The Black Working Class Can No Longer Be Ignored
Review of Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class by Blair LM Kelley (Norton, 2023).
Florida’s new history curriculum, generated in the wake of Governor Ron DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE Act” and approved earlier this summer, will teach students that the institution of American slavery provided some benefit to enslaved workers by giving them valuable skills. While it’s true that newly freed peoples entered the economy with skills learned on plantations, it is also true that a violently enforced racial hierarchy demanded these skills be put to use for the ultimate benefit of the white economic elite. A rapacious industrial capitalist class awaited these new wage laborers, ready to take full advantage. Freed black men and women relied on interdependent networks of mutual aid, education, and labor organizing to leverage their skills into decent jobs where possible. The effort to do so, spanning a century and a half and still ongoing, is the story of the black working class.
This history of black labor struggle is obscured in the dominant account of the black American experience. Slavery is about corporeal brutality, Reconstruction about statehouses, Redemption about burning crosses, Jim Crow about water fountains, the civil rights movement about firehoses — all of it true enough, but conspicuously none of it about work. And yet work is always in the background, from the fundamentally unfree labor compact called slavery to Martin Luther King Jr’s final speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis the night before his assassination. It’s this suppressed labor history that author Blair LM Kelley attempts to reclaim with care and compassion in her new book Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class.
Lurking just beneath the surface is the distinction between what we consider legitimate work and what we see as labor fit only for the least of us. After the Civil War, the vast majority of work available to black people was either domestic or agricultural in nature — labor that was and still is viewed as unskilled and beneath the dignity of even the white working class. The idea that a factory worker is a working-class person while a farm laborer is not is an illusion. It has its origin in the history of the black working class, even as it works to convince us that no such thing ever existed.
Conversations today about the value of labor in our increasingly service-oriented economy are informed by a long history of devaluing the work performed by formerly enslaved people and their descendants. Black Folk takes particular care to describe working lives of laundresses, maids, farmers and fieldhands, porters and mail carriers — work that does not immediately come to mind when imagining the halcyon industrial period of growth and the American middle class but were no less vital to its construction. The history that Kelley provides here should be at the front of anyone’s mind when talking about the value of restaurant workers, Uber drivers, delivery drivers, and Amazon warehouse workers. We are all living with the legacy of the denial of the black working class.
While campaigning for president in Salt Lake City, Governor DeSantis responded to the criticism of his state school board’s new black history curriculum by saying that what the textbooks are “probably going to show is some of the folks that eventually parlayed being a blacksmith into doing things later, later in life.”
One of the subjects of Black Folk is Henry, an ancestor of Kelley’s who was indeed an enslaved blacksmith, freed following the Civil War. However, while the skills that Henry earned while held hostage on the plantation were absolutely necessary to the agrarian economy of his home in Elbert County, Georgia, white farmers, businessmen, and lawmakers were not in any rush to pay him fairly for his talents. As Kelley interweaves her account of her ancestor’s life with the story of how the integrated Reconstruction government of Georgia was hijacked and removed by a movement of indignant racists, it becomes clear that Henry’s postslavery life was made tenable not by the value his skills provided but through networks of black solidarity.
As Kelley’s book demonstrates, these networks were born in the backwoods of antebellum plantations as slaves sought community and opportunities for religious worship hidden from the paranoid eyes of their white slavers. They took a more visible form after slavery ended with the formal institution of the black church. Black churches were more than just places of rest and worship — they were centers of political organization and mutual aid. They were the beneficiaries and guardians of a tradition of interdependence and community that provided a kind of cultural instinct for later generations of black workers to rely on as they fought for their skills and labor to be compensated. Much of Black Folk is focused on the relationship between these networks and the growth of black labor power.
Another story recounted in the book is that of black washerwomen earning a meager living working for white households. It’s unlikely that Florida’s school board is thinking of laundry as one of those valuable skills imparted to black people in the course of their brutal subjugation — but nevertheless, in the decades following emancipation, washing clothes did take skill, hard work, and more importantly was a task relegated to women and refused by many white women, making it primarily a black women’s trade.
Black workers and women workers both earned less than their white and male counterparts, and domestic work was compensated accordingly. Even sixty years after slavery ended, Essence magazine described a scene where black women lined up in an open-air market to be hired as domestic workers: it “resembled a slave auction with the prospective buyers looking over the workers like so many head of cattle; looking for the strongest and sturdiest.”
In the postslavery South, black washerwomen began to organize networks where they could share information about potential jobs and which employers paid low wages or were abusive. As the level of organization increased, Kelley shows, it allowed them to withhold their labor in order to secure fair pay and decent treatment. In Atlanta they were able to leverage the value of their labor through a strike.
The response to this preunion black labor solidarity sounds eerily familiar today, with white newspapers and politicians breathlessly declaring that these black women “didn’t want to work anymore.” The leaders of the Atlanta washerwomen’s strike were arrested and jailed on specious fraud charges — that is, punished for their insubordination and resistance to the established postslavery order. (Currently, activists against Atlanta’s “Cop City” are being punished in a similar manner for raising bail funds to stop a police militarization project — a contemporary version of the solidarity networks of old.)
Ultimately, while free black people did possess the skills and the work ethic that allowed America to become an industrial and economic superpower, that fact was never enough to outweigh the white ruling class’s entitlement to the fruits of their labor.
The Collective Arc
Kelley structures Black Folk around the personal stories of black workers who lived through slavery, Reconstruction, and the industrial revolution. These individual histories are presented not as singular tales of personal fortitude, but as emblematic of a larger culture of communal survival and collective labor struggle that buoyed the fight for black liberation.
There is a version of black history that traces the advancement black Americans through the lens of individual successes — the professionals, politicians, businessmen, and other members of the “talented tenth,” almost all men, who charted their own path to the middle and upper classes. This version peddles the fiction of black self-sufficiency. In truth there was never any such thing, including for the breakout individuals; wherever a black person secured a decent standard of living — whether as a doctor, a postman, or a washerwoman — there have always been networks dedicated to mutual aid and collective struggle. Black folks didn’t survive the period following slavery through individual effort and the skills benevolently taught at the end of the lash, but by relying on each other and understanding the power of solidarity.
Labor struggle is seldom discussed when talking about black history and the fight for equal rights. And yet it is a tradition that lives on in the fight to unionize Amazon warehouses, win fair contracts for UPS drivers, and fully fund public schools so they can adequately support teachers, students, and working-class families. The tradition lives on in the community networks that formed in response to both the urban violence that flowed from black poverty and the violence against black people perpetrated by police. It can still be found in the black church, but now also in secular mutual aid organizations. It is a tradition that proves that class struggle cannot be meaningfully separated from the story of racial justice.
Kelley’s Black Folk is a love letter to the long-overlooked black working class. It’s also a call for everyone, regardless of their race, to return to that tradition in the face of racial oppression and economic exploitation today.
Akil Vicks works in clinical research and is a member of River Valley Democratic Socialists of America. He writes about politics and culture at onone.substack.com.