This essay was first published in The Year Left Vol. 3: Reshaping the US Left: Popular Struggles in the 1980s, edited by Mike Davis and Michael Sprinker, and published by Verso in 1988. It was later reprinted in Roediger's Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working Class History.
The reality, the depth, and the persistence of the delusion of white supremacy in this country causes any real concept of education to be as remote, and as much to be feared, as change or freedom itself. What Black men here have always known is now beginning to be clear to the world. Whatever it is that white Americans want, it is not freedom — neither for themselves nor for others.
‘It’s you who'll have the blues,’ Langston Hughes said, ‘not me. Just wait and see.'
James Baldwin (1980)
Despite the fact that the nineteenth century saw an upsurge in the power of the laboring classes and a fight toward economic equality and political democracy, this movement . . . lagged far behind the accumulation of wealth, because in popular opinion labor was fundamentally degrading and the just burden of inferior peoples . . . It was bad enough to have the consequences of [racist] thought fall upon colored people the world over; but in the end it was even worse when one considers what this attitude did to the European worker. His aim and ideal was distorted. . . . He began to want not comfort for all men but power over other men. . . . He did not love humanity and he hated 'niggers'.
W.E.B. DuBois (1946)
“Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where the black skin is branded.” That line from an 1866 letter to François Lafargue, and repeated in Capital, is perhaps the most quoted of Karl Marx’s observations about the United States. But the work of our labor historians, past or present, has done little to illuminate why Marx's aphorism not only has the ring of truth but that of a ringing truth, though one Marx did not pursue much in later years.
As part of a series of posts related to Black History Month, we present an excerpt from David Roediger's Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All below.
(from an 1863 broadside with text by Frederick Douglass)
Before major battles [of the Civil War] had even been fought, slaves left slavery — just three at first, fleeing into the Virginia camp of Union general Benjamin Butler.