Reading A People’s History of the United States, ch. 2

reviews howard zinn, history, united states, a people’s history of the united states, slavery

Notes on Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line. Previously: chapter 1. Next: chapter 3.

When I originally read this chapter a few years back, it struck me for two reasons: firstly, it was the first time I’d seen an attempt to explain how the slave trade came about; secondly, because it went further than that and identified the slave trade as being the origin of modern racism. In reading again, the causative process is more clearly identifiable: the use of slave labour grew out of economic pressures (to increase productivity while minimizing cost in the colonies), and over the next several decades the system was increasingly institutionalized through the passage of legislation that denied Africans and African-Americans equal rights, while granting increasing privileges to lower-class whites.

It’s that latter process that I found most fascinating: rather than racism having been the result of some inherent human bias, early black slaves and white indentured servants seemed to find that their situations, while not identical (Zinn gets into the specific situation of indentured servants in the next chapter) were close enough that their interests aligned with each other against the employer/enslaver. The solution that was found to this problem, to prevent black and white people working together for their common interests, was to undermine those interests, for example by punishing “fraternization” and, for example, by rewarding white servants with their freedom for informing the authorities of rebellion.

One thing that stands out in this chapter is that by focusing on the history of America and what happens in the Americas, important context can be lost. Although Zinn does note that the enslavement of Africans by Europeans in fact began before Europeans reached the Americas, not much thought is given to why this might be the case. I’m currently also reading Empire of Cotton, which looks at the international history of the cotton industry and argues that the enslavement of West Africans was prompted, in part, by the importance of West Africa as a market for cotton fabric being exported from India by Europeans. There is, of course, only so much international history that can reasonably be covered in a book on US history, but it seems to me that so many of the significant events and processes that directed the course of American history are, really, international.

Overall, on the second reading, this chapter felt a little lightweight; on subsequently reading chapter 3 (on poor whites) it seems like a lot of the internal social pressures are described better there, and with equal relevance for the relationship between white and black people as between rich and poor whites.