I had been meaning to tackle this legendary W.E.B. Du Bois’ tome for years, finally deciding to do it this month.
It wasn’t what I expected, in many ways.
Those expectations came with my own ignorance in not knowing a lot of Du Bois’ work. I’d read little of him before getting to this. I knew that despite his status amongst the Black intellectuals and historians of his time, he was outcast near the end of his life for leaving the NAACP because of his communism.
I figured that would inflect in his work. I didn’t think it would inform it. Because while, yes, this is a well-documented look at the political life of Black people during the period of reconstruction, it is also in many ways an examination of labor in the United States post-Civil War. Specifically: how does a nation respond when a large oligarchical part of it is broken?
The answer, as we know from the last 150+ years, not well.
Du Bois’ primary focus here is on labor and how labor impacted politics (and vice versa). This was the first time I’d ever heard to the actions Black people took during the Civil War as a “general strike.” But he doesn’t just cover the labor of free Black folks. Du Bois is taken with the white laborer, specifically the poor white southern laborer who existed outside of the planter class (as the majority did) and who, despite having the benefit of skin color in an apartheid society, had a lot in common with the Black laborer: most working for low or non-existent wages and getting shut out of the political process.
Examining this history first by themes and then by states, Du Bois paints a picture of a nation that was on a rocky but possibly successful path to rebuilding itself, only to keep shoving progress aside with the north’s fatigue of occupation. He shows how the paths towards democracy, education, and especially labor were improved in this time, with newly minted Black voters exalting their white brethren, only for things to keep getting halted, first by Black Codes, then by the 1876 election, and finally with the entrance of Jim Crow.
While labor is the main theme here, there is no running thread of Reconstruction. Some former Confederate states were less terrible than others, while all of them had problems. Black people had great successes in areas like South Carolina and less so in Louisiana. None of it was sustainable because the post-Lincoln government, in the thrall of greedy northern industrialists and Democratic copperheads, didn’t do enough to help the South get on its feet.
Much of this can be traced to Andrew Johnson. Those four years of post-Civil War presidency were critical and Johnson continually stifled congress while empowering planters at every turn. Du Bois goes hard on him but really, everyone is guilty, though he does reserve plenty of love for Charles Sumner.
If I have one issue with the book, it’s that it’s heavily male-focused. While Du Bois isn’t a chauvinist, it addresses male labor and male society. Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class would be a great follow up read for those who dive into this and want to learn more.
Black Reconstruction isn’t framed as a historical “what if?” though it’s tempting to read it as such. We can’t rewrite history, but we can learn from it. Hopefully, we can take its most important lessons: respect for labor, struggling together, safety for the Black body, and permanent voter enfranchisement.