U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reading Black Reconstruction in America: Entry 1

My copy.

This past weekend I began a first read of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America. It’s been on my reading list for some time, but I will be meeting some colleagues later in the year for a discussion. Courtesy of its length—729 pages of text in my single-volume version—I need to get going. Based on the progress I made over the weekend, however, I’m not worried about finishing. I’m in. I want to know where Du Bois will take the story, even after only reading chapter one.

In future posts, then, I plan to reflect on this first reading. I think this adds something to our blog. Most of our past entries (many by Robert Greene) talk about the book in relation to other historical accounts that followed. Some of those posts also look backwards, showing how Du Bois’ classic provided a much needed course corrective in relation to the Dunning School. (Aside: An AAIHS Black Perspectives post from Guy Emerson Mount expertly does a bit of both.) My series, however, will be content focused—a close reading of the book itself.

Before getting into chapter one, I should note that David Levering Lewis sets the stage quite well with his ten-page introduction to the 1992 edition of the book. Lewis takes a “history of the book” approach, laying out the historiography and Du Bois’ prior pieces that fed Black Reconstruction (e.g. 1909 AHA presentation on “Reconstruction and its Benefits” and 1910 publication, and a never-published 1929 Encyclopaedia Britannica entry). Lewis recounts that W.E.B. Du Bois received two grants, in 1931 and 1934 from the Rosenwald Fund and Carnegie Foundation, respectively, totaling $6250 to write *Black Reconstruction*. According to one historical calculator, and using 1934 as the baseline, that’s ~$119,500.00 in 2019 money. Lewis also notes how, contrary to popular lore and the book’s modest sales, critical reaction to the book was “exceptional.” There were intellectuals who took notice and praised the book’s thesis. [2]

Thinking broadly about the 1930-1935 period which saw the book come into being, Black Reconstruction in America was written in the depths if the Great Depression. During the implementation of FDR’s first programs, while masses of workers—white and people of color—were unemployed. The 1929 to 1934 period saw numerous labor strikes in America. Surely Du Bois hoped, with his history, to have some effect on the early 1930s reconstruction of American labor, culture, politics, and society. Perhaps he wanted another, more thoroughgoing reconstruction that would be more inclusive and show signs of labor consciousness and solidarity? There is also the issue of the fresh memory of the rise of the second Klan in the 1920s, of white supremacy and lynchings. In sum, even though Lewis set up the long intellectual trail for the book, I can’t help but think that the what Du Bois saw going on around him, or read in the paper, also made it into the book. We all carry pieces of our present into our work. Now to the text.


Du Bois’ introduction is striking. Here are the opening sentences:

The story of transplanting millions of Africans to the new world, and of their bondage for four centuries, is a fascinating one. Particularly interesting for students of human culture is the sudden freeing of those black folk in the Nineteenth Century and the attempt, through them, to reconstruct the basis of American democracy from 1860-1880.

This book seeks to tell and interpret these twenty years of fateful history with especial reference to the efforts and experiences of the Negroes themselves. [3]

We see here, with terms like ‘culture’ and ‘folk’, some influence, I think, of anthropology. Only a little research reveals that Du Bois’ work sometimes skirted around the margins of that field.

Then there is this phrasing, “the attempt, through them, to reconstruct…” This goes against the white Southern story that blacks were not agents but rather tools of radical Republicans. Du Bois is clear, in these opening sentences, that black Americans will not only be at the center of this story, but that he will give them more agency.

Chapter 1, The Black Worker

The immediate reference to “workers” is a sign and signal. He distinguishes between free and unfree workers. Du Bois is purposely toggling between slaves and workers, getting us used to his drift. [4] We’re being set up for hard return later in the chapter (pp. 8-9).

Du Bois then reminds his readers of present-day racial mixing. He raises the subject of “mingled blood,” and emphasizes the fact that by 1935 “less than 25% of the Negro Americans are of unmixed African descent.” [5] There is no racial purity in the U.S., and there hasn’t been for some time. The loss of racial solidarity opens up chances for new unities. A shared identity as laborers and workers seemed a logical move to show a shared history and present.

Then we get this beautiful passage:

The giant forces of water and steam were harnessed to do the world’s work, and the black workers of America bent at the bottom of a growing pyramid of commerce and industry; and they not only could not be spared, if this new economic organization was to expand, but rather they became the cause of new political demands and alignments, of new dreams of power and visions of empire.[6]

This evokes a number of deliberately associated images: technological advances, pharaohs, power, hierarchies, empire, the Bible, and grandeur. What we don’t see or feel, however, is democracy.

Du Bois then introduces the racial feedback loop: “Their slavery was a matter of both race and social condition, but the condition was limited and determined by race.” [7] Color and context, working together, to perpetuate an institution.

In the next few pages, Du Bois introduces a historical fact of which I was unaware (or had forgotten): There existed a pre-Civil War right, for free blacks, to vote in the South. He ferrets out, state by state, when the right opened, and when it closed, and in some cases when it opened and closed again. He covers NC, SC, KY, TN, DE, MD, LA, GA, VA, FL, MS, AL, MO, AK, TX. [8] I was genuinely surprised by this.

Then we get to the existential question. “As slavery grew into a system,” Du Bois writes, “and the Cotton Kingdom began to expand into imperial white domination, the free Negro was a contradiction, a threat and a menace. …He contradicted and undermined [slavery]. He must not be.” [9] No society, especially one where nation’s entire economy grew to depend on slavery, wants reminders of its built-in problems walking in and out of its stores, churches, and public spaces.

Now we return to the black worker. Du Bois attacks the central point:

What did it mean to be a slave? It is hard to imagine it today. We think of oppression beyond all conception: cruelty, degradation, whipping and starvation, the absolute negation of human rights; or on the contrary, we may think of the ordinary worker the world over today, slaving ten, twelve, or fourteen hours a day, with not enough to eat, compelled by his physical necessities to do this and not to do that, curtailed in his movements and his possibilities; and we say, here, too, is a slave called a “free worker,” and slavery is merely a matter of name. [10]

This deliberate conflation again signals the purpose of this chapter and the book.

After a discussion of various aspects of slavery in South, Du Bois turns to a dual contradiction:

Thus human slavery in the South pointed and led in two singularly contradictory and paradoxical directions–toward the deliberate commercial breeding and sale of human labor for profit and toward the intermingling of black and white blood. [11]

This return to racial mixing, first introduced several pages back, underscores the country’s lack of purity. This means, of course, no white purity. This would be salient to an audience who had recently watched the second rise of the KKK, and was coming out of period where eugenics science was dominant (if on the decline in the mid-1930s).

After covering aspects of the legal sale of slaves, Du Bois turns toward the question of why white workers in the South helped police slaves. It gave, Du Bois posits, those white men work and “fed his vanity because it associated him with the masters.” He adds:

He never regarded himself as a laborer, or as part of any labor movement. …The result was that the system was held stable and intact by the poor white. …Gradually the whole white South became an armed and commissioned camp to keep Negroes in slavery and to kill the black rebel.” [12]

Here we have Du Bois dealing with false consciousness. Those white workers had no conception of the structures of capitalism and inequality that drove that racial solidarity. That solidarity allowed for an authoritarian region within a state. The white worker jailers were, in fact, captive to capitalism and faulty labor ideology.

From here Du Bois begins building toward his grand conclusion. First he was to establish the symbolism of those free blacks who escaped the system:

Up from this slavery gradually climbed the Free Negro with clearer, modern expression and more definite aim long before the emancipation of 1863. His greatest effort lay in his cooperation with the Abolition movement. He knew he was not free until all Negroes were free. Individual Negroes became exhibits of the possibilities of the Negro race, if once it was raised above the status of slavery. [13]

Then Du Bois allows Frederick Douglas to speak the relevant truths, drawing liberally for 2-3 paragraphs from Douglass’ Fourth of July oration in Rochester. [14] Du Bois confirms for us, today even, the ongoing relevance of that address.

The final page brings us back to the black laborer:

Above all, we must remember the black worker was the ultimate exploited; that he formed that mass of labor which had neither wish nor power to escape from the labor status, in order to directly exploit other laborers, or indirectly, by alliance with capital, to share in their exploitation. [15]

This was the dream of the early Republic—one in which even free blacks were ensnared, and rejected. Black capitalists were, in sum, driven by racial prejudice out of capitalistic ownership endeavors. White petty bourgeoisie members didn’t want black strivers encroaching on their profits.

Thus we come to the chapter’s thesis:

It was thus the black worker, as founding stone of a new economic system in the nineteenth century and for the modern world, who brought civil war in America. He was its underlying cause, in spite of every effort to base the strife upon union and national power. [16]

The final question is this: What to do with the black worker? Or, what will the black worker do to escape this capitalist trap? The next chapters seem to promise answers. – TL

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, Introduction by David Levering Lewis (1935; reprint, New York: The Free Press, 1992).
[2] Ibid., pp. vii-xvii.
[3] Ibid., p. xix.
[4] Ibid., p. 3
[5] Ibid., p. 4
[6] Ibid., p. 5
[7] Ibid., p. 5
[8] Ibid., pp. 6-7
[9] Ibid., p. 7
[10] Ibid., p. 8-9
[11] Ibid., p. 9-10
[12] Ibid., p. 11-12
[13] Ibid., p. 14.
[14] Ibid., pp. 14-15
[15] Ibid., p. 15
[16] Ibid.

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. In future posts, then, I plan to reflect on this first reading.

    Will you post a schedule of the chapters and your posts? I for one would enjoy trying (!) to keep up with your reading.

    • I post every two weeks on Tuesdays. If I maintain that, roughly, here’s how the schedule might look:

      7/2: C-2
      7/16: C-3
      7/30: C-4
      8/13: C-5
      8/27: C-6
      9/10: C-7
      9/24: C-8
      10/8: C-9
      10/22: C-10
      11/5: C-11
      11/19: C-12
      12/3: C-13
      12/17: C-14
      12/31: C-15
      1/14/2020: C-16
      1/28: C-17
      2/11: Wrap-up and Final Thoughts

  2. I am going to try my best to also keep up with the reading schedule too. I can say that I’ve assigned some of the book to students of mine before, and they’ve found it deeply engaging (especially when it comes to South Carolina history).

  3. I too read Black Reconstruction for the first time this summer. I also was aided in my read by Audible books. Once I started I couldn’t stop. This book anticipates every major issue facing the US. I could say more but I I typing this out on an I-Pad. In short, this book should be a required American Government textbook. Every American Historian cribs from this book whether the acknowledge it or not.

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