Tuesday, March 14, 2017

We don't know what comes next

The historian Eric Foner is known, among other works, for his mammoth volume, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 which I've recently discussed here, here, and here.

But five years before he published that opus, he presented the Walter L. Fleming Lectures in Southern History at LSU. These were published as a small book, Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy. In this, he took a comparative tack, examining how freed people fared in other societies where slavery and similar bound labor systems had been ended, including Haiti, the British Caribbean, colonial Africa, and Russia where serfdom persisted under czars. Looking at Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South through these experiences, he notes that the permanent (if, for years, more nominal than actual) extension of voting rights to the ex-slaves made the U.S. experience essentially different. For a decade, former slaves took part in and held a share of political power in the former Confederacy. After presenting an overview, he zeroes in on strikes in the Combahee River area rice fields, showing how newly empowered ex-slaves tenaciously held on to their labor rights, even as the broader Reconstruction project was abandoned by the federal Congress.

In summary, he offers this quote which I found suggestive in another time when apparent gains for the freedom of so many us are once again under threat of cutback.

... the English socialist William Morris reflected on how historical struggles never seem to reach a definitive conclusion: "I pondered all these things, ... how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name."

If those of us working for racial and gender justice thought we could trust gains were permanent, we've been shown to be wrong. But the battle doesn't end and new struggles may presage new gains, gains not entirely envisioned yet. Morris -- and Foner -- are onto something, something whose shape we cannot yet see, but which our actions in this time will shape.


Rain Trueax said...

A lot is convincing a people that the change is right and a good one. I think like with separate water fountains, that happened. But schools, they ended up being segregated by neighborhoods pretty fast. A person does want to think logic would rule but too often, it's fear. It's been interesting for me watching the Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts. I felt teary by the end of the second episode for what Theodore attempted to do but found resistance. One wonders what might have happened had he not promised to not run for a third term. It left much of it to Franklin and even now the poor struggle for a decent life. I have books on the Roosevelts but there was much I didn't know or had forgotten. The battles go on and to ever think they are won is just waiting for the time a new generation arises who sees it differently. Did you read the book Generations? It shows how much we are impacted by those just before us.

joared said...

I think this is quite correct that we're still fighting the old battles under different names. What change may come of it we'll see.

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