Why Black Lives Don’t Matter: A Radical Interpretation of U.S. History
A discussion featuring Dr. Gerald Horne and Paul Coates
PAUL COATES: It’s going to be a great night for me, okay? I’m going to leave here so full of Gerald Horne, and so full of the information Gerald Horne has. I came here for this. I’ve been looking forward to it. Anybody see the stuff on Facebook? Well, look, I was not lying, I have been anticipating this. And so we’re going to have a conversation, and it’s going to range, and it’s going to range because Gerald has that kind of depth. He has that kind of world view, that we can have a conversation and talk about climate and its impact on Africans and African slavery in the 1500s to 1600s, and then he can come back forward in the next breath and talk about Donald Trump. So that’s the way this is going to go. So if it looks like I am, like, focused on Gerald and not focused on you all, forgive me. I’m serious! I’m serious. Like, you know how the parents say, “I got mine, you’ve got to get yours.” It’s going to be one of things, like I’m here to get it. Now, I’m going to ask questions and try and get of the way. I’m going to try to get out of Gerald’s way while he answers and while he responds and while he goes wherever he wants to go with it. That’s what I’m going to try to do. Okay. We’re going to talk for a while.
And I hope we can bring up enough of the conversation that gives you guys an opportunity to ask some questions to open it up even further, okay? I did bring some questions with me from Facebook folks sent in, and I’m going to reach down and get them. But can we kick this off, Gerald? First of all, welcome to Baltimore and welcome to our community, which recognizes and loves and honors Gerald, your contribution as an activist, and even more so, your contribution as a scholar. Eddie talked about Gerald’s books, and if this seems like love praise like I’m giving this cat, like I’m buttering him up and stuff like that, trust I am doing that. But it’s all good, because it’s all true. And it’s like how I feel, okay? And I don’t mind saying that and acknowledging you publicly for the work you’ve done because I follow our scholars. I follow the people who have laid out our history and those are the people who I honor the most. And so to have you in front of me is one of the greatest given the work that you’ve done is tremendous. So, the thing I want to start with is the title on this conversation was Why Black lives- I believe- Don’t Matter. Okay. Trust me, ya’ll. I didn’t come to talk about that. Okay? But we’re going to get that out of the way because that was one of the questions that came across on the internet. You’ve done lectures focused in that vein. Can we talk about that for a minute? Why did you phrase your position that way?
GERALD HORNE: Well, first of all, thank you for that most generous introduction. It’s good to be back in Baltimore at rob. I hope you people in Baltimore realize what a jewel you have here, just in terms of the simple building, not to mention what goes on inside this building. But with regard to why black lives don’t matter. Let me say that on YouTube, there is about an hour lecture I gave at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in February 2013 laying out this entire narrative which I’ll telescope right now. And the reason why I gave that lecture and the reason why I’m mentioning it now is that I think that there has been a fundamental misreading of the history of the United States of America. That is to say that contrary to many, I’m afraid to say, that I did not see, I do not see the founding United States in 1776 as a great leap forward for humanity. I do see it as a great leap forward for many slave owners in particular, and many real estate speculators in particular. But with regard to the indigenous population who were residing on this soil hundreds of years ago, obviously it was not a great leap forward for them, many of whom had been extinguished. And I talk about them in my book, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism, you will find the names of Maryland ethnic groups who were wiped out with the advent of settler colonialism on the soil. And certainly with regard to the enslaved population, it was not a great leap forward, because, number one, with the triumph of the settlers in 1776, you had an expansion of slavery. You had a worsening of slavery.
You had the slave traders in the United States oust the Spanish from control of the slave trade to Cuba as early as the 1790’s. A few years after the United States is founded, you had the slave traders from the United States ousting the Portuguese and the Spanish and others from the richest and most ample market, that is to say, the slave trade to Brazil. They control that market by 1830’s in the 1840’s. And not only that, but you may recall that in 1836, Texas seceded from Mexico on the same grounds or similar grounds in which the so-called Confederate States of America seceded from the United States in 1861. That is to say because Mexico had moved to abolition of slavery in the 1820’s and Texas- Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston et al. All were not down with that, so they seceded and so a number of the enslaved population in Cuba was there or were there at the behest of the slave traders in an independent Texas. So, my point is that black lives don’t matter because black people were not seen as being part of the human family. We were seen as being apart from the human family, only worthy of being hewers of wood and drawers of water, only worthy of being enslaved and therefore our lives were not taken seriously historically. And that has extended to this very day. Now, there are those who suggest that the advent of certain liberties and so-called freedoms helped to justify enslavement and mass dispossession. But it seems to me if you can rationalize enslavement or mass dispossession you can rationalize anything. You can rationalize Donald Trump being president.
And in any case, those rights did not apply to many of us, as evidenced by the fact that even today, they still don’t apply to many of us. That is to say, you still have black people being slain in the streets by officers of the state without due process of law, with officers of the state sometimes not even receiving a slap on the wrist. Sometimes they receive a pat on the back. And we had thought that with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 we at least had access to public accommodations. But the recent incident in Philadelphia at Starbucks suggests that we’re now even being challenged with regard to be going some place to get coffee, even. So, I would say that slavery and the “stain” of slavery that was placed upon black people as a result of that peculiar institution as it is euphemistically been called is one reason why black lives don’t matter. But perhaps even a more important reason is this- that sadly enough historians have not addressed sufficiently. And that is to say that in 1865 slavery was abolished as a result of a grand Civil War in which tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people perished. But unlike in the British colonies, Jamaica, Barbados etc., where the slave owners were compensated or unlike those who would enslave- those we now call Haitians, where eventually the slave owners were compensated by independent Haiti which obviously helped to put an independent Haiti in a hole from which it has been difficult to extricate itself from. In the United States, of course, these slave owners were expropriated without compensation.
And oftentimes when I tell this to my students as they’re fiddling with their smartphones I go and grab the smartphone from their hand and say I’ve just expropriated your property without compensation. I take it you’re not very pleased with that. You’re probably want to take me outside this classroom and thrash me as a direct result from taking this valuable property. Well, that’s how the slave owners felt post-1865. Their property was taken without a compensation. But not only that, the property was walking around being very cheeky about the entire matter, saying, “You know we didn’t even like you anyway.” And so, this helps to generate a kind of fury and wrath that is yet to be extinguished not least because it’s hardly ever discussed or talked about. And so, that also helps to devalue black lives. The fact that when some see, as they see lost fortunes, perhaps in the deepest recesses of their consciousness. And because of this and because the whole phenomenon of white supremacy has not been sufficiently investigated and interrogated by many of our scholars, I think that’s one of the many reasons why black lives don’t matter. And I should mention, before I leave you drowning in a sea of pessimism, that one of the ways we’ve been able to extricate ourselves from this dilemma is through international solidarity. That is to say, I mention the Haitian Revolution in 1791 to 1894, which helped ignite a general crisis of the entire slave system that could only be resolved with that system’s collapse. With the Haitian Revolution, Britain was forced to move towards abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and forced the United States in a similar direction because Britain was fearful of losing its cash cow that was Jamaica, not to mention Barbados and the other Caribbean islands.
And then there’s a de facto alliance, as I talk about in my book on the Haitian revolution, between London and the Haitian revolutionaries, to put pressure on the United States and independent Texas, which creates conditions that lead to a U.S. Civil War leading, to the abolition of slavery. And then in the 20th century, with the advent of the Socialist Project, you see a transition from race being a major axis of many societies in the capitalist world to class being a major axis and the organizing of trade unions. And of course during the Cold War, which I talked about in that video that many of you just saw, there was tremendous pressure on the United States with Ghana coming to independence in 1957, the United States fearing that it would lose hearts and minds in an independent African, independent Caribbean as long as black people in the United States were treated so atrociously, that creates a dynamic whereby the United States begins to extend scholarships to Kenyan students like Barack Obama Sr., who arrives in the United States in the late 1950’s. And unless you accept Donald J. Trump, then helps to father a child, Barack Obama Jr. or the second, who then goes on to become president. So, there have been international factors and international solidarity that has led us to be able to fight back against this cruelty to which we’ve been subjected. And that’s one of the problems that we face today, because as noted, one of our leading organizations, the NAACP, headquartered right here in Baltimore, made this Faustian bargain where in return for turning their back on our internationalist, their founder W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson et al, they would accept the civil rights concessions, but as any lawyer can tell you, when the conditions for a bargain or contract evaporate, well generally speaking, oftentimes that bargain or contract evaporates.
And certainly with the erosion, if not collapse, of the Cold War and the fact that organizations don’t engage in the kind of international outreach that they once did, we’re subjected to even more horrors today perhaps than any time in modern history. Sorry for that long-winded exposition.
PAUL COATES: No, no. It’s good. So, sometimes it’ll go like that and other times I’m going to jump in there because sometimes, like, what Gerald does, is he covers so many subjects you wanna say, “Wait, wait, one minute now, let’s just go over that one more time.” So, but in this case that was a wonderful examination of why black lives don’t matter. Let me ask you this, though. You have a general- like, part of what you laid out there is a general theme or thesis that’s running through your work very strong right now. It’s probably captured and reflected in one of the books that’s on sale outside now, and that’s Counter-Revolution. Counter-Revolution, and I don’t know how many books are out there, and I’m going to make a disclosure, too. We just published one of Gerald’s books, okay, as Black Classic Press. So, I’m not going to do the Sean Hannity thing, okay. I’m not going to be like Sean Hannity and talk to Gerald and then I know I’ve got a book out there. But look I’ll talk to him about our books and bring Gerald up to that but I wanted to say this about Counter-Revolution.
I don’t know how many books are out there, but whatever books are out there you all should buy it. Because I think there it’s laid out centrally, the theme that you keep going back to, the theme that we need to examine more and more and more. And that theme, which you can share with us better than I can, but that thing generally holds that what we know is that great event, that great birthing of this country, was not – had less to do with the Boston Tea Party, had less to do with the settler colonists here being upset that they were taxed without representation, and had much, much more to do with the fear that they’re great commodity, the African body, was going to be liberated. Can you expand on that, and I got another one that goes right with that. But can you talk about that and what drove you to a conclusion of a Counter-Revolution?
GERALD HORNE: Well, part of it deals with Southern Africa. I lived in Zimbabwe, wrote a book about Zimbabwe. You may know that Zimbabwe was formerly Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia, and in November 1965, Ian Smith and a minority regime, mostly of British nationals, attempted to secede from London, not least because they felt London was moving towards African majority rule. And at the time, and as I say in the book, Ian Smith and the racists said that they were only walking in the footsteps of 1776. And then, of course, having lived through other settler revolts such as the revolt in Algeria in the 1950’s, culminating of course unsuccessfully with Algerian independence circa 1962, I came to have a very sour disposition about settler revolts. And then I mentioned Texas, where I now live, where as noted in 1836, there was another settler revolt in order to evade the abolition of slavery.
And so I came to the secession of 1776 with that in mind. And from my telling of the story, as reflected in the book, I point to two factors, at least two factors, minimally two factors, that you should examine when trying to understand a founding United States. One is Somerset’s case, which of course is reflected in the movie Belle. How many of you have seen the movie Belle with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and directed by Amma Asante, the Ghanaian-British director, which I would recommend. Somerset’s case, to refresh your recollection, is this case from 1772 where London moves to abolish slavery in England, and there is a fear that that decision would leapfrog the Atlantic, jeopardizing the fortunes of slave owners. It is not a coincidence, as historians like to say, that the spearhead of the revolt were slave owners, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or lawyers for slave owners, like John Adams, for example. And that is a driving force for this revolt. And then secondly, as the so-called Royal Proclamation of 1763, whereby London is reluctant to continue expending blood and treasure, moving west, taking the land of the Native Americans, so that real estate speculators like George Washington can profit handsomely. And this, too is driving the animosity amongst the settler class, causing them to revolt. That’s the short answer to that very important question that you asked. But then I should also mention this book I just published in the last six weeks, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism, which deals with the roots of slavery, white supremacy, and capitalism in seventeenth century North America and the Caribbean.
The apocalypse, from my telling of the story, is represented by a number of so-called revolution. The so-called Glorious Revolution in England 1688, where from my- not only my telling of the story- I should also mention that, especially with regard to 1688, other historians have made this point as well. That when the merchants seek to clip the wings of the monarch, setting the monarch on a path to the figurehead status of Queen Elizabeth in London today, one of the driving factors was the fact that the Royal African Company had been set up in 1672 under the thumb of the monarch, and the merchants wanted in on the action, and under the guise of freedom and liberty, they lead a revolt that then leads to the clipping the wings of the monarch and the rise of the of the merchant class.
PAUL COATES: What was the action, Gerald? They wanted in on the action, what was the action?
GERALD HORNE: Oh, the slave trade. And I should also say, I mean, I’m telescoping a lot. I mean, because the thesis of that book is very simple, that in the early 1600’s, England was a minor power on the fringes of Europe. By the late 1600’s, England was a superpower well on its way to being the dominant power on Planet Earth. Then, it pans off the baton to what I call its “revolting spawn,” now known as the United States of America, which then carries that tradition on into the 21st century. Although, of course, if you’re paying attention to the news, you might have noticed that there might be another power in the passing lane as we speak. And we can talk about that, because I have some things to say about that.
But in any case, from my telling the story, what helps explain that transition from minor power to major power, is slavery and the slave trade. The fact that in 1655, London had taken Jamaica from the Spanish, opening up more territory for poor settlers who could then come to Jamaica to become involved in the sugar boom, which pours more wealth into the coffers of London, which allows it to build a bigger Navy, and then by 1672, it allows it to oust the Dutch from Manhattan and a good deal of what are now Middle Atlantic states. And then, of course, with 1672, with the Royal African Company developing more interest in the slave trade. But of course the problem for the slave traders was that people didn’t want to be enslaved, and so they were rebelling constantly and ferociously. And then, of course, that leads to my 1776 book.
PAUL COATES: So, on the one hand it is the pressure- if I have this correct. On the one hand is the pressure from the merchant class, on the other hand it is- and all of this is shaping, on the other hand, you do a long narrative in most of your work, but especially in Counter-Revolution, I’m thinking, about African resistance.
GERALD HORNE: Yes, absolutely.
PAUL COATES: The cost of holding people enslaved drove England crazy.
GERALD HORNE: That’s right.
PAUL COATES: I don’t know. You know, sometimes when I was reading that book, I was just fascinated, because I read, okay. But you had more rebellions- not in the United States, this is throughout the Caribbean and throughout the rest of the world, that was actually having an impact on the consciousness of the British. That was not having that same consciousness on the Americans.
So, can you talk about some of them. One of the things you talked about was the Africans who had taken the ship, and the European was escaping from Africa and he saw these Africans on the ship headed back to the continent. That was fascinating. And I’ve never read- can you talk a little bit about the importance of African resistance?
GERALD HORNE: Of course there are a shipboard insurrections, that is to say after people were placed on the ship they revolt, and sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. And then in the North American mainland, there are a number of very pivotal and crucial revolts. New York City in 1712, New York City again in 1741, South Carolina and Stono’s Revolt in 1739. And, once again, London was being forced to expend blood and treasure on behalf of the settlers who kept bringing over more Africans because they were mesmerized about the possibility of generating more wealth, but were not able to deal with what might be called the downside of that, which is that you bring over so many Africans who create gross numbers that make for fertile conditions for slave trades- for slave revolts, excuse me. So, this is a driving force, and of course, the epochal event in terms of slavery revolts is the Haitian Revolution, where the worst nightmare of the slave owners take place 1791 to 1884, which then in turn helps to inspire revolts in Virginia with Gabriel’s revolt circa 1800, inspire revolts in Barbados circa 1816, inspire revolts in Jamaica, etc. And I should also, if I may, as they say in United States, pivot to talk about another chapter in slavery that does not get sufficient attention.
And I’m speaking of the fact that after U.S. slavery is abolished circa 1865, many of the U.S. Slave traders, they take the Keith Sweat approach, “Make it Last Forever.” They want slavery to go on. And so they decamp to the South Seas and start enslaving Melanesians and Polynesians, and taking them to be bonded laborers in Fiji and Queensland, Australia. The Kingdom of Hawaii, which is an independent modern state, in some way is as modern as the United States was at the same time, seeks to interpose itself to prevent this from taking place and forges an alliance with a rising Japan. Recall that Japan had ended two centuries of self-imposed isolation in the 1850’s, under the prodding of the United States, by the way, and then went through this miraculous transition whereby by the late 1860’s it was a major power. So, the kingdom of Hawaii makes this alliance with Japan and, of course, to this very day the plurality of the population on the Hawaiian Islands is of Japanese origin. But in any case, that’s not sufficient. The Yankees overthrow the Kingdom of Hawaii in the 1890’s, and you know the rest of the story. But in 1959 it becomes a state of the United States of America and once again, unless you accept Donald J. Trump, that leads to the birth of 1961 of one Barack Hussein Obama. But in any case, what that story tells you is this mania for slavery, because it’s very profitable to get people to work for free, believe it or not.
As a matter of fact, I was in the L.A. Airport just a few days ago, and I noticed there was a sign in the men’s room saying that if you know about people who are working for free you should report it to the California authorities. I’m not saying- this is just a few days ago in Los Angeles. And so- Wal-Mart? So, I don’t think we should be surprised if I see that sign in L.A. Airport today, that in the 19th century, the 18th century, the 17th century and before, there is this mania for enslaving people. I mean, for example, I think I mention in the 1776 book that the slave trade was one of the most profitable enterprises known to humankind. I mean, you can invest one dollar and make seventeen hundred dollars. I mean, there are people who would sell their first born for a seventeen hundred percent profit. Trust me, to this very day. I mean, just look northward to Wall Street, for example. So, this is the driving force, the driving engine of the United States. And once again, to come back to the first question that you asked, one of the reasons why black lives don’t matter is because, to a certain extent, when certain people look at us, whether they realize it or not, they see lost fortunes, because we were able to fight our way out of that box, shedding a bit of blood, I’m afraid to say, in the process. And this is something that will never be forgiven, just like the Haitian revolutionaries and Haiti itself will never be forgiven for helping to engineer and initiate that entire historical process.
PAUL COATES: There is another piece recognizing that the colonies, recognizing that they’re threatened, taking a different approach, seeing what’s happening throughout the Caribbean.
One of the responses that you make clear is the settlers- some of the settlers- want a colony. And they want that colony to be an all-white colony and a buffer in-between the Spanish colony, which we know as Florida. Can you talk about that effort, the success or failure, however we want to look at it today?
GERALD HORNE: Well you’re referring to the fact that what is now the state of Georgia was founded as a so-called all-white settlement and 1733. Now the 2010 census showed that Georgia has more black people than any other U.S. state, so obviously that project did not work out very well. But this was part of a process of trying to escape that dilemma, that dilemma of slave revolts, and having your labor force try to cut your throat in the middle of the night. But the problem was that- one, that the settlers in North America were experts smugglers, and so it was easy early on to smuggle in enslaved persons to work on out-of-the-way plantations. And then, they were right next door to South Carolina, which for a good deal of its history had a black majority, in any case. And then, setting up Georgia as this buffer between Spanish Florida. Florida, as you know, was settled by the Spanish at the beginning of the 1500’s and did not enter the United States until circa 1826 actually been under Spanish- it was under Spanish rule longer than under U.S. rule. And the state was set up as a buffer because the Africans were historically trying to work with the antagonistic enemies of the settlers.
That is to say, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a longstanding principle, and the enemy of the settlers in South Carolina, or in Georgia for that matter, were the Spanish. And the Spanish and the Africans were oftentimes collaborating not least because many of the Africans and that part of North America were of Angolan descent. Many of them spoke Portuguese. You know that the Portuguese had colonized Angola as early as the late 1490’s, early 1500’s, and neighboring Congo had relations with the Portuguese even before that. And so some of these Angolans were Portuguese speakers, which is similar to Spanish. Some of them were Catholic a la the Spanish in Florida, and religious conflict was still a burning issue. And so, oftentimes there was this alliance between the Angolans under the Union Jack and the Spanish. And of course, the Spanish for various reasons helped to create a free Negro class that dwarfed the free Negro class in what is now the United States, or what were the British settlements, and therefore the Spanish would oftentimes send free Negroes across the border to stir up things. And that, of course, leads to the so-called Seven Years War, and this is where your grade school and high school lessons, history lessons, kick in. That is, 1756 to 1763, London once again expends blood and treasure to oust the Spanish from Florida and the French in Quebec. And of course, Quebec still has a large French speaking population. The French in Quebec were acting similarly towards the Africans in New England and in New York. And then, of course, London wants to impose taxes on the settlers to pay for this war. Of course, the settlers, even today, they think they should get things for free without paying for it.
I guess that’s what slavery does to you. And that’s another factor, then, that does lead, or helped to fuel the revolt against British rule.
PAUL COATES: So look, look. Is everybody keeping up with this? So this is good. So we’re starting, right? This conversation is beginning. We haven’t begun, its beginning. And I got to remember to keep my mic up. So, Gerald. So, we have Georgia wanting to be an all-white colony and be this buffer. Gerald, that doesn’t work so well, and you’ve indicated it doesn’t work so well. One of the other fascinating things that you make clear is the colonists are now at odds with the mother country. They’re at odds for a number of reasons. The mother country is considering freeing these Negroes.
GERALD HORNE: Or, they felt that they were going to free them.
PAUL COATES: The colonists absolutely are opposed to this, but something else you indicated that I had never considered was the arming of black folks. And particularly how Spain had armed them, and then even the British is arming black folks. Can you talk about that?
GERALD HORNE: Well, see, these European countries- I mean, look at Britain today. It has a population of about sixty-five million. In the period in which we’re talking about, it might have had a population of, say, five to seven or eight million. It’s trying to rule North America. It has a major colony and its jewel, that is India. India has a contemporary population of about one point three billion.
And so, London faced a real dilemma in terms of policing, and it was gravitating towards a different kind of system whereby a role was carved out for a free Negro class just the way the Spanish did in Cuba, for example, which had a free Negro class as well, particularly in the military. Then, of course, London said, and then I’ll just present this, I won’t necessarily authenticate it. London said that- this is taking place in the context of religious conflict- that because that so many men in Spain were gravitating towards the priesthood, that there was a deficit in terms of having enough men to police the Spanish empire. And so, therefore they had to recruit more Africans to play that particular role. So this is placing competitive pressure on another empire, the British Empire, to do the same thing. But that runs into a stone wall of opposition from the settlers, who can think of nothing more ghastly or outrageous than putting a rifle or a musket in the hands of an African. And of course, during the war that leads to the creation of a United States of America, you have armed Africans, and that’s one of the reasons why South Carolina armed Africans under the Union Jack, under the British flag. That’s one of the reasons South Carolina had such a difficulty mounting resistance against London. And then, after the formation of the United States of America, when you look at London’s attempt to reclaim North American territory last the United States in the war of 1812, in the pivotal Battle of New Orleans, December 1814 January 1815. Which, by the way, I’m sure, being patriotic Marylanders, you know about the Star-Spangled Banner and Francis Scott Key and the notorious third and fourth stanzas of the U.S. National Anthem that excoriates the Negroes in no uncertain terms. But also, of course, Washington D.C. in August 1814, was sacked and burned by the redcoats with Negroes assisting them, sending James Madison, U.S. President, and his garrulous spouse Dolly fleeing into the streets one step ahead of the posse.
And then, of course, many of the enslaved that are freed as a result of the burning down of Washington D.C. are then put on British ships and moved to Trinidad and Tobago, where they actually become part of the elite of Trinidad and Tobago. So, the settlers, their mission, of course, was to extract profit from enslaved Africans. And that was inimical to the way that Britain was evolving, which was in part- because I don’t want to overstate this- in part to have a free Negro class, particularly an armed Negro class to help police the empire, not least because of the numbers game. And then, of course, I haven’t even talked about the fact that London did not necessarily see the Irish, which, of course, shared the British Isles with England, did not necessarily see the Irish as reliable, did not necessarily see the Scots as reliable. As you know, there have been major conflict between the English and the Scots in the run -p to the so-called Acts of Union, 1707, where they come together in the United Kingdom. But oftentimes, there was this fear that the Scots would ally with the antagonists of the English, speaking of the French, speaking of the Spanish. Ditto for the Irish, and in fact, a number of the leaders of the Spanish Army, in fact, were Irish. So, these are some of the real dilemmas that were faced in the North Atlantic community. And I guess you might want to ask yourself, “Well then, why aren’t these stories better known?”
I think that part of it’s the way that historians tell the story. Unfortunately, in my opinion, there is an aversion to what’s called “grand narratives” like my trying to write a history the 17th century, and instead of focus on micro topics like the history of shoe strings in 17th century France, for example. Now, I mean, I like those micro stories because I can then take them and piece together a larger story. But in some ways, it reminds me of the first Rodney King trial. You remember in the early 1990’s when the black motorist Rodney King was beaten and it was caught on tape by officers of the state and then the officers went on trial, and then, the defense lawyers, they would show a little segment of the tape, a micro segment of the tape and say to the jury, “Well, do you see anything wrong there?” They would say no. They would show another micro segment, “Do you see anything wrong there?” In other words, they weren’t showing the entire loop. And unless you show the entire loop, it’s difficult to have an organic understanding of what’s going on. And so, that’s what’s happening with history right now, is that this aversion to larger narratives and focusing on these micro segments, many of the historians are missing the big picture. Now of course, the upside from their point of view is that it allows them to do their work without being surveilled by the FBI or by Facebook, for that matter, and it allows them to pay their mortgages and their BMW Note, et cetera. But obviously, with the election of Donald J. Trump, we reached a sort of a crossroads, where those comfortable compromises are increasingly unsustainable.
PAUL COATES: Gerald, there’s another dynamic, and you cover it very well in your work, a number of other writers cover it in their work. But there’s another dynamic that’s being burst as slavery in this hemisphere is taking its shape. There’s something else that’s happening. Race is being formed. Whiteness is being birthed. You talk about this. Can you riff on that for a minute with us?
GERALD HORNE: Sure, sure. I mean, first of all, whiteness studies. I mean, you have a number of historians right now who are focusing on what, to me, is a fundamental question. How is it that those who were warring on the shores of Europe, English versus Irish, English versus Scots, British versus French, British versus German, German versus Russian, Serb versus Croat, Italian versus French, Greek versus Macedonian. All of a sudden, when they crossed the Atlantic, magically they’re all transmuted into this new identity politics that is whiteness. Now, how and why does that happen? It seems to me that’s a fundamental question that we should think about. And in the seventeenth century book I go into that in more detail. I mean, I see this identity politics, to use that current phrase, as a response to colonialism. That is to say, that these European countries are relatively small, particularly the Dutch. As a matter of fact, if we had been talking in 1650 and we were projecting into 2018 we’d probably think that we’d be sitting here speaking Dutch instead of English, for example. But it’s even smaller than England. And so, in order to rule these vast territories, you need a new kind of identity.
And also, I should say that the emerging system of capitalism tends to privilege this kind of a borderless identity, because the settlers in neighboring Virginia, for example, they wanted to trade with the Dutch and not just be limited to this imperial relationship with London. And that, too, contributes to this new politics of identity. And so, this leads to the creation of whiteness. Now, and talking to many people, sometimes people tend to see whiteness the way they look at, I guess homo sapien. They tend to see it as some sort of natural category that’s been around for, I don’t know, I guess thousands of years. But if you begin to examine the evidence, you can say that it’s a phenomenon of the seventeenth century, or you can examine the evidence and perhaps it’s a phenomenon of the early sixteenth century. Although, I have to say that when I wrote the 1776 book, I put the origins in the 1660’s. When I wrote the seventeenth century book I put the origins in the 1500’s. I’m not trying to do a book on the 1500’s, so I may be going back a little further, which is obviously complicating the story in my mind, because I have to say, that up until I started this book on the 1500’s, I was persuaded by the idea that whiteness, anti black racism, or emerging organically out of colonialism, slavery and the slave trade. And I will not argue with anyone who takes that position. But, the further back I go, I’m getting a bit unsettled and unsure, and I haven’t done the research yet, so don’t press me on that.
So, just suffice it to say, let the record show I’m becoming more unsettled and unsure.
PAUL COATES: I certainly though, at a certain point you’re going to hit a period, I think, in which whiteness does not exist. I mean, I understand what you’re saying. This is inquiry ya’ll. I’m talking to the professor because I don’t know.
GERALD HORNE: I may not know either, because as I said, I’m becoming more unsettled.
PAUL COATES: So, at a certain point, because the term whiteness at a certain point certainly might exist, but it will not have the meaning that it has now. I think about Malcolm coming back from Mecca saying, “Yeah, when they say white here it means ‘boss,’ you know, when they say white over there, it just does not mean the same thing.” And so, I’m going to be curious as you study, as you write and as you share with us your your findings. I’m going to be curious about that.
PAUL COATES: There will be also, I think that people in the United States should look around, I mean literally, and ask themselves this question, “Why is it that you have a so-called one drop rule in the United States of America?” I mean, why is it that anyone in this room presumably could be black? All you have to do is say, “I’m black,” and nobody really questions you. Because they say, “Why would you adopt that identity voluntarily?” And, but that’s not necessarily the case all over the world. I mean it’s not necessarily the case in Brazil, it’s not necessarily the case in South Africa.
And then you should begin to ask yourself the question, “Why is that the case here in North America?” And that might lead you down the road of interrogating slavery and interrogating the fact that there was an attempt to broaden the base for enslaving people. I mean there are cases, for example, of European migrants landing in New Orleans in the 1850’s, and some unscrupulous slave trader grabs them and says, “You’re black,” and they say, “No, I’m not black I just cam from New York,” and “Well, prove that you’re not black.” It broadens the base for enslavement. It adopts this principle that any kind of African ancestry is a stain, which obviously helps to fuel white supremacy. It helps to fuel anti black racism. And, of course, it’s still with us today, because to a greater or lesser degree, we still observe the one drop rule. Although, I’m beginning to think that that may not hold, assuming that Donald Trump does not blow up the world. That is to say, I’m not sure if that will hold for the entire course of the 21st century, and perhaps some of you might even want to- Paul, you might even want to respond to thay. To say if the United States might evolve to a Brazilian type system, a South African type system etc.
PAUL COATES: Yeah. If you will forgive me Professor, I will hold my speculations, because I really want to explore. I really want to explore the benefit of your research. So we’re going to leave this for just one minute, right? Just one minute. But I want to come back because there’s a question I have to get that will carry us back to talk about Africans and the struggle.
But when I’m thinking about your research and exploring the benefit of your research, so, when I first heard of Gerald when someone said something like, “Do you know Gerald Horne?” I said, “Well I know I’ve heard the name, but I don’t know him.” And I remember that person saying, “He’s a beast.” And what they were talking about was his research capabilities. And, over time, I was watching videos on YouTube, and a number of people comment on your focus at research. People refer to Gerald Horne as almost like an automaton or something that goes into research institutions and do not come out. He does not come out until he’s got a book in hand or two books in hand or three books in hand. Can you talk to us a little bit about- I don’t understand how you do it. I’ve worked in archives, I’ve been in archives. But how did you spend the time you spend and how do you get the productivity out of that time that you do, Gerald?
GERALD HORNE: First of all-.
PAUL COATES: Excuse me one minute, I told you all I’d published a book, the other book on the end of settler colonialism is out. That’s two books in 2018. There’s at least a third and possibly a fourth book coming out this year. This man has been producing two to three books a year for the last decade. Is that right? I mean, is that close on average? So, that’s the basis of this question.
GERALD HORNE: I mean, first of all, you need a thesis, like that seventeenth century book. It’s a very simple thesis, I’ve already stated it. Early 1600’s England is a minor power, late 1600’s England is a major power, the reason is slavery. So, you know, that’s my thesis, then.
That was my animating principle. I’m trying to do a precursor study to the 1776 book, looking at how slavery drove 1776 and then how slavery drove 1688, the so-called Glorious Revolution. But sometimes, of course, like this book on the 1500’s, as a matter of fact, maybe somebody can give me a thesis. I have a jumble of ideas, but I don’t really have a thesis. Certainly that’s not something I can reduce to three or four sentences. I mean I don’t know that London is a parasite feeding on the host body that is the Spanish empire through piracy. Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, et cetera. And then, of course, you make that leap to see the glorification of the descendants of pirates which are of course gangsters and the gangster culture to the point where gangster is not only a noun it’s a verb in this country. So, you know, so I have that, I have, you know, the Ottoman Empire, of course, which 1517 takes over Egypt, the rise of Protestantism 1517 marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther just this past fall. You know, the founding of St. Augustine, Florida by the, Spanish. And of course enslaved Africans. Even though I’m going to be giving, like, other people these talks in 2019 about the four hundredth year of the arrival of Africans in North America. I mean, that’s a notional date. I mean, actually you had enslaved Africans before then. And of course, the founding of Florida by the Spanish.
But I don’t really have – I have a jumble of ideas, but a jumble of ideas does not a book make. And so, perhaps some of you can feed me a thesis that I can then hang these jumble of ideas on. Now, when I was doing a book I just mentioned on the South Seas, I started that book by trying to look at the Yankee and slavers who go to the South Seas. And, but I found that it wasn’t enough to do an entire book about that. So then, I had to pivot to somehow bring Hawaii into the story, and fortunately Hawaii was trying to stop this new slave trade, so that gives me the nexus, and then I can then pivot to talking about the attempt by Hawaii to rebuff Yankee colonialism. Now, this book on the 1500’s, I’m going to go to Turkey to do research because the Ottoman Turks were a major player. I mean, the sole question of Islam, and of course, you know, obviously I cannot be indifferent to the question of Islamophobia in 2018 and, you know, try to look at some of the roots of that. So I’m going to go. But, you know, as you know, they had a change in alphabet in Turkey after Ataturk, post World War One.
And so, all the documents from the 1500’s are in Ottoman Arabic, which I don’t read Ottoman Arabic. And so, I’m going to have to hire an assistant and then hopefully the assistant is competent and can follow my guidance with regard to going over these documents and Ottoman Arabic as I try to extract. And I’m going to be asking the assistant to look at documents on the relationship between the Ottomans and Ethiopia, for example, as- which is able to maintain a certain kind of freedom, not least because of diplomatic assistance from the Ottoman Turks. So this research process, I mean, I think it works best if you have some sort of animating thesis, if you have a narrative line that you can follow, because that tells you what to take notes on. Like where I am now with this 1500’s project. It’s sort of, I’m all over the place, because I’m not sure my narrative line is, I’m not sure what the thesis is. You know, I mean I’m like the proverbial seven-year-old in a soccer game, where you tell them to be a fullback to stand near the goalie, okay. But then, once the ball heads down the field they head down the field. So, whenever I see something that looks interesting, I’m off! And that’s not a way to do history, you know, to be to be distracted because you don’t have a thesis, you don’t have a narrative line, you’re just sort of driven by whatever seems interesting. But hopefully, what will happen is if I keep digging, I’ll come up with a narrative line. Maybe someone, some bright brilliant person the audience will say, “Professor Horne this is your thesis about the 1500’s that you should be writing about.” I’ll say, “That sounds interesting,” and I’ll make a mental note and then follow up. Or, perhaps I’ll never come up with a narrative line and I’ll produce a book that’s just a jumble of disconnected ideas.
PAUL COATES: When you haven’t done it yet, so we’ll look for that. So, we’re going to get around and take questions and answers. Answers are coming from Dr. Horne. There is one mic here.
You have to line up at the mic if you have questions, and hopefully we’ve touched on enough areas to generate some questions. I do have- so people can line up. I do have two questions that came from people across Facebook. One, when you talk about the turmoil particularly of- that’s going on to birth 1776, there’s a question of how are women, black women particularly, engaged in this? What are they doing? How are they changing the world? How is the world changing them? That’s one. Following that, can you talk about Paul Robeson?
GERALD HORNE: Oh, yeah, good.
PAUL COATES: Because Robeson comes through your work and there are similarities. You’re Princeton and he’s Princeton. You’re a lawyer,he was a lawyer. He was a gifted, gifted man, and you celebrate him so often in your work. But that’s two and I apologize for those.
GERALD HORNE: Well there’s a chapter in that 1776 book about- I think it’s post-1750 slave resistance in North America. And therein, you see particularly the role of women, particularly women who are working in the household, who are, to use a sophisticated term, ethnobotanists. In other words, they know the qualities of certain plants that are poisonous, and so they’re using these plants to seek vengeance against the slave masters by poisoning them. Or, you know, they’re poisoning the food, they’re arsonists, they’re burning down the fields, they’re burning down the houses, et cetera. And I’m sure that you know that there’s so much fury and anger in these women in particular, because it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that there are fewer groups of women that have been subjected to sexual abuse on the level of enslaved African women in North America.
And of course there has been writing- I said in North America, I should have said the Caribbean also, because oftentimes when people look for evidence they go to Jamaica and there’s these books about this slave owner, Thomas Thistlewood, a European slave owner, who keeps detailed records about all the African women he’s abusing for whatever reason. And so, you know, we have a lot of evidence in that regard,. And of course there’s been a lot of work too, by historians, of the enslavement of women.
Now, with regard to Paul Robeson, I think that he is an archetype in the sense that he’s the tallest tree in our forest. He’s a man who is a leading scholar. But for the prodding and pushing of his spouse inland, Eslanda Goode Robeson, he might have been a professor of philology. He studied languages as a hobby. He spoke most of the European language, studied African languages. There’s a story out tell in my biography of Robeson that before he was to give a concert in Norway, he started studying Norwegian for about 48 to 72 hours so he could go try to talk to the people. And obviously, when you speak to people in their own language, it’s very moving, it’s very affecting. And I think that’s one of the reasons why Robeson was such a global hero, is because he spoke to people literally and figuratively in their own languages, and people, people are respectful, and they’re very pleased if they think that he’s taken the time to study their language so that you can better communicate with them.
But of course Robeson fell victim to Cold War pressures, our friends at the NAACP, for example, made this bargain whereby if they turned their back on Robeson, there would be these civil rights concessions. The problem was that when you defeated, in a sense, this leading internationalist, you defeated one of our major tools of revolt and resistance going back centuries, which is internationalism, which has left us with this domestic arena where no matter how you parse the numbers, no matter how you torture the numbers to make them confess. Donald J. Trump still wound up being president. And that does not speak very well, I’m afraid to say, for the United States of America. And this is the dilemma in which we are now facing. And I would argue that the sidelining and marginalizing of a figure like Robeson has a lot to do with the present dilemma that we are now confronted with.