Thinking with W.E.B. Du Bois about Reconstruction today
- February 6, 2023
- In honor of Black History Month, UCI social scientists Yousuf Al-Bulushi and Damien Sojoyner offer their perspective on post-Civil War history’s contemporary relevance
Yousuf Al-Bulushi, global and international studies assistant professor, and Damien Sojoyner, anthropology associate professor, co-lead “Black Reconstruction as a Portal," a yearlong series that examines the role Black Americans played in reconstructing American society following the Civil War. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the project draws on cross-disciplinary expertise from humanities, law, social ecology and social sciences to critically assess how education, crisis and land remain relevant lenses through which to view ongoing global racial, economic and social issues. Below, and in honor of Black History Month, they offer their thoughts on post-Civil War history’s contemporary relevance.
Black Reconstruction in America
In 1935, amidst the Great Depression, a crisis of global proportions that had stimulated militant labor organizing across the United States, W.E.B. Du Bois published perhaps his most important work: Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. The book offers an alternative narrative of the Civil War in the United States, and the efforts to “reconstruct” the nation after the ultimately unsuccessful succession by the confederate states of the South. Du Bois’s study radically reinterprets this history, one that mainstream, elite, white historians had all argued ended in miserable failure.
For most of the war, the North remained fundamentally uninterested in emancipating enslaved people. And as Du Bois demonstrates, Lincoln and the Union government he led were forced to issue the emancipation proclamation in 1863 as part of a last-ditch effort to defeat the South by gutting them of their workforce. Their hope was that emancipated Black people would then join the ranks of a Union army struggling to enlist white volunteers, who often saw the war as an unnecessary distraction from their own lives. The strategy worked, but the result was not the product of efforts on the part of well-intentioned white people or of a remarkably tall white man in a top hat. Instead, explains Du Bois, it was the consequence of the grassroots efforts of Black workers held in bondage.
Against the Talented Tenth, for Radical Democracy
More than thirty years prior to publishing Black Reconstruction, Du Bois, fresh out of Harvard graduate school, had argued for the need to raise up a “talented tenth” of African American leaders who might, through their enlightened wisdom, steer their people to freedom. Black Reconstruction dramatically upends this original thesis, inverting its underlying premise to argue that enslaved people freed themselves—despite their prevailing illiteracy, geographical isolation on plantations, and lack of access to modern forms of communication to help them organize. Indeed, as he puts it, the Black worker—a term that constitutes an intervention in and of itself—had engaged in a “general strike” of tremendous consequences, right in the middle of the Civil War.
This framing allows the reader to valorize the self-activity of everyday Black people, rather than their most visible leaders or representatives. The mobilization by enslaved workers was made possible, argues Du Bois, by their ability to draw on a cultural reservoir grounded in a distinct epistemology—a way of knowing the world—that interpreted the arrival of the Civil War as “The Coming of the Lord,” that is, as the second coming of Christ, with all the promises of freedom such a rapture might offer. This reinterpretation of the Civil War and its aftermath also allows us to understand that Du Bois believed in a much more radical form of democracy than the US Constitution promised, even after the addition of its thirteenth amendment. For Black workers to truly be free, they had argued for the inextricable relationship of Civil, Political, and Economic Rights. Perhaps most importantly, the period of Reconstruction that began during the tail end of the war and lasted until 1877 demonstrated that newfound efforts to secure education and the right to vote—as well as the emerging democratic system such rights were intended to buttress—would all be meaningless without enacting land redistribution to break up the former plantations.
A Contemporary Global Reconstruction?
What if we approach the insights of scholars like Du Bois, and the lessons we learn from a Black Studies epistemology, in the same way we relate to the air we all breathe—as fundamental to everyone’s survival? What if this field of knowledge offers crucial tools everyone can deploy to reconceptualize our taken-for-granted understandings of modernity and the global world-system itself? Du Bois framed his initial study in the context of global shifts in capitalism and the corresponding anti-capitalist movements struggling for a better world in the turbulent 1930s. And he argued that the simultaneous possibilities, and ultimate foreclosure, of Black Reconstruction in the United States seven decades prior would have world-historical ramifications. Two years before the publication of Black Reconstruction the United States government began drawing a series of now infamous ‘redlining’ maps for its cities, partly basing its criteria of good and bad neighborhoods on the scientific racism of eugenics. And in the same year Du Bois’s book was published, 1935, Hitler’s Germany would borrow from the American body of eugenicist knowledge to justify the passing of the Nuremberg Race Laws.
In the fifteen years since our own generational crisis—the so-called 2008 ‘sub-prime’ mortgage crisis—first shook the economic and epistemological foundations of everyday homeowners and university departments, something fundamental has become unhinged in our world-system. By taking up where Du Bois left off, with a study of the intertwining demands put forward by emancipated Black workers and the abolitionist movement, we can contextualize the contemporary resurgence of abolition within the longer history of fugitivity and freedom dreams. Just as Du Bois wrote in the middle of a crisis of epic proportions that both tilled the soil for fascism but would also plant the seeds for a “Long Civil Rights movement” and for the founding of the modern welfare state, our current moment is defined by a radical opening toward new liberatory possibilities on the one hand, and the horrors of neo-fascist politics, economic crisis, and devastating climate change on the other hand.
In this crisis, we have seen an explosion of struggles across the political spectrum and around the world. What lessons does Du Bois’s framework offer us for understanding contemporary struggles by feminists in Latin America, the rise of neo-fascist politics in Europe, or movements for land redistribution in Africa? What would it look like to engage in a global reconstruction in our current moment, one grounded in the forms of radical democracy that enslaved people initiated, but which almost all current governments across the political spectrum, regardless of their geopolitical alignment, seem incapable of delivering? By asking questions like these as we return to classic works by thinkers like Du Bois, we can conduct a “history of the present” aimed at prying open the door to that other world that slammed shut when the freedom dreams of reconstruction were temporarily defeated by the bipartisan forces represented by the KKK in the South and a new oligarchy of modern imperialism in the North.