Weapons of the Weak

Weapons of the Weak

African-American history, broadly defined, continues to be the most innovative and exciting field in American historical studies.


African-American history, broadly defined, continues to be the most innovative and exciting field in American historical studies. The great upheaval of the nineteenth century, which saw millions of slaves becoming free as the result of a cataclysmic civil war and then struggling for decades to maintain and enhance that status against fierce white-supremacist opposition, has attracted the interest of many talented historians. Once thought to have been handed their freedom by benevolent whites, especially Abraham Lincoln, African-Americans are now generally viewed as the primary agents of their own emancipation. Had blacks not deserted the plantations and offered themselves en masse to the Union forces, it is quite conceivable that the Civil War would have ended with slavery still in place or, at best, in the process of very gradual elimination.

Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet is the most comprehensive account yet of black politics in the rural South before, during and after the Civil War. Whereas most previous work has focused either on the slave experience or on post-Emancipation struggles, Hahn’s book encompasses both and shows the continuities between how blacks fought for self-determination in the two periods. To do this, of course, he must take an expansive view of politics, since slaves had no formal legal or political rights to speak of and were forbidden to organize themselves politically. For Hahn, all efforts by slaves to secure better living conditions and some communal autonomy–whatever the means–qualify as political action. Manifestations of the slaves’ will to resist include wresting from the master the right to live in self-selected family units, have a garden plot, own and bequeath personal property, engage in petty trade and worship God in their own way.

Following the lead of earlier social historians, especially the late Herbert Gutman, Hahn finds that the strength and vitality of the slave community was derived primarily from a powerful sense of kinship or extended family that often went beyond actual blood ties. If American culture in general was highly individualistic, the black culture emerging from the slave experience was deeply rooted in closely knit families and interdependent, face-to-face communities. Hahn focuses on rural areas rather than cities, because it was there that a grassroots political ethos, based on what might be described as a kind of peasant communalism, came to full flower in the post-Emancipation era.

This is a difficult book to summarize, because it is so richly detailed and anecdotal. It draws directly on the recorded personal experiences of hundreds of rural African-Americans between the era of slavery and the Great Migration to the North in the early twentieth century. Based on prodigious research in primary sources, A Nation Under Our Feet is one of the most important works in American social history to appear in recent years. The emphasis throughout is on how the kinship networks and folk culture of ordinary rural blacks helped them to resist the determined efforts of white supremacists to nullify the rights of citizenship supposedly sanctioned by the postwar constitutional amendments and to subject blacks to new forms of economic exploitation.

After making a decisive contribution to the salvation of the Union and to their own emancipation through their service on the Northern side in the Civil War, rural Southern blacks fully expected to be rewarded with access to the land they had worked for so long without pay. Hahn provides a graphic account of the “Christmas Insurrection Scare of 1865”–a time when many blacks believed that the government was about to redistribute the land and many whites feared that the former slaves were going to rise up and seize it by force. A practical consequence was that most blacks delayed signing agricultural labor contracts for 1866 and thereby got better terms than if they had not held off in the hope of obtaining land of their own. More important, Hahn maintains, the disordered state of the Southern countryside at the end of 1865, especially the widespread violence perpetrated on blacks because of their refusal to conform to the demands and expectations of white landowners, was a condition for the coming of Radical Reconstruction. If rural blacks had docilely accepted the quasi slavery that their former masters tried to impose on them, Northern Congressional Radicals would have been less inclined to challenge President Andrew Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction policy and eventually seize control of the process. Hahn’s point is hard to deny, although his relentlessly rural focus has its limitations. It prevents him from giving due weight to the possibly decisive effect on Northern public opinion of the bloody urban riots in New Orleans and Memphis in the spring and summer of 1866, which mostly involved white attacks on defenseless blacks.

Republicans were able to gain political control of most Southern states in 1867-68 primarily because of the grassroots mobilization carried out by the Union League. Hahn presents much evidence to show that the establishment of league chapters, usually portrayed as the work of Northern carpetbaggers and Freedmen’s Bureau officers, was more often the product of local, community-based black initiatives and that women as well as men were instrumental in the growth of this remarkable political organization. The white supremacist answer to the Union League was the Ku Klux Klan and similar secret organizations designed to terrorize blacks who sought to vote and hold office. The politics of Reconstruction thus became a conflict of organized groups willing to resort to violence and intimidation. In describing this “paramilitary politics,” Hahn refutes the traditional image of blacks as passive victims of white terror. Realizing what kind of struggle they were in, the black Union Leaguers and Republicans frequently used force or the threat of force to keep their own members in line. When the Klan of the period 1868-72 or the unmasked paramilitary groups that emerged later in Reconstruction attempted to disrupt their meetings, blacks frequently fought back, striking counterblows or returning fire.

The extent and intensity of black political mobilization during Reconstruction was extraordinary but not surprising in light of the communal solidarity and cohesiveness that Hahn believes was a legacy of the slave experience. Radical Reconstruction failed to lay a firm foundation for black equality and citizenship, Hahn contends, mainly because of the paucity and unreliability of white Republicans. Whether carpetbaggers or scalawags, the whites who supported the Republican Party in the South and filled more than their share of its elective offices had an agenda different from that of the black rank and file. Economic modernization along capitalist lines, not land redistribution, was their main objective, and most of them harbored racial prejudices that prevented them from regarding blacks as their social equals. The Republican Party, moreover, was becoming the national party of big business and middle-class conservatism, which did not jibe with attempts during the latter stages of Reconstruction to organize black farm workers and sharecroppers into unions capable of striking against large planters.

Among the major themes of Hahn’s book is the failure of biracial politics both during and after Reconstruction. Since blacks were a numerical majority in only three Southern states–South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana–they could not generally exercise power without significant white support. Where whites were a substantial majority blacks had little or no influence on Republican politics. Where something close to parity existed, blacks received a proportion of the offices, especially on the local level in areas where they predominated, but the top offices and most of the power remained in white hands. Only in the black-majority states did they eventually come close to having a fair share of major offices, but as soon as that happened white support for the Republicans melted away.

The possibility of biracial politics did not completely end with the overthrow of the last Republican regimes in 1875-76. Hahn shows that despite harassment and new suffrage restrictions, large numbers of blacks continued to vote in some areas until the turn of the century and even elected a few Congressmen. Dissatisfied with conservative regimes that reflected only the interests of wealthy merchants and large planters, some spokesmen for relatively disadvantaged whites tried to appeal to black voters on the basis of common economic interests.

The most successful effort to achieve a biracial electoral coalition was the independent “Readjuster” movement that controlled Virginia from 1879 to 1883. Blacks received far more recognition and benefits from the Readjusters than they would a decade later from the Populists. (Hahn attributes this anomaly to the fact that Virginia was unique among Southern states in never having elected a Republican government, which meant that the earlier Union League and black Republican organizations on the local level had not been disabled by massive violence from the Klan and other white paramilitary organizations and could still be tapped for electoral purposes.) Contrary to much of the historical literature, the Populist Party of the 1890s neither attracted nor deserved much support from blacks; it offered them scarcely anything and included in its ranks many men who had been paramilitary white supremacists. At times, it also manifested a blatant racism in its rhetoric and ready acceptance of the new Jim Crow laws. If anything remains of the once-dominant view that Populism was a genuinely biracial and egalitarian movement, Hahn may have dealt it a lethal blow.

The inability of blacks to find white coalition partners in the face of increasing oppression and exploitation in the late nineteenth century helps to explain the recurring emigration movements to which Hahn devotes considerable attention. Whether the destination was Liberia or Kansas, the impulse was the same–to escape from increasingly intolerable circumstances. Not surprisingly, it was the areas in which Reconstruction had ended most violently that saw the greatest interest in organized exodus from the South. Relatively small numbers actually left the region before 1900, but the widespread interest in migration reflected a popular nationalism that also manifested itself in other ways.

In the introduction, Hahn describes himself as rejecting the standard “liberal integrationist” paradigm for understanding nineteenth-century black history and suggests that he will adopt a nationalist perspective. Although he pays some attention to black religion and notes the affinity between African forms of worship and the American Baptist style that blacks found congenial, the nationalism he describes is not the Afrocentric cultural nationalism that has been presented since the 1970s as the main separatist alternative to liberal interracialism. Hahn’s touchstone for black nationalism is the Garvey movement of the 1920s, which justified black separatism primarily on the grounds that white racism is ineradicable and egalitarian biracialism is therefore impossible. Hahn concludes his book by drawing attention to the surprising fact that Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association had more chapters in the rural South than anywhere else. This rural Garveyism, he argues, was a survival of the nineteenth-century folk nationalism that he has been writing about.

“Racism” is not a term or a concept that appears often in the book, but toward the end Hahn attributes the attraction of Garveyism to blacks from a Southern rural background (and the NAACP’s lack of appeal) to the fact that “they had been hardened to the pervasiveness of white racism and had no illusions about the prospects of integration.” He also notes that the nationalist tradition in general has recognized “the centrality of race and racism as markers of experience in American society.” It would not be accurate to conclude from such statements that this rural folk nationalism was simply reactive and defensive. The need to go it alone resulted in some substantial achievements that went well beyond psychic compensation. Not only was a sense of group identity and peoplehood firmly established but also a dense fabric of communal organizations and institutions was created in the rural South after Reconstruction. Most remarkable was the surprising increase between 1870 and 1900 of the number of black farmers who owned their own land, although usually in small parcels. Hahn’s story is one of achievement in the face of adversity rather than of victimization.

From the evidence that Hahn presents of the almost universal refusal of whites to treat blacks as political equals and fellow citizens, one might readily conclude that the disenfranchisement of Southern blacks around the turn of the century was simply another manifestation of the deeply rooted and “pervasive” white racism that had long conditioned the Southern black experience. But at this point Hahn reverts to a class analysis and describes the disenfranchisement movement as “the capstone of a lengthy offensive by which white employers and property owners attempted to construct a postemancipation regime of domination and subordination.” Exploitative economic interests undoubtedly influenced elite political behavior, but how does one explain the apparently enthusiastic support for such policies from whites who were neither employers nor substantial property owners? There is massive evidence in the book of such interclass white solidarity, but it is not analyzed or explained. Unless we resort to the tired and generally discredited Marxist concept of “false consciousness,” we will need a better understanding of white identities and mentalities before we can fully appreciate the dynamics of race and class in the nineteenth-century South. In addition to a political economy of class relations, we need to think in terms of the psychology and culture of racial hierarchy. But whatever one concludes about Hahn’s underlying assumptions and conceptual boundaries, this book remains a major achievement and a landmark in African-American history.

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