Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class

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9780029167069: Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class

A professor of history and African-American studies examines the day-to-day examples of resistance against discrimination, noting how slowdowns, migrations, and sabotage have been symptoms of a subculture that is often misinterpreted by racists.

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About the Author:

Robin D.G. Kelley is a professor of history and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. From 2003-2006, he was the William B. Ransford Professor of Cultural and Historical Studies at Columbia Univeristy. From 1994-2003, he was a professor of history and Africana Studies at New York University as well the chairman of NYU's history department from 2002-2003.

One of the youngest tenured professors in a full academic discipline--at the age of 32--Kelley has spent most of his career exploring American and African-American history with a particular emphasis on African-American musical culture, including jazz and hip-hop.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

Shiftless of the World Unite!

If "conspicuous consumption" was the badge of a rising middle class, "conspicuous loafing" is the hostile gesture of a tired working class.

Daniel Bell, Work and Its Discontents

All observers spoke of the fact that the slaves were slow and churlish; that they wasted material and malingered at their work. Of course they did. This was not racial but economic. It was the answer of any group of laborers forced down to the last ditch. They might be made to work continuously but no power could make them work well.

W.E.B. DuBois, Reconstruction in America

Nearly a quarter century ago, a historian named George Rawick published an obscure article in a small left political journal that warned against treating the history of the working class as merely the history of trade unions or other formal labor organizations. If we are to locate working-class resistance, Rawick insisted, we need to know "how many man hours were lost to production because of strikes, the amount of equipment and material destroyed by industrial sabotage and deliberate negligence, the amount of time lost by absenteeism, the hours gained by workers through the slowdown, the limiting of the speed-up of the productive apparatus through the working class's own initiative." Unfortunately, few historians have followed Rawick's advice. Still missing from most examinations of workers are the ways in which unorganized working people resisted the conditions of work, tried to control the pace and amount of work, and carved out a modicum of dignity at the workplace.

Not surprisingly, studies that seriously consider the sloppy, undetermined, everyday nature of workplace resistance have focussed on workers who face considerable barriers to traditional trade union organization. Black domestic workers devised a whole array of creative strategies, including slowdowns, theft or "pan-toting" (bringing home leftovers and other foodstuffs), leaving work early, or quitting, in order to control the pace of work, increase wages, compensate for underpayment, reduce hours, and seize more personal autonomy. These individual acts often had a collective basis that remained hidden from their employers.

Black women household workers in the urban South generally abided by a "code of ethics" or established a sort of blacklist to collectively avoid working for employers who proved unscrupulous, abusive, or unfair. Quitting or threatening to quit just prior to an important social affair to be hosted by one's employer -- commonly called an "incipient strike" -- was another strategy whose success often depended on a collective refusal on the part of other household workers to fill in. Likewise, in the factories strategies such as feigning illness to get a day off, slowdowns, sometimes even sabotage, often required the collective support of co-workers.

Studies of black North Carolina tobacco workers reveal a wide range of clandestine, yet collective, strategies to control the pace of work or strike out against employers. When black female stemmers had trouble keeping up with the pace, black men responsible for supplying tobacco to the stemmers would pack the baskets more loosely than usual. When a worker was ill, particularly black women who operated stemmer machines, other women would take up the slack rather than call attention to her condition, which could result in lost wages or dismissal. On the factory floor, where stemmers were generally not allowed to sit or talk to one another, it was not uncommon for women to break out in song. Singing in unison not only reinforced a sense of collective identity but the songs themselves -- religious hymns, for the most part -- ranged from veiled protests against the daily indignities of the factory to utopian visions of a life free of difficult wage work.

Theft at the workplace was among the more common forms of working-class resistance, and yet the relationship between pilfering -- whether of commodities or time -- and working-class opposition has escaped the attention of most historians of the African American working class. Any attempt to understand the relationship between theft and working-class opposition must begin by interrogating the dominant view of "theft" as deviant, criminal behavior. First of all, what theft is must be placed in historical context. As E. P. Thompson and Peter Linebaugh point out in their studies of English workers, changes in the law in response to workers' actions often turned accepted traditions -- what Thompson calls "the moral economy" -- into crime. At the center of class conflict in the eighteenth century were dock workers in London who suddenly lost the right to dip into tobacco cargoes for their personal use; farmers who were denied access to "common lands of grazing and gathering wood; shipwrights, caulkers, and other laborers in the shipbuilding industry who discovered that they could be jailed for continuing the very old practice of taking "chips" of excess wood home with them. For years afterward, workers continued to take things from work, but now they were stealing. For some the consequences were unemployment, jail, deportation to the "New World," or the gallows.

The idea of the moral economy certainly operated in the Jim Crow South, as is evident in the actions of domestic workers. While "pan-toting" was regarded as theft by many employers, household workers believed they had a right to take home leftovers, excess food, and redundant or broken utensils for their home use. Not only was it the moral thing to do, given the excesses and wastefulness of wealthy families and the needs of the less privileged, but pan-toting also grew out of earlier negotiations over the rights and obligations of waged household labor. Insisting that pan-toting was not theft, one Southern domestic worker declared, "We don't seal; we just 'take' things -- they are a part of the oral contract, exprest [sic] or implied. We understand it, and most of the white folks understand it." The "white folks" who tolerated pan-toting viewed it as either further proof of black women's immorality or justification for low wages. In other words, because pan-toting entailed the loss of food and clothing, low wages were intended to compensate for the employer's loss. Others simply treated pan-toting as a form of charity. As one employer put it, "When I give out my meals I bear these little blackberry pickaninnies in mind, and I never wound the feelings of any cook by asking her 'what that is she has under her apron." Aside from the more familiar instances of pan-toting, washerwomen throughout the South occasionally kept their patrons' clothes when they were not paid in a timely and adequate fashion.

From the vantage point of workers, as several criminologists have pointed out, theft at the workplace is also strategy to recover unpaid wages and/or compensate for low wages and mistreatment. In the tobacco factories of North Carolina, black workers not only stole cigarettes and chewing tobacco (which they usually sold or bartered at the farmer's market) but, in Durham at least, workers figured out a way to rig the clock in order to steal time. And in the coal mines of Birmingham and Appalachia, miners pilfered large chunks of coke and coal for their home ovens. Black workers sometimes turned to theft as a means of contesting the power public utilities had over their lives. During the Great Depression, for example, jobless and underemployed working people whose essential utilities had been turned off for nonpayment literally stole fuel, water, and electricity: people appropriated coal, drew free electricity by tapping power lines with copper wires, illegally turned on water mains, and destroyed vacant homes for firewood.

Unfortunately, we know very little about black workplace theft in the twentieth-century South and even less about its relationship to working-class resistance. Historians might begin to explore, for example, what philosopher and literary critic Michel de Certeau calls "wigging," a complicated form of workplace resistance in which employees use company time and materials for themselves (e.g., repairing or making a toy for one's child, writing love letters). By using part of the workday in this manner, workers not only take back precious hours from their employers but resist being totally subordinated to the needs of capital. The worker takes some of that labor power and spends it on herself or her family. One might imagine a domestic who seizes time from work to read books from her employer's library. A less creative though more likely scenario is washerwomen who wash and iron their own family's clothes along with their employers' laundry.

Judging from the existing histories, it seems that domestic workers adopted sabotage techniques more frequently than industrial workers. There is ample evidence of household workers scorching or spitting in food, damaging kitchen utensils, and breaking household appliances, but these acts were generally dismissed by employers and white contemporaries as proof of black moral and intellectual inferiority. Testifying on the "servant problem" in the South, a frustrated employer remarked:

the washerwomen...badly damaged clothes they work on, iron-rusting them, tearing them, breaking off buttons, and burning them brown; and as for starch! -- Colored cooks, too, generally abuse stoves, suffering them to get clogged with soot, and to "burn out" in half the time they ought to last.

Although most of the literature is silent on industrial sabotage in the South, especially acts committed by black workers, there is no question that it existed. In his work on tobacco workers in Winston-Salem, Robert Korstad introduces us to black labor organizer Robert Black, who admitted to using sabotage as a strategy against speedups:

These machines were more delicate, and all I had to do was feed them a little faster and over load it and the belts would break. When it split you had to run the tobacco in reverse to get it out, clean the whole machine out and then the mechanics would have to come and take all the broken links out of the belt. The machine would be down for two or three hours and I would end up running less tobacco than the old machines. We had to use all kind of techniques to protect ourselves and the other workers.

It is surprising to note how little has been written about workplace theft and sabotage in the urban South. Given what we know of the pervasiveness of these strategies in other parts of world, and the fact that sabotage and theft were common practices among slaves as well as rural African Americans in the postbellum period, the almost universal absence of these sorts of clandestine activities among black industrial workers in historical accounts is surprising. Part of the reason, I think, lies in Southern labor historians' noble quest to redeem the black working class from racist stereotypes. The company personnel records, police reports, mainstream white newspaper accounts, and correspondence have left us with a somewhat serene portrait of folks who, only occasionally, deviate from what I like to call the "Cult of True Sambohood." Southern racist ideology defined pilfering, slowdowns, absenteeism, tool-breaking, and other such acts as ineptitude, laziness, shiftlessness, and immorality. But rather than escape these categories altogether, sympathetic labor historians are often too quick to invert them, remaking the black proletariat into the hardest-working, thriftiest, most efficient labor force around. Part of the problem, I suspect, lies in the tendency of historians to either assume that all black workers lived by the Protestant work ethic or shared the same values usually associated with middle-class and prominent working-class blacks. But if we regard most work as alienating, especially work performed in a context of racist and sexist oppression, then we should expect black working people to minimize labor with as little economic loss as possible.

When we do so, we gain fresh insights into traditional, often very racist documents. Materials that describe "unreliable," "shiftless," or "ignorant" black workers should be read as more than vicious, racist commentary; in many instances these descriptions are. the result of employers, foremen, and managers misconstruing the meaning of working-class activity which they were never supposed to understand. Fortunately, many Southern black workers understood the "Cult of True Sambohood" all too well, and at times used the contradictions embedded in racist ideology to their advantage. In certain circumstances, their inefficiency and penchant for not following directions created havoc and chaos for industrial production or the smooth running of a household. And all the while the appropriate grins, shuffles, and "yassums" mitigated potential punishment.

The effectiveness and acceptability of this sort of "masking" is partly shaped by gender. Although both men and women were known to adopt these kinds of evasive tactics to protect themselves, they often countered racially defined notions of appropriate masculine and feminine behavior. Because black women -- especially household workers -- were often regarded as less violent than men, and were thought, by many employers at least, to be more closely integrated into the familial networks of the homes in which they worked, they might have had slightly more space to speak their minds to the people they worked for. But we have to be careful not to overstate the case: grievances and complaints by household workers had to be expressed in such a way as to minimize what might be interpreted as insubordination. Despite claims that domestics were "part of the family," household worker Dorothy Bolden remembers having "to walk a chalk line. And if you talked back in those days, you was an uppity nigger, you was sassy, and you was fired and put out."

On the other hand, while there might have been fewer opportunities for black men to jettison the mask of deference since public insubordination sometimes led to violence, they also had to contend with gender conventions that regarded deference and retreat from conflict as less-than-manly behavior. The racial politics of manhood has not only centered on publicly "standing up" to racism and other indignities, but the failure or inability to do so has been frequently described in terms of "feminizing" black men. When combined with a U.S. labor movement characterized by a long history of using masculine language and imagery to describe workers' struggles, the race-gender matrix can make for interesting expressions of labor politics. A powerful example is the Memphis sanitation workers' strike of 1968, in which hundreds of black picketers marched silently with placards bearing the slogan, "I Am a Man."

As David Roediger has demonstrated in a penetrating essay on Covington Hall, a radical labor journalist and supporter of the interracial Brotherhood of Timber Workers in Louisiana (an affiliate of the Industrial Workers of the World or IWW), race and gender operated simultaneously in the rhetoric defending interracial working-class resistance. First, the BTW sought to use appeals to "manhood" as the foundation for building biracial unity. Hall, and before him BTW leader Ed Lehmann, insisted that there be no "Niggers," or "white trash" (i.e, scabs) -- only MEN -- (i.d, militant union activists). Second, because these timber workers were united by a universalizing notion of manhood, Hall made sure that strategies of resistance were sufficiently manly; in short, militant and directly confrontational. Yet, because sabotage was a popular tactic of the BTW's, it had to be recast not as clandestine but as openly rebellious. Roediger wr...

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