Why Black Marxism, Why Now? | Boston Review

Why Black Marxism, Why Now?

The threat of fascism has grown before our eyes. Black Marxism helps us to fight it with greater clarity, with a more expansive conception of the task before us, and with ever more questions.

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY

Image: Flickr / Doc Searls

The inspiration to bring out a new edition of Cedric Robinson’s classic, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, came from the estimated 26 million people who took to the streets during the spring and summer of 2020 to protest the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the many others who lost their lives to the police. During this time, the world bore witness to the Black radical tradition in motion, driving what was arguably the most dynamic mass rebellion against state-sanctioned violence and racial capitalism we have seen in North America since the 1960s—maybe the 1860s. The boldest activists demanded that we abolish police and prisons and shift the resources funding police and prisons to housing, universal healthcare, living-wage jobs, universal basic income, green energy, and a system of restorative justice. These new abolitionists are not interested in making capitalism fairer, safer, and less racist—they know this is impossible. They want to bring an end to “racial capitalism.”

The threat of fascism is no longer rhetorical, a hollow epithet. It is real.

The state’s reaction to these protests has also brought us to the precipice of fascism. The organized protests in the streets and places of public assembly, on campuses, inside prisons, in state houses and courtrooms and police stations, portended the rise of a police state in the United States. For the past several years, the Movement for Black Lives and its dozens of allied organizations warned the country that we were headed for a fascist state if we did not end racist state-sanctioned violence and the mass caging of Black and brown people. They issued these warnings before Trump’s election. As the protests waned and COVID-19 entered a second, deadlier wave, the fascist threat grew right before our eyes. We’ve seen armed white militias gun down protesters; Trump and his acolytes attempt to hold on to power despite losing the presidential election; the federal government deploy armed force to suppress dissent, round up and deport undocumented workers, and intimidate the public; and, most recently the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by members of the alt-right, racists, Neo-Nazis, and assorted fascist gangs whose ranks included off-duty cops, active military members, and veterans. The threat of fascism is no longer rhetorical, a hollow epithet. It is real.

The crossroads where Black revolt and fascism meet is precisely the space where Cedric’s main interlocutors find the Black radical tradition. Black Marxism is, in part, about an earlier generation of Black antifascists, written at the dawn of a global right-wing, neoliberal order that one political theorist called the era of “friendly fascism.”

Black Marxism was primarily about Black revolt, not racial capitalism. The Black radical tradition defies racial capitalism’s efforts to generate new categories of human experience stripped bare of the historical consciousness embedded in culture.

What did Robinson mean by the Black radical tradition, and why is it relevant now? Contrary to popular belief, Black Marxism was primarily about Black revolt, not racial capitalism. Robinson takes Marx and Engels to task for underestimating the material force of racial ideology on proletarian consciousness, and for conflating the English working class with the workers of the world. In his preface to the 2000 edition of Black Marxism, Cedric wrote, “Marxism’s internationalism was not global; its materialism was exposed as an insufficient explanator of cultural and social forces; and its economic determinism too often politically compromised freedom struggles beyond or outside of the metropole.” It is a damning observation. Many would counter by pointing to Marx’s writings on India, the United States, Russia, slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and peasants. Others would argue that Marx himself only ever claimed to understand capitalist development in Western Europe. But because neither Marx nor Engels considered the colonies and their plantations central to modern capitalist processes, class struggles within the slave regime or peasant rebellions within the colonial order were ignored or dismissed as underdeveloped or peripheral—especially since they looked nothing like the secular radical humanism of 1848 or 1789.

Cedric’s point is that Marx and Engels missed the significance of revolt in the rest of the world, specifically by non-Western peoples who made up the vast majority of the world’s unfree and nonindustrial labor force. Unfree laborers in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the islands of the sea were producing the lion’s share of surplus value for a world system of racial capitalism, but the ideological source of their revolts was not the mode of production. Africans kidnapped and drawn into this system were ripped from “superstructures” with radically different beliefs, moralities, cosmologies, metaphysics, and intellectual traditions. Robinson observes,

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 decultured blanks—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.

With this observation Robinson unveils the secret history of the Black radical tradition, which he describes as “a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people.” The Black radical tradition defies racial capitalism’s efforts to remake African social life and generate new categories of human experience stripped bare of the historical consciousness embedded in culture. Robinson traces the roots of Black radical thought to a shared epistemology among diverse African people, arguing that the first waves of African New World revolts were governed not by a critique rooted in Western conceptions of freedom but by a total rejection of enslavement and racism as it was experienced. Behind these revolts were not charismatic men but, more often than not, women. In fact, the female and queer-led horizontal formations that are currently at the forefront of resisting state violence and racial capitalism are more in line with the Black radical tradition than traditional civil rights organizations.

Africans chose flight and marronage because they were not interested in transforming Western society but in finding a way “home,” even if it meant death. Yet, the advent of formal colonialism and the incorporation of Black labor into a fully governed social structure produced the “native bourgeoisie,” the Black intellectuals whose positions within the political, educational, and bureaucratic structures of the dominant racial and colonial order gave them greater access to European life and thought. Their contradictory role as descendants of the enslaved, victims of racial domination, and tools of empire compelled some of these men and women to rebel, thus producing the radical Black intelligentsia. This intelligentsia occupies the last section of Black Marxism. Robinson reveals how W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Richard Wright, by confronting Black mass movements, revised Western Marxism or broke with it altogether. The way they came to the Black radical tradition was more an act of recognition than of invention; they divined a theory of Black radicalism through what they found in the movements of the Black masses.

The final section has also been a source of confusion and misapprehension. Black Marxism is not a book about “Black Marxists” or the ways in which Black intellectuals “improved” Marxism by attending to race. This is a fundamental misunderstanding that has led even the most sympathetic readers to treat the Black radical tradition as a checklist of our favorite Black radical intellectuals. Isn’t Frantz Fanon part of the Black radical tradition? What about Claudia Jones? Why not Walter Rodney? Where are the African Marxists? Of course Cedric would agree that these and other figures were products of, and contributors to, the Black radical tradition. As he humbly closed his preface to the 2000 edition, “It was never my purpose to exhaust the subject, only to suggest that it was there.”

Black Marxism is neither Marxist nor anti-Marxist. It is a dialectical critique of Marxism that turns to the long history of Black revolt to construct a wholly original theory of revolution.

The Black radical tradition is not a greatest hits list. Cedric was clear that the Black intellectuals at the center of this work were not the Black radical tradition, nor did they stand outside it—through praxis they discovered it. Or, better yet, they were overtaken by it. And, as far as Cedric was concerned, sometimes the Black intellectuals about whom he writes fell short. Marxism was their path toward discovery, but apprehending the Black radical tradition required a break with Marx and Engels’s historical materialism.

Black Marxism is neither Marxist nor anti-Marxist. It is a dialectical critique of Marxism that turns to the long history of Black revolt—and to Black radical intellectuals who also turned to the history of Black revolt—to construct a wholly original theory of revolution and interpretation of the history of the modern world.

When the London-based Zed Press published Black Marxism in 1983, few could have predicted the impact it would have on political theory, political economy, historical analysis, Black studies, Marxist studies, and our broader understanding of the rise of the modern world. It appeared with little fanfare. For years it was treated as a curiosity, grossly misunderstood or simply ignored. Given its current “rebirth,” some may argue that Black Marxism was simply ahead of its time. Or, to paraphrase the sociologist George Lipsitz quoting the late activist Ivory Perry, perhaps Cedric was on time but the rest of us are late? Indeed, how we determine where we are depends on our conception of time.

In thinking of the Black radical tradition as generative rather than prefigurative, not only is the future uncertain, but the road is constantly changing.

Cedric took Marx’s historical materialism to task in part for its conception of time and temporality. From The Terms of Order to An Anthropology of Marxism, he consistently critiqued Marxism for its fidelity to a stadial view of history and linear time or teleology, and dismissed the belief that revolts occur at certain stages or only when the objective conditions are “ripe.” And yet there was something in Cedric—perhaps his grandfather’s notion of faith—that related to some utopian elements of Marxism, notably the commitment to eschatological time, or the idea of “end times” rooted in earlier Christian notions of prophecy. Anyone who has read the Communist Manifesto or sang “The Internationale” will recognize the promise of proletarian victory and a socialist future. On the one hand, Robinson considered the absence of “the promise of a certain future” a unique feature of Black radicalism. “Only when that radicalism is costumed or achieves an envelope in Black Christianity,” he explained in a 2012 lecture, “is there a certainty to it. Otherwise it is about a kind of resistance that does not promise triumph or victory at the end, only liberation. No nice package at the end, only that you would be free. . . . Only the promise of liberation, only the promise of liberation!”

“Only the promise of liberation” captures the essence of Black revolt and introduces a completely different temporality: blues time. Blues time eschews any reassurance that the path to liberation is preordained. Blues time is flexible and improvisatory; it is simultaneously in the moment, the past, the future, and the timeless space of the imagination. As the geographer Clyde Woods taught us, the blues is not a lament but a clear-eyed way of knowing and revealing the world that recognizes the tragedy and humor in everyday life, as well as the capacity of people to survive, think, and resist in the face of adversity. Blues time resembles what the anarchist theorist Uri Gordon calls a “generative temporality,” a temporality that treats the future itself as indeterminate and full of contingencies. In thinking of the Black radical tradition as generative rather than prefigurative, not only is the future uncertain, but the road is constantly changing, along with new social relations that require new visions and expose new contradictions and challenges.

Cedric reminded us repeatedly that the forces we face are not as strong as we think. They are held together by guns, tanks, and fictions. They can be disassembled.

What we are witnessing now, across the country and around the world, is a struggle to interrupt historical processes leading to catastrophe. These struggles are not doomed, nor are they guaranteed. Thanks in no small measure to this book, we fight with greater clarity, with a more expansive conception of the task before us, and with ever more questions. Cedric reminded us repeatedly that the forces we face are not as strong as we think. They are held together by guns, tanks, and fictions. They can be disassembled, though that is easier said than done. In the meantime, we need to be prepared to fight for our collective lives.


Adapted from the foreword to the third and updated edition of Black Marxism: The Making of a Radical Tradition, Copyright © 1983 by Cedric Robinson. Foreword Copyright © 2021 by Robin D. G. Kelley. Used by permission of the publisher.

Source: Why Black Marxism, Why Now? | Boston Review

Who Is Afraid of Race? | Boston Review

RACE

Who Is Afraid of Race?

There is a cost to advancing caste as the preeminent analytic in place of race—we lose the precision that comes with naming our affliction a problem of anti-Blackness. We mistake the map for the territory, the skin for the bones, and the bones for the skin.

PANASHE CHIGUMADZI

Captives in chains after a 1904 uprising in what was then called German South-West Africa turned into a war of annihilation waged by German troops against the Herero and Nama peoples. (Ullstein Bild/Getty)

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020) marked its eighth week as a New York Times bestseller the same week that Trump publicly instructed a white militia group to “stand back and stand by” in the event of his electoral loss. This timing was uncanny. Caste is animated by the specter of 2042—the year that white Americans are predicted to become a racial minority in the United States.

A critical question lies at the heart of a serious reading of Caste: Is there a cost to misnaming that which wounds us?

“I think what we’re looking at is South Africa,” Wilkerson tells civil rights historian Taylor Branch as they consider 2042 and the frightening idea of a white racial minority dominating a multiracial majority. Branch agrees with the South Africa comparison, adding, “They are more out front with their racism than here.” After the U.S. Civil War over slavery, the project of Reconstruction—meant to incorporate formerly enslaved Black people as full citizens—failed, largely due to white “backlash.” Historian Rayford Logan named this post-Reconstruction era—marked by Black lynchings, poverty, and disenfranchisement—the “nadir of [American] race relations.” Building on this nomenclature, Wilkerson notes that the Trumpian “backlash” to the Obama presidency has led many Black historians to identify our current moment as the “Second Nadir.”

In this Nadir, a world of wounds most recently laid bare by George Floyd’s lynching, Wilkerson anchors her book’s thesis—that caste is more helpful than race when it comes to explaining our racial “discontents”—in a somatic analogy: “Caste is the bones, race the skin.” In other words, Wilkerson contends that race is only skin-deep. If we want to get to the bone of the matter—the systemic oppression that continues to plague African Americans—we can only do so by naming and foregrounding caste. The book is then propelled across historical scenes from the world’s three dominant caste systems—the United States, India, and Germany—arguing that a more thorough understanding of the root of African American’s afflictions necessitates jettisoning race as the preeminent analytic in favor of caste.

Wilkerson defines caste as an “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning.” “To recalibrate how we see ourselves,” she exchanges racial terms for caste-related ones, such as “upper,” “middle,” and “lower caste.” Extensively narrating interpersonal “scenes of caste” throughout the book, Wilkerson’s “caste” discontents are mapped almost exclusively in the realm of attitudes, imaginations, ideologies, prejudices, and microaggressions—and outside the mutually constituting realms of historical, material, and geo-political power.

In our world of unclotting wounds, Caste seemingly offers its “race-as-skin-deep” analysis as a kind of Balm in Gilead. If we are all bound by caste, instead of race and anti-Blackness, then it is easier to believe in our ability to overcome caste—to create, as the epilogue’s title suggests, “a world without caste.”

What would it mean to rethink race as caste in the global context? History is clear on this point—the costs of the refusal to name the colluding global forces of anti-Blackness and capital are too high.

Wilkerson’s book joins a tradition, mainly from the early twentieth century, of scholarship that challenged race’s preeminence by arguing that caste was a more useful analytic. Other kinds of challenges to the sociological reliance on race—for example, by Marxist scholars such as sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox—have often critiqued the use of both race and caste, naming class instead as the central antagonism. Few, though, have set aside race as completely as Wilkerson.

The tradition of Black Marxist scholarship—an indispensable part of the Black Radical Tradition—also gives us tools to be skeptical of Wilkerson’s refusal to name capitalism, imperialism, and nationalism in Caste’s world-historical analysis. For example, South Africa’s apartheid economy compelled its Marxist scholars, such as Neville Alexander, to realize the centrality of race and theorize “racial capitalism” before it was popularized by Stuart Hall and Cedric Robinson. To its proponents, the term “racial capitalism” itself has always been tautological: When has capitalism not been racial or racializing? What is capitalism if not a system sorting who is most fit for suffering, exploitation, and extraction?

All this points to a critical question which should lie at the heart of a serious reading of Caste: Is there a cost to misnaming that which wounds us?

Consider this: Caste was published exactly one week before Namibia officially rejected a nearly 12 million dollar offer that Germany had made in compensation for its genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples over a century ago. Namibia, the former Southern African apartheid colony, was the site of Germany’s first twentieth-century holocaust during their 1904–1908 colonial war. Namibia rejected the offer not only because the sum was insulting, but also because Germany, Caste’s exemplar for a society that has overcome “caste” systems, has refused to apologize, having only recently even named the murder of close to 100,000 Herero and Nama people a genocide. Adding insult to injury, Germany refuses to name the offer as reparations—instead calling it “compensation” aimed at “healing the wounds.”

This, too, raises questions about Caste and its implications: If reparations by another name are not reparations, what is the cost of a name? In the long durée of “wounds,” what is the cost of the refusal to name?

The ongoing refusal of “post”-Nazi Germany—not only the book’s, but the world’s exemplar for historical reckoning and reconciliation—to name, repent for, and repair its sins against Black people within its national and imperial borders forces us to confront a more terrifying revelation about the modern world, race, and anti-Blackness: Black suffering sutures the wounds of the world.

Caste has been critiqued before in these pages for its analysis of the United States. Here I focus on what it would mean to take up Wilkerson’s project and rethink race as caste in the global context. History is clear on this point—the costs of the refusal to name the colluding global forces of anti-Blackness and capital are too high.

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In the book Wilkerson briefly interrogates some of the religio-mythical underpinnings of caste. However, her world-historical analysis largely frames Indian caste systems as untransformed across time and space by internal and external forces, such as the many racializing forces of Empire—trade, capital, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, indenture, and Aryan racial theory. Meanwhile, her analysis of contemporary Indian caste relations is framed by personal observations and interactions with Indian scholars of different castes at several academic conferences that she attended. Without naming global structural forces, caste appears fixed in this analysis—a timeless, ahistorical force. However, caste, like race, is both a historical and a social construct.

In Wilkerson’s ahistorical vision of race and Blackness, the “American caste system” of racialized slavery appears almost completely sui generis on U.S. soil.

Of course, it is perhaps inevitable that a book intended to confront the modern discontents of race without naming “race” will fail to address how India’s peoples have been racialized by the same world-historical forces that “discovered” and transformed the New World. There is no New World without India and no India, as we now know it, without the New World.

Yet, in Wilkerson’s ahistorical vision of race and Blackness, the “American caste system” of racialized slavery appears almost completely sui generis on U.S. soil. In this analysis U.S. slavery transforms over the centuries unaffected by the rupture that, following Carribbean philosopher Sylvia Wynter’s work, we can call the New Worlding of the Transatlantic Slave Trade—the true genesis of our racial discontents. Whereas Wilkerson names 1619—the year when nineteen enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia—as the origin of our discontents, Wynter locates 1492—the year Columbus “discovered” Hispaniola on his failed quest to India—as the genesis of “A New World View.” This was a new view of “new” lands demanding new dehumanizing labor regimes under Transoceanic Empire’s racial capitalism. Kenyan scholar K’eguro Macharia writes of the rupture created by these new regimes of racialized capital:

New World blackness speaks not only to the blackness forged in—and on the way to—the Americas, but also to the blackness produced through the worlding of 1492. . . . To be more explicit: Africa does not—cannot—escape this (new) worlding. Blackness names, in part, the suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora.

Wilkerson ignores this Black suture between Africa and Afro-Diaspora. When a Nigerian-born playwright informs her that, “there are no black people in Africa. . . . Africans are not black. . . [t]hey don’t become black until they go to America or come to the UK,” she uncritically agrees. As a Black person born in “post”-independence Zimbabwe and raised in “post”-apartheid South Africa, I did not need the United States or the United Kingdom in order to be aware of my Blackness. Both Wilkerson and her Nigerian counterpart fail to see that, conscious of it or not, no Black person anywhere has escaped the Blackening of New Worlding.

No Black person anywhere has escaped the Blackening of New Worlding.

In the process of New Worlding, the advent of Blackness as bounded with slave-ness—which is to say, Blackness as unbounded from claims to autonomy, bodily integrity, territory, and sovereignty—began with the twinned dawn of Transatlantic Slavery and Modernity. This relationship is continually reinscribed by the “second coming[s]” of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, settler colonialism, Jim Crow, and apartheid, and their mutations in the “post”-modern world—neo-colonialism, “the New Jim Crow,” the Mediterranean crisis, and the contemporary enslavement of Africans in North Africa.

In the rupture of New Worlding, Blackness is the suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora. This suture creates reverberating chambers where we are continually blackened by each other’s sufferings. Just as all of us were blackened by the Transatlantic slave trade, we were blackened again by the Scramble for Africa and with it, Germany’s Herero and Nama Holocaust.

Caste, ignoring this historic Black suture, does not include the Herero and Nama genocide in its analysis of Germany. Instead, it uses the Third Reich’s reign as an anchoring timeframe for Germany’s sins, highlighting Nuremberg, reparations, and the public attention to Holocaust history as examples of racial overcoming in “post”-Nazi GermanySilent on the resurgence of Holocaust-denying and anti-immigrant German right-wing extremism that led to the 2019 Halle Synagogue attack, the book insists that, “to imagine an end to caste in America, we need only look at the history of Germany.”

Surely, we need more than this—“post”-Nazi Germany cannot be held as the exemplar for overcoming race or caste systems. We must instead look at the history of the world.

Anti-Black violence in all its variances and valences has consoled and cohered all nationalisms and nation states.

When we map the history of the modern world and mark time by Black lynchings—spanning from the Arab, Transatlantic, and Indian Ocean slave trades to the apartheid government sponsored intra-Black violence and massacres that marked South Africa’s “democratic transition” to the “Rainbow Nation”; from “post”-apartheid South Africa’s recurring violence against Black “foreign nationals” to the country’s 2012 Marikana massacre; from the Nigerian government’s massacre of citizens protesting the brutality of the SARS police unit to the present-day enslavement of Africans in North Africa; from the Mediterranean crisis to China’s 1988–1989 Nanjing Anti-African Protests; from India’s recurrent attacks on its African students to Chinese corporations’ human rights abuses on the African continent; all the way through to Southern China’s denial of medical treatment to African migrants in the wake of the global Sinophobic COVID-19 backlash—we find that anti-Black violence in all its variances and valences consoles and coheres all nationalisms and nation states.

Black suffering sutures the wounds of the world. The moral arc of the universe does not bend toward justice. When we mark modernity’s time by Black lynchings, there is no “historical progress.” Instead, world-historic lynch-time continually returns us to the Nadir.

If, in this Nadir, 2042 is the spectral wound of the United States, then Southern Africa is its lodestar. Southern Africa in the Nadir, at the dawn of what I call Apartheid Modernity, offers itself as a historic limit case in which Indian caste and race politics intersected with German genocidal eugenics and rising Jim Crow style “separate development” policies. Southern Africa is a world-historic limit case of race, caste, and class entanglements on which we can test the durability of Wilkerson’s caste thesis. When we shift the axis of Caste’s world-historical analysis here, to Southern Africa, it cannot hold under the weight of Apartheid Modernity.

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In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith remarked that “the discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.”

Just as there is no India as we know it without the New World, there is no India as we know it without the Southern tip of Africa. On his “Voyage of Discovery,” Vasco da Gama opened a new route to India by circumnavigating the Southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good of Hope. The very Natal colony that transformed “Mohandas to a Mahatma” had been so christened by a reverent da Gama as his ships skirted its treacherous coast over Christmas of 1497. “The birth of Christ” coincided with the birth of Transoceanic Empire and, with it, the birth of Transatlantic Slavery.

When caste traveled to the southernmost region of Africa with Gandhi, it had to define itself in relation to another colonized people—the “natives” who were being jostled out of their lands.

Centuries later, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, imperial expansion succeeded Transatlantic Slavery. New forms of imperialism across the Black Atlantic mirrored African Americans’ post-Reconstruction suffering in what I call the the Transatlantic Nadir. Following the 1815 Paris Treaty’s prohibition of slavery, the first half of the nineteenth century was marked by a widespread transition from slavery to subjecthood throughout the British and French Empires. The Transatlantic Nadir began in Jamaica, where Black people were brutally massacred for revolting against post-emancipation injustice and poverty in the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion. This portended a “backlash” to British imperial reconstruction. Several stunning reversals in the “post”-slavery status of Black people followed Morant Bay, including the “backlash” to U.S. Reconstruction, the Scramble for Africa, the Southern African minerals revolution, the end of the civilizing mission in favor of the rule of law and order after the Indian Mutiny, the rise of eugenicist scientific racism, and the Herero and Nama genocide, the first holocaust of the twentieth century.

The advent of the Transatlantic Nadir portended the rise of Apartheid Modernity—twentieth-century “modernity’s ignoble paradox” of “progress” propelled by the “post”-slavery world’s anti-Black regimes of racial hierarchy, labor, violence, and genocide based on the “separate development” of citizen and subject races. At the turn of the twentieth century, the “Gilded Age”—of extractive racial capitalism, unprecedented material excess, untrammeled pursuit of profit and imperial expansion, and industrial and technological advancements symbolized by the telegram and the train—was secured by coercive labor and governing regimes. These regimes reinscribed Blackness with slave-ness: that is, they seized any claims to autonomy, bodily integrity, territory, and sovereignty—let alone citizenship. In other words, Apartheid Modernity’s train was mechanized by the “ignoble paradox” that Cornel West theorized and Dambudzo Marechera poeticized, writing, “The old man died beneath the wheels of the twentieth century. There was nothing left but stains, bloodstains and fragments of flesh when the whole length of it was through with eating him. And the same thing is happening to my generation.”

During that Nadir, Mahatma Gandhi crossed the Kala Pani, the “black waters” of the Indian Ocean. Gandhi arrived in Durban, the South African port that would become “the largest Indian city outside of India,” as a “passenger Indian” thirty-three years after the Truro arrived from Madras in 1860 with the first 342 Indian indentured laborers. Indian people had been indentured across South Africa’s Natal colony, East Africa, Fiji, the Caribbean, and the Mascerene Islands since the early nineteenth-century abolition of slavery across the British and French Empires. Those first making the passage to the British colony of Natal were primarily Hindu, from India’s low to middle castes. However, the indentured often gave false information. Sometimes they gave a lower caste because colonial authorities did not want Brahmins and Muslims; other times, a higher caste to improve their social status.

The Kala Pani crossing molded caste along new contours. On the ship forced intimacy made it impossible to respect caste, as migrants of different castes had to eat and sleep together. Once on land the colliding approaches of the “free” and indentured migrants, and the settler colonial authorities who saw them as “all coolies,” remapped caste along regional contours. These remolded categories were reinscribed with color and physical traits; Kalkatia reflected the “fair” Aryan north of India and Madrasi, the “dark” Dravidian south.

The relationship between Black and Indian people as fellow colonized people in South Africa has been complex and ambivalent.

When caste traveled to the southernmost region of Africa in that Nadir, it also had to define itself in relation to another colonized people—the “natives” who were being jostled out of their lands. Since the arrival of Indian indentured laborers in a settler state increasingly bent on the “separate development” of races, the relationship between Black and Indian people as fellow colonized people in South Africa has been complex and ambivalent. This is marked by lows, such as the conservative anti-Black racial politics of the Gandhi-led Natal Indian Congress (NIC) (the colony’s first Indian nationalist political organization) and the resurgence of the “Indian question” in post-apartheid politics. It is also marked by highs, such as the 1955 Congress of the People, the 1970s and ’80s Black Consciousness Movement’s radical solidarity politics, and the widespread rejection of the 1983–1994 Tricameral Parliament’s exclusion of the country’s Black “non-citizens.”

The Gandhian era of South African Indian politics marked a significant low point in this history, representing its own Nadir between Black and Indian people. Between 1893 and 1914, as historian Jon Soske concedes in Internal Frontiers: African Nationalism and the Indian Diaspora in Twentieth-Century South Africa (2017), the “South African Gandhi” helped cement a conservative tradition of Indian diasporic politics reliant on a rhetoric of Indian civilizational superiority vis-à-vis African inferiority.

In 1894 Gandhi founded the NIC after being infamously discriminated against on a train in South Africa. Days into his arrival, he was thrown off a train when a white man complained about sharing his first-class compartment with a “coloured man.” This train incident, in Gandhi’s words, “sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect.” Just days before Gandhi had discovered that, in the South African settler colony, “all Indians were called ‘coolies.’” On that train, icon of Apartheid Modernity, Gandhi, a conservative Gujurati Bania, came to see the need for a unified Indian racial nationalism that could encompass—without subvertingcaste and class, region and religion, and motherland and diaspora. Yet, even after the crossing of the Kala Pani, Gandhi refused a Blackening of his people. Instead, he threw Black people to the twentieth century’s wheels and cast his people’s lot with Empire.

Even after the crossing of the Kala Pani, Gandhi refused a Blackening of his people. Instead, he threw Black people to the twentieth century’s wheels and cast his people’s lot with Empire.

Indeed, one of the first major political acts of Gandhi’s NIC was to press against the Durban Post Office’s two separate entrances for “Europeans” and “natives and Asiatics.” The NIC did not want “natives” and “Asiatics” grouped together—they wanted three separate entrances. In The Green Pamphlet (1895) Gandhi explained, “We felt the indignity too much and . . . petitioned the authorities to do away with the invidious distinction and they have now provided three separate entrances.” In this appeal to the Indian public, detailing the grievances of “Her Majesty’s Indian subjects” laboring in South Africa, Gandhi decried the fact that “Indians are classed with the natives of South Africa—Kaffir races.”

When caste and Gandhi traveled into the southernmost tip of Africa, they were transformed by the race-making pressures that erupted into the 1899–1902 South African War, fought between Boer and Briton over the world’s richest store of minerals. Southern Africa’s minerals revolution began when diamonds were discovered in Kimberley in 1866. The minerals revolution then accelerated twenty years later, when 40 percent of the world’s gold stores were discovered on the Witwatersrand at a moment when gold had just recently become the foundation of the global economic system. This discovery exploded into one of the world’s most dramatic industrial and social transformations, and a crisis for British imperialism during the South African War. It was in this moment of imperial crisis that Gandhi’s struggle to obtain rights for Indians as British subjects found the perfect stage. Through service in the South African War already, Gandhi reasoned, Indian subjects had “put their shoulders to the wheel” and “drawn forth the admiration of the violent Colonials who, for the first time then, saw the good trait in the Indian.”

Gandhi was unmoved by the suffering of the 120,000 Black people who were caged in concentration camps during the South African War, and the fates of the 20,000 who died there. Rather, his racially impaired witness of the world’s first concentration camps provided the vision for his philosophy of principled suffering, Satyagraha. Gandhi’s anti-Black vision ensured that only the suffering of Afrikaner women and children was visible in his moral witness.

Black peoples across the Atlantic keenly understood that the South African War was a referendum on global “post”-slavery racial citizenship and governance.

In contrast, Black peoples across the Atlantic keenly understood that the South African War was a referendum on global “post”-slavery racial citizenship and governance. Indeed, the war became the major impetus for the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900. The instigators of the Pan-African Conference were Henry Sylvester Williams, the Trinidadian barrister who became the first Black person to be called to the South African bar, and Alice Victoria Kinloch, the South African activist who was known in British circles for her impassioned protests against the Black suffering she had witnessed while living on Kimberly’s diamond fields. The Conference convened, in part, over “the compound system in vogue in the mining district of South Africa” and culminated in a petition for Queen Victoria to intervene in the suffering of her Black “subjects” in British South Africa. Attendees of the conference knew that the South African War was a crucible—Queen Victoria’s response to South Africa’s “native question” and the plight of her imperial subjects would ripple across the “post”-slavery Empire and beyond. If Britain—the vanguard of the liberal abolitionist movement, the refuge for African Americans before and after the U.S. Civil War, the purveyors of Cape’s qualified non-racial franchise, and the presumed protector and progenitor of Black freedoms—chose to betray its promise of imperial citizenship and endorse segregation in South Africa, formerly enslaved Black people would be reinscribed as non-citizens across the world.

Accordingly, despite the fact that no South Africans could attend the Pan African Conference, at least half of the presentations referred to the “South African question.” In his address on the question—“Organised Plunder and Human Progress Have Made Our Race their Battlefield”—the Dominican lawyer George James Christian drew a Transatlantic line between Africans who “were stolen from their native shores in the 16th century and were now jostled out of their lands.” He concluded, “What was this if not the revival of slavery?”

Indeed, across Southern Africa, Black miners were referred to as chibaro, or slave labor. The Pan-Africanists understood and felt the Black suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora. The “revival of slavery” at the Southern tip of Africa at the turn of the twentieth century threatened to reinscribe the status of all free Black peoples with slave-ness, denying any claim to citizenship in the “post”-emancipation world. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the notable attendees of the Conference. Du Bois and his colleagues debated the South African “native question” and the American “negro question” alongside issues such as the corvée and the Belgian Congo. The Pan-Africanists concluded by prophesying the advent of Apartheid Modernity in their “Address to the Nations of the World,” declaring that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.”

Just as the North betrayed its promise of citizenship to Black Americans after the U.S. Civil War, Britain betrayed its promise of imperial citizenship to Black people in the wake of the South African War.

In the end, British victory in the South African War extended the global color line and plunged the world further into the Transatlantic Nadir. “Free” Black people could not be incorporated as citizens in “post”-slavery EmpireJust as the North betrayed its promise of citizenship to Black Americans after the U.S. Civil War, Britain betrayed its promise of imperial citizenship to Black people in the wake of the South African War. In the House of Commons, British Parliamentarians cited Reconstruction’s supposedly failed “negro rule” of the multiracial U.S. South as they passed the 1909 South Africa Act that offered Black citizenship as the sacrifice for a unified white laager. Just as African Americans had paid a price for white reconciliation in the United States after Reconstruction, Black South Africans paid, too.

In the post-war years, much of the Union of South Africa’s “separate development” found inspiration and assistance from the post-war U.S. South’s “seperate but equal” regime. The Union of South Africa’s 1910 constitution was based, in part, on the Jim Crow South; the “grand architect of apartheid,” Prime Minister Hendrik F. Verwoerd, was widely known as an “expert in American social science” and “social welfare systems”; and the Carnegie Corporation collaborated with the Verwoerd’s Stellenbosch University and the Dutch Reformed Church on the 1932 Commission on the Poor White Problem in South Africa, which provided the blueprint for the official institution of Grand Apartheid in 1948. Across the Atlantic, apartheid was the cost of national reconciliation between warring whites.

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On the train to Apartheid Modernity, Gandhi was concerned that Indian people would be classed with the “raw Kaffir.” In 1906 the Bambatha Uprising, the last armed resistance against settler rule for decades, broke out in Natal over the poll taxes press ganging Zulu people into the colonial labor market. Gandhi, who railed against taxes on Indian people, recruited his people to serve as stretcher-bearers for the British Empire’s defense, just as he had done during the South African War. Clearly his investments in Empire had not dissipated; Gandhi was still actively fighting against the interests of his fellow colonized Black people so as not to be “dragged down” to their level in Empire’s racial hierarchy.

Considered the jewel of the British Empire, India did occupy a privileged position in the hierarchy of imperial possessions. “In geopolitical terms,” historians Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed write in The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire (2015), “Indians in South Africa counted far more than the Zulu, a sense that Gandhi was keen to tap into.” Gandhi would have been pleased to know that, in 1903, a British Indian Civil Service official told a Natal government delegation that “the Indian is not on a level with the kafir; he belongs to a higher class. The Indian trader is almost as advanced as ourselves.”

Gandhi was embedded in the Transatlantic Nadir’s “Aryan moment”—when Aryan racialism spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora and complicated questions of caste.

Gandhi and the NIC’s disavowal of Black people was not unique across the British Empire’s Indian diaspora. As Desai and Vehad demonstrate, Gandhi was embedded in the Transatlantic Nadir’s “Aryan moment”—when Aryan racialism spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora and complicated questions of caste. Like many other members of South Asia’s political elite, who used British Orientalist thinking in the formation of new nationalist and Hindu identities, Gandhi marshaled an Indo-Aryan racial history. This was an attempt to forge, in his own words, an “imperial brotherhood” between the “Western and Eastern branches” of civilization to the exclusion of “lesser” Black peoples.

A few years before Gandhi’s indignation at being classed as a “coloured man” on that South African train, the British Prime Minister Robert Salisbury derided Dadabhai Naoroji, “the Grand Old Man of India,” as a “black man” undeserving of the Englishman’s vote after his 1886 British parliamentary defeat. Naoroji, an early Gandhi supporter, was a Parsi scholar and trader who enjoyed the support and confidence of Indian people across the globe as the President of the Indian National Congress.

furor erupted across India and its diaspora over the Grand Old Man of India’s supposed “blackness.” The Amrita Bazar Patrika condemned Salisbury for calling “one of India’s leaders a nigger.” The Hindu Punch published a cartoon of Nairobi and Salisbury, coloring the Prime Minister black and, therefore, darker than Naoroji. The Manchester Guardian informed Salisbury: “A little inquiry into the rudiments of Indian history would show Lord Salisbury that the Aryan races who entered India from the north prided themselves on their fair complexions.”

Across the British Empire, the public scandal over “Salisbury’s Blackman” coalesced around what historian Antoinette Burton calls the “triangular relationship between Englishness-as-whiteness, Indianness-as-brownness, and Blackness-as-Africanness” where “Africa was, in other words, the unspoken Other not just of Englishness but of Indianness as well.”

In that Transatlantic Nadir, Blackness was bound with slave-ness. Long before the Bandung Conference, Black Consciousness, and Black Power, many South Asian political elites rejected political Black solidarity. As Burton writes:

As late as the 1880s, “black man” was an appellation which in no way could enhance—and indeed, could only endanger—any subject’s chances to achieve recognition as a citizen, much less as a civic representative of the people in the Mother of all Parliaments. It carried with it associations of slavery and subjugation that imperiled Naoroji’s claims about the special qualification of Indian civilisations and people to direct representation.

Suffering Indian colonial subjects could be consoled by the fact that they were “at least” not Black.

And yet, as Naoroji’s biographer R. P Masani suggests, it was this very spectacle over his “blackness” that gave him the public profile and sympathy that secured his parliamentary win later on. Prime Minister Salisbury was forced to formally apologize for having offended the Jewel of the British Empire. The Irish nationalist Freeman’s Journal declared Naoroji’s election “the only real reparation that can be made to the Indian people.” A “reparation” for the wounds of associated Blackness.

The Nairoji scandal lays bare how anti-Blackness gave Empire its coherence and could be mobilized for political gain. According to the racial logic of Empire, suffering Indian colonial subjects could be consoled by the fact that they were “at least” not Black. More than a “scene of race,” Gandhi’s South African “train moment” was a scene of historic anti-Blackness.

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Under “post”-Apartheid Modernity, the stakes in naming Gandhi’s anti-Blackness are high. The historic “Indian question” and accusations of Indian anti-Blackness have once again begun to dog political debates in “post”-apartheid South Africa. In 2014 a vigilante crowd looked “startlingly like a lynch mob” as they yelled “Victory for Mother India” and beat three African students in a New Dehli train station. This occurred as India’s prime minister visited the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial with President Obama. A year later a Gandhi statue was vandalized in South Africa. Then, in 2018, the University of Ghana removed its Gandhi statue.

Political Blackness, the idea that all racially marginalized groups can identify as “politically Black” to unite against racism, no longer seems viable. Members of Black Lives Matter UK recently questioned the erasure of Black women and the casting of Frieda Pinto as the lead of a British Black Panther series. There was backlash to Afro-Punk’s decision to bill M.I.A., the politically complicated and politically Black identifying British rapper of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. The UK’s Black Student Campaign (BSC), “the largest organisation of Black students in Europe” representing “all students of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritage,” launched a campaign to debate and re-think its name.

Perhaps Wilkerson chooses not to name race, and in particular anti-Blackness, in an attempt to elide some of the more fraught dimensions of our interracial solidarity struggles.

The costs of a name are clearly high. Perhaps Wilkerson chooses not to name race, and in particular anti-Blackness, in an attempt to elide some of the more fraught dimensions of our interracial solidarity struggles. When the divine ordinance of Empire is divide and rule, naming the anti-Blackness of your comrade-in-arms is a taboo—impolite and identitarian at best, and divisive and representative of false consciousness at worst. But, we must ask, what kind of solidarity are we building if we cannot reflect honestly on our different historical positionings in Empire’s racial order?

In this Nadir, an honest reckoning with history demands that we recognize that Gandhi refused anti-colonial solidarity and, instead, embraced anti-Blackness throughout his twenty-one years in South Africa. Though he later complicated his politics, the “South African Gandhi” navigated the dizzying nexus of Black and Indian race, and class and caste entanglements, by disavowing his fellow colonized Black people. Gandhi continually named Black South Africans with the same murderous epithet that had first been formed in the mouths of Arab slavers, who passed it on to Portuguese slavers, who in turn passed it on to warring Boer and British slaver-settlers, whose tongues imbued its inhumanity with fresh intensity when they sacrificed Black people at the altar of a unified emergent apartheid state at the turn of the twentieth century. Gandhi, like many of his caste, railed for an Indo-Aryan “imperial brotherhood” at the expense of the “raw Kaffir.”

This is not a call to “cancel Gandhi.” Instead, reflecting on his formative years in South Africa offers a chance to name and confront the kinds of historic anti-Blackness that plague our solidarity struggles today. Under “post”-Apartheid Modernity, our examinations of race, caste, and political solidarity will demand more political honesty and analytic rigor. Between cynicism and sentimentality, clear-eyed solidarity can lead us out of this Nadir. Wilkerson’s world historical analysis fails to do this.

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Wilkerson’s caste thesis cannot hold under the weight of “post”-Nazi Germany, either. In Caste’s epilogue Wilkerson contends that “post”-Nazi Germany “is living proof that if a caste system—the twelve-year reign of the Nazis—can be created, it can be dismantled.” The trouble with holding Germany as the exemplar of historical reckoning is that Germany’s crimes did not begin and end with the Third Reich’s reign. This speaks to the anti-Blackness of the liberal humanist post-World War world—Germany can be hailed for its supposed humility before its Nazi history while it remains unrepentant for its colonial sins, such as the 1884–1885 Berlin Conference, the Herero and Nama genocide, and the massacring of up to 300,000 in the Maji Maji Uprising. And what of Germany’s historic and often murderous exclusion of Afro-Germans? This is part of the obfuscating cost of using caste as the preeminent analytic. In so doing we lose the precision that comes with naming our affliction a problem of race and, in particular, anti-Blackness.

The trouble with holding Germany as the exemplar of historical reckoning is that Germany’s crimes did not begin and end with the Third Reich’s reign.

Caribbean-American poet Audre Lorde was clear eyed about Germany’s historic anti-Blackness all through her eight transformative years in West-Berlin. Having arrived in Germany the year after the 1983 U.S. invasion of her ancestral Grenada, Lorde understood the quiet violence of Empire. Even as Germany’s state-subsidized bohemia gave her “a certain amount of room to be” when she arrived in 1984, the spirit of witness moved Lorde to map haunting worlds of Afro-Diasporic border crossings from Grenada, to the United States, to St. Croix, to divided Berlin in her poem, “Berlin Is Hard on Colored Girls” (1984).

During Lorde’s Berlin years, she sought out and collaborated with women of Germany’s Black Diaspora—including the writers May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, Helga Emde, and Ika Hügel-Marshall—to birth the Afro-German movement. This was central to Lorde’s Black queer anti-imperialist praxis, her radical embodiment of what Édouard Glissant called a “poetics of relation.”

A century and a half after Hegel declared that Africa had no history, Ayim and Oguntaye published the first scholarly study of Afro-German history, Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (1986). Making the first written use of the term “Afro-German,” they proclaimed: “our history did not begin after 1945. Before our eyes stands our past, closely bound with colonial and national socialist German history.” Showing Our Colors made visible a Black historical line going as far back as the Middle Ages. The line marches forward through the Berlin Conference, through imperial expansion and genocide in Africa, and through war-time interracial liaisons between white German women and Black troops from the United States, France, Belgium, and Britain to the present day.

The lives of Showing Our Colors many multi-generational Black German-born and raised authors attest to a Germany invested in “Germanness” as a distinct racial and cultural Volk heritage. Even the authors’ family members seem incapable of imagining someone who is both Black and German. Spared the death camp sentences, sterilizations, and forced abortions that “half caste” people from Namibia’s Rehoboth to the Rhineland faced across Germany’s history, many of Showing Our Colors women were instead sent away to orphanages.

Even after the Berlin Wall fell and swept the world into Wende triumphalism, Afro-Germans grappled with double-consciousness.

“And where do you come from? And your father? And your mother?” These national questions have echoed across the lives of generations of Afro-Germans. Regardless of their complete self-identification as German—regardless of their shared biology, culture, and language—native-born Afro-Germans remain outsiders to their families and their nation. Even after the Berlin Wall fell and swept the world into Wende triumphalism, Afro-Germans grappled with double-consciousness—their own historical estrangement and trepidation at the eruption of anti-Black violence amidst their fellow Germans’ national reunification euphoria.

Lorde heard her sisters’ cries. She heard the call to witness. At the dawn of “post”-Apartheid Modernity, in the midst of Die Wende, the triumphalist “post”-Berlin Wall “turn” heralded as the End of History, Lorde’s border-crossing poetic vision foregrounded modernity’s “ignoble paradox” of Black pain enfolded in national “progress.” A month after the Fall, Lorde’s poem, “East Berlin December 1989,” a geopolitical anachronism questioning the “progression” of national time and foregrounding world-historic lynch-time, begins unequivocally: “It feels dangerous now/ to be Black in Berlin.” Her unflinching witness continues:

Already my blood shrieks

through the East Berlin streets

misplaced hatreds

volcanic tallies rung upon cement

Afro-German woman stomped to death by skinheads in Alexanderplatz

The Black woman died under the wheels of Die Wende’s new century. In modernity’s wake, Black is forever out of time and out of place. We are all bound by our historical estrangement from the modern nation state.

Standing at the precipice of History, amidst suffering, dislocation, and alienation, Ayim’s poem “borderless and brazen: a poem against German u-NOT-y” (1990) offers us a vision:

i will go

yet another step further

to the furthest edge

where my sisters—where my brothers stand

where

our

FREEDOM

begins

i will go

yet another step further and another step and

will return

when i want

if i want

and remain

borderless and brazen

If freedom is our vision, we must cross the border, we must go to the furthest edge. If we are to undo anti-Black violence, then we must undo our investments in the nation state. In the murderous face of Empire, Lorde’s border-crossing poetics of relation “fus[es] the best of all of our heritages.” In her introduction to Showing Our Colors, Lorde implored“We must share the strengths of each other’s vision as well as the weaponries born of particular experience. First we must recognize each other.”

This is Caste’s fatal flaw. It fails to go to the furthest edge. It fails to witness, recognize, and be in solidarity with Blackness beyond the American border.

Indeed, the key trouble with Caste is that it lacks what Robin D. G. Kelley calls “Black History’s Global Vision.” In “But A Local Phase of Global Problem” (1999), Kelley looked back at the lessons of the anti-racist and anti-imperialist historical scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for writing beyond the U.S. nation state. In that Transatlantic Nadir, Kelley writes, Black historians understood that Jim Crow emerged in the “post”-slavery Reconstruction South as “the expanding empires of Europe and the United States (at least momentarily) prompted the creation of new genealogies of nations, new myths about the inevitability of nations, their ‘temperament,’ their destinies.”

The Black Historical Tradition is clear—there is no Black freedom under Empire. This is Caste’s fatal flaw. It fails to witness, recognize, and be in solidarity with Blackness beyond the American border.

The Black Historical Tradition, an indispensable part of the Black Radical Tradition, resists Empire. The Black Historical Tradition is clear—there is no Black freedom under Empire. In spite of this tradition, Caste’s comparative world-historical analysis maps anti-Blackness as the sole province of the United States, without recognizing that it is, as Du Bois first described in his essay “The Color Line Belts the World” (1906), “but a local phase of a world problem.” If Caste resists racist historiography, then its downfall is that it does not resist nationalist and imperialist historiography. The Black Radical Historical Tradition is clear—there is no anti-racism without anti-imperialism.

If Germany, the world’s exemplar of historic reckoning and reconciliation, cannot be compelled to repent and pay reparations for its Herero and Nama Holocaust then what hope is there that the United States will be compelled to repent and pay reparations for African American slavery?

The question for Black people the world over isCan we unbind ourselves and our historic claims for reparations from the nation states that cage us? Can we go to the edge, to where our sisters and brothers stand, and imagine the end of world-historic lynch-time? Can we imagine the end of this world?

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As I write, generations are once again dying under the wheels of the twenty-first century. Shocked and ashamed at the horrifying, ever-mounting, ever-rotting trails of flesh and bone left on the track, we turn and look away. We run away from that which mangles us, from that which wounds us. We run away from each other. We run away from ourselves.

Perhaps “post”-Apartheid Modernity’s train—mechanized by the accelerating anti-Black forces of white supremacy, jingoistic nationalisms, late capitalism, neoliberal imperialism, hetero-patriarchy, and ableism—has left us so mangled that we fail to recognize each other and ourselves.

Black suffering continues to suture the wounds of the world. Indeed, Black suffering produces the world.

How do we end this world? Contrary to Wilkerson’s thesis, ending a world produced by Black suffering cannot take place within a moral historical “progression.” It will require a rupture of world-historic lynch-time.

How do we end this world? We must accurately name that which wounds us.

How do we end lynch-time? It is a terrifying question with no easy answer. Rupturing lynch-time requires that we name that which wounds us. To name is to witness. In this surveying—in this witnessing of the world’s wounds—the costs of refusal and obfuscation are too high. We mistake the map for the territory, the skin for the bones, and the bones for the skin.


Author’s NoteI am grateful to art historian Dr. Zamansele Nsele’s theorization of the train as the icon of imperial and settler colonial modernity in her 2020 essay “Post-Apartheid Nostalgia and Its Images of Common Sense.” Here, she originally places Cornel West and Dambudzo Marechera in conversation.

Source: Who Is Afraid of Race? | Boston Review

What Was the Elaine Massacre? | History | Smithsonian Magazine

The Massacre of Black Sharecroppers That Led the Supreme Court to Curb the Racial Disparities of the Justice System

White Arkansans, fearful of what would happen if African-Americans organized, took violent action, but it was the victims who ended up standing trial

Elaine defendants
Elaine Defendants, Helena, Phillips County, Ark., ca. 1910, (Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art, Central Arkansas Library System)
SMITHSONIANMAG.COM

The sharecroppers who gathered at a small church in Elaine, Arkansas, in the late hours of September 30, 1919, knew the risk they were taking. Upset about unfair low wages, they enlisted the help of a prominent white attorney from Little Rock, Ulysses Bratton, to come to Elaine to press for a fairer share in the profits of their labor. Each season, landowners came around demanding obscene percentages of the profits, without ever presenting the sharecroppers detailed accounting and trapping them with supposed debts.

“There was very little recourse for African-American tenant farmers against this exploitation; instead there was an unwritten law that no African-American could leave until his or her debt was paid off,” writes Megan Ming Francis in Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State. Organizers hoped Bratton’s presence would bring more pressure to bear through the courts. Aware of the dangers – the atmosphere was tense after racially motivated violence in the area – some of the farmers were armed with rifles.

At around 11 p.m. that night, a group of local white men, some of whom may have been affiliated with local law enforcement, fired shots into the church. The shots were returned, and in the chaos, one white man was killed. Word spread rapidly about the death. Rumors arose that the sharecroppers, who had formally joined a union known as the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA) were leading an organized “insurrection” against the white residents of Phillips County.

Governor Charles Brough called for 500 soldiers from nearby Camp Pike to, as the Arkansas Democrat reported on Oct 2, “round up” the “heavily armed negroes.” The troops were “under order to shoot to kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately.” They went well beyond that, banding together with local vigilantes and killing at least 200 African-Americans (estimates run much higher but there was never a full accounting). And the killing was indiscriminate—men, women and children unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity were slaughtered. Amidst the violence, five whites died, but for those deaths, someone would have to be held accountable.

Out of this tragedy, known as the Elaine massacre, and its subsequent prosecution, would come a Supreme Court decision that would upend years of court-sanctioned injustice against African-Americans and would secure the right of due process for defendants placed in impossible circumstances.

Ulysses Bratton
Ulysses Simpson Bratton, attorney, Little Rock, Ark., ca. 1890 (Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art, Central Arkansas Library System)

Despite its impact, little about the carnage in Elaine was unique during the summer of 1919. It was part of a period of vicious reprisals against African-American veterans returning home from World War I. Many whites believed that these veterans (including Robert Hill, who co-founded PFHUA) posed a threat as they claimed greater recognition for their rights at home. Even though they served in large numbers, black soldiers “realized over the course of the war and in the immediate aftermath that their achievement and their success actually provoked more rage and more vitriol than if they had utterly failed,” says Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history at Duke University and author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I.

During the massacre, Arkansan Leroy Johnston, who had had spent nine months recovering in a hospital from injuries he suffered in the trenches of France – was pulled from a train shortly after returning home and was shot to death alongside his three brothers. In places like Phillips County, where the economy directly depended on the predatory system of sharecropping, white residents were inclined to view the activities of Hill and others as the latest in a series of dangerous agitations.

In the days after the bloodshed in Elaine, local media coverage continued to fan the flames daily, reporting sensational stories of an organized plot against whites. A seven-man committee formed to investigate the killings. Their conclusions all too predictable: the following week they issued a statement in the Arkansas Democrat declaring the gathering in Elaine a “deliberately planned insurrection if the negroes against the whites” led by the PFHUA, whose founders used “ignorance and superstition of a race of children for monetary gains.”

The paper claimed every individual who joined was under the understanding that “ultimately he would be called upon to kill white people.” A week later, they would congratulate themselves on the whole episode and their ability to restore order confidently claiming that not one slain African-American was innocent. “The real secret of Phillips county’s success…” the newspaper boasted, is that “the Southerner knows the negro through several generations of experience.”

To counter this accepted narrative, Walter White, a member of the NAACP whose appearance enabled him to blend in with white residents, snuck into Phillips County by posing as a reporter. In subsequent articles, he claimed that “careful examination…does not reveal the ‘dastardly’ plot which has been charged” and that indeed the PFHUA had no designs on an uprising. He pointed out that the disparity in death toll alone belied the accepted version of events. With African-Americans making up a significant majority of local residents, “it appears that the fatalities would have been differently proportioned if a well-planned murder plot had existed among the Negroes,” he wrote in The Nation. The NAACP also pointed out in their publication The Crisis that in the prevailing climate of unchecked lynchings and mob violence against African-Americans, “none would be fool enough” to do so. The black press picked up the story and other papers began to integrate White’s counter-narrative into their accounts, galvanizing support for the defendants.

The courts were another matter altogether. Dozens of African-Americans became defendants in hastily convened murder trials that used incriminating testimony coerced through torture, and 12 men were sentenced to death. Jury deliberations lasted just moments. The verdicts were a foregone conclusion – it was clear that had they not been slated for execution by the court, they mob would have done so even sooner.

“You had 12 black men who were clearly charged with murder in a system that was absolutely corrupt at the time – you had mob influence, you had witness tampering, you had a jury that was all-white, you had almost certainly judicial bias, you had the pressure of knowing that if you were a juror in this case that you would almost certainly not be able to live in that town…if you decided anything other than a conviction,” says Michael Curry, an attorney and chair of the NAACP Advocacy and Policy Committee. No white residents were tried for any crime.

The outcome, at least initially, echoed an unyielding trend demonstrated by many a mob lynching: for African-American defendants, accusation and conviction were interchangeable.

Nonetheless, the NAACP launched a series of appeals and challenges that would inch their way through Arkansas state courts and then federal courts for the next three years, an arduous series of hard-fought victories and discouraging setbacks that echoed previous attempts at legal redress for black citizens. “It’s a learning process for the NAACP,” says Lentz-Smith. “[There is] a sense of how to do it and who to draw on and what sort of arguments to make.” The cases of six of the men would be sent for retrial over a technicality, while the other six defendants – including named plaintiff Frank Moore – had their cases argued before the United States Supreme Court. The NAACP’s legal strategy hinged on the claim that the defendants’ 14th Amendment right to due process had been violated.

In February 1923, by a 6-2 margin, the Court agreed. Citing the all-white jury, lack of opportunity to testify, confessions under torture, denial of change of venue and the pressure of the mob, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority that “if the case is that the whole proceeding is a mask – that counsel, jury and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible wave of public passion,” then it was the duty of the Supreme Court to intervene as guarantor of the petitioners’ constitutional rights where the state of Arkansas had failed.

The verdict marked a drastic departure from the Court’s longstanding hands-off approach to the injustices happening in places like Elaine. “This was a seismic shift in how our Supreme Court was recognizing the rights of African-Americans,” says Curry. After a long history of having little recourse in courts, Moore vs. Dempsey (the defendant was the keeper of the Arkansas State Penitentiary) preceded further legal gains where federal courts would weigh in on high-profile due process cases involving black defendants, including Powell vs. Alabama in 1932, which addressed all-white juries, and Brown vs. Mississippi in 1936, which ruled on confessions extracted under torture.

Moore vs. Dempsey provided momentum for early civil rights lawyers and paved the way for later victories in the ’50s and ’60s. According to Lentz, “when we narrate the black freedom struggle in the 20th century, we actually need to shift our timeline and the pins we put on the timeline for the moments of significant breakthrough and accomplishments.” Despite Moore vs. Dempsey being relatively obscure, “if the U.S. civil rights movement is understood as an effort to secure the full social, political, and legal rights of citizenship, then 1923 marks a significant event,” writes Francis.

Elaine defendants
Elaine Defendants: S. A. Jones, Ed Hicks, Frank Hicks, Frank Moore, J. C. Knox, Ed Coleman and Paul Hall with Scipio Jones, State Penitentiary, Little Rock, Pulaski County, Ark. ca. 1925, (Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art, Central Arkansas Library System)

The ruling also carried broad-ranging implications for all citizens in terms of federal intervention in contested criminal cases. “The recognition that the state had violated the procedural due process, and the federal courts actually weighing in on that was huge,” says Curry. “There was a deference that was being paid to state criminal proceedings, then this sort of broke that protection that existed for states.”

The sharecroppers that had gathered in Elaine had a simple goal: to secure a share in the profits gained from their work. But the series of injustices the events of that night unleashed would – through several years of tenacious effort – end up before the nation’s highest court and show that the longstanding tradition of declaring African-Americans guilty absent constitutional guarantees would no longer go unchallenged.

Source: What Was the Elaine Massacre? | History | Smithsonian Magazine

Straight Down to the Bones | Boston Review

ARTS IN SOCIETY

Straight Down to the Bones

In this searching interview, legendary Black Arts poet Sonia Sanchez discusses the ancestral influences on her work and how art can give us strength.

Includes new audio of Sanchez reading from her work.SONIA SANCHEZ, CHRISTINA KNIGHTThis interview is featured in Boston Review’s new book, Ancestors.ORDER A COPY TODAYEditor’s Note: You can hear Sonia Sanchez read some of her poems at our launch event for Ancestors next Thursday, March 11!

In addition, we are thrilled to announce that Sonia Sanchez will be one of the judges for this year’s creative writing contests. Free for writers from non-Western countries (as well as those experiencing hardship), our short story and poetry contests are open now.

A key figure in the Black Arts Movement and a founder of Black Studies, Sonia Sanchez has authored more than a dozen books of poetry, criticism, and plays. Though I’ve never met Sanchez in person, it is not an exaggeration to say that her life as a poet, playwright, and professor has made my own possible.

Taking a class on the Black Arts Movement as an undergraduate introduced me to the fire behind her language. My graduate training in African American Studies showed me images of her as an impossibly young professor, fighting for the establishment of Black Studies at San Francisco State University. And most recently, in my own life as a young professor in Philadelphia, I’ve seen Sanchez enter a room and be suddenly surrounded by former students, friends, and colleagues, living evidence of her lifelong generosity of spirit. Sanchez radiates brilliance, humor, and integrity, and her work has touched countless lives.It was a joy, then, to speak with her about the many people, living and dead, who have shaped her own journey. In our interview, she discusses mentors and teachers as well as her fierce devotion to her students. She concludes by recalling her writing process for A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974), an astonishing volume of poetry shaped by the artist’s dream dialogues with her late mother.—Christina Knight“How could I be a graduate in New York City and never come across these Black books?

”Christina Knight: You have mentioned before that there are lots of people, of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, who have inspired you and your own vision for a more just and peaceful world. Could you talk about who some of those people are—those chosen ancestors—who guide you on your journey? Sonia Sanchez: Some of them are people like Jean Hutson, who was a curator and then chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for decades. When I was finishing my bachelors at Hunter College, I had done some substitute teaching around my neighborhood, and I had this agreement with the principal that I would have a job in September. But I graduated in January, and when you come from a family that’s not wealthy, jobs are very important, are they not? So my dad said, “Well, you’d better go out and get a job.” I looked around in the newspapers and I went to all these places to get a job, and they all said they were filled. But I had the feeling that it had to do with how I looked, you know, my color, right? Someone I was talking to said, “Why don’t you look at the New York Times? They have all of these ads.” So I looked and there was one that said to write in; it was for a writer for a firm. And I thought why don’t I, at that point, play with what I really want to be?So I sent my CV, and I wrote whatever they asked me to write. And I got a telegram on Saturday that said to report to work on Monday; I was hired. So on Monday I went out in my blue suit, and my hat, and my blue pumps, and my blue bag. I had gloves and everything. I went out like a church person, you know what I mean? I got there at 8:30, and I remember waiting outside this door, which was locked. I’m standing there thinking, “Am I in the right place?” And I heard these heels come clicking down the hall. This woman came up to me and said, ‘Can I help you?’” So I took the telegram out and handed it to her.I remember she read it, and then she looked up at me; she looked back down, she read it again, and then she looked back up at me. Then she handed it to me, unlocked the door, and said, “Come in and have a seat.” You know how it is just to be twenty? How young you are at that time? Being eighty-six, now, you look back, and you remember the youngness in your eyes—like, “Whoa, here I am, I’m going to get a job. I’ve been hired to do something that I want to do.” It’s amazing. So I’m sitting there, and a man walks in and says, “Yes, can I help you?” I got up, and I had my letter out, and I handed it to him. And he read the letter and looked at me; he looked down at the telegram and read it again and looked up at me. And you know, I am smiling the whole time. And he handed it back to me and said, “I’m sorry, the job is taken.”With my New York City humor, I said, “Oh, I got it—the telegram said report to

Source: Straight Down to the Bones | Boston Review

Reflections On Recent Controversy And The Case For #PureReparations | Actify Press

This is longer than a 140-character Tweet, but I respectfully ask that all who participated in exchanges over a statement I made on Twitter on February 4, 2021 concerning #PureReparations, that aroused a firestorm of responses, please read this from start to finish.

Background

This is longer than a 140-character Tweet, but I respectfully ask that all who participated in exchanges over a statement I made on Twitter on February 4, 2021, concerning #PureReparations, that aroused a firestorm of responses, please read this from start to finish. Some of the responses to my statement were serious, thoughtful, and critical, but others were so hostile. I am convinced many of them were written by people who only had, at best, second- or third-hand knowledge of the content of my message.

Let me be clear, I remain steadfast that African American reparations in the United States should be designated specifically for black Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the United States. It is a position that I have maintained for upwards of 20 years, first articulated with the eligibility criteria I presented in an article published with Dania Frank in 2003 in the American Economic Review. 

The criteria expressed at the time were twofold: 1. An American citizen would have to demonstrate they have at least one ancestor enslaved in the United States. 2. An American citizen would have to demonstrate that for at least ten years before the adoption of a reparations program they self-classified as black, negro, or African American. The first criterion is a lineage standard; the second is an identity standard. Both standards must be met to merit receipt of reparations payments.

Lineage Criteria

In our recent book, From Here to Equality (FHTE)Kirsten Mullen and I modify the identity standard to lengthen the time to at least twelve years (two Senatorial terms) and to include the adoption of a study commission for reparations as one of two events that would trigger the time count on self-classification.

The core objective always has been to include all persons, and their descendants, who have been subjected to the cumulative, intergenerational effects of slavery, legal segregation and white terrorist violence, and post-Civil Rights Era mass incarceration, police executions of unarmed blacks, and ongoing discrimination in the justice claim. This is the community whose ancestors were denied the promised 40 acres as restitution for the years of bondage and as a material springboard for entry into full citizenship in the United States.

Kirsten and I argue further, in FHTE, the best economic indicator of the combined effects of these atrocities is the racial wealth gap.  We propose that elimination of the gap yields the baseline value for a reparations plan—demanding a federal government expenditure of $10 to $12 trillion.  It is a key aspect of our project to generate a research-based standard for determining the size of the bill that is due. We do not identify an upper bound for the bill.

We also insist that priority be given to mobilization of the funds in the form of direct payments to eligible recipients, whether cash transfers, trust accounts, other types of endowments, or some combination thereof.

Necessary Exclusions

The two eligibility criteria necessarily exclude many Americans. The lineage standard will exclude all blacks in the United States who migrated to the United States and became citizens after the end of the Civil War. Their descendants also will not be eligible, in the absence of a parent’s or grandparent’s intermarriage with black Americans having ancestry anchored in US slaveryCounting among blacks excluded would be the relatively small group that migrated to the United States during the Jim Crow years (estimated to be, according to a Smithsonian study, to the right of the decimal point). Also excluded is a much larger group of black immigrants (now approaching ten percent of the nation’s black population) who arrived after 1964, especially coming in large numbers from the 1980s onward.

The identity standard excludes all persons who self-identified as non-black, inclusive of all white Americans, at a point where there was no apparent financial benefit from classifying oneself as black.

Meeting the lineage standard necessitates serious genealogical research. As a result, in FHTE, Kirsten Mullen and I recommend the federal government establish an agency with genealogists with expertise in African American ancestry to provide free services to all persons seeking to establish their reparations claim. Despite that recommendation, we continue to get substantial push back from those who say many black Americans with ancestors enslaved in the US will hit a wall in getting past the 1870 Census to identify their particular ancestors who were held in bondage before 1865. Therefore, I have been giving more thought to modifications in the criterion that would make it easier for all black American descendants of U.S. slavery to be assured of inclusion.

Balloon Reasoning

One possibility that seemed reasonable is the one I advanced that stirred the pot to a boil—include black immigrants who came during the Jim Crow years on the eligibility list. Let me emphasize, I advanced this to prompt discussion. I even referred to this in a later post as a “trial balloon,” which left me open to the somewhat humorous charges that the balloon popped or, quite the opposite, the balloon was made of lead.

Here is the thinking that I pursued: Allowing pre-1950s black immigrants onto the reparations roll eases genealogical proof required of black American descendants of U.S. slavery to establish their lineage claim. You necessarily have a tradeoff between letting a small number of otherwise excluded black folk in the door versus keeping the strong genealogical standard that will demand going past the 1870 “wall.”  Under the former case, with the relaxed lineage standard, a person would have to demonstrate, say, that they have at least two black ancestors who were citizens of the USA before 1950 or 1960.

Then, eligibility would be much easier to establish for all black American descendants of U.S. slavery at the “price” of including a small number of black immigrants who arrived during legal segregation. Let a few in who do not meet the original lineage standard to ensure that all make it in who meet the original lineage standard.

No Mission Creep

I reject the “slippery slope” argument that has it that making this exception opens the gates for every other group to piggyback onto the reparations’ claim. Conditions can be drawn so precisely that no additional groups will become eligible.

Nevertheless, I do take seriously, the following critical response to my “trial balloon”: The limitation of African American reparations to black American descendants of US slavery is a matter of principle that should not be compromised. America’s history of racial injustice has targeted this community so consistently and with such ferocity that we should brook no modification in the criteria, even it remains more difficult for each individual to establish eligibility for the merited compensation.

In fact, I take it so seriously, in a later message, I indicate that I would not advance as an option the proposal any longer, and I will stand committed solely to the original criterion. Unlike what is suggested in a number of messages on Twitter, I never proposed that recent black immigrants should be eligible for reparations from the U.S. government. Nor do I anticipate reneging on that position. . . ”

Additional Considerations

Source: Reflections On Recent Controversy And The Case For #PureReparations | Actify Press

The Value of the Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narratives – The Atlantic

Image above: Portrait of Mollie Williams (Mississippi), taken as part of the Federal Writers’ Project


This article was published online on February 9, 2021.

On a rainy Thursday afternoon in November, I stepped inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. On past visits, I’d always encountered crowds of tourists and school groups, a space bursting with movement and sound. But on this day, the museum was nearly empty. It seemed to echo with all the people who had been there but were no longer. For the few of us inside, social distancing was dictated by blue circles scattered on the floor.

I made my way down to the bottom level, which documents the history of slavery in America. Masks were mandatory, and something about the pieces of cloth covering everyone’s mouths seemed to amplify the silence and solemnity of what surrounded us.
I walked past the statue of Thomas Jefferson standing among bricks bearing the names of people he’d enslaved, past a cabin that enslaved people had slept in, and past the stone auction block upon which enslaved people had been sold and separated from their families.Toward the end of a long corridor was a dimly lit room with sepia-toned photos on the walls. Photos of enslaved people holding their own children, or their enslaver’s children. Photos of fresh wounds on the backs of those who’d been beaten. Photos of people bent over fields of cotton that hid their faces.

But what was most striking about the room was the voices running through it. The words of people who had survived slavery were running on a six-minute loop. Their voices floated through the air like ghosts.

“My father was not allowed to see my mother but two nights a week,” said a woman in the voice of Mary A. Bell. “Dat was Wednesday and Saturday. So he often came home all bloody from his beatings.”

“I had to wok evva day,” said a woman in the voice of Elvira Boles. “I’d leave mah baby cryin’ in the yard, and I’d be cryin’, but I couldn’t stay.”

“My mudder word in de field,” said Harrison Beckett. “Sometimes she come in 9 or 10 ’clock at night. She be all wore out an’ it be so dark she too tired to cook lots of times, but she hafter git some food so we could eat it. Us all ’round de table like dat was like a feast.”

When I’d first encountered these floating voices years before, I was fascinated by how ordinary their stories were. These were not tales of daring escapes like those of Henry “Box” Brown, who in 1849 contorted his body into a wooden crate for 27 hours as it was delivered from the slave state of Virginia to abolitionists in Pennsylvania—mailing himself to freedom. Nor were they the stories of Frederick Douglass, who as a teenager, in 1833, fought his white slave breaker with such force that the man never hit Douglass again. Nor were they the stories of Harriet Jacobs, who, in an attempt to escape the physical and sexual abuses of slavery, hid in an attic for seven years.

Brown became a global celebrity who turned his escape routine into a one-man show that traveled throughout the United States and England. Douglass and Jacobs wrote autobiographies that became best sellers, and that today are staples in classrooms around the world. Theirs are the stories I learned as a child, and there’s great value in teaching kids stories of resistance, of Black people not being passive recipients of violence. But I remember how, after reading them, I found myself wondering why every enslaved person didn’t just escape like these famous figures did. The memory of that thought now fills me with shame.

The stories swirling about the room weren’t famous accounts of extraordinary people; rather, they were the words of all-but-forgotten individuals who bore witness to the quotidian brutality of chattel slavery. These stories were the result of the Federal Writers’ Project—a New Deal program that was tasked with collecting the oral histories of thousands of Americans. From 1936 to 1938, interviewers from the FWP gathered the firsthand accounts of more than 2,300 formerly enslaved people in at least 17 states. The members of the last generation of people to experience slavery were reaching the end of their lives, and so there was an urgency to record their recollections. In scale and ambition, the project was unlike any that had come before it. The Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave narratives produced tens of thousands of pages of interviews and hundreds of photographs—the largest, and perhaps the most important, archive of testimony from formerly enslaved people in history.

While many of these narratives vividly portray the horror of slavery—of families separated, of backs beaten, of bones crushed—embedded within them are stories of enslaved people dancing together on Saturday evenings as respite from their work; of people falling in love, creating pockets of time to see each other when the threat of violence momentarily ceased; of children skipping rocks in a creek or playing hide-and-seek amid towering oak trees, finding moments when the movement of their bodies was not governed by anything other than their own sense of wonder. These small moments—the sort that freedom allows us to take for granted—have stayed with me.

When I first came across the narratives, I was confused as to why I had never, not once in my entire education, been made aware of their existence. It was as if this trove of testimony—accounts that might expand, complicate, and deepen my understanding of slavery—had purposefully been kept from view.
grid of 14 photographs of formerly enslaved people from FWP
Portraits of formerly enslaved people, taken as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. Left to right, top row: Willis Winn (Texas); James Green, seated, with an unidentified individual (Texas); Ben Kinchelow (Texas); Charles H. Anderson (Ohio). Second row: Mary Crane (Indiana); Daniel Taylor (Alabama); Orelia Alexia Franks (Texas). Third row: Harriet Jones (Texas); Simp Campbell (Texas); Patsy Moses (Texas). Fourth row: Gus Johnson (Texas); Ben Horry (South Carolina); Maugan Shepherd (Alabama); William Henry Towns (Alabama).

For many black americans, there is a limit to how far back we can trace our lineage. The sociologist Orlando Patterson calls it natal alienation: the idea that we have been stripped of social and cultural ties to a homeland we cannot identify. I have listened to friends discuss the specific village in Italy their ancestors came from, or the specific town in the hills of Scotland. No such precision is possible for Black Americans who are the descendants of enslaved people. Even after our ancestors were forcibly brought to the shores of the New World, few records documented their existence. The first census to include all Black Americans by name was conducted in 1870, five years after slavery ended. Trying to recover our lineage can be a process of chasing history through a cloud of smoke. We search for what often cannot be found. We mourn for all we do not know.

But the descendants of those who were interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project have been given something that has been denied to so many Black Americans: the opportunity to read the words, and possibly see the faces, of people they thought had been lost to history.Because these narratives are not often taught in school, many people come across them for the first time later in life. Several historians told me that their encounters with these stories had shifted the trajectory of their personal and intellectual lives. Catherine A. Stewart, a historian at Cornell College, in Iowa, and the author of Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project, remembers sitting in the basement of the university library as a graduate student, making her way through reels of microfilm. “I will just never forget this sensation I had of these stories—of these life histories of these individuals, personal stories and experiences of enslavement—just leaping off the page,” she said.

For years, the collections had been largely ignored. As Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller note in Remembering Slavery, an edited volume of selected narratives, historians throughout the mid‑20th century came up with a range of reasons not to take them seriously. Some argued that because the people who were interviewed, in the 1930s, had been children when slavery ended, their memories were unreliable. Others claimed that the narratives couldn’t be trusted because they weren’t an adequate statistical sample: Those who were interviewed represented approximately 2 percent of the formerly enslaved population still alive in 1930.

Perhaps the most insidious reason to dismiss the narratives came from the historian Ulrich B. Phillips, whose conception of slavery as a civilizing institution for the enslaved shaped many Americans’ understanding of it in the early-to-mid-20th century. Phillips complained of “Negro bias,” believing that Black Americans were “too close” to the subject of slavery and thus unable to be objective about it—a criticism that has been used to undermine Black writing and research on issues of racism since the earliest days of Black life in America.That view began to change with the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, when historians, intellectuals, and activists came to see slavery as the root cause of racial inequality. Interest in the Federal Writers’ Project narratives grew.

The Black Lives Matter movement has further pushed historians to revisit these stories. The past several years—and particularly the months since last summer’s racial-justice protests—have prompted many people to question what we’ve been taught, to see our shared past with new eyes. The FWP narratives afford us the opportunity to understand how slavery shaped this country through the stories of those who survived it.


My mammy Martha an’ me we ’longed ter Mister Joshua Long in Martin County, an’ my paw, Henry, ’longed ter Squire Ben Sykes in Tyrrell County. Squire Sykes lived in what wus called Gum Neck, an’ he owned a hundert slaves or more an’ a whole passel of lan’.

Noah lewis had been doing genealogical research for years, trying to learn as much as possible about his family history, when he discovered that his great-great-grandfather, a man named William Sykes, had been interviewed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave-narrative collection. He wanted to see the original documents himself, so he traveled from his home in Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to visit the Library of Congress.

“It was an amazing experience,” he told me. “I had never seen photographs of him before … That was just mind-blowing all by itself.”

In the black-and-white photograph of William Sykes that accompanies his narrative, he is 78 years old and facing the camera, his eyes hidden behind a pair of dark glasses. He has a white mustache that stretches over his mouth and a long goatee that hangs from his chin. He appears to be furrowing his brow.

“He kind of reminds me of my older brother, Jimmy,” Lewis said.

Lewis had read books that detailed the physical and psychological violence of slavery; he had seen photos of enslaved people and understood the brutal conditions in which they worked. But there was something different about reading the narrative of his direct ancestor—someone from his own family who, only a few generations earlier, had been in chains.

Noah Lewis
Noah Lewis discovered that his great-great-grandfather William Sykes was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project. (Hannah Price)

In his narrative, William Sykes describes being a child in North Carolina and seeing the soldiers of the Union Army make their way into Confederate territory. Sykes’s enslaver, fearful for his own life and worried that the Union soldiers might confiscate his human property, escaped with his enslaved workers into the mountains.

While we wus dar one day, an’ while Mr. Jim Moore, de Jedge’s daddy am in town de missus axes my cousin Jane ter do de washin’.

Jane says dat she has got ter do her own washin’ an dat she’ll wash fer de missus termorrer. De missus says “you ain’t free yit, I wants you ter know.”

“I knows dat I’s not but I is ‘gwine ter be free’ ”, Jane says.

De missus ain’t said a word den, but late Sadday night Mr. Jim he comes back from town an’ she tells him ’bout hit.

Mr. Jim am some mad an’ he takes Jane out on Sunday mornin’ an’ he beats her till de blood runs down her back.

Sykes was a child; the detail of blood running down Jane’s back stayed with him the rest of his life.

Lewis said that, like me, he’d grown up with an incomplete understanding of slavery. “As a young child, I remember thinking to myself, You know, hey, if slavery was so bad, why didn’t my people fight harder to try to get out of it? ” Jane’s story showed that it wasn’t so simple.Lewis himself was born in 1953 on an Army base in Heidelberg, Germany, where his father was stationed. His family returned to the U.S. when he was just 10 months old. When he was 13, they moved to Aldan, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. As far as Lewis knows, his was the first Black family in Aldan, and he says they were not welcomed with open arms.

archival photo of William Sykes; Noah Lewis’s parents, 1952
Noah Lewis’s great-great-grandfather William Sykes (left) was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project. Above right: Lewis’s parents in 1952, before moving to Germany. (Library of Congress; courtesy of Noah Lewis)
“A couple days after we moved in, we woke up that morning, and somebody had written on our car windshield i hate niggers.” His father came out of the house with a shotgun and yelled loud enough for everyone in the neighborhood to hear: “I don’t care if you don’t like me, but if you start playing with my property, there will be trouble.”Lewis said that while the FWP narratives can be emotionally difficult to get through, he’s also found “a certain joy” in reading them. “This is your relative, and it’s them speaking, and it brings them to life. They remind you that they were a person, not a stat, not a little side note, not a little entry in a genealogical chart. They were a real, living, breathing human being. That’s what that document kind of really hits you with.”

But not everyone feels the way Lewis does. Six years ago, he attended a family reunion in New Jersey and decided to share what he’d discovered. Standing in front of about 30 people in folding chairs in a relative’s backyard, Lewis read Sykes’s words. Some of those present were old enough to have known Sykes when they were children—and some felt deeply hurt, and embarrassed, by parts of what Sykes was portrayed as having said.

For example, some sections of his narrative implied that life under slavery was good:

I knows dat Mister Long an’ Mis’ Catherine wus good ter us an’ I ’members dat de food an’ de clothes wus good an’ dat dar wus a heap o’ fun on holidays. Most o’ de holidays wus celebrated by eatin’ candy, drinkin’ wine an’ brandy. Dar wus a heap o’ dancin’ ter de music of banjoes an’ han’ slappin’. We had co’n shuckin’s, an’ prayer meetin’s, an’ sociables an’ singin’s. I went swimmin’ in de crick, went wid old Joe Brown, a-possum huntin’, an’ coon huntin’, an’ I sometimes went a-fishin’.

Read one way, these sorts of details might be seen as softening the horrors of slavery, making the gruesome nature of the institution more palatable to readers who aren’t prepared to come to grips with what this country has done. Read another way, though, they might reveal the humanity of those who were enslaved, and show that despite circumstances predicated on their physical and psychological exploitation, they were still able to laugh, play, celebrate, and find joy.

Other sections of Sykes’s account, however, are more difficult to reconcile. Toward the end of the narrative he’s depicted as having said:

We ain’t wucked none in slavery days ter what we done atter de war, an’ I wisht dat de good ole slave days wus back.

Dar’s one thing, we ole niggers wus raised right an’ de young niggers ain’t. Iffen I had my say-so dey’d burn down de nigger schools, gibe dem pickanninies a good spankin’ an’ put ’em in de patch ter wuck, ain’t no nigger got no business wid no edgercation nohow.

After Lewis finished, some of his relatives told him that he shouldn’t have read the narrative to them. They felt that Sykes’s words reflected poorly on them as a family and on Black people in general. But they didn’t just blame Sykes; they blamed the white person who’d interviewed him, who they believe must have manipulated Sykes or changed his words. “A typical example of white people trying to make us look ignorant,” they told him.

This issue of manipulation in the interviews is something historians have had to wrestle with. The narratives were rarely verbatim transcriptions. Many interviewers altered their subjects’ dialect to make it seem more “authentically” Black. As Catherine Stewart writes in her book, “FWP decisions about how to depict [dialect] on the page reveal more about how the black vernacular was used to represent black identity than about the actual speech patterns of ex-slave informants.” And historians have worried that in a violent, segregated society, when white interviewers showed up on a Black person’s doorstep, the formerly enslaved might have told the interviewers what they thought they wanted to hear, rather than what had actually happened.

The project did employ some Black interviewers, but the majority were white southerners. Some were the descendants of slaveholders—in certain cases, descendants of the families that had enslaved the very same people they were sent to interview—or members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization known for pushing a narrative of slavery that was sympathetic to the Confederate cause.

When Stephanie Jones-Rogers, a historian at UC Berkeley and the author of They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, showed early portions of her book to friends, some questioned why she hadn’t changed the language of the interviews. They worried that the narratives portrayed formerly enslaved people as uneducated and illiterate. “There may have been some manipulation,” Jones-Rogers told me, and that should be accounted for and taken seriously. Still, she felt that changing the language would risk changing the specific meaning behind how these individuals wanted to tell their story. And it would ignore the fact that, unfortunately, many of them were, by nature of circumstance, uneducated and illiterate—a reflection of the way the insidious legacy of slavery had continued to shape their lives.

Daina Ramey Berry, the chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin, told me that there is no source a historian can use that isn’t compromised by bias in some way, and the notion that we should ignore the narratives because of their imperfections would mean applying a standard to them that is not applied across the board. “The big excuses that people have as to why they push back against them is that they’ll say, ‘Well, they’re biased,’ ” she said. “And I’m always like, ‘I don’t understand why you can read a plantation owner’s letters, or his journal—or her journal—and not even question that.’ ”

Lewis understood his relatives’ concerns. Still, he couldn’t help but feel disappointed that they didn’t appreciate how remarkable it was that this narrative existed at all. For Lewis, it was a piece of history, a piece of them. It was like finding treasure—even if the jewels aren’t cut as cleanly as you’d like, they’re still worth something.

Lewis’s interest in history would ultimately change the course of his life. As he was doing his genealogical research, he went all the way back to the American Revolution, trying to discover whether he had relatives who had been enslaved in the British colonies. He came across the book Black Genealogy, by the historian Charles L. Blockson. There, Lewis encountered the story of a man named Edward “Ned” Hector, a Black soldier who fought in the Revolutionary War, one of thousands of Black people to fight on the side of the Americans. During the Battle of Brandywine, in September 1777, Hector and his regiment were under attack and ordered to abandon their guns and retreat for safety. Hector, however, seized as many abandoned guns as he could, threw them in his wagon, and warded off British soldiers to salvage the only equipment his company had left.

Learning about Hector was transformative for Lewis. He thought this history of Black contributions to the American project should be taught in his children’s classrooms—but not just through books or lectures. The history had to be brought to life. It had to be made real. “So I figured it would be a much better way of getting across to the kids about Hector if I came as Hector,” he said.

His first presentation was in his daughter’s fifth-grade classroom, in a makeshift costume that he still laughs about today. His pants were blue hospital scrubs, with a pair of long white socks pulled over the bottoms of the legs. He wore a yellow linen vest, a souvenir-shop tricornered hat, and a woman’s blouse. “It was very bad, extremely bad,” he said. Still, the teachers and students loved his presentation, and he was asked to come back again. And again. “After a while, one of the teachers said, ‘You got something really good here. Maybe you might want to consider taking this more public, out to other schools and places.’ I thought about that. And I said, ‘You know, that’s not a bad idea.’ ”About three years later, Lewis decided to leave his full-time job running an electronics-repair shop so he could dedicate more time to his reenactment work, which he had begun getting paid to do. Since then, he’s performed as Ned Hector in classrooms, at memorial sites, and at community festivals and has become a staple of the colonial-reenactment community.

In a video of one performance, he’s dressed in a blue wool jacket—typical of those worn by American soldiers during the Revolutionary War—and a matching tricornered hat with a large red feather. In his hands, the musket he holds is not simply a musket, but an instrument that helps him transport the audience back more than two centuries. It becomes a paddle, rising and falling in front of his chest as he tells the story of Black soldiers helping other American troops cross a river during battle. He places it just below his chin as if it were a microphone amplifying his story, or a light meant to illuminate his face in the darkness.

In another video, Lewis stands in front of a school group. “How would you like to have your families, your loved ones, dying for somebody else’s freedom, only to be forgotten by them?” He pauses and scans the crowd. “If you are an American, you share in African American history, because these people helped you to be free.”Watching Lewis, I was impressed by how he brought the Revolution to life in ways that my textbooks never had. How he told stories of the role Black people played in the war that I had never heard before. How in school—except for Crispus Attucks’s martyrdom during the Boston Massacre—I don’t think I had ever been made to consider that Black people were part of the American Revolution at all. It reminded me of how so much of Black history is underreported, misrepresented, or simply lost. How so many stories that would give us a fuller picture of America are known by so few Americans.


The horn to git up blowed ’bout four o’clock and if we didn’t fall out right now, the overseer was in after us. He tied us up every which way and whip us, and at night he walk the quarters to keep us from runnin’ ’round. On Sunday mornin’ the overseer come ’round to each nigger cabin with a big sack of shorts and give us ’nough to make bread for one day. I used to steal some chickens, ’cause we didn’t have ’nough to eat, and I don’ think I done wrong, ’cause the place was full of ’em.

In the photograph accompanying the interview of Carter J. Johnson, he stands in front of a wooden cabin in the town of Tatum, Texas. He wears denim overalls and a collared shirt. His head is cocked, his brow furrowed. On the porch behind him is a woman in a patterned dress.

Janice Crawford had never seen a photo of her mother’s father. When she saw this picture, she told me, it was listed under the name Carter J. Jackson, but Crawford couldn’t find a Carter Jackson in the census records for that area. She recognized some of the names he mentioned in his narrative from her genealogical research, and showed the photo to her mother, who immediately recognized her father. Carter J. Jackson was in fact Carter J. Johnson. The interviewer must have made a mistake.

Crawford’s mother was born to two unwed parents. They lived nearby, but the man she called Papa, the man she always thought of as her father, was Carter Johnson. Johnson, a deacon in the local church, and his wife, Sally Gray Johnson (whom Crawford called Big Mama, and who is the woman on the porch in the photo), took her in and raised her as their own. Crawford never knew her grandfather—he died nine years before she was born—but his presence was still in the air as she grew up.

Janice Crawford
Janice Crawford had never seen a photograph of her grandfather before she came across his narrative in the FWP archive. Through her research, she also got in touch with a descendant of the family that had enslaved hers. (Hannah Price)

Crawford’s mother didn’t have a photograph of her father, and it meant a great deal to Crawford to be able to give her one. “It was very emotional to me,” she said.

She remembers her mother telling her a story, long before she read it in the narrative, about how Johnson and other enslaved people had been forced to walk from Alabama to Texas while guiding their owner’s cattle and horses and a flock of turkeys the entire way. She couldn’t understand how someone could make other people walk so far, for so long.In the narrative, Johnson says that his mother, a woman named Charlotte from Tennessee, and his father, a man named Charles from Florida, had each been sold to a man named Parson Rogers and that he’d brought them to Alabama, where Johnson was born.

Johnson says that in 1863—the year President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—Rogers brought 42 of his enslaved workers to Texas, where the proclamation was not being enforced. There, they continued to be enslaved by Rogers for four years after the war ended.

What Johnson describes was not uncommon. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation, enslavers throughout the Confederacy continued to hold Black people in bondage for the rest of the war. And even after General Robert E. Lee surrendered, on April 9, 1865, effectively signaling that the Confederacy had lost the war, many enslavers in Texas and other states did not share this news with their human property. In the narratives, formerly enslaved people recount how the end of their bondage did not correspond with military edicts or federal legislation. Rather, emancipation was a long, inconsistent process that delayed the moments when people first tasted freedom.

Johnson’s narrative opens and closes with stories of separation. Near the beginning he says:

I had seven brothers call Frank and Benjamin and Richardson and Anderson and Miles, Emanuel and Gill, and three sisters call Milanda, Evaline and Sallie, but I don’t know if any of ’em are livin’ now.

Then, toward the end, he speaks about the last time he saw his mother:

Me and four of her chillen standin’ by when mammy’s sold for $500.00. Cryin’ didn’t stop ’em from sellin’ our mammy ’way from us.

“The fact that his mother and several of his siblings were sold away, and he was standing there watching this happen,” Crawford said, her voice cracking. “That’s just—that’s just heartbreaking.”

I asked Crawford about the first line of Johnson’s narrative, a line striking in how direct it is:

If you’s wants to know ’bout slavery time, it was Hell.

“Well, you know, it’s just kind of gut-wrenching, isn’t it?” she said. “It was hell. And that’s the word. When my mother saw that word she just kind of jumped. Because she said she’d never heard him curse. And to her, he wasn’t talking about heaven and hell, in the way that, you know, a preacher or minister might. And it was jarring to her.”

Carter J. Johnson archival photo; photo of Emma Lee Johnson as a child
Carter J. Johnson (left) described watching with his siblings as his mother was sold. Later, he took in Janice Crawford’s mother, Emma Lee Johnson (right), and raised her as his own. (Library of Congress; courtesy of Janice Crawford)
Crawford’s genealogical research was driven in part by a desire to trace her biological lineage, because her mother had been adopted. But she also began searching for those who had enslaved her family. In the census records, she found a Rogers who matched her grandfather’s description of “Massa Rogers.” Then, in a Texas newspaper, she found an article written by one of Rogers’s descendants that celebrated the family’s local history, despite all that that history included.
“These folks are proud of their heritage,” Crawford told me. “Even though it includes the fact that their people enslaved other people.”Crawford wrote to the newspaper, which put her in touch with the article’s author. She didn’t say that his family had enslaved hers. She simply said that, based on her research, the two families were “connected.” But she believes he understood. It was a small town, and the names she mentioned should have made the nature of the connection obvious.

I wondered what Crawford had been hoping to get from these exchanges. Did she want an apology? A relationship? Something else?

She told me she’d been looking for information about her family, trying to recover names of ancestors that had never entered the public record. The man promised to send her some documents from his family members but never did. More important, she added, “I was hoping that they’re acknowledging our humanity. And that just like he is interested in and proud of his ancestry, so am I.”

“I would like to say that I’m an observer, and that I can be emotionally detached,” she said, but “it just brings tears to my eyes, how they were treated.” One of the things that left Crawford most unsettled was that the Rogers family back then had claimed to espouse the principles of Christianity. “The people that enslaved my ancestors were ministers, pastors, preachers.”

For Crawford, reading Johnson’s words was the entry point into an entire world of ex-slave narratives. “They really weren’t fed well. They weren’t housed well. They were just required to work from sunup to sundown. They were whipped,” she told me. “It is horrendous. But still, in all, I feel so blessed to have found that document.”

“Why is that?” I asked.“Because it’s a link to our shared history,” she said. “We existed. We conquered. We overcame.”


My mammy said dat slavery wuz a whole lot wusser ’fore I could ’member. She tol’ me how some of de slaves had dere babies in de fiel’s lak de cows done, an’ she said dat ’fore de babies wuz borned dey tied de mammy down on her face if’en dey had ter whup her ter keep from ruinin’ de baby.

Lucy brown didn’t know her age when she was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project on May 20, 1937, in Durham, North Carolina. She had no birth certificate, no sense of what year she’d come into this world. Brown’s testimony is shorter than many of the others, in part because she was so young—perhaps only 6 or 7—as slavery entered its final days.

“I wuz jist a little thing when de war wuz over,” she said.

We belonged to John Neal of Person County. I doan know who my pappy wuz, but my mammy wuz named Rosseta an’ her mammy’s name ’fore her wuz Rosseta. I had one sister named Jenny an’ one brother named Ben.

The narrative is a mix of small memories she carried with her from her early childhood and memories that had been passed on to her from her mother.

Gregory Freeland, like both Lewis and Crawford, came across the narrative of his great-great-grandmother while researching his family history. He was raised just outside Durham, where he lived with his mother and his great-grandmother—Lucy’s daughter. He found the narrative only after she had died.

When Freeland was a child, his family members would tell stories about their lives, but he wasn’t interested in hearing them. “I was sort of ready to get away from that, that slavery thing,” he told me. “So I never paid attention. It seemed like schoolwork.”
Now he wishes he’d asked his great-grandmother about her life, and her mother’s life. He felt grateful for having stumbled onto this narrative, and for how connected it made him feel to a history that he’d previously taken for granted. “This is the link to the past,” he said.Freeland was drafted in 1967 to serve in the Vietnam War. He was stationed in Korea when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and according to Freeland, the Army worked to “keep the temperature down” after King’s death so that Black soldiers—who were fighting a war for a country that still didn’t afford them basic rights—wouldn’t get too upset. The strange dissonance of being sent to the other side of the world to fight for a country that had just killed the leader of your people stayed with Freeland long after he came back to the U.S.

The GI Bill paid for him to go to college, and covered most of graduate school, where he studied political science. For the past 30 years, he’s been a professor at California Lutheran University, where he teaches courses on race, politics, and the civil-rights movement—subjects he feels are urgent and necessary for students at this college with a tiny Black population.

He told me he’s “trying to keep this history alive, because it’s getting further and further away.”The Durham of Freeland’s childhood smelled of tobacco. He remembers the ubiquity of chicken noises, mixed with music from people’s houses as they sang while they cooked or listened to the radio on the porch. His family grew fruits and vegetables in their yard, and Freeland helped kill the chickens and hogs they raised. “I had to go out and wring the chickens’ neck,” he told me. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it happen, but you grab the chicken by the neck and wring it, wring it, wring it until the body pops off. And when the body pops off, it flops around for a while.”

“My students,” he said, “they can’t fathom that life was like that.”

Freeland grew up in the same town where his great-great-grandmother had settled after the Civil War. Known then as Hickstown—named for a white landowner, Hawkins Hicks—the community had begun as an agricultural settlement for the formerly enslaved on the western edge of Durham. Over the course of several decades, it became a self-reliant Black community where the formerly enslaved, their children, and their children’s children all lived together. This history is reflected in Lucy Brown’s narrative:

I can’t tell yo’ my age but I will tell yo’ dat eber’body what lives in dis block am either my chile or gran’chile. I can’t tell yo’ prexackly how many dar is o’ ’em, but I will tell you dat my younges’ chile’s baby am fourteen years old, an’ dat she’s got fourteen youngun’s, one a year jist lak I had till I had sixteen.

As nearby duke university grew, so too did Hickstown, which became known as Crest Street. Residents served as food-service workers, housekeepers, maintenance staff. By the 1970s, the community had more than 200 households, and more than 60 percent of residents worked for the university, according to the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. This included Freeland’s mother, who walked every day from the dirt roads surrounding their home to the paved streets near Duke. And though many of the jobs available did not pay much, it was a tight-knit community of people deeply invested in one another, and in the history of the community their ancestors had built.

Crest Street came under threat in the 1970s with the planned expansion of the East-West Expressway, which would slice directly through the center of this century-old Black community. The residents decided to fight the plan. They hired a team of lawyers and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, citing Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination “under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In 1980, the U.S. Department of Transportation ruled that the highway project could not move forward as proposed, because it would disproportionately affect Black residents.

Representatives from the North Carolina Department of Transportation and members of the Crest Street community began meeting to see if they could come to an agreement. Crest Street residents invited officials to visit their homes, so that they could see what the construction project would have demolished. Ultimately, a compromise was reached in which the residents would all move to an area that was adjacent to their original neighborhood, keeping the community largely intact.

Listening to Freeland tell this story, I thought about how remarkable it was that in this same place where formerly enslaved people had built a community for themselves after generations of bondage, Black people once again had to defend themselves against a government that was attempting to take away a sort of freedom.

For Freeland, stories of towns like Crest Street, and the activists who kept the community together, are just as essential to document as the stories of his formerly enslaved great-great-grandmother. “I’d like to interview people who lived through the segregationist era,” he told me. “And I’d like to interview those people who participated in making change—Black people who are maybe my age, who grew up in this kind of community—before we pass on.”

“Who is going to remember,” he said, “if nobody’s there to tell it?”

Gregory Freeland
“This is the link to the past,” Gregory Freeland says of the FWP narrative from his great-great-grandmother Lucy Brown, who was a young girl when slavery was ending. (Stephanie Mei-Ling)

Freeland is right. There are other stories of the Black experience that should be collected—and soon. Recently, I’ve become convinced of the need for a large-scale effort to document the lives of people who lived through America’s southern apartheid; who left the land their families had lived on for generations to make the Great Migration to the North and West; who were told they were second-class citizens and then lived to see a person who looked like them ascend to the highest office in the land. Their stories exist in our living rooms, on our front porches, and on the lips of people we know and love. But too many of these stories remain untold, in many cases because no one has asked.

What would a new Federal Writers’ Project look like? How could we take the best of what the narratives of the 1930s did and build on them, while avoiding the project’s mistakes?

When I raised the idea with the historians I interviewed, their voices lit up with energy as they imagined what such a project might look like.

“Historians would definitely need to be in charge,” Stephanie Jones-Rogers told me. Specifically, Black scholars should lead the project. “There’s a way in which to not only center the Black experience, but also to privilege Black intellect, Black brilliance,” she said. “It would be a project like none we’ve ever seen.”

Daina Ramey Berry thought family members should conduct the interviews. “Almost like a StoryCorps on NPR,” she said, “because I think you’re going to get a more authentic story about what life was like.” Berry thought that even well-intentioned strangers might re-create some of the same dynamics in place in the 1930s. She worried about the implications, again, of having federal workers going into older Black folks’ homes and asking them deeply personal questions about what may have been a traumatic time in their lives.

Catherine Stewart believes that there would be important benefits to having such a project led by the federal government: “Funding, first and foremost, at a level other agencies and nonprofit organizations simply don’t have.” She added that the federal government already has the infrastructure this sort of project would require—in places like the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Library of Congress. The government also has the ability to ensure that the public has access to it.

When I began reading the Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave narratives, I thought about my own grandparents. I thought about my grandfather, and how his grandfather had been born into bondage. About my grandmother, and how the grandparents who raised her had been born just after abolition. About how, in the scope of human history, slavery was just a few moments ago. I thought, too, of everything my grandmother and grandfather have seen—born in 1939 Jim Crow Florida and 1930 Jim Crow Mississippi, respectively, and now living through the gravest pandemic in a century and watching their great-grandchildren, my children, grow up over FaceTime.

About a year ago, I decided to interview them. I spoke with them each individually, an audio recorder sitting on the table between us, and listened as they told me stories about their lives that I had never heard. My grandfather and his siblings hid in the back room under a bed while white supremacists rode on horseback through their community to intimidate Black residents. As my grandmother walked to school on the red-dirt roads of northern Florida, white children passing by on school buses would lower their windows and throw food at her and the other Black children. For as much time as I’d spent with them, these were the sorts of stories I hadn’t heard before. The sorts of stories that are not always told in large groups at Thanksgiving while you’re trying to prevent your toddler from throwing mac and cheese across the room.

My children will, in a few decades, be living in a world in which no one who experienced the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will still be alive. What happens to those people’s stories if they are not collected? What happens to our understanding of that history if we have not thoroughly documented it?

Some of this work is already being done—by the Southern Oral History Program and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, for instance—but not on a scale commensurate with what the Federal Writers’ Project did. That requires financial and political investment. It requires an understanding of how important such a project is.

Imagine if the government were to create a new Federal Writers’ Project. One committed to collecting, documenting, and sharing the stories of Black people who lived through Jim Crow, of Japanese Americans who lived through internment, of Holocaust refugees who resettled in America, of veterans who fought in World War II and the Vietnam War. And stories like those of the people in Freeland’s great-great-grandmother’s town, who fought to keep their community together when the state wanted to split it apart. There are millions of people who experienced extraordinary moments in American history, and who won’t be around much longer to tell us about them. Some of these moments are ones we should be proud of, and some should fill us with shame. But we have so much to learn from their stories, and we have a narrowing window of time in which to collect them.

I keep thinking of something Freeland told me, and how his words speak to both the stakes and the possibility of this moment.

“We survived,” he said. “And I’m still around.”


This article appears in the March 2021 print edition with the headline “We Mourn for All We Do Not Know.”

CLINT SMITH is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent and the forthcoming nonfiction book How the Word Is Passed.

Source: The Value of the Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narratives – The Atlantic

OUR COMMON GROUND with Janice Graham :: “Ashes to Ashes: Addressing Racial Injustice in America” :: Dr. Shirley J. Jackson, MD, Artist, Author and Filmographer :: February 6, 2021 :: 10 pm EST

“Ashes to Ashes: Addressing Racial Injustice in America”

Saturday, February 6, 2021 ∞ 10 pm EST ∞ LIVE

Tune In LIVE Here: http://bit.ly/OCGTruthTalk

Listen & Call In Line: 347-838-9852

About this Episode of OUR COMMON GROUND

In a time of racial reckoning, a new film looks at a very personal attempt to address racial injustices in this country.

 “Ashes to Ashes” are the final words in typical African American funeral services. Many of those who were murdered by the Klan to maintain the reign of white supremacy never received their  “Ashes to Ashes”.

Ashes to Ashes, the film,  is an endearing portrait of Winfred Rembert, an avid Star Wars fan and master leather-work artist who survived an attempted lynching in 1967. This moving short documentary showcases the incredible friendship he has forged with Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker, as she creates and establishes an interactive art exhibit to memorialize the more than 4,000 African Americans who were lynched during the Jim Crow era. Taking all of her experiences from her love of medicine, art and people, Dr. Shirley J. Whitaker, MD, created the Ashes to Ashes program that will provide for a real memorial (funeral) service for the over 2 million lost during the Middle Passages.

FROM 1882-1968, 4,743 LYNCHINGS OCCURRED IN THE UNITED STATES. OF THESE PEOPLE THAT WERE LYNCHED 3,446 WERE BLACK (72%). THE MAJORITY OCCURING IN THE SOUTH (79%). This too is Black History.

The goal of the project by Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker is to acknowledge and mourn the African Americans who were racially terrorized during the Jim Crow era after the Civil War and until this very day. Some endured lynching and other forms of brutalization and therefore, they never received a proper burial. The ceremony was a celebration of thousands of African Americans. As we must. #BlackHistoryMonth2021

Dr. Whitaker will join us this week. Mr. Rembert is unable to join us tonight.   We will host him soon.

Watch the film here:

http://ashes2ashes4ever.com/video/Award-Winning-Rees-Films-Shirley-Whitaker-Winfred-Rembert-Ashes-to-Ashes-US-Lynchings-and-a-Story-of-Survival-Al-Jazeera-Witness.mp4

About Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker

Dr. Whitaker is the seventh child of Eddie and Charlie Mae Jackson from Waycross, Georgia. Dr. Whitaker attended Clark Atlanta University completing a BS degree with honors in Biology. She attended Yale University School of Medicine-Department of Public Health and obtained her medical degree form Emory University School of Medicine, the only female African American in her class. A kidney specialist by trade, an artist trained under Leonard Baskin, and a healer by passion, her Ashes to Ashes project was developed to provide hope for a better American future, one in which races of varying color and heritage can understand the importance of each other’s American history, empathize with each other’s sacrifices and tragedies, realize the legacy of impacts from suffered injustices and accept that healing is a process as much a cure, and recognize and lay to rest the 4,000 victims of vigilante justice perpetrated against a predominantly black population for simply desiring the most basic of American rights of obtaining an education, ownership of land, fair competition in commerce, the uniquely American right of voting for our governing institutions and for an equal stake in the American experience. She is currently working on the second phase of A2A: The Noose: Tread of Hate and Resilience. This will center on American history through the lens of lynching and will include an International Speak My Name Day to speak the names of the lynched.

 About Winfred Rembert

Mr. Rembert grew up in rural Georgia, in a farm laborer’s house and later in the small town of Cuthbert. Raised by his great-aunt, Rembert worked with her in the cotton fields during much of his childhood, and received little formal education. As a teenager he got involved in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Jailed for fleeing for his life in a stolen car, nearly lynched and then cut down to serve as an example to others, Rembert was sentenced to 27 years in the Georgia Penal System. Despite the cruel prison circumstances, Rembert learned to read and write and managed to meet and write letters to his would-be wife Patsy as well as to congressmen, with the hope of gaining early release. He also learned the craft of hand-tooling leather from a fellow-prisoner. After seven years, most of which was spent on chain gangs, Rembert was released from prison, but it wasn’t until 1997, at the age of 51, that he began to work more seriously with leather as his artistic medium, creating tooled and dyed canvases that tell the stories of his life. His paintings have been exhibited at galleries across the country—including the Yale University Art Gallery, the Adelson Galleries New York, and the Hudson River Museum—and have been profiled in The New York Times and elsewhere. Rembert is the recipient of a 2017 USA Fellowship, and in 2015 was an honoree of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. Rembert’s full-color memoir, Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2021.

 

“I’ll Be Listening for You”

Janice

Join us for the OUR COMMON GROUND BHM Special

“A History of Black Political Movements in America”

Four-Week Lecture Series

Presenter, Dr. James L. Taylor, Ph.D.

Each Session: Thursdays 8- 10 pm EST :::

February 4, 11, 18, 25, 2021

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