W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Reconstruction in America
Promised “40 acres and a mule,” Black people were for the most part left empty handed after the abolition of slavery—and, what’s more, made to blame for what generations of U.S. historians saw as the arrogance and overreach of post-Civil War Reconstruction. But in Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Du Bois undertook a radical revision of the history of Reconstruction and of the struggles and fate of Southern Blacks. For Du Bois, Reconstruction was a kind of second American revolution, an attempt to democratize the South to its very foundations, from the ballot box to the farm and the factory. And far from being the passive playthings of carpetbagging Northerners (as traditional historians had it), Black people were active agents of their emancipation, both before, during, and after the Civil War. But why, for Du Bois, was Reconstruction a failure? What follows, theoretically and politically, from treating Reconstruction as a revolution—and its suppression as a counter-revolution? How can we understand Reconstruction, and Du Bois’s classic revision, today?
In this course, we’ll engage in a close reading of most of Black Reconstruction, considering the three fundamental moments around which the book is organized: Civil War and Emancipation, Freedom and Democracy, and Counter-Revolution. To understand each of these moments, we’ll piece together Du Bois’ characterization of the Southern economy and the political forces located in the North and in the South. We’ll examine the centrality he attributes to the Black worker, the complex position of the Southern white worker, the profile of the Southern planter, and the inextricable connections between the agrarian South and the industrial North. We’ll assess the restoration of the ante-bellum status quo amid the fight for universal franchise and the shifting political allegiances that ultimately led to the betrayal of freed Black people. Finally, we’ll consider the struggles of Southern Blacks to build new and transformative institutions in the South, as well as the legacy of such efforts. And throughout, we will ask: What was, after all, Reconstruction, and what lessons can we extract from it today? What did Black people and their allies accomplish, and how should we frame their defeat? Why does putting Black people at the center of the narrative of Reconstruction matter? What are the so-called wages of whiteness, and what role did they play in the years following slavery’s abolition? What is the place of Black Reconstruction in America, originally published in 1935, within Du Bois’s impressive oeuvre? What does it teach us about capitalism and imperialism? What are the connections between Reconstruction’s outcomes and the state of U.S. democracy today? What is “abolition democracy,” and what is its relevance today?
Supplementary readings will include selections from Du Bois’s other writings, primary documents (such as black codes, slave codes, and U.S. constitutional amendments), and scholarly work and interventions by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Eric Foner, Lerone Bennett Jr., Steven Hahn, David Levering Lewis, Aldon Morris, Earl Wright II, David Roediger, Angela Davis, and Mariame Kaba, among others.
Course ScheduleTuesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
February 01 — February 22, 2022