*Changing Our Narrative: The plan to induce the blacks [slaves] to make a simultaneous movement of rising, on the night of the 1st of August next, over the entire States in rebellion to arm themselves with any and every kind of weapon that may come to hand, and commence operations by burning all the railroad and country bridges, and tear up railroad tracks, and to destroy telegraph lines, etc., then take to the woods, swamps, or the mountains, where they may emerge as occasion may offer for provisions and for further depredations. No blood is to be shed except in self-defense. The corn will be ripe about the 1st of August and with this and hogs running in the woods, and foraging upon the plantations by night, they can subsist. This is the plan of substance, and if we can obtain a concerted movement at the time named it will doubtless be successful.”
The words that appear above describe what is known as a “General Strike.” In short, this is the propositional argument of a seminal chapter entitled, the “General Strike” which is a part of W.E B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America (Harcourt and Brace, 1935).
In The Black Reconstruction, Du Bois offers masterfully a corrective and an alternative narrative to that of the establishment. The Du Boisan narrative underscores the heroic and she-roic roles performed by the antebellum bondsmen and women.
His narrative places them at the center of their own emancipation from slavery. This lies at the taproot of the Du Boisan prophetic tradition; a tradition that demands a courageous revision of history; a revisionist history that Du Bois’s distractors had characterized as subversive and controversial to the establishment’s narrative. In actual fact, Black Reconstruction is Du Bois’s magisterial work.
One reviewer makes clear what Du Bois accomplishes in his narrative. The reviewer writes, “By far, Black Reconstruction’s greatest achievement was to weave a credible historical narrative in which black people, suddenly admitted to citizenship in an environment of feral hostility, displayed admirable violation and intelligence, as well as the indolence and ignorance inherent in three centuries of bondage.” It is the latter part of the reviewer’s comments that seemingly Du Bois anticipates. “The General Strike” then begins with the following words:
How the Civil War meant emancipation and how the black worker won the war by a general strike which transferred his labor from the Confederate planter to the Northern invader, in whose army lines workers began to be organized as a new labor force.
We notice immediately that Du Bois avoids the descriptor“slave.” Instead, Du Bois employs a different descriptor namely “the worker.” This description of the humanity of the worker is an ingenious attempt to resist the White supremacist’s claim. That is, the supremacist’s claim was that the worker was a passive bystander to her and his circumstances. Secondly, Du Bois makes clear that the worker was aware – keenly aware of class distinctions among White class-strata. Whites, however, were able to hide their class-strata in America due in large part to the presence of the black and blue workers. The workers became a convenient trope – a metaphor that pointed toward a sub-species of humanity. This was used to perpetuate the invention of white skin privilege mythology. Thus White supremacy then provided the immoral space to impose upon Blacks slavery – quarantining, justifying and recasting people of African descent as chattel and finally; we notice that Du Bois launches a frontal attack upon the limitations of Marxist – theory and racial limitations which were blind spots for Karl Marx; a man who neglected to acknowledge the pain experienced and endured by people of color; people who were the baneful trope, metaphor, and an object of derision and misguided hatred which is the personified results of American slavery.
Karl Marx’s theories point toward inequality and inequity among the European workers and the European industrialists. This clash defines the ongoing economic and class wars between capitalists and laborites. For these reasons, people of African descent cannot be placed in a Eurocentric ideological box; a box which suggests that Du Bois and other advocates of black liberation were informed by Marxist theory and practice. Of course this is hegemonic to suggest that there are no other identifiable methods available to approach such subjects.
We claim that there are new obstacles and opportunities that anachronistic Eurocentric claims, categories, and classifications can no longer be relied upon to produce equitable solutions. We need different philosophical points of departure for current obstacles and opportunities. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction narrative seems to be a current philosophical point of departure because it underlines innovative solutions. What follows are examples that parallel the Du Boisian model. His model is a black liberation motif:
On Saturday, November 2, 2015, the Missouri University football team announced that it would no longer participate in football activities until Tim Wolfe resigned or was removed from his office of the university president. On the campus in 2015, there was an obvious rise in ‘Trumpian” – White Nationalism. It was apparent that the University of Missouri’s administration officials would not respond to this anachronism –this nostalgic, romanticism of the failed cause. The administration’s silence gave a silent signal of approval. Shortly after a new university dormitory was erected and dedicated, there were smeared feces a top, a swastika that was carved into a new dormitory wall. Like a steaming cauldron, this unaddressed White Nationalistic action tipped over into an anti-White Nationalist protest.
Indeed there was socio-psychological tenseness on the university campus that led to the football teams’ decision to organize a “General Strike.” The athletes informed by Martin Luther King, Jr., presented their reasons for not participating in a university function with a familiar quote “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”… and they continued, “until President Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized student’s experiences, we are united.” The university did respond! President Tim Wolfe was forced to resign. In addition to “The General Strike,” the potential economic shortfall played a significant role.
Indeed the potential economic shortfall was the sole reason that the president resigned. The university’s football team’s threat to strike was successful because the boycott (The General Strike) demonstrates that major university athletes are in a position to generate economic windfalls for the university. If the team forfeits games due to boycotts, the university would remain obligated to pay the athletic department of the scheduled visiting team. In this instance, Brigham Young University would have received $1 million boons without its players risking injuries. What is more, the University of Missouri plays in the robust Southeastern Conference. What if the University of Missouri’s “General Strike” was duplicated across the entire Southeastern Conference in all athletic competitions. What would have been the economic impact and social change? This model however was not duplicated as direct action by the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Clippers who found it facing similar issues that involved racial conflicts.
On April 27, 2014, Donald Sterling then owner of the Los Angeles Clippers made racist comments that affirmed what many knew. Many people see the NBA players simply as caricatures. Many see the predominantly black players as minstrels with basketballs. The Clippers, however, should have gone on a direct “The General Strike.” Of course, they did not. One former player employed by a sports network, when describing the lack of effort by the Clippers during an important playoff game against the Golden State Warriors said, “Guys [the Clippers] were slow on the defensive rotations. To the trained eye, there was a lot of stuff out there you could see. Trust me, they played but they really didn’t.” Although this was an indirect action, we claim that it was a hybrid of the Du Boisian “The General Strike” but it was not as bold or courageous, and certainly not like that of the University of Missouri football team and not like that of Colin Kapernick.
Kapernick the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who last started in 2016, had been kneeling during pre-game singing of the United States national anthem. He knelt because “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country” he said, “that oppresses black people and people of color.” For Kapernick, “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid to leave and getting away with murder.” Kaepernick did not kneel because he was not supportive of American armed forces abroad. This was a ruse to draw attention from his potential “General Strike” power employed to awaken people that racial inequality and inequity continues to exist at the highest corporate levels of commerce in the country. These are examples of various forms of how to execute a “General Strike.”
There are some things larger than winning presidential elections too – especially if informed citizens are leveraging their voices and votes in order to eradicate moral cancer in the body politic of the United States of America. Perhaps all who hear me today may accept that we are headed toward twenty-first-century serfdom at best and twenty-first-century slavery at worst. We all know that when private interest exceeds that of public interest, we cease to remain a democracy. Strangely, those who are not five percenters (those who control 70% of income and wealth) are the ninety-five percenters. We are the people who are left behind to wrestle with classism, racism, and genderism wars over the remaining 30% of income and wealth in the United States. In short, we are becoming serfs or slaves – and we know that economically it’s the latter.
Thus leveraging your votes may be the best and immediate remedy. If the establishment of the so-called two-party systems do not address universal healthcare, incarceration and immigration reform, fair housing and fair wages; tuition waivers, then you may need to participate in “The General Strike” and leverage your votes against establishment power and influence. Otherwise, we will experience further economic and political disenfranchisement as American citizens. To highlight this grave assertion, we turn once more to Du Bois’s “General Strike” to reinforce our ashen concerns:
[For slaves]… There was no use in seeking refuge in an army which was not an army of freedom, and there was no sense in revolting against armed masters who were conquering the world. As soon however as it became clear that the Union armies would not or could not return fugitive slaves…the slaves entered upon a general strike against slavery by the same method he [and she] had used during the period of the fugitive slave. He ran away to the first place of safety and offered his services to the Federal Army. So that in this way it was really true that he served his former master and served the emancipating army; and it was also true that this withdrawal and bestowal of his labor decided the war.
You can make a salient argument that Du Bois’s workers did not immediately find confidence and cast their votes. Therefore, there is limited intellectual space to provide a plausible counter-argument that may be employed successfully to refute our characterization in our current times. Thus we confidentially affirm that like bondmen and women who understood how to leverage their vote; we should do the same. They voted with their feet on the policies and platforms of the Northern armies – armies that represented a government that would lead to their eventual emancipation. What is more, their oppressed existential conditions shaped their political – liberation strategies.
We pointed out similar strategies employed more recently by the University of Missouri football team, the Los Angeles Clippers (playing to lose cost the city and the NBA millions of dollars) and if others would have followed Colin Kaepernick’s lead, it would have brought the nation moral clarity and economic implications to the National Football League. In short, the remaining presidential candidates must present policy proposals in the 2020 election cycle that address issues that are aforementioned. If the establishment will not do so, this should become an organized liberation march; a march to the polls to vote down-ballot. This is our twenty-first-century form of Du Bois’s “The General Strike.” Let’s see if the establishment is willing to share our pain.
A final note, Jobs for Justice, do you have the political imagination and organization like the workers to plan, implement and execute a global “General Strike?” A strike where workers will not work on a specific- single day? How would that change human and working conditions before it’s too late? Otherwise, this time, all will experience the pain of slavery.
The above text represents the keynote address for the opening plenary session for the Jobs for Justice Annual Conference March 13 -14, 2020 in Atlanta, Ga.