—to try and understand this confusing and uncomfortable truth. To refuse to do so diminishes their history to one-dimensional histories that may give comfort to some but ultimately rob us all of the potential for real understanding.

Albert Murray pointed out that as a human institution slavery embraced the range of human possibilities, from the most tender to the cruelest. I think Ramin Ganeshram would agree with him. In an obiter dictum she added:

Perhaps most diminishing within the critical commentary on blogs and elsewhere is the parsing of the race of the creators of the two projects one white (A Fine Dessert) and one of color (A Birthday Cake for George Washington). This is a reductive and divisive subterfuge that misses what should be the only point about legitimacy: If you do the deep research, ferret out the facts and are true to them then you have literary authority, regardless of color or ethnicity. When you write from your singular perspective or purely from imagination and pass it off as history, then authority is not yours.

Ganeshram’s editor, Andrea Davis Pinkney, issued a statement supporting her.

To no avail. On January 17, Scholastic announced that it is stopping the distribution of the book. The publisher declared, “While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”

Leaving aside market demands and other concerns of publishers, those who seek to give a true picture of slavery face a real problem: to show the slaves’ lives as absolute, unrelenting misery is to treat them as objects; yet the writer or illustrator who shows them taking pride in their work and finding satisfaction under adverse conditions is likely to be accused of whitewashing slavery. Is showing the slaves constantly groaning under the whip the only alternative to showing them as happy, banjo-playing “darkies?” The way out does not lie in some middle-of-the-road solution but in understanding the inner contradictions in the slave system and the personality of the slave. George Rawick was the editor of the 41-volume set of oral histories of former slaves, titled The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography,and the author of perhaps the best single book on the life of the slave, From Sundown to Sunup: the Making of the Slave Community. In 1968 Radical America published an article by him, “The Historical Roots of Black Liberation.” There he wrote, “The slave struggles against the master by struggling with his own internal dilemmas. The social struggle begins, in an immediate sense, as a struggle within the slave and only then becomes externalized and objectified.”

Critics have pointed out that the real-life Hercules chose to leave Washington’s service (without permission) and that his daughter hailed his escape. That was precisely Rawick’s point! He wrote, “Therefore, unless the slave is simultaneously Sambo and revolutionary, Sambo and Nat Turner, he can be neither Sambo nor Nat Turner. He can only be a wooden man, a theoretical abstraction.”

Evidently some critics would prefer that students see wooden men, theoretical abstractions, rather than the real-life Hercules, a man renowned for his skill, who lived with pride and dignity, and who chose, when the opportunity presented itself, to alter his condition. Further in the article Rawick wrote:

The black community was the center of life for the slaves. It gave them, marked off from the rest of society, an independent base. The slave did not suffer from rootlessness—he belonged to the slave community and even if he were sold down the river, would usually be able to find himself in a new community much like his previous one, in which there would be people who shared a common destiny and would help him find a new life.

Under slavery, as under any other social system, the lowest of the low were not totally dominated by the system and the master class. They found ways of alleviating the worst of the system and at times of dominating the masters… The slave personality was kept whole by the conscious and deep-seated realities of the Afro-American culture as expressed in the day-by-day and night-by-night life of the slave quarters…

The Afro-American slave prepared the ground and built the community out of which could come the struggles of the abolitionist movement… Every abolitionist newspaper depended upon the support of Negro freedmen for its continuation. And these black freedmen received their impetus from the struggles of their brothers and sisters in slavery… In liberating the black community abolitionism transformed American society… []

The abolitionist movement transformed American society… The support of the freedmen was crucial… The impetus came from those in slavery… Clearly the slaves had not read Orlando Patterson and did not know they were socially dead, nor had they learned from Frank Wilderson that their blackness negated their humanity, nor from Ta-Nehisi Coates that collective struggle was fruitless, that the only goal was personal dignity, and that the two were mutually exclusive.

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