I lot of people mistake me for a student of African-American history. This is because any study of history that touches upon the lives of people of color gets lumped into that category, so that even if you study lynchings, and most spectacle lynchings tended to feature audience demographics of, say, 500 whites for the one black person being killed, it still falls under black history. African Americans recognize that lynching had a huge impact upon black culture and consciousness, that even those who never witnessed such an event felt themselves terrorized, cognizant that such could happen to them if ever they fell out of line. By contrast, whites preferred to label such events, when looking back upon them from the remove of history, as aberrations, not representative of the American mainstream. Ergo. lynching equals black history in the minds of most whites still today.
I study racial violence, specifically such violence in Arkansas, and so many consider me a specialist in black history. I was once even invited to sit on a panel discussion about civil rights. As I had to preface my talk, “Look, my own research is more about civil wrongs than civil rights.” But I am not a historian of the African-American experience. In my recent monograph, Racial Cleansing in Arkansas, 1883-1924: Politics, Land, Labor, and Criminality (Lexington Books, 2014), I deliberately organized my material to investigate the various motives white populations had for driving black residents from their communities. It is disingenuous to employ the passive voice when talking about racial atrocities. Black people were lynched, true enough, but such a construction hides the identity of the perpetrator. White people committed these crimes, and we need to understand why. We need to begin to internalize this history into our broader culture and come to grips with it, as whites, lest the general framework that made such atrocities acceptance remain hidden, unacknowledged, and thus allowed to rise again in the future.
However, this does not mean that I have no investment in black history. I do. A very deep one. If you asked me why black history matters, I would say this—
Despite what you were taught in elementary school about indentured servitude in the Americas being an easy way for poor Brits to secure passage to the colonies, needing only to put in a few years’ employment for a benign British lord before being freed from the contract, in reality indentured servitude was early on featured some characteristics later common to chattel slavery. Servants were often bought and sold and could have their contracts extended at the slightest pretense. However, enough did manage to gain their freedom that the colonial lords felt threatened and ramped up the importation of African slaves. Early on, there was not a lot of difference between the plight of an English indentured servant and an African slave. In fact, servants across the color line teamed up in the 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion. In response to such interracial cooperation, authorities in the colonies began to pass laws that tied “race” in with status, such that any child of an African slave inherited the position of slave, while interracial sex began to be outlawed. As historian David Roediger notes, “Such policing of solidarity and reproduction between Africans and ‘white’ indentured servants became the basis for a new regime that sought to set poor people apart from each other much more clearly on the basis of ‘race.’”
Eventually, race became codified with the “one-drop rule,” so that any African ancestry marked one as a slave, no matter how white you appeared. So plantation lords often enslaved white people. “But wait,” you say, “they did, after all, have some African blood in them, so you can’t call them white-white, now can you?” First off, what does it say about the ideology of white supremacy if something like 1/64 drop of “black blood” gets to overrule everything else? Second, are you so sure? Consider the court case of Guy v. Daniel in which Abby Guy, a slave who appeared to all accounts as white, claimed that her mother had never been a slave but rather had been kidnapped by slave traders, who no doubt knew how much masters preferred lighter-skinned victims, especially light-skinned women. Once you have a one-drop rule in place and slaves as white as anyone else, what is to prevent an enterprising capitalist from preying upon poor whites? Abby Guy’s was not the only court case alleging such a practice, and the newspapers were filled with stories expressing horror at the likelihood of “white slavery” being visited upon “innocent” people. In fact, letters written by slaveholders to each other occasionally expressed sadness that they could not simply enslave many of the poorer whites in their communities and put them to profitable labor. Slavery was not about producing race, as Karen and Barbara Fields note in their book Racecraft—no, slavery was about producing cotton, and it honestly did not matter to the slaveholder the color of his slaves.
And this is why we whites should take an interest in black history—because what they do unto the least of these, they will eventually do unto you. In the eyes of Wall Street and Congress (but I repeat myself there), we are all subhuman. They massacred freedmen after the Civil War because they hated the idea of labor having its own power. Likewise, they massacred white miners in Colorado in 1914 because John D. Rockefeller hated the idea of labor having its own power. What studying black history does is give us the analytical tools needed to understand the mechanisms of oppression and resistance. These are tools that we of all races can use in our own attempts to dismantle the engine of oppression. In the United States, what has happened to black folks has always served as a harbinger of what the powers that be intend for us all—to be docile slaves making them a hefty profit. Yes, race is a modern fiction, a social construction, but studying black history helps us to illuminate the contours of that fiction and, thus, overcome it, thereby reclaiming our humanity.