The General Strike and the Slave Revolution of the U.S. Civil War
In the previous chapter, I argued that at the outset of the Black Power Movement (BPM), Malcolm X called for both a black political and a black cultural revolution in the United States; but while his call for political revolution is widely known, his arguments on black cultural revolution are not as widely appreciated—although they were no less central to his overall thesis. Constrained by reverse civilizationism, Malcolm X and major BPM revolutionists who followed him did not develop his theory of political revolution grounded in African American historical processes or adequately explain the relationship between it and the cultural revolution they sought. Instead, they largely analogized their struggles to revolutions from abroad—notably from Africa and the third world—which were ill-suited to the peculiar history and contemporary challenges of black America. Decades before, W. E. B. Du Bois had documented the existence of a black political revolution in the United States—the Slave Revolution of the U.S. Civil War; and Alain Locke had theorized cultural revolution in the United States. Therefore, on the cusp of the BPM an African American thesis of black political and cultural revolution was available to BPM revolutionists to inform and guide their liberation struggle; but, this black American source has been largely ignored by BPM revolutionists, scholars of the BPM, and activists and academics today.1 In this chapter, I examine Du Bois’s and Locke’s theses and discuss their salience for the BPM.
W. E. B. Du Bois and Black Political Revolution
In Black Reconstruction, published in 1935, Du Bois challenged the prevailing myth that black Americans had not fought for their liberation. He argued that during the Civil War slaves prosecuted a “General Strike” and furnished about 200,000 troops “whose evident ability to fight decided the war.” The following year, in The Negro and Social Reconstruction, he noted:
What was really the largest and most successful slave revolt came at the time of the Civil War when all the slaves in the vicinity of the invading armies left the plantations and rushed to the army and eventually some 200,000 ex-slaves and Northern Negroes joined armies of the North, in addition to a much larger number of laborers and servants. It was this revolt of the slaves and the prospect of a much larger movement among the 4,000,000 other slaves, which was the real cause of the sudden cessation of the war. (Du Bois, 1986, pp. 105–106)
For Du Bois (1969, p. 67), the General Strike reflected “not merely the desire to stop work” but “was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work.” It “involved directly in the end perhaps a half million people” who “wanted to stop the economy of the plantation system, and to do that they left the plantations” (ibid.). “The Negro,” he argued, “became as the South quickly saw, the key to Southern resistance. Either these four million laborers remained quietly at work to raise food for the fighters, or the fighter starved”; and, “when the dream of the North for man-power produced riots, the only additional troops that the North could depend on were 200,000 Negroes, for without them, as Lincoln said, the North could not have won the war” (ibid., p. 80). He adds that the General Strike
was not merely a matter of 200,000 black soldiers and perhaps 300,000 other black laborers, servants, spies and helpers. Back of this half million stood 3½ million more. Without their labor the South would starve. With arms in their hands, Negroes would form a fighting force which could replace every single Northern white soldier fighting listlessly and against his will with a black man fighting for freedom. (ibid.)
In contrast to the abolitionists, whose role in emancipation was exaggerated given their limited power, especially in the South, “slaves had enormous power in their hands,” because “[s]imply by stopping work, they could threaten the Confederacy with starvation,” and “[b]y walking into the Federal camps,” they both convinced Union forces of the value “of using them as workers and as servants, as farmers, and as spies, and finally, as fighting soldiers,” while simultaneously, and “by the same gesture, depriving their enemies of their use in just these fields” (1969, p. 121). Du Bois insisted that “[i]t was the fugitive slave who made the slaveholders face the alternative of surrendering to the North, or the Negroes” (ibid.). Du Bois was emphatic that “[i]t was this plain alternative that brought Lee’s sudden surrender” (ibid.); and he noted that even Lincoln acknowledged that “[w]ithout the military help of black freedmen, the war against the South could not have been won” (ibid., p. 716).2 In fact, approximately 186,000 black troops served in the Union Army; and about 10,000 served in the Union Navy. These troops fought in more than four hundred engagements including forty major battles, most notably at Port Hudson, Milliken’s Bend, and Fort Wagner. Their gallantry was such that even in the racist context of the time sixteen blacks received the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military award.3
Du Bois argued that the “mutiny of the Negro slave” was followed by the “disaffection of the poor whites” as thousands deserted Confederate ranks. Du Bois conceived the efforts of slaves and poor whites as “one of the most extraordinary experiments of Marxism that the world, before the Russian Revolution had seen” (1969, p. 358). In contrast to the Marxist gloss, Du Bois situated the General Strike in the religious-based claims of slaves, belying the Marxist view of religion as an “opiate of the masses”—religion seemed to be the “stimulant of the slave.”4 For Du Bois, the General Strike was a slave revolt that transformed the Civil War from a war to “save the Union” to a political revolution to transform the United States; and while its impetus was cultural, its objectives were political and economic—a relationship consistent with Locke’s theorizing on cultural revolution, as discussed below.5 From the perspective of black Americans, it was a religiously inspired political revolution—thus, a cultural revolution motivating a political revolution.
Robinson argues that Du Bois’s analysis reveals that “[t]he slaves freed themselves . . . by the dictates of religious myth,” and that the “idiom of revolutionary consciousness had been historical and cultural rather than the ‘mirror of production’ ” (1983, p. 324)—that, in fact, it had been rooted in black religion. Robinson agrees with Du Bois that the “revolutionary consciousness” of the slaves motivated the General Strike, prefiguring the pattern of successful revolutions in the twentieth century (ibid.). He also agrees with Du Bois’s insistence that “no bourgeois society was the setting of this revolution,” and “the ideology of the plantocracy had not been the ideology of the slaves” (ibid., p. 322), but, rather, that “[t]he slaves had produced their own culture and their own consciousness by adapting the forms of the non-Black society to the conceptualizations derived from their own historical roots and social conditions. In some instances, indeed, elements produced by the slave culture had become the dominant ones in white Southern culture,” and “[t]his was the human experience from which the rebellion rose” (ibid.). Meanwhile, the presumed vanguard of Marxist revolution, the white industrial proletariat, eschewed any revolutionary pretense. Unlike most of the Southern white workers, yeoman farmers, and peasants who made common cause with the plantocracy and supported the war, Northern white workers opposed the conflict, not in solidarity with their Southern fellow-proletarians but largely as protest against those privileged Northerners who could pay to exempt themselves from military service. While the war became viewed as one to end slavery, Northern white workers—Marx’s industrial proletariat—vehemently opposed it and initiated anti-draft riots and pogroms against Northern blacks, even as Southern slaves initiated the General Strike.
Although Du Bois’s thesis was largely rejected by scholars of his day, some prominent historians support it today. For example, Steven Hahn argues that characterizing the actions of slaves during the Civil War as rebellion “has been almost universally denied or rejected, despite the many thousands of slaves who, by their actions, helped turn the Civil War against slavery and secured the defeat of their owners” (2009, p. xiii). He asserts that the “case for slave rebellion . . . is neither hidden, archivally silenced, nor subtly discursive”; in fact, “it stares us in the face” (ibid., p. 58), and it shared important features of other widely recognized slave rebellions in the Americas. For example,
It erupted at a time of bitter division and conflict among the society’s white rulers. It depended on networks of communication, intelligence, and interpretation among the slaves. It imagined powerful allies coming to their aid, whose goals and objectives were thought to coincide with theirs. It involved individual and collective acts of flight, not as efforts to redress particular grievances, but as a means of . . . embracing a newly available or imagined freedom. And it ultimately saw slaves take up arms against slaveholders in an attempt to defeat (if not destroy) them and abolish the institution of slavery. (ibid. p. 86)
He concludes that “[i]n these respects, the slaves rebellion during the Civil War” resembled the Stono Rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina, the establishment of maroons in Brazil and Jamaica, Gabriel’s conspiracy of 1800 in Virginia, Charles Deslondes’s revolt of 1811 near New Orleans, the Demerara Rebellion of 1823, and the Baptist War of 1831–32 in Jamaica (2009, p. 86). For Hahn, “in its course and outcome” the slaves rebellion during the Civil War may most resemble what has long been considered “the greatest and only successful slave rebellion in modern history,” the Haitian Revolution (ibid., p. 88). Both rebellions were “provoked by massive struggles between powerful groups within the white population and by the belief among slaves that they had allies among white rulers”; “free people of color” played “important roles in setting the direction of political conflict” and influencing the post-emancipation order; “flight from the plantations . . . was integral to the rebellions and crucial to the growth and maintenance of liberating armies”; “shifting alliances with and battles against large standing armies proved decisive to the rebellions’ outcomes”; and “the rebellions became social and political revolutions, eventuating in the abolition of slavery, the crushing military defeat of the slave owners, and the effective birth of new nations” (ibid., p. 96). He adds that “it is arguable that the revolution made by slave rebellion was even more far reaching in the Civil War South than it was in Saint Dominque,” especially since “it took place and helped transform a slave society that was by far the largest, most economically advanced, and most resilient in the Americas” (ibid., p. 97). For him, “[a]lone among the slaves of the Americas” slaves in the U.S. South “were outnumbered by a large, mobile, and armed population of whites who either owned slaves, did the slaveholders’ bidding, or wanted little to do with either slaveholders or slaves” (ibid., p. 87). Facing arguably the most powerful landed elite in the world and primarily situated in limited numbers on smaller plantations and farms, which precluded large-scale mobilization, and with memories of the suppression of insurgencies as recent as John Brown’s of 1859, slaves “waited until their imagined allies struck the first blow” (ibid.).
Hahn’s conclusions are echoed by Stephanie McCurry’s (2010, p. 262) that the Civil War involved a “massive rebellion of the Confederacy’s slaves.” She notes that just as Haitian slaves won their freedom in the context of a war that was “regionally uneven, temporally protracted, dynamic and reversible . . . in which the[ir] proximity to abolition armies was crucial to [their] prospects of freedom” (ibid., p. 261), U.S. slaves pursued a common strategy to destroy slavery “in the context of war and in alliance with enemy armies.” They “moved tactically and by stages, men and women both, equal and active participants in the whole array of insurrectionary activities calculated to destroy the institution of slavery, their masters’ power, and the prospects of the C.S.A. [Confederate States of America] as a pro slavery nation” (ibid., p. 262). Manumission was “regionally uneven, temporally protracted, and linked to the Union army’s invasion and federal emancipation policy,” but, “to planters and slaves alike, it was unmistakably, too, the consequence of a massive rebellion of the Confederacy’s slaves” (ibid.). For McCurry, this slave rebellion in the United States followed a pattern evident from the American Revolution “to the last surrender of slavery in Brazil in the aftermath of the Paraguayan war,” including “Saint-Domingue, the Spanish-American Wars of Independence, the U.S. Civil War, [and] the Ten-Years War in Cuba” (ibid., p. 311). In each of these cases, “slaves fought for and won their freedom in the context of war” (ibid.) because “[i]t was in the context of war that slave men became the objects of state interest and the focus of intense competition between warring states for political loyalty and military service. In this respect, the American Civil War was hardly unique” (ibid.). For McCurry, the view of the Civil War occasioning a massive slave rebellion in the U.S. South was evident to “Union and Confederate officials with responsibility for administering the region” who “all called it what it was: a slave rebellion” (ibid., p. 258). She argues that “[e]vidence that the Civil War became a massive slave rebellion is to be found in every Confederate state where slaves seized the opportunity of war to rise against their masters, destroy slavery where they lived, and claim allegiance to a nation that had never really been theirs”’; but, “[i]t was not the existence of slave rebellion that makes the difference between say, South Carolina and Virginia, on the one hand, and Louisiana, on the other. It was only that in Mississippi and southern Louisiana, people were more likely to admit it and to make the searing historical analogy to Saint-Domingue” (ibid., pp. 260–261). She adds:
Historians have been loath to notice the analogy deployed during the war itself and shied away from any description of the Civil War as a slave rebellion. But that owes to the explosive politics of the analogy for slaves themselves during the war, for their leaders in the postwar period, for Union officials . . . and for Confederates and their lost-cause descendants bent on denying it, far more than it does to historical conditions in the Confederate South during the Civil War. (2010, p. 261)
Hahn’s, McCurry’s, and McPherson’s (1991) conclusions are similar to Du Bois’s (1935, p. 91) from decades earlier.6
Du Bois did not link the causative agents of black participation in the war to its precedents in the earlier major slave revolts in the antebellum United States, epitomized in the Gabriel (Prosser), Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner revolts. I’ve argued elsewhere that two overlapping and mutually reinforcing factors contributed to those revolts: (1) slave religion, which provided justifications for overthrowing the slave system and mobile slave preachers to articulate it; and (2) the system of hiring out slaves—especially slave artisans, which expanded networks across plantations and rural and urban slave and free black communities, and in some industries—began to proletarianize slave labor (Henderson, 2015). Though the revolts were brutally suppressed, the networks they emanated from persisted, broadening the scope of slave communities, which they continued to do during wartime. The latter facilitated the provision of information and coordination for the movement of slaves to Union lines to fight their former masters. Utilizing these networks, slaves joined and transformed a war to preserve the Union into a revolution to overthrow U.S. slavery.
Du Bois demonstrated that under certain conditions black religion compelled activism over fatalism, change over stasis, resistance over submission, revolution over accommodation. More than three decades prior to the publication of Black Reconstruction, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois had argued that while in the antebellum era the slave’s religion had been marked by a fatalism resulting from a “long system of repression and degradation of the Negro,” in the decades preceding the Civil War “[h]is religion had become darker and more intense, and into his ethics crept a note of revenge, into his songs a day of reckoning close at hand. The ‘Coming of the Lord’ swept this side of Death, and came to be a thing hoped for in this day” (1903, p. 147). The conduit for this transformation of slave religion, according to Du Bois, was the influence of freed blacks on their enslaved brethren. He maintained that “[t]hrough fugitive slaves and irrepressible discussion this desire for freedom seized the black millions still in bondage, and became their one ideal of life” (ibid., pp. 147–148).7 Du Bois was convinced that
[f]or fifty years Negro religion thus transformed itself and identified itself with the dream of Abolition, until that which was a radical fad in the white North and an anarchistic plot in the white South had become a religion in the black world. Thus, when Emancipation finally came, it seemed to the freeman a literal Coming of the Lord. (ibid., p. 148)
Even as he took the reference of the “Coming of the Lord” from Souls (1903) as the title of his chapter on the coming of the Civil War in Black Reconstruction, he did not make the connection between black religion and black revolution implied by a synthesis of the two works. Consider the further discussion regarding the “Coming of the Lord” from Souls (p. 148):
His fervid imagination was stirred as never before, by the tramp of armies, the blood and dust of battle, and the wail and whirl of social upheaval. He stood dumb and motionless before the whirlwind: what had he to do with it? Was it not the Lord’s doing . . . ? Joyed and bewildered with what came, he stood awaiting new wonders. (emphasis added)
In contrast to the astonished bewilderment of the enslaved in Souls, Du Bois’s view of their conception of the “Coming of the Lord” in Black Reconstruction evokes their agency in their emancipation, as the key actor in the Civil War through purposeful action epitomized in the General Strike. While there was religious frenzy with emancipation, Black Reconstruction tells a different story of the role of blacks in securing their freedom, one that focuses on and even celebrates their agency in their liberation, their attempt to restore and build families, to secure land, to found schools and educate themselves, to build the incipient institutions of black civil society in the South, and to build a multiracial democracy in the United States. Yet, Du Bois did not integrate the dominant black cultural institution, the invisible institution of slave religion, into a theoretical synthesis of his hypothesized Slave Revolution. That is, he didn’t flesh out the implications of his observation that the dramatic changes in slave religion that motivated the General Strike and transformed the Civil War into a political revolution constituted a cultural revolution.
Du Bois’s reticence probably was due to his ambivalence toward black religion as a progressive change agent.8 His failure to pursue the theoretical development of the role of slave religion in motivating the General Strike left the clearest symbol of the slaves’ agency in the Civil War untethered to its historical antecedents in the religiously inspired slave revolts of the first decades of the nineteenth century. Du Bois attributed the transformation of slave religion mainly to the impact of Northern abolitionism on the invisible institution, but such a focus ignores more influential developments in the slave quarters, evident in earlier slave revolts, epitomized in those led by Gabriel, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner.9 Key aspects of the Slave Revolution during the Civil War were prefigured in these major slave revolts insofar as all of their leaders drew on slave religion to justify their revolts, utilizing religious arguments and invoking biblical rationales to motivate and coordinate their followers (Sidbury, 2003, p. 120). The revolts reveal that a dialectic of sorts operated, as the white Christianity that the slavemasters had intended to use as a mental chain to reinforce the physical chains of slavery had become the hammer used to break them. In these cases, far from being the opiate of the masses, religion was the stimulant of the slave (Henderson, 2015).
Moreover, hired-out slaves—especially slave artisans—were influential in each of these revolts as they would be in the General Strike, as well. The practice of slave hiring placed them into wage labor contexts and contributed to their acquisition of aspects of working-class consciousness. At the same time, it generated networks cross-circuiting slave neighborhoods (Kaye, 2007ab). Focusing on these networks allows us to appreciate more dynamic aspects of slave society that contributed to the radicalization and mobilization of slaves that Du Bois’s broader thesis of the General Strike affirms. For example, an incipient industrialization of some aspects of slave labor was evident in the antebellum era, and it was taking place at the nexus of slave and free society, between cotton fields and cotton mills, throughout the South. Slave labor was not only central to agricultural production, but was increasingly employed in Southern industries (Barnes et al., 2011). By the last decade of the antebellum era, the industrial capacity of the South had doubled. Slaves worked in textile mills, iron works, brickworks, tobacco factories, hemp factories, shoe factories, tanneries, coal mines, iron mines, gold mines, salt mines, sugar refineries, rice mills, and gristmills (Starobin, 1970, p. 11).
In industry as in agriculture, slaves could be utilized directly by their owners or “hired out.” The system of hiring out slaves expanded the networks of slaves across plantations and often linked rural and urban slave and free black communities. The vast majority of slaves in industrial settings were directly owned; but, among those hired out, slave artisans were particularly important and, given their skills, could earn greater profits for their owners, who only returned a small portion of their hired-out slaves’ earnings while pocketing the rest. Although profitable for slaveholders, the practice of hiring out slaves was potentially dangerous, as well (Martin, 2004). It presented a problem to have slaves working in a manner similar to that of free wage laborers. Working for hire allowed the slave to directly experience how the wages they earned from the same work as their free laboring counterparts was valued differently only because they were not free—a sort of “slave wagery.” For slave artisans, this slave wagery was probably even more apparent psychologically, insofar as they typically had the same level of training and craftsmanship as free laborers. Hired-out slave artisans came to realize directly the wage burden imposed on them as a condition of their servitude—evoking Marx’s thesis of surplus value—while slave hire also gave them the opportunity to work in settings with increased numbers of slave artisans with similar grievances, as well as wage laborers, providing an environment for conspiratorial activity. The potential danger to the maintenance of the slave system presented by hiring out slaves was articulated by the most famous hired-out slave, Frederick Douglass (1855, p. 325), the future abolitionist leader, who said that “the practice, from week to week, of openly robbing me of all my earnings, kept the nature and character of slavery constantly before me.”
For these reasons, it is not surprising that we observe hired-out slave artisans—such a small minority of slave society—as prominent among the participants in the major U.S. slave revolts of the nineteenth century. Starobin (1970, p. 90) argues that “[t]he involvement of Negro artisans and industrial slaves in conspiracies and rebellions indicates that they were greatly disaffected,” and “[s]ince their work provided both a large measure of self-esteem and independence, the leadership of slave rebellions naturally gravitated to them” (1988, p. 123). Slavery appeared to be creating a consciousness among this class of hired-out slaves and artisans and some of these quasi-proletarians were intent on overthrowing the slave system.
Although Du Bois (1935, p. 14) put the black worker at the center of the Civil War as “its underlying cause” and as decisive in its outcome, he insufficiently examined the role of slave artisans in his General Strike. While he appreciated work-based distinctions among slaves, recognizing that “artisans, who had a certain modicum of freedom in their work, were often hired out, and worked practically as free laborers,” he did not reflect on the role of such slaves in previous revolts and project forward to their role in the General Strike. He noted that the slaves involved in the General Strike were utilizing “the same methods that [they] had used during the period of the fugitive slave” (ibid., p. 57)—namely, they would “strike” in order “to stop the economy of the plantation system, and to do that they left the plantations” (ibid., p. 67); but, he did not seem to appreciate that among these “same methods” were organized revolt. Concerned less with antebellum slave revolts, and more with juxtaposing the repressive conditions of the antebellum South with the emancipatory opportunities that Reconstruction promised, Du Bois didn’t examine how these revolts foreshadowed the General Strike and demonstrated the type of coordinated action that could be achieved even within the “armed and commissioned camp of the South.”
Besides the major slave revolts, Du Bois ignored several conspiracies of the 1850s involving industrial slaves, which might have helped him to appreciate the continuity between antebellum slave revolts and the General Strike.10 Without such a focus, the General Strike was reduced to a spontaneous outgrowth of religious fervor rather than the culmination of processes evident in previous revolts (1935, p. 122). The view that the General Strike was the result of spontaneous, religiously inspired, concerted action is only partly correct; it was actually a continuation of initiatives among religiously inspired slaves evident in the major slave revolts of the nineteenth century. What Du Bois implied—but did not examine—was that the slavemaster’s religion that instilled contentment with slavery was being transformed in the slave quarters to one that opposed injustice. Syncretized with African traditions that continued to influence the enslaved, the gospels of the free blacks that counseled resistance, and the material reality of the brutality of the slave experience, slave religion generated a consciousness that justified seizing freedom more than simply a personal desire to be free—just as Du Bois maintained. Slave religion was becoming an institution of the incipient slave culture that did not necessitate revolt but encouraged it, and in this case inspired the General Strike.
Given that slave religion was the key factor motivating the General Strike, then, Du Bois was demonstrating how a cultural impetus generated politico-military revolution, and in this way he provided an incipient construction of black cultural revolution in the United States. Seen in this light, Du Bois’s thesis in Black Reconstruction was less a Marxist exegesis of political revolution in the United States than his own original formulation: a black cultural revolution (reflected in the change of emphasis of slave religion toward emancipation, which motivated the General Strike) that generated a political revolution (the Slave Revolution that changed Lincoln’s war aims from restoring the status quo ante to the revolutionary objective of ending slavery). Du Bois was positing that the emerging, highly syncretic religion of black Christianity was becoming a prominent change agent in Aframerican society. The religious faith of the slave could be put in the service of an insurgent struggle for freedom, liberty, and justice. Thus, far from being the opiate of the masses, religion had been the adrenaline of the slaves. A brief review of each of these major revolts reveals as much.
Slave Religion, Slave Hiring, and Slave Revolts
Gabriel, a slave artisan, led a slave conspiracy near Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. Religion not only provided a rationale for this attempted revolt, but “religious meetings” also served “as occasions for the recruitment of slaves and for plotting and organizing the insurrection” (Raboteau, 1980, p. 147). The influence of slave artisans in this planned revolt was so great that some scholars argue that it superseded religion as the prime motivation for the revolt (Egerton, 1993; Mullin, 1972),11 but such claims are challenged by Levine (1977, p. 75), who notes that although “[i]n other revolts sacred elements were more prominent,” nevertheless, “the Old Testament message played a role” in Gabriel’s revolt. Sidbury (2003, p. 121) argues that the central role of religion in the revolt is evident in the importance of Hungary Baptist Meeting House, which Gabriel and his two brothers appear to have attended, and which was the site of many recruiting meetings, in the assertions of white commentators at the time that religion was central to the conspiracy, and in the “substantial evidence of growing black allegiance to the Baptist Church in the region around Richmond during the late 1790s.” Moses (1993, p. 36) agrees, and notes the importance of religion in the exchange between Gabriel’s brother Martin and Ben Woolfolk, two of the chief conspirators, during one planning meeting, which was reported by Ben in his confession during his conspiracy trial:
Martin said there was this expression in the Bible, delays breed danger . . . I told them that I had heard in the days of old, when the Israelites were in service to King Pharaoh, they were taken from him by the power of God, and were carried away by Moses. God had blessed him with an angel to go with him, but that I could see nothing of that kind in these days. Martin said in reply: I read in my Bible where God says if we will worship Him we should have peace in all our land, five of you shall conquer an hundred, and a hundred a thousand of our enemies. After this they went on consultation upon the time they should execute the plan. (Flournoy, 1890, p. 151)
Sidbury notes that although the exchange above constitutes “the only direct appeal to the Bible in all of the recorded testimony produced during the trials and investigations” of Gabriel’s plot, nevertheless there are “reasons to believe that religion did play a central role in the conspiracy” (2003, pp. 120–121). First, although the exchange is the only recorded reference to the Bible in the planning, “that does not mean that it was the only conversation in which the Bible played a role.” Second, the exchange took place during a “pivotal moment” in the planning when one conspirator, George Smith, was cautioning patience—to which Ben agreed and provided Biblical support for his position—while Gabriel, who was intent on commencing the revolt sooner, turned the floor over to Martin, who provided a Biblical counterpoint, which seemed to decide the issue. “Martin, in short, laid claim to greater interpretive authority than Woolfolk, and the other leaders of the conspiracy appear to have accepted his claim,” since after Martin’s speech the group went into consultation and Martin set the date for the revolt (ibid., p. 122; also see Raboteau, 1980, p. 147). That the interpretation of Biblical texts could be dispositive of an issue of such import as the timing of the revolt suggests the significance of religion to the leaders.
Gabriel’s plan focused on urban slaves, primarily skilled artisans like himself, who hired out their time. Sidbury (1997, p. 61) acknowledges that “many, perhaps most, of the slaves convicted of participating in the conspiracy . . . had artisanal skills.” In Gabriel’s Virginia, planters faced a depressed tobacco market; thus, they reduced the cultivation of tobacco as a crop and with less demand for slave labor in the tobacco fields hired out many of their slaves in order to earn money. Slave artisans, in particular, could be hired out as skilled workers for Richmond’s various industries. Egerton notes that “[e]ven the largest and most efficient plantations could not keep their bond artisans fully occupied year-round, and so many owners occasionally hired their craftsmen out to neighboring farms or town dwellers” (1993, pp. 23–24). In Henrico County, not only were slave artisans hired out, but female domestics, butlers, and coachmen were leased to elites for their large gatherings, just as unskilled farm laborers were leased to small landholders needing extra hands during planting and harvesting. In fact, “the largest slaveholder in the state, hired out more than two-thirds of his 509 slaves” (ibid., p. 21). The hire could be for a few days or leased for fifty weeks. There were designated areas, such as the steps of the County Courthouse in Richmond, from which prospective employers could choose from among the “crowds of servants, men, women, boys and girls, for hire” (ibid., p. 24).
Hiring out also gave the slave artisan the opportunity to work in industrial settings in which there were concentrations of similarly situated artisans with similar disaffection with the slave system, providing breeding grounds for conspiratorial activity. Slave artisans, and hired-out slaves more generally, were crucial to Gabriel’s conspiracy, and “most of those contacted early on” to join it “were skilled men who hired their own time” (Egerton, 1993, p. 52). Gabriel was one of those slave artisans who either hired out some of his time and/or worked after hours for pay, which would afford him the time and mobility to organize others who were similarly disposed to the slave system.12 He was one of the three blacksmiths among the five or six most important leaders of the conspiracy (Sidbury, 1997, p. 83). In Gabriel’s Virginia, blacksmiths “were highly skilled and valued artisans who enjoyed a high level of autonomy while at work, and their shops were often placed on busy thoroughfares” (ibid.). For example, “the shop of Gabriel, Solomon, and Prosser’s Ben bordered the road that carried wagon traffic into Richmond from western counties—so these shops could serve as communicative nodal points for slaves’ communities” (ibid.). Further, “their relative autonomy on the job, their ability to sell work done ‘after hours’ and thus gain access to the market, and their position in Black communication networks contributed to their status within slave communities,” which “along with blacksmiths’ very practical ability to make and repair weapons, helps to explain their prominence within the conspiracy” (ibid.).
Thus, slave religion provided the ideological justification for the revolt, while its coordination was facilitated by a network of hired-out slaves who fashioned a conspiratorial web across plantations, and both rural and urban areas. To be sure, “[t]he slaves’ Christianity was not inherently revolutionary,” but it could be fashioned for that purpose; and Gabriel’s “use of scriptural arguments to convince other skilled and acculturated slaves to attack their masters shows that at least in 1800 Black Virginians could use their religion for purposes that were in fact revolutionary” (Sidbury, 1997, p. 79).13
Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion
Denmark Vesey’s planned rebellion in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822 followed a similar pattern.14 It was no less religiously inspired than Gabriel’s—in fact, even more so. Vesey was a former slave, a carpenter, and an influential member of the AME Church; and his slave revolt relied heavily on hired-out slave artisans and his fellow church members. Vesey used nightly “class meetings” to promote a radical Christianity rooted in the Old Testament and Jehovah’s evocations of vengeance and retribution for his enslaved chosen people. Particularly instructive for Vesey were Old Testament passages that spoke of retribution sanctioned by God and carried out by divinely inspired leaders, such as the stories of Joshua and the Exodus (Robertson, 1999, p. 138; Stuckey, 1987, pp. 48–49). Not surprisingly, “[a]ll but one of Vesey’s closest fellow conspirators were A.M.E. members” (Robertson, 1999, p. 9). One of the prominent leaders of the conspiracy, “Gullah Jack” Pritchard, was both a member of the AME Church and a conjurer; thus, Vesey’s conspiracy was based in both “the doctrinal sanction of Scripture” as well as “the practical protection of conjure” (Raboteau, 1980, p. 163). Egerton (2003, p. 120) rejects the view that Vesey “consciously used Jack Pritchard to reach the African plantation constituency, while he himself used the AME Church to reach the more assimilated urban creole population,” because, in his view “no such dichotomy existed” (also see Creel, 1988). After all, Gullah Jack was a member of Vesey’s church, as was Monday Gell, an Ibo, and “[n]either man appeared to find any contradiction between the religious teachings of their childhood, and what they heard in Cow Alley” at the AME Church. He concludes that “[i]t was not that the old carpenter cynically used his church to recruit revolutionaries, but rather that this fusion of Old Testament law and African ritual transformed his timid disciples into revolutionaries.”15 For Starobin (1970, p. 5), “the Vesey Plot embodied an extraordinarily rich ideology,” which “combined the Old Testament’s harsh morality and the story of the Israelites with African religious customs, knowledge of the Haitian Revolution, and readings of antislavery speeches from the Missouri [Compromise] controversy.” Creel (1988, p. 10) viewed Vesey’s conspiracy as emanating from a “resistance culture” among African Carolinians, and described it as “a supreme effort to break the chains of bondage in a spirit of nationalism, unity, and religious self-determination” (ibid., p. 160).
If the influence of religion on the revolt was apparent, so was the impact of artisans—especially hired-out slaves, just as in Gabriel’s revolt. Vesey was a free black carpenter, which afforded him opportunities to meet and work with other artisans—both free and slave—in urban Charleston, as well as plantation slaves in the rural areas around Charleston (Lofton, 1983, p. 78). Among his closest co-conspirators, both Gullah Jack and Monday Gell (a harness maker), apparently were hired-out slaves (Greene & Hutchins, 2004, 41), and probably Peter Poyas (a ship carpenter), as well. Other important conspirators such as Lot Forrestor, who had secured “slow match”—a length of fuse—to facilitate the fires that were to be set throughout the city, was a hired-out slave, as was William Garner, a drayman, who during his trial tried unsuccessfully to convince his triers that the privileges he enjoyed as a hired-out slave militated against his involvement in the conspiracy (Robertson, 1999). Jesse Blackwood, who was tasked with bringing slaves from the countryside into the city just prior to the uprising, was ostensibly hired-out, but actually other conspirators had raised money to pay his slave master so that he could more effectively recruit for the planned revolt (Greene & Hutchins, 2004, pp. 40–41; Pearson, 1999, p. 71).
As in Gabriel’s Richmond, the system of hiring out slaves was widespread in Vesey’s Charleston. In Charleston, “[n]either owners nor municipal officials could effectively monitor the enslaved bricklayers, carpenters, painters, and other craft workers who traveled freely around the city and surrounding countryside between jobs,” although, “[f]rom the late seventeenth century until the Civil War, a series of provincial and municipal laws unsuccessfully sought to regulate these workers.” The rebel leadership came mainly from this discontented group of urban skilled slave artisans and religious leaders (Starobin, 1970, p. 3) and, given that “recruits came mainly from the urban, industrial slaves of Charleston,” this
casts great doubt on the assertion . . . that urban bondsmen and slave hirelings were more content and less rebellious than rural, plantation bondsmen. Indeed the evidence suggests that urban slaves were, despite their supposedly greater privileges and higher standard of living, at least as discontented as rural slaves. No wonder whites were mystified and horrified when even their most trusted servants and apparently contented bondsmen were implicated in the plot. (ibid., p. 3)
As in Gabriel’s Revolt, the framework for Vesey’s insurgency was the fusion of leadership grounded in religious justifications coupled with the centrality of artisanal slaves—especially hired-out slaves—which facilitated a clandestine network across plantations. Also like Gabriel’s strategy, Vesey’s employed diversion, camouflage, concentration of forces, land and river coordination, and, uniquely, international diplomacy—through correspondence with President Boyer of Haiti; but for all its sophistication, as in Gabriel’s conspiracy, betrayal of the plot—and deployment of militia—doomed it before it could be executed.16
Nat Turner’s Rebellion
No slave revolt prior to the Civil War had the impact of Nat Turner’s in Virginia in 1831. The role of religious ideology in Turner’s revolt is unequivocal. Although Du Bois (1902, p. 12) characterized Turner as a slave artisan and Aptheker (1966, p. 35) describes Turner as “gifted mechanically,” Turner was primarily a field hand (Oates, 1975, p. 161).17 What’s not in dispute is Aptheker’s assessment that “the supreme influence” in Turner’s life “undoubtedly was religion” (1966, p. 36); and that Turner “discover[ed] his rationalization for his rebellious feelings in religion” (ibid., p. 35). Turner was a slave preacher who was heavily influenced by passages in the Bible that advocated retributive justice (e.g., Luke 12:40, 49–51). Turner “perceived a close relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the great prophets who had called down the wrath of God upon his disobedient people and their enemies” (Wilmore, 1983, p. 65). Such an exegesis of Scripture is markedly different from that found typically in the slaves’ catechism from the missionaries who spoke of Jesus as the meek and humble Lamb of God, obedient to his Master, God the Father. Thus, while Gabriel and Vesey drew their religious motivations from Old Testaments texts, Turner drew his from the messianic vision of the New Testament and the Gospel of Jesus.
As Turner relates in The Confessions, upon seeing what he took as a sign in the heavens—a solar eclipse in February 1831, he said, “[T]he seal was removed from my lips, and I communicated the great work laid out for me to do to four in whom I had the greatest confidence.” In contrast to Gabriel and Vesey, he initially confided in only four men “in whom [he] had the greatest confidence,” who either lived on his farm or were from nearby plantations (Breen, 2003, p. 111). The level of secrecy he maintained appears to have been a deliberate policy, because it was not for want of an audience from which he might draw supporters, if he had so desired, that he restricted his recruitment, because as a slave preacher he had considerable freedom of movement for religious gatherings.
Although few would dispute the centrality of religion to Turner himself, and the role that it played in establishing his leadership, some maintain that it was less salient for many of Turner’s followers than their own more specific grievances (ibid., p. 118). Notwithstanding the motivations of the dozens of slaves and free blacks who supported and subsequently joined the revolt, it was Nat Turner, “[i]nspired by his religious visions,” who “tapped into the latent hope and discontent of slaves and free blacks in Southampton,” and in this way, “[t]he prophet became a general and led his men in a desperate battle against slavery” (ibid.).
Turner’s objective appears to have been to take the county seat of Jerusalem (now Courtland), and from there secure weapons and ammunition, presumably hoping to capture the entire county with the aid of supporters joining from surrounding areas. Although historians are unclear of Turner’s objectives beyond Jerusalem, the strategy he employed—contrary to the opinion of many later commentators—was not poorly conceived. Egerton (2003, p. 142) is correct that “[h]indsight is often the enemy of understanding” and
[s]ecure in the knowledge that Turner failed in his mission, scholars are tempted to assume that no other outcome was possible. But once Jerusalem was within the grasp of his army, Turner could either have fortified the village and waited for word of the rising to spread across the countryside or, if white counterassaults became too potent, could have galloped the 25 miles east into the Dismal Swamp. Here then lay the basis, not of a fanatical plan doomed to failure, but of a maroon island of black liberty deep within the slaveholding South.
Turner’s plan was to move stealthily to avoid raising alarms, and to use hatchets and axes as weapons to conceal their attacks from neighboring plantations. In the event, after killing slaveholding families, they confiscated their arms, horses, powder, shot, food, spirits, and money, and recruited other slaves to join them. Turner drilled and outfitted his rebels with red bandanas—all acts to inspire esprit de corps and to instill military discipline under his military authority. Subsequently, he altered tactics and “concentrated his forces and ordered them to charge at full gallop and in full cry to exaggerate the size of their ranks and paralyze the enemy in fear, to ‘carry terror and devastation wherever we went’ ”; and, “[f]or a time, the stratagem seemed to work, drawing ten to twenty more slaves into the uprising” (Kaye, 2007b, p. 717). Their increased numbers, however, “pulled the rebellion in different directions” (ibid.), and three miles outside of Jerusalem, Turner was compelled to split his forces, just as slaveholders and local militia had marshaled to suppress the revolt. In the decisive battle at Parker’s field, Turner reconsolidated his forces after a remnant had been dispersed by a patrol’s fire, and led them in a spirited attack that repulsed the patrol; however, the arrival of reinforcements forced Turner’s retreat (Parramore, 2003, p. 66). The tactical loss concealed a strategic defeat because Turner’s access to the bridges to Jerusalem was cut off by militia and patrolling whites. Fighting would continue into the next day, but Nat Turner’s forces were mostly scattered, captured, or killed, although he would elude militia and mobs for two months before his capture.
In total, Turner’s forces, which at their largest constituted between sixty and eighty men, had killed fifty-seven whites. Slaveholders were reinforced by militia with greater manpower and more arms—eventually including several artillery companies and a detachment of sailors. Turner was among the fifty-six slaves executed for the insurrection, although between one hundred and two hundred slaves and free blacks were killed by whites in a frenzied campaign of torture, rape, and murder following the revolt. In the aftermath, the Virginia legislature made it illegal to teach slaves, free blacks, or mulattoes to read or write, and restricted all blacks from holding religious meetings outside the presence of a licensed white minister.18
Slave Revolts and Du Bois’s Thesis
The revolts of Gabriel, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner were dramatic but not unique events and religious factors and slave hiring are implicated heavily in each of them. It is reasonable to conclude that the factors that motivated and supported the development of sophisticated clandestine plans for revolt, entailing the coordination and movement of people and material across plantations and even across rural and urban communities, also could motivate and support the major slave revolt of the Civil War. In the prewar revolts, slave religion provided the language of revolt, a justification for it, and a promise of its fulfillment. The capacity of slave religion to motivate revolt belies the view that it simply bred docility. Moses (1993, p. 246) is correct that it is “impossible to conceive” that “uprooted Africans learning their Christianity in North America” would do so while “remaining blind to such concepts as ‘righteous wrath’ and the idea of a God who expects his faithful to behave as instruments of his wrath.” It’s not that slave religion mandated rebellion or even counseled it over submission to the slave’s lot; what is important is that slave religion could be reconciled with slave revolt. Relatedly, the practice of slave hiring increased the mobility of slaves and gave them opportunities to extend their social and occupational networks. For slave artisans, it increased their ability to develop a collective consciousness based on their shared exploitation as both slave and wage laborer resulting in an incipient working-class consciousness (i.e. a kind of proletarianization) of these liminal slaves/workers. Although this awareness may have been greatest for slave artisans, it likely affected hired-out unskilled laborers as well, given that their wages were subject to the same expropriations by their slave masters.19
In combination, slave religion and slave hiring contributed to the development of expansive, complex, and coordinated networks extending across plantations and rural and urban slave and free black communities. Such networks became characteristic of slave communities, and could be utilized to coordinate even sophisticated plans for rebellion. Although these revolts could be—and typically were—brutally suppressed, given that the factors that generated them, slave religion and slave hiring, also served the interests of the slave masters (i.e., the slave masters’ desire for the profits from slave hiring, and the promise of religiously inspired slave docility), these practices persisted in some form right up to and throughout the Civil War. Given their persistent impact on slave society, it’s surprising that Du Bois would not consider them in what he acknowledges as the religiously inspired and slave labor–based General Strike of the Civil War. It was Du Bois’s desire to juxtapose the stultifying, repressive slave system of the antebellum era to the awesome opportunities for black autonomy and development provided by postbellum radical Reconstruction, which colored his conceptual lens. The major slave revolts were both rare and distant from what he viewed as the major precipitants of the war and its aftermath.
Clearly, Du Bois appreciated the significance of the black laborer of the South; but he did not draw the explicit link between hired-out slaves—especially slave artisans, motivated by an incipient working-class consciousness born of working in Southern industry—and the religious ideology he acknowledged as central to slave insurgency. As both slaves and wage laborers, they were both religionists and incipient proletarians, and as hired-out slaves mobile and able to establish networks that linked slave communities. Coupled with the institutional structure of the incipient Black Church, such networks provided the latticework for communities of support extending across plantations, linking rural and urban communities. They developed further in the decades leading up to the war, ultimately facilitating the movement of slaves to Union lines during the Civil War. Following these major slave revolts, and right up to the war, it was evident that slave networks were being utilized and extended to facilitate what would eventuate in the Slave Revolution of the U.S. Civil War.20
Slave Neighborhoods, Grapevine Telegraphs, and Networks for War
Slaves continued to utilize the social networks of the antebellum era during wartime.21 These networks were conduits within slave society that facilitated communication, transportation, and organization within and across plantations and expanded the scope of the slave neighborhood, which comprised both the physical geography and the social terrain of the individual slave (Kaye, 2007a, p. 4). It was a nexus of social relations based in “labor, kinship, struggle, worship, and socializing of every variety” (ibid., p. 153). Slave neighborhoods were the “unintended consequences” of slave interaction in a context defined by the plantation system and the will of individual slave owners, who, often unwittingly, helped produce and reproduce them. They often included adjacent plantations and the areas around them as well (ibid., p. 4). Bonds within neighborhoods were stronger than those between them (ibid., p. 153), which posed problems for slaves planning escape—much less revolt—because in order “[t]o muster a force of any consequence, rebels had to unite across neighborhood lines” (ibid., p. 124). Given these “inextricable constraints and obstructions,” the geography of neighborhoods “all but doomed slave revolts”—making the development and execution of major slave revolts all the more remarkable (ibid.).
Slaves whose labor required mobility, such as artisans, teamsters, and carriage drivers, provided a nexus between plantations, and slave preachers were especially influential. “Preachers, who were mediators in a neighborhood’s relationship to God as well as literate and mobile, brought unique attainments to the task of forging ties between neighborhoods and had a special importance among the conduits” (Kaye, 2007a, p. 181). The networks within and across slave neighborhoods included formal institutions associated with slave religion and less formal ones, such as the “grapevine telegraph,” both of which could facilitate revolt by serving as relatively independent conduits of information. On the latter, in his autobiography, Booker T. Washington recalled that during the Civil War he had been perplexed at how “slaves throughout the South, completely ignorant as were the masses so far as books or newspapers were concerned, were able to keep themselves so accurately and completely informed about the great National questions that were agitating the country,” to the extent that “slaves often got knowledge of the events of the war before the whites did” ([1995 (1901)], p. 4). He remembered that when he was a child slaves “kept themselves informed of events by what was termed the ‘grape-vine’ telegraph” (ibid.). For example, he explained that when a slave “was sent to the post office for the mail,” they “would linger about the place long enough to get the drift of the conversation from the group of white people who naturally congregated there, after receiving their mail, to discuss the latest news” (ibid., pp. 4–5). This news would then be reported back to the slaves upon the courier’s return, “and in this way they often heard of important events before the white people at the ‘big house’ ” (ibid., p. 5).
The grapevine telegraph was the slaves’ network of communication by which “[h]ouse servants, coachmen, artisans and hired slaves, some of whom had gained the rudiments of literacy, carried news from the big house, the courthouse, the tavern and the market-place back into the quarters” (Hahn, 1997, p. 128). Once there, the information “was discussed, interpreted and then further disseminated, when slaves visited kinfolk on other plantations and farms, met each other on the back roads, or held brush-arbour religious meetings.” For Hahn, “[i]n these ways the slaves, in many different locales, learned of the antislavery movement in the North, the sectional conflict and other ‘great events.’ ” Moreover, “[t]he Civil War and early Reconstruction not only brought the slaves’ communication networks to more public light, but also helped to extend, deepen and institutionalize them.”
Although the neighborhood “was the main field of the grapevine telegraph,” in which “slaves rapidly and extensively collected and exchanged information,” the grapevine telegraph was also one of several mechanisms that could be used to circumvent some of the constraints of neighborhood boundaries on slaves and facilitated interplantation communication (Kaye, 2007a, p. 24). Litwack (1980, p. 23) agrees that “[e]xtensive black communication networks, feeding on a variety of sources, sped information from plantation to plantation, county to county, often with remarkable secrecy and accuracy.” Litwack (p. 23) acknowledges that “[f]ew plantation whites were fully aware of the inventiveness with which their slaves transmitted information to other blacks,” and one result was that “[m]uch of the information circulating in slave neighborhoods originated with owners” (Kaye, 2007a, p. 180), as “[a]ttentive slaves made unwitting owners serve as especially revealing informants” (ibid., p. 179). As “[p]lanters read newspapers, corresponded with sons, husbands, kin, and friends,” and “men and women of discretion talked over what they knew in the garden or the yard, on the porch, and at table,” often “house servants picked it up and passed it along” (ibid., p. 180).
McCurry (2010, pp. 227–228) agrees that “[e]xtensive black communication networks had existed in the slave period,” and slaves demonstrated “the ability to get and relay information of personal and political significance by assembling the required elements into one human network.” As war loomed, slaves “watched and pooled their intelligence on the aims and prospects of civil war” and “[t]hey fashioned lines of communication, connecting circles of men and women, drawn together in relations of kinship and work, sociability and worship in every neighborhood” (ibid., p. 179). Mobile slaves, such as preachers, teamsters, and artisans, “made themselves into homespun military experts by their ability to reconnoiter over a broad terrain, canvassing informants, sifting opinion and fancy, separating rumor from fact. Slaves in transit, gathering and dispensing information from neighborhood to neighborhood, connected them along the way” (ibid.). In this context, “a preacher’s calling lent his reckonings of the war a unique authority. His exegesis of the causes of the war, its turns on the battlefield, and its likely outcome could take on the import of revelation, allegory, prophesy” (ibid., p. 181).
In the context of the war, the slave preacher’s mobility—unlike that of other mobile slaves—took on added salience since it facilitated the spread of the “invisible institution” itself, further forging the links of communication, information, and religious fidelity of slave neighborhoods. These networks—along with those supplied by hired-out slaves—facilitated, inter alia, slave runaways during the antebellum era and, once the war commenced, the movement of slaves to Union lines. For example, Du Bois refers to the “mysterious spiritual telegraph” that slaves appear to have utilized to coordinate their movement to General Butler’s Union forces at Fortress Monroe in Virginia (1969, p. 63). During the war, the grapevine telegraph continued to operate as it had during the antebellum era, but now its techniques of communication and information gathering and dissemination could be applied to slave revolution and Union victory in myriad forms (see, e.g., McPherson, 1993, pp. 60–64, 149–154).
Such was the case with the networks developed by the former slave William Webb, who reportedly helped coordinate a secret network of slaves in anticipation of a possible rebellion of the slave states with the coming to power of a Republican regime (Hahn, 2004). Susan O’Donovan (2011) credits Webb with “real genius . . . in mobilization,” which she attributes to his experience as a hired-out slave, which “made it easier for him to create and sustain a growing network of slaves”—just as was evident in the major slave conspiracies of the antebellum era. Webb’s network was a protean, decentralized, “loose assembly of disparate groups,” which he began to organize among slaves as early as 1856, and which by Lincoln’s election could move news across three states (Webb, 1873, p. 13). His plan sought to establish a representative in every state, who would “appoint a man to travel twelve miles, and then hand the news to another man, and so on, till the news reached from Louisiana to Mississippi.” This would allow for a simultaneous rebellion, as Webb argued, “in all the States at one time, so the white people would not have a chance” (ibid.).
O’Donovan (2011, p. 2) insists that “Webb and his nebulous network was no anomaly,” and that “it traveled along with marching columns of chained slaves, the infamous coffle lines that remain the iconic face of the domestic slave trade” and “the squalid confines of the South’s county jails” (ibid.). For Hahn, the accounts of slaves and former slaves, confessions of slave conspirators, diaries of slaveholders, and reports in local newspapers support the claim that slaves had developed “networks of communication and forums of organization that could extend over long distances,” which “could reverberate with political discussions, narratives, and discourses of expectation” (ibid., p. 74).22 The broadening of these networks was facilitated by, inter alia, work projects in the South that drew primarily from hired-out slave labor and in so doing “contained enormous subversive potential.” The salience of hired-out slaves, so obvious in the major slave revolts, was no less so right up to the Civil War.23 The resulting networks assisted the escape of an estimated five hundred to seven hundred thousand slaves to Union lines (Glatthaar, 1992, p. 142), transforming a civil war intended to maintain slavery (the Union’s and the CSA’s original war aim) into a revolution to overthrow it.
This revolution was a war for the national liberation of enslaved black America, situated wholly within the United States. The U.S. Civil War was a political revolution and an economic revolution—both resulting from a black cultural revolution, although it was not an American cultural revolution. It radically transformed the polity of the United States by advancing the citizenship rights of former chattel slaves—the CSA leaders were right that their politico-military project was consistent with that of the Founders and Lincoln’s policies with respect to the manumission of slaves and the rights of secession were a revolutionary abandonment of that vision.24 It was an economic revolution that overthrew the economic system of chattel slavery, but the failure of the war to provide to blacks reparations in the form of land, material compensation, and broader legal and socioeconomic redress for their centuries of bondage was the major issue of social justice left unresolved by the war, which persists to this day. The war did not overthrow the U.S. cultural system of white supremacism; although the Slave Revolution emerged largely from a cultural impetus within black communities that wedded political and economic factors in a larger thrust for racial democracy, it left unabated the cultural system of white supremacism. It was a black cultural revolution, but it did not generate an American cultural revolution, and this spoke to the resilience and persistence of white supremacism among white Americans, individually, and their institutions of power, generally.
With white supremacism intact, the political and economic gains that blacks secured through war would be short-lived, and white racism provided justification for the political repression of blacks in the postbellum era and the seizure of the few economic rights and limited resources they had secured. Future efforts to address these problems and to ameliorate these conditions would require strategies that wed politics, economics, and culture in novel ways that replicated the best lessons of the Slave Revolution while not repeating its shortcomings. Given the persistence of white supremacism in the cultural system of the United States, and the linkage between the cultural system and the political and economic systems, then white cultural transformation would be a salient factor in future liberation strategies, as well. However, in future formulations, culture would need to be viewed as more than a mechanism to organize the black liberation struggle internally, but also a focus of the liberation struggle externally. Black liberation would require another, broader cultural revolution, one that both utilized and transformed the American culture system in such a way as to generate political, economic, and cultural democracy, which would establish racial democracy in the United States.
Complicating this further, the white supremacism of the postbellum era had further undermined the cultural institutions of black communities, and called into question for many whether African Americans even possessed a culture at all (related to this view was whether African people, in general, possessed a culture, which European colonialism, following Hegel, among many other Enlightenment thinkers, famously denied). Thus, revolutionary programs and theses would have an uphill battle on the cultural front within black communities before—or simultaneous with—overturning the white supremacist cultural system of the United States in which these communities were embedded. The challenge for black intellectuals, activists, and revolutionists was to formulate such theses, which would build on these lessons and address these challenges. That is, they would need to plan for concerted action within black communities and between black and white communities.
Considering the theory and practice of revolution that emerges from the actions of enslaved blacks during the Civil War, we observe a relationship between slave religion and slave hiring, and the religiously inspired “slave-wagery” that resulted from their confluence.25 Their actions demonstrated, inter alia, that black revolution could be fueled by cultural change. Thus, just as Du Bois situated an affirming African American culture as the centerpiece of black nationalism, evolving classical black nationalism into modern black nationalism—i.e., black cultural nationalism—he demonstrated that a centerpiece of this affirming African American culture, slave religion, could provide the impetus for political and economic revolution in the United States. From Du Bois onward, it would be necessary for analysts, activists, and theorists attempting to conceptualize—much less, organize—black revolution in the United States, to appreciate the historic and contemporary importance of black culture in such a revolution. That is, it was necessary to appreciate the importance of black cultural revolution. Unfortunately, the significance of this revolution—and, for most, its existence as a revolution—was rarely appreciated by scholars, analysts, activists of any race in the United States during the BPM or even decades after it. As the only successful revolution in the constituted United States (the American Revolution having taken place before its establishment as an independent, sovereign nation), it demanded consideration for anyone planning future insurgency in the country.
Both Du Bois and Haywood agreed that Reconstruction did not complete the economic revolution wrought by the overthrow of chattel slavery, insofar as it did not result in the agrarian transformation that manumission augured to undergird black political freedom with grants of land to support a multiracial proletariat in the South. For Haywood (1958), although the Civil War “destroyed chattel slavery,” it “did not bring real freedom to the Negro freedman”; instead, “Left without the land—cheated out of his chief means of livelihood, he was forced back upon the plantations into a position of semi-slave servitude but slightly removed from that of his former chattel bondage.” It is also important to remember that the Slave Revolution did not transform the cultural system of the United States and its white supremacism, which persisted both de jure and de facto through the Jim Crow era and during both the CRM and BPM of the twentieth century, and continued to contextualize, constrain, and confound black liberation struggles in the United States. One implication is that BPM activists could usefully draw on strategies from a century before (with some modifications) to confront this cultural system anew. Key for BPM activists was to recognize and harness their black culture, coordinating and utilizing it as a basis for mobilizing black Americans into purposive agents of cultural and political revolution.
The U.S. Slave Revolution suggested other referents for BPM revolutionists. For example, the analogues of the religiously inspired, hired-out, incipient-working-class-conscious slaves a century later were the increasingly urban, religiously inspired, working-class blacks who constituted the humanpower of the CRM. Another potentially useful analogue was the mechanism that slave rebels employed, a general strike, which enervated the South and propelled their revolutionary engagement as troops of their Union allies. The general strike strategy that had proved successful during the Civil War might be just as useful for the BPM. Du Bois’s thesis implied as much in arguing that the General Strike anticipated subsequent Marxist revolutions including the Bolshevik Revolution, from which important leaders and analysts of the BPM would draw inspiration. In one of the few major admitted expansions on Du Bois’s thesis, Roediger (2014) goes farthest and points out the seminal influence of the General Strike on the women’s suffrage movement, the movement to recognize the civil rights of the disabled, the movement for an eight-hour work day, and the prospects for a multicultural national labor party.
The General Strike prefigured other multiracial general strikes in the United States, such as the 1892 New Orleans general strike of more than forty unions that included an alliance of black and white workers, but, as Du Bois noted, it foreshadowed major revolutions of the twentieth century as well. For example, it paralleled the Russian general strike of 1905, which, as Harcave (1970) argued, fused the respective “agrarian,” “nationality,” “labour,” and “educated class” problems in the country to create the conditions for the revolution that ensued. Such a fusion is not unrelated to that which was evident in the boycott strategy of the CRM in the Jim Crow South. To be sure, the liberation of blacks, as a whole, North and South, would require a broader program and one geared toward a more critical politico-socio-economic institution than a municipal bus service of a single Southern city like Montgomery, Alabama, or even the broader objective of organizing black urban and rural communities in the South with respect to their voting rights.
In order not to replicate other shortcomings in the aftermath of the Civil War, the BPM would need to attend to cultural objectives, as well, for instance, to overthrow the cultural system of white supremacism. The latter was especially difficult given that the cultural system was the main axis of contention between blacks and their white allies—even more so their white opposition—and this fissure spelled the doom of Reconstruction inasmuch as it provided the nexus uniting Northern and Southern whites in what Du Bois labeled the “counterrevolution of property.” Thus, updating and applying a general strike strategy would entail devising an approach to alliances with potential white allies especially. During the General Strike, these included Northern white abolitionists who supported the cause of black freedom, thousands of disaffected poor Southern whites who deserted the CSA, and, most decisively, whites in the Union Army. BPM revolutionists would need to leverage their position in the politico-economy in order to maximize the impact of their minority organization. Thus, the specific focus of organizing would suggest the requisite approach to alliance making. Whether the focus was on claims related to their status/condition as a subjugated race, an exploited class, an ethnic group that was discriminated against, a colonized nation or a mixture of all of them would determine whether race-based, class-based, interest group, or national organization was the preferred strategy. Such determinations would have implications for the selection of potential allies, as well. For example, if they focused on race, then organizing would be race-based regardless of class (or ethnicity or nationality), and alliances sought with other oppressed racial groups regardless of class, etc., in opposition to whites of all classes; and if the strategy focused on class, then organizing would privilege classes (e.g., the proletariat or lumpenproletariat) regardless of race, etc., and alliances would be sought with oppressed classes regardless of race, in opposition to class adversaries of any race. Likewise, if the strategy focused on ethnicity, then organizing would privilege the ethnic group, and alliances would supersede other axes of identity, in opposition to rival ethnics irrespective of race, class, or nation,26 and similarly, if the strategy focused on nationality, then organizing would be national, and alliances sought mainly with other oppressed nations, in opposition to white colonial domination. The focus of claims would determine the strategy for organizing and alliance making, and go far in predicting movement success.
A difficulty for BPM revolutionists drawing from the Slave Revolution a revolutionary thesis to orient their movement was that Du Bois did not explicitly theorize the cultural revolution he historicized in Black Reconstruction. Nevertheless, a decade after publishing Black Reconstruction, and well before the onset of the BPM, his contemporary Alain Locke provided such theorizing.
Alain Locke and Black Cultural Revolution
Although noted primarily for his role as an intellectual leader of the Harlem Renaissance through his editorship of the seminal volume The New Negro, Alain Locke’s contributions to our understanding of black cultural revolution are as massive as they are ignored by both academics and activists. He studied culture as few had up to his time, in Oxford and Berlin as the first African American Rhodes Scholar. He developed his perspective from pragmatist philosophy and wed it to the cultural pluralist approaches in the emerging field of anthropology. An early proponent of cultural pluralism in the Boasian school, nonetheless he asserted the salience of “Aframerican” culture rooted in a mixture of African and American cultural tendencies. Although similar to Du Bois’s view of black culture rooted in the sorrow songs and folkways of the black South, Locke’s drew a clearer distinction between African and Aframerican aesthetics in a broader project linking black culture to his sociological view of race. Locke’s approach provided a theoretical explanation of black cultural revolution in the United States.
To appreciate Locke’s contribution to theses of black cultural revolution it is important to consider his analysis of race, culture, and cultural change. The justification for white racism progressed through several distinct, overlapping, and often mutually reinforcing rationalizations rooted initially in theology, then biology, and subsequently anthropology. The religious and biological justifications of white supremacy are well known; and Boas (1911) is credited with undermining biologically based white supremacism, ushering in the anthropological discourse of cultural relativism. Locke embraced Boas’s arguments that physical, mental, and cultural traits associated with race were mutable and adaptable to different environments; but, he argued against the anthropological view of race, as well, insisting that race was sociological. In the first of five lectures at Howard University in 1916, he argued that anthropology had not isolated any permanent or static features of race (Stewart, 1992, p. xxiv). He noted that “as applied to social and ethnic groups,” race “has no meaning at all beyond that sense of kind, that sense of kith and kin”; it is “an ethnic fiction” (Locke, 1992, p. 12). For Locke (ibid., p. 11), modern conceptions of race are not “about the anthropological or biological idea at all,” but the relative fortunes of “an ethnic group,” which in anthropological terms are “ethnic fictions” that are the result of “countless interminglings” and “infinite crossings of types,” which “maintain in name only this fetish of biological [purity]” (ibid.). The extent that a person has a race, “he has inherited either a favorable or an unfavorable social heredity, which unfortunately is [typically] ascribed to factors which have not produced [it,] factors which will in no way determine either the period of those inequalities or their eradication” (ibid., p. 12). Locke “was standing racialist theories of culture on their heads: rather than particular races creating Culture, it was culture—social, political, and economic processes—that produced racial character” (Stewart, 1992, p. xxv). For Locke, race was sociological—or in today’s verbiage, a “social construct.” “Consequently,” he concludes “any true history of race must be a sociological theory of race” (1992, p. 11). Locke was among the first scholars to explain race this way. His contributions were as prescient and profound as they are ignored in contemporary scholarship on racism.
Locke viewed peoples of different races, including white and black Americans, as highly assimilative beings within societies whose arbitrary policies and practices were based on the assumed physical incompatibility of races, which he viewed as baseless, since “[t]he factors which really determine race inequalities,” in his view, “are not at all commensurable with these physical factors,” but “are factors of language, customs, habits, social adaptability, [and] social survival” (1992, p. 10). Further, although Locke demystified race as a social construct, he did not jettison the concept. In fact, he asserted the usefulness of race as a point of reference and prominent signifier that was unlikely to be “superceded except by some revised version of itself”; therefore, he sought to revise it in such a way as to serve as an ameliorative (ibid., p. 85). Locke asserted the value of race consciousness, while rejecting that race was either a “permanent biological entity or nothing at all” and insisting instead on the relevance of “social race” (Stewart, 1992, p. xxv). He argued that “[t]he only kind of race that is left to believe in and to be applied to modern problems is what we call the idea of social race, defining it more narrowly as a conception of civilization or civilization kind” (1992, p. 88). For him, “a basic law in human society” is that “[e]very civilization produces its type” and “it should be judged in terms of that civilization type, and should come to know itself in proportion as it recognizes the type” (ibid., pp. 88–89). Civilization type evokes for Locke a “sense of shared practices and modes of life consistent with participation in a competitive economy and other common core institutions” of modern society (Fraser, 1999, p. 12). “Consequently,” Fraser notes, “modern societies,” for Locke, “tend to produce a single ‘civilization type,’ an ideal-typical sort of person, which members come roughly to approximate by virtue of participating in a common social structure and institutional framework.” In light of this, “[c]ivilization type, according to Locke, is the proper overarching unit of solidarity in modern societies” (ibid., pp. 12–13).
Although civilization type generates conformity, it is not so much homogenizing as generating common frames of reference for its constituent social cultures, which provide a sense of belonging and solidarity. People articulate social cultures within the context of their civilization type and the diversity within the civilization type is reflected in the diverse social cultures that participate in it. Since social culture, like all culture, is dynamic, civilization type is subject to change from within—as a result of changes among its constituent social cultures and from without—through its contacts with social cultures of other civilization types. For Locke, social cultures are highly interdependent, and he emphasized that “[t]here is no part of the universe today which is not in some way, economic[,] or political[,] or social, bound up with the other parts,” such that “no social culture in the present day world will be ignorant of other types or object to [some kind of] contact with other types,” and this relationship obtains “no matter how much a line is drawn theoretically between races,” because “the practical demands of present day life necessitate the contact of races, and an increasing contact of races” (Locke, 1992, pp. 13–14). In addition, the social races that social cultures generate are also dynamic, and this dynamism is accentuated through contacts with other social races.
It followed for Locke that social races should be “conserved” to the extent that they promote solidarity and a sense of belonging—especially for marginalized groups such as racial minorities (and, presumably, other marginalized groups)—and therefore assist in the articulation of their cultural expression. By articulating a “consciousness of kind,” which he viewed as “healthy for human societies” and “a fundamental social instinct,” albeit one that has had “a very abnormal expression from time to time,” he was convinced that under certain conditions, “race types and race kind can be transformed . . . into social kind” such that “essentially a man must become one of the same race [or civilization type] when he lives or [learns] to live in the same civilization and [has] conformed to a civilization type. [This] is the only essential kind of race that exists in the world today” (1992, p. 79). Therefore:
[I]f you have the same manners and customs and have allegiance to the same social system, you belong to the same race . . . even though ethnically you many not; so that really when you conform or belong to a civilization type . . . you are of the same race in any vital or rational sense of race . . . to exclude you from that kind of race is simply arbitrary and [a] very perverse practice which comes from an abnormal conception on the part of the society of what consciousness of kind is and of what the social or civilization type consists. (ibid.)
He notes that race prejudice “falsely attributes to certain arbitrary ethnological and biological factors, sociological and social standards which do not pertain to them at all” (ibid.).
Locke was convinced that “American society is hastening the process of social assimilation by the very restrictive measures that [it is] imposing,” in part because, “[w]hile social assimilation is in progress there seems to be necessary some counter-theory, or rather some counter-doctrine. This counter-doctrine one finds in racial solidarity and culture” (1992, p. 96). For Locke, “secondary race consciousness” is the race consciousness of a minority group in a society. He argued that the “stimulation of a secondary race consciousness within a group” was necessary “for several practical reasons” (ibid.). Foremost among them was the group’s need “to get a right conception of itself,” and “it can only do that through the stimulation of pride in itself,” which secondary race consciousness provides to groups in the way self-respect does for the individual. For Locke, “Race pride seems a rather different loyalty from the larger loyalty to the joint or common civilization type.” While “apparently paradoxical” in the abstract, it is not so in practice because
the very stimulation to collective activity which race pride or racial self-respect may give will issue into the qualification test and the aim to meet that qualification test, which, of course, must be in terms of the common standard. So that through a doctrine of race solidarity and culture you really accelerate and stimulate the alien group to a rather more rapid assimilation of the social culture, the general social culture, than would be otherwise possible. (1992, p. 97)
Secondary race consciousness facilitates the recreation of the race type and its ultimate merging with the civilization type. Locke asserts that “we can only get recognition for our [contribution] collectively [and only] through a recognition . . . given a re-created race type that expresses itself in terms of a representative class or representative products,” which secondary race consciousness stimulates and facilitates (ibid., p. 98). Locke’s thesis insists that race consciousness “prevents the representative classes, as they develop, [from] being merged into the larger group, from being dissipated and lost in the larger group,” while, coincidentally, “harnessing” the larger group to the “submerged group,” stimulating “the general progress [of the group]” (ibid.).
Given its functionality for minority groups seeking a basis for cultural identity, belonging, and solidarity, social race should be “conserved” through the promotion of secondary race consciousness. But Locke is clear that “this is not a doctrine of race isolation,” but, “It is really a theory of social conservation which in practice conserves the best in each group, and promotes the development of social solidarity out of heterogeneous elements” (1992, p. 98). His was not a “doctrine of race conservation” but a “doctrine of social conservation” (ibid., p. 99). As Harris and Molesworth (2008, p. 126) point out, “Locke shifts the category to one of ‘social’ rather than ‘racial’ conservation and invokes his own emergent ideas of multiculturalism to complete his thought” while “avoid[ing] any suggestion of chauvinism or separatism.” The objective of “race progress and race adjustment” for Locke was the promotion of “culture-citizenship,” which would result from the “group contribution to what becomes a joint civilization,” and be “acquired through social assimilation” that facilitates incorporation of the “group contribution to what becomes a joint civilization” (Locke, 1992, p. 99). The achievement of that goal would be evident to the extent that “we can jointly accept whatever [of value] there is in the civilization’s conception of itself” (ibid.).
Locke argued that “[u]ntil alien [group talents and] certain representative products are developed (which products for their sheer intrinsic worth are worthy of incorporation into the joint culture), I fancy no really final and satisfactory race recognition will be accorded” (p. 99). The essential “talents” and “representative products” that are candidates for incorporation and facilitate “race recognition” are artistic expressions in music, the arts, and letters. Analogizing from developments in Europe, Locke argues that
movements by which the submerged classes are coming to their expression in art—seem to be the forerunners of that kind of recognition which they are ultimately striving for, namely, recognition [of an] economic, [a] civic, and [a] social sort; and these [movements] are the gateways through which culture-citizenship can be finally reached” (1992, p. 100)
Locke encouraged Negroes to cultivate the art derived from their syncretic Aframerican social culture characteristic of the race. Further, “[t]hrough art blacks could build social solidarity and race consciousness, without overly threatening the white power structure. Moreover, by developing their cultural productivity, blacks would contradict the notion that African Americans were a people without culture, whose only choice was complete assimilation” (Stewart, 1992, p. xxxii). He thought the “thinking Negro” would be the more effective purveyor of those elements of Aframerican culture, to articulate the representative aspects of the social culture that would “blend” with the civilization-type: “a case of putting the premium upon the capably few, and thus of accelerating the ‘levelling up’ processes in American society” (Locke, 1927, p. 557). The reciprocal recognition of social cultures within the civilization-type facilitated “culture-citizenship,” which reflected the ideal of cultural development: the attainment of cultural cosmopolitanism, which for Locke would be realized in a multiracial democracy (Locke, 1992, p. 100).
Locke’s conceptualization of social culture, inter alia, allows us to theorize the Slave Revolution that Du Bois historicized in Black Reconstruction. Specifically, it suggests that the change in slave religion that Du Bois delineated, from countenancing docility to promoting revolt, resulted from reciprocity, as Du Bois implied, and the transvaluation and transposition of religious values to divinely sanctioning revolt (Moses, 1993, p. 246). Further, the interaction of hired-out slaves—especially slave artisans—with their free counterparts heightened their understanding of the differences in the value of their labor and that of free persons, magnifying the extent of their exploitation. Thus, reciprocity between bond and free artisans contributed to an incipient working-class consciousness among the former. These mutually reinforcing factors of reciprocity, transvaluation, and transposition helped compel the slave revolts of the antebellum era, culminating in the Slave Revolution.
Just as Locke’s framework helps explain what Du Bois observed in Black Reconstruction, it is also applicable to the BPM. It suggested that by tapping into the cultural institutions of black communities, the network of religiously inspired black workers, and by utilizing a general strike as a precipitant of broader struggle, BPM revolutionists might formulate a cultural revolution that would compel a political revolution in the United States.
Although in the Howard University lectures Locke did not appear to view cultures as progressing through stages, subsequently he began to imply as much (Locke, 1989 ). Given the greater freedom for interaction of individuals, groups, and cultural practices and institutions in more open political systems, Locke was convinced that cultural cosmopolitanism was most likely to be actualized in a multiracial democracy; thus, his framework implies a relationship between culture and democracy. Locke viewed multiracial democracy as a stage that no state had achieved, and one that the United States with its inveterate white racism was not close to realizing. Considering this, it cannot be said that Locke’s framework inevitably evolves to a white ideal; nevertheless, his model of democratic development—and the relationship of culture to that development—follows closely the development of democracy in the United States. Buck (2005) notes that Locke viewed democracy as proceeding through nine stages: (1) local democracy, (2) moral democracy, (3) political democracy, (4) economic democracy, (5) cultural democracy, (6) racial democracy, (7) social democracy, (8) spiritual democracy, and (9) world democracy. At the time, Locke saw some states proceeding through each of the first five stages, but in his view no state had achieved racial democracy. The problems of achieving racial democracy were partly embedded in one of the obstacles to states attaining its precursor phase, cultural democracy, which is that political and economic rights did not guarantee the rights of cultural minorities, and cultural democracy, “rests on . . . the guarantee of the rights of minorities” (Buck, 2005, p. 251). Moreover, Locke contends that “the race question is at the very heart of this struggle for cultural democracy” and “[i]ts solution lies beyond even the realization of political and economic democracy, although of course that solution can only be reached when we no longer have extreme political inequality and extreme economic inequality” (ibid.). Cultural democracy extends political and economic democracy to the cultural sphere, and, in so doing, facilitates racial democracy—Locke’s sixth phase. Challenges on the cultural front demonstrate the need to alter the dominant cultural paradigm of the society to reflect the values, views, and interests of marginalized cultural groups; and—anticipating Cruse (1967)—in so doing implicate racial democracy as well.
The analysis at this point goes to the heart of the significance of black cultural revolution in the United States: it not only challenges the cultural hegemony of white supremacism but it does so through raising and reinforcing the political and economic demands of African Americans to the cultural sphere in such a way as to facilitate racial democracy. Considering the range of cultural issues that motivate such profound changes, we are not simply talking about culture in the aesthetic, but in the material sense as well, nor are we focusing simply on cultural representation (e.g., artistic production, its institutionalization, or even its distribution and commodification) but, broader, fundamental issues that arise from the political and economic claims of marginalized culture groups that implicate racial democracy. The eradication of racial slavery was such an issue. By raising the claim of the human rights of slaves to freedom, black revolutionaries of the Civil War were asserting a cultural claim of a people (their right to freedom) and simultaneously a political claim to civil rights (related to equal pay and provisions in the Union Army, initially, extended to citizenship rights in the United States) and economic rights (to their own labor, and to land ownership, among others); the implication of these was to create—at least on paper—a racial democracy. In this way, Locke’s framework theorizes Du Bois’s Slave Revolution. It explains how a black cultural revolution generated a political revolution in the United States, and this could serve as an example for theorizing in the BPM.
The success of the Slave Revolution should not be diminished because of the ultimate failure of Reconstruction, which demonstrated the extent to which the counterrevolutionaries were committed to ending it. In the event, the cultural system of white supremacism, which had not transformed but receded only briefly into the far-ranging social institutions of the predominantly white society, quickly reasserted itself in the major political and economic institutions of the former CSA, making the transformation of U.S. and Southern society short-lived. Nonetheless, a major implication of the successes of the Slave Revolution for BPM revolutionists a century later was the utility of similarly situated, religiously inspired proletarians to put forth cultural claims that could be politicized in such a way as to transform the economic structure of the United States and so to augur racial democracy. A key challenge was to focus on an issue as profound in its implications for political, economic, and racial democracy as chattel slavery had been in the 1860s and to devise a mobilizational strategy centered on it. In Locke’s era, the obvious issue was Jim Crow, which was only overturned by a massive and monumental Civil Rights Movement (CRM) of 1955–65. The BPM faced the remaining major unresolved politico-economic-cultural claim of black people in the United States, directly associated with both slavery and Jim Crow: black reparations. The failure of the United States to provide an economic floor to support its newly manumitted slaves, through provisions of land and an effective franchise to ensure their political rights, made reparations for chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and state-sanctioned white racism the major unresolved culture-based claim of African Americans, having political and economic ramifications that implicate racial democracy in the United States.
The cultural claim for reparations has been both an issue of social justice and one seeking an economic/material basis for black political freedom. It has had the potential to unite blacks across classes to make real political and economic democracy in the United States, and in this way to provide for multiracial democracy in America or justify a revolution to create it. Although Locke did not focus on reparations or outline the means to achieve racial democracy, he did advocate the overthrow of Jim Crow. Relatedly, Locke appreciated the awesome struggle for cultural democracy that was a prerequisite for racial democracy—foreshadowing, at least in philosophical terms, the necessity of something approximating a black cultural revolution to overthrow the cultural system of white supremacism to achieve multiracial democracy. In his 1943 monograph, World View on Race and Democracy, Locke noted that “[o]f all the barriers limiting democracy, color is the greatest, whether viewed from a standpoint of national or world democracy” (p. 1); and in 1949, he argued that the “race question” was the “number one problem of the world.” Locke linked the “race problem” in the United States to the “race problem” in the world, with the former requiring a “heroic challenge and criticism” to universalize the African American struggle “into a purging and inspiring plea for justice and a fuller democracy” (cited in Buck, 2005, p. 252). For Locke, white supremacism in the United States was “the acid test of the whole problem”; and one that “will be crucial in its outcome for the rest of the world,” making the United States “the world’s laboratory” for the progressive solution to the challenge of racial democracy (ibid.).
Implications of Fusing Locke’s and Du Bois’s Views
In their shared orientation to black culture, both Du Bois and Locke rejected reverse civilizationism and its contention that African Americans did not possess a culture, which may suggest why their theses were ignored by Malcolm X and BPM activists who drew uncritically from the Muslim minister’s mistaken formulation. In combination, their theses (1) established the relevance of the Slave Revolution as a historic political revolution in the United States; and (2) demonstrated how a black cultural revolution could generate a political revolution. The key components of the success of the Slave Revolution were both slave religion and the incipient working-class consciousness of the hired-out slaves who coordinated webs of networks to facilitate their insurgency. Their analogue a century later was the increasingly urban, religiously inspired working-class blacks who provided the humanpower of the CRM and the BPM. Following Du Bois and Locke, key for BPM activists was to recognize and harness the African American culture, to coordinate it, and utilize it as a basis for the mobilization of African Americans into purposive agents of revolution.
A major implication of Du Bois’s analysis of the General Strike was that the success of future black liberation struggles was dependent on the ability of revolutionists to overthrow not only the political and economic systems, but the cultural system of white America. The black revolution of the Civil War did not transform the cultural system of the United States and its white supremacism, which continued to influence the major institutions of the postbellum state. This cultural system persisted both de jure and de facto through the Jim Crow era and both the CRM and BPM of the twentieth century, and continued to constrain and confound black liberation struggles in the United States. Thus, given the persistence of the white supremacist cultural system, black liberation activists might usefully draw on strategies that were effective a century earlier to address the conditions they faced during the black power era. In the context of a future general strike strategy, the cultural system would need to be both a source of inspiration internally (i.e., the cultural system within African American communities), as well as a target of mobilization externally (i.e., the cultural system of the United States).
In sum, black revolutionists would need to utilize black culture—embedded in its major cultural institutions—toward political and economic ends in order to overthrow white supremacy in the United States. Unfortunately, most BPM revolutionists did not appreciate the significance of the General Strike and the homegrown black revolution in the United States during the Civil War. The reverse civilizationism that they often uncritically accepted from Malcolm X compelled them to draw their models, programs, and theories of revolution from Africa and other “third world” cases, while discouraging the study of the revolutionary antecedents in U.S. history to inform their theorizing and praxis. Further, convinced that African Americans had been stripped of their culture, even where they appreciated the relevance of culture to revolutionary struggle, they did not recognize the centrality of the religiously inspired incipient black proletarian culture to the previous black revolution in the United States, or to the one they hoped to fashion during the BPM.
The logic of reverse civilizationism required that a black American culture would have to be created or constructed, requiring a political project to which it could be wedded. The specific project would suggest the form that this newly created black culture would take. For example, the Nation of Islam promoted a form of black culture that they defined as “Asiatic”; Us, Congress of African People (CAP), the Republic of New Africa (RNA), and the Shrine of the Black Madonna promoted forms of black culture rooted in their conception of “traditional African” culture; and the Black Panther Party (BPP) and League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) promoted a form of black culture reflected in the practices of “brothers on the block.” These organizations sought commonalities between their interests and those of Africans involved in anticolonial struggles. Thus, while Africans were struggling against settler colonialism and neocolonialism, African American revolutionists construed their struggle in a context of domestic colonialism. Likewise, they viewed African American culture as African and put in the service of assisting to overthrow domestic colonialism in the United States. This perspective viewed black culture’s value strictly as propaganda and encouraged its exclusive performance of that role.
However, most BPM activists had only a superficial understanding of the diverse cultures of African societies, so they appropriated or in some cases manufactured aspects of one or more of the thousands of African cultures—and hundreds of major African cultures—that seemed to fit their specific projects, their leaders’ personal proclivities, their organizational programs, and/or their immediate political objectives. For the most part, they settled on hierarchical aspects of selected customs, often exclusively communal, associated with one or a few specific culture groups, in what were more than forty states of sub-Saharan Africa during the BPM, ranging from the sliver of a country that is Gambia or minute Rio Muni to the massive Saharan Desert straddling Sudan and the immense Congo. The culture groups of these African states range from the more than two hundred ethnic groups of Congo (formerly Zaire) to the almost culturally homogeneous Lesotho and Botswana. Most prominent BPM revolutionists ignored the urban, working class, egalitarian, or cosmopolitan features of the diverse cultures of Africa. Markedly absent was an adoption of African democratic forms of organization and governance such as palaver or kgotla. They constructed these extremely limited conceptions of the diverse cultures of Africa as synonymous with an almost timeless, unchanging, singular, monolithic “African” culture—as opposed to one aspect of one of hundreds if not thousands of African cultures such as Yoruba, Asante, Chokwe, Kongo, Zulu, Xhosa, Swahili, Kikuyu, Amhara, Wolof, Mende, or Fon, among many others.
Locke’s conception of black cultural change and, by implication, black cultural revolution, countenanced no such limitations or boundaries on cultural expression as it gravitated toward its own cosmopolitanism. Locke wed cultural change only to democracy, which was necessary to ensure that individuals and groups within and across cultures could express and share their cultures in myriad interactions. It advocated democracy within and between culture groups—unencumbered by noncultural (i.e., political, economic, demographic) hierarchies and impositions. The fate of the BPM was that its major revolutionists—with the exception of Harold Cruse—were largely oblivious to Locke’s thesis, and their programs, practices, and objectives reflected as much.
Locke did not explain how the cultural change he theorized could be implemented programmatically to assist blacks to navigate American society through the stages of democratic development he outlined. In the event, it was Du Bois’s more evolutionary approach from Social Reconstruction (examined further in chapter 4), which focused on the development of parallel institutions of civil society in black communities to provide for national development, that BPM revolutionists practiced and programmed for—even those publicly advocating armed struggle, rather than the revolutionary approach that Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction historicized and Locke’s approach theorized. That is, BPM revolutionists instituted an evolutionary strategy to achieve ostensibly revolutionary ends—a point not lost on Harold Cruse (1967). Locke’s thesis focusing on the internal dynamism of black culture can account for the emancipatory transformations within slave religion that compelled the General Strike; and, for Locke, given the dynamism of black culture itself, cultural revolution does not require a change agent external to the black community. In the historical example of the Slave Revolution, the revolutionary capacity of black culture was actualized in the most powerful cultural institution in the black community at the time, the invisible institution or slave religion. It follows that black cultural revolution during the BPM—like the slave revolts of the antebellum era, and the Slave Revolution of the U.S. Civil War—would more likely succeed if it was grounded in the Black Church. This did not preclude the salience of other black institutions, such as black political parties, civil rights organizations, black unions, media (e.g., black newspapers, radio, and, later, television), or some yet to be developed institution (e.g., social media); but given its unambiguous grounding in African American culture, as well as a greater share of black participants, black economic resources, and black political leverage, the Black Church was the clear candidate.
Although a synthesis of their theses suggested as much, Du Bois was ambivalent on whether the Black Church might lead the social transformation of black America, while Locke saw the Black Church as a facilitator of the “self-segregation” that his broader integrationist orientation would not countenance. This ambivalence toward and/or denial of the role of the Black Church in the cultural revolution that their theses implied would morph into outright opposition to—and even denunciation of—the Black Church by many leaders of the BPM. That revolutionists of the BPM would attempt a black cultural revolution while ignoring the most powerful cultural institution in black communities was a major oversight in their theorizing even as many of the groups associated with the BPM drew on the institutional support of church leaders for their programs, while casting their appeal to a largely church-going black working class—both urban and rural, and an emerging middle class. The denial and dismissal of the Black Church among those who proposed a black cultural revolution—and a black political revolution, as well—was a fatal flaw in their theorizing and activism; and it seriously undermined their movement.27
While reparations for chattel slavery and Jim Crow was the most important cultural claim directed at the U.S. state, there were important cultural claims implicating political and economic democracy to be directed at institutions inside black communities, as well. The major such cultural claim was that related to the emancipation of black women and girls. The persistence of sexism in black communities was the major unresolved issue of social justice within them. Therefore, black feminism with respect to both political and cultural revolution was as salient as it was to the broader social change that blacks pursued, as black feminists had argued since no later than the nineteenth century.
A focus on culture beyond the major cultural institutions of black communities remained necessary because the enduring racist cultural system would have to be fractured again a century later during the CRM and BPM, setting Dixiecrats and their conservative Democrats and Republican allies against liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans, and conservative whites against liberal and radical ones. The heightened U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War might provide another opportunity for blacks to promote division among whites regarding war to take advantage of a sectarian crisis; however, this time it seemed that it would not be enough to generate, exacerbate, or simply exploit divisions among white Americans (e.g., as between white abolitionists and their white pro-slavery opponents), but it needed to promote a cultural transformation among white folks as well, to assist in the overthrow of a system of white cultural domination that benefited them, just as some Northern whites had assisted in the overthrow of the CSA a century earlier. Black revolutionists would have to fuse their political, economic, and social interests into a cohesive and coordinated movement that appreciated the cultural, racial, class, and gender based impetus for their activism—and to do it in such a way as to encourage divisions among whites and to institutionalize challenges to white cultural supremacism from within their own populations. That is, the black cultural revolution might have to generate a corresponding white cultural revolution, as well. The latter was necessary because although the Slave Revolution emerged largely from a cultural impetus that wedded political and economic factors in a larger thrust for racial democracy, it left unabated the cultural system of white supremacism. It was a black cultural revolution; but it did not generate an American cultural revolution, and this spoke to the resilience and persistence of white supremacism among white Americans individually and their institutions of power generally, which would make black freedom a caricature of what blacks had fought for and thought they had obtained. White supremacism undermined black claims through the maintenance of its racist cultural system throughout the United States—especially its education, criminal justice, and governance systems. Therefore, white cultural transformation would be a salient factor in future black liberation strategies, and culture would need to be viewed as more than a mechanism to organize struggles for meaningful black freedom internally, but also a focus of the liberation struggle externally.
In sum, it was clear that revolutionary change could emanate from cultural processes within the black community but they were more likely to be successful when there were not only cultural transformations toward more emancipatory programs and institutions in white communities but also major fissures in the white community itself. Splits in the white community would denude white power and potentially generate white allies for black insurgents targeting the institutional apparatus of the white supremacist cultural system in the United States. This not only suggested a strategic focus for prospective revolutionists, but it meant that extending black cultural revolution to a broader political and cultural revolution in the postbellum United States relied on the presence of major disruptions in U.S. society that divide white communities and correspondingly unify black communities.
In conclusion, at the outset of the BPM, Malcolm X called for both a black political and a cultural revolution; however, he never developed his thesis on the latter and did not adequately explain the relationship between the two. Instead, like many BPM revolutionists he privileged cases of revolutions from abroad which were often ill-fitted to the peculiar history and contemporary challenges of African American politics and culture. Ironically, W. E. B. Du Bois had historicized a black political revolution in 1935 and Alain Locke had theorized a cultural revolution in the United States a decade later. A synthesis of Du Bois and Locke suggested the importance of the Slave Revolution in the U.S. Civil War as an exemplar of black revolution in the United States, and the relationship between black cultural and political revolution, historically and in the black power era.
Largely oblivious to Du Bois’s and Locke’s theses, BPM revolutionists took as their theoretical point of departure the arguments of Malcolm X. While their formulations were often insightful, transformative, and in some cases groundbreaking, they suffered from several important weaknesses as well. The main one was Malcolm X’s reverse civilizationism, which led them to import models of revolution from abroad that did not fit the historical context or developmental trajectory of their uniquely African American experience. As a result, BPM revolutionists failed to adequately historicize their own movement, and without a theoretical compass oriented to the peculiar landscape of their American oppression, they planned a revolution across the terrain of the most powerful country in the world using strategies and tactics better suited for an African or third world country. At the core of their difficulty was an apprehension of the centrality of cultural revolution in the black American context. Given its particular salience, it was important to appreciate it as both concept and practice. In the next chapter, I examine cultural revolution as a concept, and discuss its intellectual precursors and practitioners among African Americans.
1. Among the most prominent exceptions are Robinson (1983) and Roediger (2014).
2. He added: “Yet one would search current American histories almost in vain to find a clear statement or even faint recognition of these perfectly well-authenticated facts” (p. 717).
3. Among the most notable were Powhatan Beaty, a former slave, who took command of his company at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm after its officers had been killed and/or wounded and led a charge against Confederate lines, driving the Confederates from their fortified positions.
4. The point is as much stylistic as substantive given the actual context of Marx’s oft-cited, though poorly contextualized quote, which is less dismissive of religious motivations than is often assumed: “The wretchedness of religion is at once an expression of and a protest against real wretchedness. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (Marx, 1982, p. 131). The interpretation of the metaphor in its context has received much less attention.
5. Genovese (1981, pp. 4–5) notes that “[b]y the end of the eighteenth century the historical content of the slave revolts shifted decisively from attempts to secure freedom from slavery to attempts to overthrow slavery as a social system,” with the Haitian Revolution “mark[ing] the turning point,” and “[t]he nineteenth century revolts in the Old South formed part of this epoch-making transformation.” Specifically, “the black demand for the abolition of slavery as a social system was something new and epoch-making” (p. xx).
6. McPherson (1991, p. 35) argues that the “enlistment of black soldiers to fight and kill their former masters” impelled Lincoln to change his initial war aims to “the revolutionary goal of a new Union without slavery” (p. 34).
7. Jackson (2019) provides indirect support for Du Bois’ claim in her analysis of the positive uses of force and violence among black abolitionists. In Franklin’s (1992, pp. 30–31) view, “For Du Bois, the value of freedom, like self-determination, reached the Afro-American masses through a ‘trickle-down process’ from the free blacks.”
8. Du Bois’s ambivalence is evident in Black Reconstruction when after evoking slaves’ agency in the General Strike, near the end of the book he emphasizes black religion’s otherworldliness and resignation: “a religion which taught meekness, sacrifice and humility” (pp. 692–693), similar to his portrayal of astonished bewildered slaves in Souls.
9. Du Bois was aware of these connections, but at the time of his writing Black Reconstruction he was much less positively inclined toward black religion as a change agent.
10. Starobin (1970, p. 89) notes several revolts and conspiracies involving industrial slaves after 1831, and while some may have been exaggerated by whites, actual cases such as the slave conspiracy in 1856 was “especially significant, since it involved industrial slaves almost exclusively.”
11. Sidbury (1997, p. 88) rejects the claims that the revolt was rooted in “artisanal republicanism.”
12. On whether Gabriel was hired out, contrast Egerton (1993, pp. 24–25) and Sidbury (1997, p. 83).
13. After escaping from Richmond, Gabriel was helped by a white boat captain and betrayed by a hired-out slave artisan. Gabriel and more than thirty conspirators were hanged. In the aftermath, the legislature restricted slave hiring and limited the residency and movement of free blacks.
14. Several authors—most prominently Johnson (2001)—have argued that the Vesey conspiracy was a fabrication of white politicians; but this claim has been challenged, most convincingly, by Spady (2011).
15. A similar argument is made by Raboteau (1980, p. 163).
16. Ironically, the key informant, George Wilson, was a blacksmith, a class leader in the AME church, and a founding member of the church (Pearson, 1999; Robertson, 1999).
17. Oates (1975, p. 161) argues that “[t]hose who describe Nat as a skilled slave are wrong. In 1822, Nat was valued at $400—the price of a good field hand. During his trial for insurrection, he was valued at only $375. By contrast a slave blacksmith also tried for the rebellion was valued at $675. . . . Nat mentions nothing in the Confessions about ever being a skilled slave; rather, he refers to himself as a field hand at work behind his plow” (p. 38).
18. Similar laws were enacted across slaveholding states, contributing to vast illiteracy among slaves, such that most slaves freed by the Civil War were illiterate.
19. Among the hired-out slave artisans in the interstices between slavery and industrial society, were also those who would become members of the postbellum black petit bourgeoisie. Along with Southern free blacks, this contingent of slave artisans was no less compelled by an ideology rooted in slave religion, and had chosen revolution as well. Thus, there was likely a dual movement within incipient black working-class consciousness compelling proletarianization as well as petit bourgeosification, with both groups, during the Civil War, centered on pursuing black revolution to secure their freedom.
20. One might conjecture that if the temporal span of Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction were broader, beginning in 1830, the year prior to the Turner Rebellion, instead of 1860, he might have made these connections more prominently, especially if he were able to draw from the research in his planned biography of Turner for Black Reconstruction, which might have led him to integrate at least a more militant form of “slave religion” into his broader thesis of black political revolution in the Civil War.
21. On networks, skilled labor, slave hiring, and religion, see Schermerhorn (2011).
22. For a useful synthesis of discussions on enslaved artisan workers and networks of communication, see Buchanan (2004).
23. The more formal clandestine networks, such as Webb describes, culminated in the Underground Railroad, which by the 1850s “had developed into a diverse, flexible, and interlocking system with thousands of activists residing from the upper South to Canada” (Bordewich, 2005, p. 5).
24. Although the commitment of the Founders to slavery and white supremacy is apparent (Hunt, 1987), the secessionists of the CSA also found inspiration in the commentary of Madison and especially Jefferson on the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and 1799 with regard to their supportive implications for interposition and nullification (Moses 2019).
25. Conceived more broadly, the processes that compelled the incipient proletarianism of hired-out slaves, for example, the worker’s degree of independence coupled with a radical formulation of religion, might also have contributed to the development of an incipient—and progressive—petite bourgeoisie as well (see footnote 19).
26. This was mainly an option of white ethnic groups and among racial minority communities, mainly available to LatinX, Asian Americans, and Amerindians/Native Americans.
27. Many of the major BPM organizations either rejected Christianity, conceptually, or the Black Church as an organizational or mobilizational focus, with the major exception of the PAOCC.