The Poisoning of a Black Southern Town

Wall Triana Road

By Curtis Price

February 4, 2022

I’m at the public housing projects in Triana, a tiny, nearly all-black town of about 400 on the outskirts of Huntsville, Alabama. Triana ends at the dark, heaving waters of the Tennessee River. On the other side of the river begins the off-limits Redstone Arsenal, bigger than the city of Huntsville itself, and choked in impenetrable barbwire.  Sometimes you can hear the muffled boom! of weapons testing from Redstone echoing. Sometimes, gators crawl across the road from the fetid swamps a quarter-mile upwind.

My acquaintance has lived here for about a year. He likes the peace of living in the country. The projects themselves are older, one-story apartments. They feel vaguely Spanish, a stucco-pastel of washed-out ochre.  There’s lots of green and a small symphony of katydids buzz and hum. I can’t help but compare them to projects in the North, which look either like army barracks or small-scale prisons.

Triana housing projects

Back in the early 1800s, Triana was a commercial center in Alabama, its proximity to the river making it an ideal site for trade. Those days are long gone, but going to the Tennessee down Record Road, you can see at this wide juncture in the river’s bend how a natural harbor formed. If you hang around long enough, barges will silently appear and then whirl away, disappearing like river ghosts, carrying grain to poultry farms farther north.

Today, people come to picnic and boat.  Upscale whites from the new luxury complexes sprouting up on the outskirts of Triana are displacing black working-class residents using this stretch of the riverfront for barbecues and picnics.

For generations, the river fed Triana’s poor and working class. It was a free source of fish, the catfish, and bass that filled the Tennessee. Everyone fished or knew someone who fished to put food on the table. Until, 1979, that is.

In 1979, the then-Mayor of Triana, Clyde Foster, an Equal Opportunity officer for Redstone Arsenal and son of a Birmingham steel worker, found out from an anonymous phone call from a journalist that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) had discovered elevated DDT levels in local fish, forty times the recommended level. When Foster asked “For how long?,” the reporter hung up. No government official had ever bothered to tell Triana.

The source of the DDT was traced to a factory on the far-flung fringes of Redstone Arsenal that had been leased to an outside corporation to make mustard gas and other chemical weapons in 1943. After the war, the plant changed hands and began producing  DDT. The Army documented plummeting bird numbers in the species that used the nearby Wheeler Refuge in the 1950s and finally, shut the plant down in the early 1970s as a result of the growing backlash against DDT and the blot of several fish kills in Spring Branch Creek, which fed into the Tennessee River.

Spring Branch Creek

The Olin Corporation, the last owner, had leeched four thousand tons of DDT into the river’s bottom soil. Foster went to the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), which declined to get involved saying no research indicated that DDT was a health hazard to humans. One doctor at ADPH said he would just as soon sprinkle DDT as sugar on his morning cereal, since both carried the same level of harm.

Undeterred, Foster, a degreed engineer who had helped marshal Redstone Arsenal into the Civil Rights era, managed to interest a CDC doctor in Atlanta. She came to Triana and tested. What she found were high levels of DDT in blood, two to three times the national average. One elderly resident, a retired farmer, had the highest level of DDT ever recorded in a human at 3,300 parts per billion (the U.S. average is 16.5).

The headlines screamed a “Southern Love Canal” and labeled Triana “the unhealthiest town in America.” But it was the South. It was Alabama. And it was isolated, tiny, poor Triana, so interest quickly died and the New York journalists quickly turned their attention elsewhere, as New Yorkers often do when it comes to the South, back to Hollywood starlet scandals, Wall Street gyrations, and Andy Warhol’s latest soup cans, but with Triana briefly having its Warholian turn in the sun of fifteen fleeting minutes of fame.

However, outside of the media gaze, Mayor Clyde Foster fought tenaciously to make sure Triana wasn’t forgotten. Through his efforts and the resulting lawsuits, Olin Corporation was finally forced to pony up a substantial settlement. Triana became an EPA Superfund site, making it eligible for federal dollars. For a couple decades afterward, the river was dredged and the contaminated mud hauled off. Foster wanted a portion of the settlement monies to be funneled into a community clinic that would last for generations. Some accounts of the Triana disaster mention a community clinic set up by Foster.

I asked my friend where he thought the clinic could have been located. He thought it might have been in an abandoned building up from the Dollar General that he said a group of white crack heads was now squatting in. He also whispered darkly that since he moved to Triana, he noticed all long-term Triana residents have yellowed eyes from the DDT, a feature that’s managed to escape me in all my trips there.

I imagined Foster’s clinic would have been in the old log cabin shack down from the Triana library that in the early part of the twentieth century served as one of the few medical clinics for North Alabama’s black community. The clinic was run for decades by a single dedicated doctor and nurse and had been long abandoned. It would be fitting that Foster’s vision of free health care for all Triana residents would continue the work of earlier generations, the original clinic as a tree that would continue sprouting fruit.

Old Triana Clinic

But it turns out, that contrary to some published accounts, the permanent clinic was never built. At a memorial meeting sponsored by the Triana Historical Association, Foster’s daughter told me Triana residents wanted individual pay-outs and couldn’t see the long-term benefits of an embedded community clinic. So the settlement money flooded in and quickly went out again, as it always does in poor and working-class communities, which end up just being conduits of monies into other, fatter pockets, and Triana was never fortuned with its own clinic.

However, the other clinic, that old, weather-beaten, one-room shack, is now, after decades of being left to the elements, being restored as a historical site, a long-overdue recognition of its role in Alabama black history. (1)

As I left Triana, driving along Zerit Road, on a finger-like peninsula jutting into the muddy Tennessee waters, I noticed a solitary figure silhouetted against the grey sky, holding a fishing rod. I don’t think personally I would have enough faith in soothing government reports that everything was cleaned up and fish fit to eat.

Tennessee River, near Triana

But the biggest threat to Triana’s future may not come from the river but from the land. The area surrounding Triana is being gobbled up by developers building fancy, cookie-cutter townhouse complexes with faux Olde English names like The Greens at Eastwick. And who knows, considering the never-ending, voracious demand for housing in Huntsville’s metastasizing upscale suburbs, if Triana will slowly get whittled away out of existence in a few decades?


1. For an overview of Alabama’s larger black hospital movement, see

Reverend Black’s Blues

By Curtis Price

Posted December 18, 2021

In 1861 enough nonslaveholders hurled themselves into a prolonged bloodbath to enable a proudly proclaimed slave republic to sustain itself for four ghastly years. These “plain folks” suffered terrible casual­ties and privations on behalf of a social order that objectively oppressed them in a variety of well-known ways. Many contemporary Northerners and indeed even some Southerners, not to mention subsequent histori­ans, expressed wonder at the nonslaveholders gullibility, ignorance, and docility. Slavery, it has long been asserted, had numbed the lower-class whites quite as much as it had ostensibly numbed the enslaved blacks. Southern abolitionists, for understandable reasons, became the bitterest proponents of this argument and railed in frustration at the non­slaveholders’ groveling before the aristocratic pretensions of the haughty planters.

Yet, we know very well that those nonslaveholders were touchy, proud people who hardly specialized in groveling and who were as quick as the planters to shed blood over questions of honor. We know also that they seized and maintained substantial political rights and were largely responsible for some of the most democratic state constitutions in the United States.(1)

The argument for their supine capitulation to an overbearing aristoc­racy reduces to the assertion that someone other than themselves ought to have been the judge of their own best interest—that they were in­competent to understand their own world and their place within it. Ever since Rousseau, those who believe themselves democrats but have difficulty accepting majority rule have been prone to square this ideo­logical circle by claiming that the people have been duped and that their words and actions do not reflect their own inner will. Presumably, some­one else is to be the guardian and agent of the people’s will. Those who argue in this manner, without meaning to be satirical, claim for them­selves the honor of defending genuine democracy against the voters.

The nonslaveholders have always been prime candidates for such treatment. Ostensibly, they lived in an unreal world in which they could not understand who and what they really were. I do hope that I may be forgiven for treating this elitist cant as unworthy of attention. If a social class acts against its own apparent collective interest, then the historian should at least provisionally assume a rational basis for its action, rather than trying to force it into a posthumous encounter ses­sion in consciousness-raising.

The most attractive general interpretation of the loyalty of the non­slaveholders to the regime has stressed the commitment of the white South to racial supremacy. This is, of course, an old argument—which is no reason to slight it, especially since George Frederickson has re­cently repackaged it so nicely as “Herrenvolk Democracy” and intro­duced considerably more sophistication into the discussion.(2) And, in fact, one would have to be mad to discount or to try to minimize the extraordinary power of racism as an ideological force for political and social cohesion. But there are at least two difficulties with the Herren­volk thesis.

First, it is not at all obvious that the nonslaveholders took the equation of slavery and racial subordination for granted. If they had felt sufficient reason to oppose slavery on the grounds taken by men like Henry Ruff­ner, Cassius Clay, and Hinton Helper, the argument that slavery was indispensable to racial dictatorship would have appeared as dubious as it eventually proved to be. Yet, such questions could not even be discussed during the late antebellum decades outside certain privileged border-state sanctuaries. To be sure, the silence in the Lower South and in much of the Upper South as well can in part be attributed to a subtle and not-so-subtle reign of terror, as Clement Eaton has so forcefully demonstrated.(3) But, again, the nonslaveholders were not political and moral marshmallows. Their easy acquiescence in an enforced consensus itself requires an explanation that takes full account of their toughness, pride, and strong sense of being men with rights equal to those of the richest planter.

The second difficulty with the Herrenvolk thesis is that it bypasses the living history. Let us suppose that racism explains everything—that it is logically sufficient to explain the loyalty of the nonslaveholders to the regime. We could not, therefore, conclude that other explanations were false or even inferior if, taken together, they could also account for that loyalty, with or without the factor of racism. On the contrary, the slaveholders and nonslaveholders were bound together by links firm enough to account for the political unity of the South; it was pre­cisely the conjuncture of these economic, political, and cultural forces, including intense racism, that made secession and sustained warfare possible.

For the moment, we may bracket the question of the scope and depth of that loyalty. To speak of Southern unity is to recognize no more than that effective degree of consensus necessary to remove the slavery issue from antebellum Southern politics and necessary to drag most of the Southern Unionists, with whatever misgivings, down the secessionist road. If we can get that far, it will be possible to open the brackets and take full account of the bitter social divisions beneath the surface of white society, as well as the evidence presented by Roger Shugg and others of growing stratification and class conflict.(4) The problem is pre­cisely to explain the impressive degree of class collaboration and social unity in the face of so many internal strains.

To begin with, it is essential to distinguish sharply between the yeo­men of the plantation belt and those of the up-country. But to do so is not so simple once we move from model building to empirical verifica­tion. First, the categories changed over time. In a restless society with a moving frontier, a self-sufficient locality in one census year often be­came a staple-producing locality in the next. The up-country of the early days of Virginia or South Carolina passed into extensions of the plantation belt as new crops, techniques, and transport facilities were developed. Second, there was a large intermediate area. Winn Parish, Louisiana, for example, was a hotbed of unionist radicalism and oppo­sition to secession and then to the Confederacy; later, it became a center for Populist and socialist movements and then gave us Huey and Earl Long. On the surface, it would seem to have been, in antebellum times, a nonslaveholding parish, par excellence. Yet, twenty-five percent of its population was black; one-third of the whites owned at least one slave; and firm ties existed with the plantation belt along with intense mutual hostility. (5)

Nevertheless, in such “plantation states” as Alabama and Mississippi we can identify large isolated enclaves, not exclusively up-country, which were only peripherally integrated into the slave economy. And here, we confront more than evidence of Morton Rothstein’s dual economy—as valuable as his insight is likely to prove. (6) We confront, rather, evidence of a dual society that did not simply follow the class lines dividing commercial from subsistence farmers. Farmers in these up-country counties resembled farmers in the interstices of the plan­tation belt in being nonslaveholders within the subsistence orbit of a more generally dual economy, but, beyond this first approximation, they might more profitably be understood as a distinct social class. The critical element in their social position was the geographic isolation, not of their particular farms, but of their locality as a whole. Hence, unlike the farmers of the plantation belt, they controlled the local political process and shaped a regional culture of their own. All available evidence attests to the distinctiveness and insularity of their culture. True, little comprehensive work has been done since the pioneering work of Frank Owsley and his protégés, but folklorists, musicologists, and anthropologists have been doing work that points toward the de­lineation of a discrete way of life.

In a variety of ways, the up-country made the slaveholders and espe­cially the secessionist politicians nervous. Up-country farmers were not bashful about sneering at the aristocratic pretensions of the planters. In many instances, they took the plantation counties as a negative reference point for their own voting behavior. And many defiantly op­posed extremist and anti-Union measures.

Yet, we might also note that some of these counties went for secession and many others split or tamely acquiesced. The fire-eating Albert Gallatin Brown built much of his power on such districts in Mississippi. (7) Moreover, those who try to correlate up-country districts with a specific behavior pattern have been driven to distraction by the apparent ideological inconsistencies, quite as much as by the methodological difficulties.

At issue is the limited concern of these quasi-autonomous social worlds with the great questions of Southern and national politics. We might, for example, wonder why some of the same up-country districts in Mississippi followed Brown into support of proslavery extremism and secession and yet ended by deserting the Confederate cause.

This apparent inconsistency was expressed less dramatically in more typical up-country counties of the Lower South, which moved from moderate Unionism to acceptance of secession and then to defection from the Confederacy. It is not at all clear, that is, that they were not initially motivated by allegiance to particular local leaders whom they had come to trust to defend their regional autonomy against the plantation belt and indeed against all outsiders.

On the terrain of political ideology, the up-country, notwithstanding its manifest hatred for the pretensions of the gentry, was held loyal to the slave regime by the doctrine of state rights—or rather, of opposition to the centralization of political power. So long as the slaveholders made few demands on these regions, their claims to being champions of local freedom and autonomy against all meddling outsiders appeared per­fectly legitimate. Whatever else Northern abolitionists and free-soilers may have been, they were outsiders who claimed the right to determine local institutions. Conversely, the provincialism of the up-country held to a minimum demands on the slaveholders for extensive expenditure for an infrastructure capable of modernizing the nonplantation areas. There is, in fact, little evidence that the great majority of the up-country farmers wished to exchange their proud isolation and regional way of life for integration into the commercialized economy of the despised plantation belt. Certainly, things were different in West Virginia, East Tennessee, and some other areas, but there, the economy was being integrated into that of the neighboring free states to produce a quali­tatively different social setting, the full scope of which deserves extended study.

In the Lower South, at least, those up-country farmers who swore loyalty to the Union and those who swore loyalty to their state were generally of a piece. Their first loyalty in fact was to their own local community, and either the Union or the state might either respect or threaten that community autonomy. Hence, the difficulties that befell the Confederacy, when the up-country desertion rate soared; hence, the movements of outright treason to the Confederacy that accompanied the imposition of necessary war measures. The exigencies of war had forced the Confederacy to do to the up-country the very things it had sworn to oppose. The whole point of secession, after all, was to defend local rights against the pressures of centralization. Confederate conscription, taxation, requisitioning, in a word, outside domination, had to be per­ceived in the up-country as a betrayal of trust. (8)

The slave South held the allegiance of its second society not because the yeomen farmers and herdsmen outside the plantation belt had been duped, nor even because they were ignorant. Rather, their alleged ig­norance was an ignorance on principle—that provincial rejection of an outside world which threatened to impinge on the culture as well as the material interests of the local community. The slaveholders could abide the autonomy of the up-country not because they necessarily respected its moral foundations but because they could be—and indeed had to be—indifferent to its development. The last thing the slaveholders of the plantation belt wanted was an additional tax burden to finance the opening up of areas regarded as potentially competitive or simply irrelevant to the plantation economy. Much less did they wish to pro­mote the development of areas that might have to proceed with free labor and might, therefore, develop a marked hostility not merely to slaveholding aristocrats but to slavery itself. The solution lay in a mutually desired silence and limited intercourse, notwithstanding oc­casional struggles over a few more roads and schools and, perhaps even more important, demands for ritualistic respect and recognition. This type of silent understanding has had many parallels elsewhere—in Sicily, for example.

The main problem of interpretation, then, concerns the yeomen of the plantation belt itself. Antebellum dissent, such as it was, and war­time desertion centered in the up-country. The commitment of the farmers of the plantation belt to the regime, by normal political stan­dards, became much firmer. Why? The answer of race will not, by itself, do. The up-country yeomen hated and feared the blacks and wanted them under tight racial control. But the up-country yeomen also were quick to identify slaveholders with slaves—to perceive the organic con­nection between the two, not only materially but culturally. To the up-country yeomen, slaveholders and slaves were two peas in the same pod. The plantation-belt yeomen also saw the master-slave relationship as organic, but they yielded much more easily to planter leadership. (9)

Those who wonder at the plantation-belt yeomen’s support of slavery might well begin by asking themselves a question. Why should the non­slaveholders not have supported slavery? After all, men and women normally accept, more or less uncritically, the world into which they are born. Something must drive them to reject and resist the social order that, at the least, offers them the security of a known world.

Let us take Joshua Venable, dirt farmer of Hinds County, Mississippi. Josh owned no slaves, worked forty acres of so-so land more or less competently, and struggled to keep his head above water. Fortunately for him, he was kin to Jefferson Venable, owner of the district’s finest Big House, Ole Massa to a hundred slaves, and patron to the local judge as well as the sheriff. Moreover, Josh Venable’s wife was kin to John Mercer, himself “massa” to only ten or twelve slaves but decidedly a man on the make. The marriage, in fact, brought the Venables and the Mercers into an uneasy conviviality. Massa Jefferson Venable had to swallow a bit to tolerate his parvenu relatives at table, especially since John Mercer could not be broken of the habit of spitting on the floor in the presence of the ladies. But, business is business, and kinfolk are kinfolk—even by marriage.

Now, poor Josh Venable himself rarely got invited to Cousin Jeff’s home and virtually never to his dining room table. Rather, he was usually invited to an outdoor affair—a barbecue to which many of the nonslaveholders of the neighborhood were also invited to celebrate lay-by or the Fourth of July. Josh also had to notice that he was only invited when many neighboring slaveholders were urged not only to come but to bring all their “niggers.” Still, kin was kin, and Josh got an ostentatious welcome as a member of the family. Ole Massa Jefferson, his own self, once took him by the arm to the barbecue pit to meet the new state senator, whom Ole Jeff had just bought and who might come in handy.

Now, of course, Josh resented his cousin—so much so that he continued to hope that he would someday own even more slaves himself and maybe even reach the pinnacle of success—some day he might be able to make Cousin Jeff a low-interest loan to cover his famous gambling debts, not to mention those debts for somewhat unclear expenditures in New Orleans. But, how far could he carry his resentment toward Cousin Jeff? Everyone, including Josh, knew that his cousin may have been a little stuffy, may have put on airs, but that he always had a helping hand for anyone in the neighborhood, black or white. Josh raised some extra corn and a few hogs. What was he supposed to do, hand-carry them to Cincinnati? Wait to sell them to unreliable drovers, who specialized in hard bargains? Cousin Jeff was always ready to pay a fair price even though he could just as easily have increased the orders through his factors and not bothered with such local trivia.

Josh also knew any number of local farmers who raised two or three bales of cotton. If they had to spend $125 each for a cotton gin and then pay the costs of individual marketing, they could not have covered costs. Yet, there was good Ole Jefferson Venable, and two or three other such worthies, ready to gin the cotton for a fair service charge of 9 or 10 per cent and market it with his own large crop to insure a fair price for his poorer neighbors. No one ever accused Ole Jeff of trying to make a dollar off his neighbors. On the contrary, he was quick to send food supplies to help someone down-and-out. And everyone saw how he sent a few of his hands to help a sick neighbor get in his small crop when everything hung in the balance. If it were not for Ole Jeff and a few others like him, how could many of the poorer farmers make it? The planters occasionally hired the sons of poor neighbors for odd jobs or even to help with the cotton picking. They hired a relative here or there to oversee their plantations. If a small farmer got lucky and was able to buy a slave before he could profitably use him, there was Jeff ready to rent him. for a year. Alternatively, if a farmer got lucky and needed the temporary services of a slave he could not yet afford to buy, there was Jeff ready to send one over at the going rate. And everyone remembered how the local planters sent their slaves to throw up houses for new settlers and did everything possible to help them get started. Certainly, that kind of neighborliness was normal in rural areas through­out the United States. But in the South population was much more scattered, and it would have been hard to help people get on without the work of those slaves. What then could lead Jefferson Venable’s neighbors to see him as an enemy? He in no way exploited them— except perhaps for the poor white trash he occasionally hired for odd jobs and treated with contempt. And they were no-account anyway.

Plantation-belt yeomen either aspired to become slaveholders or to live as marginal farmers under the limited protection of their stronger neighbors. And there was nothing irrational or perverse in their atti­tude. White labor was scarce and unreliable, at least if a farmer needed steady help. Any farmer who wanted to expand his operations and make a better living had to buy slaves as soon as possible. It was, therefore, natural, as a matter of inclination and social conscience, to be ready to ride patrol, to help discipline the slaves, and to take part in the political and police aspects of the slave regime—in short, to think and act like slaveholders even before becoming one. That many were moti­vated by racism, sadism, or a penchant for putting-on-dog is undeniable. But even without those pleasantries, the path of social duty emerged as the path of self-interest.

Under the best of circumstances, a class of independent proprietors, with limited spatial range and cultural horizons, could hardly be ex­pected to put hard questions to these relationships. No matter how poor or marginal, small farmers were in no position to make sophisticated analyses of the indirect workings of the slave system as a whole and to conclude that they were oppressed by the very planters who played Lord Bountiful or in any case did not bother them. But this particular class of farmers had had its own political history in relation to the planters, upon which some reflection is in order.

As shorthand for a complicated historical development, we may focus on one or two features of the democratic upsurge of the Jacksonian era. If one reads the political speeches and dwells on the rhetoric, the South after 1819 was torn by the bitterest kind of class warfare. The farmers rose against the aristocracy, the debtors against the creditors, the people against the privileged few. The ensuing political reforms, as Fletcher Green and Charles Sydnor in particular have so well shown, were in fact formidable. Politically, the South underwent substantial democrati­zation. The haughty aristocrats were beaten, although more thoroughly in Mississippi and Alabama than in Louisiana, not to mention South Carolina.

And yet, this period of democratization coincided precisely with the great period of territorial, demographic, and ideological expansion of the slave regime. In its wake came the suppression of Southern liberal­ism. Those who brought democracy to the Southwest also brought plan­tation slavery and the hegemony of the master class. At this point the Herrenvolk thesis is usually trotted out to resolve all contradictions. Unfortunately, it cannot explain how the racism of the yeomanry, no matter how virulent, led the farmers to surrender leadership to the slaveholders instead of seizing it for themselves. And they did surrender it. It is not merely or essentially that lawyers attached to the plantation interest dominated politics-after all, in a democratic society lawyers usually do. The main question is the social interests they serve, not their own class origins. Quantitative studies of social origin and class have solemnly revealed what every fool always knew: politicians are not them­selves usually bankers, industrialists, planters, or in general very rich men—at least not until they take office. The fact remains that the democratic movement in the South effectively removed the slavery question from politics and thereby guaranteed the property base of the slaveholding class—which is all a hegemonic politics is supposed to do.

This process of democratic expansion under slaveholder hegemony emerges from a critical view of antiaristocratic rhetoric. Consider some of the major recurring issues: a more equitable legislative apportion­ment; transfer of the state capital to the interior and away from the centers of entrenched wealth; credit and banking policies to aid debtors rather than creditors; internal improvements designed to open up those areas suitable to staple-crop production; and a final solution to the Indian question. In each case, we find the rhetoric of class war—the poor against the rich, the people (defined as white) against the aristocrats. But, “the people*’ turn out to be planters-on-the-make as well as yeoman farmers trying to move up the social and economic scale. In Mississippi, for example, the goal was to break the power of the arrogant nabobs of Natchez and to permit the rapid settlement and development of the interior. But that development always concerned the development of the slave-plantation system itself—of the extension of one side of the dual economy. The struggle, above all, pitted old and conservative slaveholders against bold new men whose commitment to the social order did not deviate one whit from that of the nabobs themselves. Room had to be made for free competition, which, despite pretenses, required public power in Mississippi as elsewhere. The new men re­quired new money, and the old banking monopoly, tailored to the limited interests of the Natchez aristocracy, had to give way before a policy that would create the credit necessary to buy land and slaves for the interior.

The demands, by their very nature, brought a significant portion of the planter class of the interior into coalition with the democratic yeo­manry, whose interests appeared largely the same. Thus, wealthier and more successful men in the interior easily assumed leadership of the movement. Among those of common interest, the men of wealth, education, and influence—or, at least, men who looked like a good bet to become so—were obviously better equipped to formulate policy. And when the crash came, the interior planters themselves retreated into the conservative policies they had helped overthrow: by that time, they were established and needed sound money rather than loose policies designed to advance the interests of some new competitors. By that time also, the farmers of the up-country as well as of the plantation belt had felt the ravages of speculative banking and were ready to accept the lure of hard money or at least fiscal responsibility. In short, so long as the yeomen accepted the existing master-slave relationship as either something to aspire to or something peripheral to their own lives, they were led step-by-step into willing acceptance of a subordinate position in society. They accepted that position not because they did not under­stand their interests, nor because they were panicked by racial fears, and certainly not because they were stupid, but because they saw them­selves as aspiring slaveholders or as nonslaveholding beneficiaries of a slaveholding world, the only world they knew. To have considered their position in any other terms would have required a herculean effort and a degree of sophistication capable of penetrating the indirect and subtle workings of the system as a whole.

It was not impossible that ordinary farmers could have accomplished that herculean effort and attained that sophistication. The secession crisis and especially the defection from the Confederacy demonstrated the fragility of the up-country’s loyalty to the regime. And even in the plantation belt, the slaveholders were by no means sure that such argu­ments as that of Hinton Helper would not take hold among a basically literate, politically experienced, and fiercely proud white population, if economic conditions deteriorated or free discussion was encouraged. The slaveholders contained the threat by preventing the message from reaching the people—by placing the slavery question beyond discussion. It did not, however, require a genius to recognize that a hostile free- soil regime in Washington, the constant agitation of the slavery question within the national Union, or some internal crisis that upset the delicate ideological balance within the South might lead to the emergence of an antislavery movement at home. Secession and independence had much to recommend them to the dominant propertyholders of so dangerous a world.

How loyal, then, were the nonslaveholders? Loyal enough to guaran­tee order at home through several tumultuous decades, loyal enough to allow the South to wage an improbable war in a hopeless cause for four heroic years. But by no means loyal enough to guarantee the future of the slaveholders’ power without additional measures. The full measurement of this problem lies ahead of us, although William Freeh- ling’s forthcoming book on the South in the fifties should answer many questions. But what seems especially clear is that the yeomanry, both of the up-country and of the plantation belt, have yet to receive the careful attention they deserve. Without it, much of the Southern experience must remain in the shadows.

Until recently, we knew little about the actual lives of the slaves, and many said we would never know because the data were not available. Yet, Rawick and Blassingame, Levine and Stuckey, and others as well, have demonstrated the value of the old adage, “Seek and ye shall find.” In retrospect, the work of Frank Owsley, Blanche Clark, Herbert Weaver, and others of their school appears all the more impressive despite sins against statistical method and a tendency toward romantic reconstruction. (10) Much as a new generation of scholars has been able to uncover the story of the slaves by taking a sympathetic view of their lives, their aspirations, their struggles for survival, so did the Owsley school point a similar direction with regard to the yeomen. One would hope that a new wave of research, however, will pay close attention to the fundamental cultural as well as economic cleavages that separated the farmers of the up-country from those of the plantation belt.

One thing is certain: we shall never understand fully the triumph and eventual demise of the slave system of the South, nor the secret of the slaveholders’ success in establishing their hegemony in society, nor the nature and extent of the persistent threat from below within that very hegemony until we study the daily lives, the religion, the family and courtship patterns, and the dreams of the ordinary farmers of the slave South—which means that we shall have to study them with the same kind of sympathetic understanding and fundamental respect that so many fine scholars are now bringing to the study.

1. See esp., Fletcher M. Green, Constitutional Development in the South Atlantic States, 1776-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1930); and “Democ­racy in the Old South,’’ Journal of Southern History 12 (February 1946): 3-23.

2. George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), esp. chap. 2.

3. Clement Eaton, The Freedom-of-Thought Struggle in the Old South (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).

4. Roger W. Shugg, Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana: A Social History of White Farmers and Laborers during Slavery and After, 1840-1875 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1939).

5. John Price, “Slavery in Winn Parish,” Louisiana History 8:2 (1967): 137-48.

6. Morton Rothstein, “The Antebellum South as a Dual Economy: A Tentative Hypothesis,” Agricultural History 41 (October 1967): 873-83. Of special relevance is a work formally addressed to French history but with far-reaching implications for many other parts of the world: Edward Whiting Fox, History in Geographic Per­spective: The Other France (New York: Norton, 1971).

7. See esp., James Byrne Ranck, Albert Gallatin Brown, Radical Southern Nation­alist (New York: Appleton-Century, 1937).

8. This well-studied subject might usefully be reinterpreted in the light of the insights advanced by Eric J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968), and Bandits (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969)

9. In short, the yeoman of the up-country and of the plantation both perceived slavery as embodying an organic social relationship, although they judged the effects differently. Their perception was accurate. I have tried to sketch that organic relationship in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1974), especially Book One.

 10.  Frank L. Owsley, Plain Folk of the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1950); Blanche Henry Clark, The Tennessee Yeoman, 1840-1860 (Nashville: University of Tennessee Press, 1942); Herbert Weaver, Mississippi Farmers, 1850-1860 (Nashville; University of Tennessee Press, 1946).

(Agricultural History, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), pp. 331-342)

I am sitting in a North Alabama conference room, furnished in Deep South church-basement Deco. The walls are pale cream, as are the tiles, with only the brown chairs and tables offsetting the wan interior. It’s the Volunteer Christmas Party at a local community services agency. The crowd is divided roughly fifty-fifty between black and white, all older women with only two men, me and one other. This overwhelming sex imbalance reflects the nature of volunteering, where it is women more so than men who get involved with community issues, including visiting the frail, shut-in elderly and tending to the sick.

Speaking of the small, black church nurse corps – where women who do this work of unpaid caring for others – Noel Ignatiev once wrote that this mutual aid and non-professional caring was the essence of socialism. Perhaps it is. But also probable as a scenario is the same church group driving out an unmarried mother by whispering and shunning because of her “sin.” The two sides go hand in hand. The Southern church can both envelop in non-commodified compassion or it can become a boa constrictor wielded against the outcasts and non-conformists, suffocating the different.

I strike a conversation with an elderly black woman sitting next to me. We slip into an easy informality. I gather from her conversation she must be in her seventies, even if she looks much younger. Her story is that of many working-class Southern women, black and white. Taking care of children and one set of dying relatives after another, from parents to spouses. Unlike the professional middle-class, who can wall themselves off by having the coins to hire outside help to provide caring so they can pursue their precious careers in the market place, working class women are confronted life-long with a double-burden of care and employment.

The inspirational speaker, the improbably named Reverend Equator Black,  strides in with a broad smile, a tall string bean of a man with a long, sad face like an itinerant Delta blues singer and dressed to the nines in a pinstriped suit. The Reverend is 96 years old, and still works every day farming. He tells snatches of his life story: bootlegging as a child during the Depression, “whore-mongering” across the South before he got “The Word,” a stint working in steel up north in Pittsburgh, truck driving – he’s done it all. He then performs a brief shimmy that’s a cross between a Chuck Berry cakewalk and a Limbo, to audible gasps in the room, showing how limber he is nearing 100 and of course, “thanks to the Lord.”

He starts preaching, citing Bible quotes and then putting the microphone in front of one of the audience to complete the Bible passage. But to me, as a non-believer, it strikes me as sometimes forced and formulaic, which in fact it is. Call and repetition, however, strikes a chord with this group. Yet, like much of today’s religion in the United States, it comes off as self-centered. God is an insurance policy, for people that don’t have insurance policies. The Lord is all-powerful and has time, in His busy schedule, to personally oversee every act of His flock. I don’t hear much social aspect, that this type of religion makes you better so you can help others.

But at the same time it counsels waiting for Divine Intervention or blessings, it holds out a distorted, but real vision, of a better future, nourishing hopes in barren grounds. Yet this is the same privatized religious impulse that can swiftly change under the right social conditions to become a critique of the powerful and a demand for justice on earth, such as happened in the Southern Civil Rights movement. It is also a shield against dissipation in the wider world, a talisman burnished against the siren-song slop of consumer culture. However rigid and narrow it can seem to outsiders, you don’t find  in it the corroding dissatisfaction that cripples so many other American lives, even if the “Gospel of Prosperity” and its  snake-oil peddlers such as Reverend T.J. Jakes are steadily whittling away at these rich, older rural South traditions.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Resistance To Slavery

George M. Fredrickson and Christopher Lasch

Posted November 12

The issues involved in the study of “resistance” to slavery are badly in need of clarification. The problem, one would suppose, is not whether the plantation slave was happy with his lot but whether he actively resisted it. But even this initial clarification does not come easily. Too many writers have assumed that the problem of resistance consists mainly of deciding whether slaves were docile or discontented and whether their masters were cruel or kind. In this respect and in others, as Stanley Elkins noted several years ago, the discussion of slavery has locked itself into the terms of an old debate. (1) The pro-slavery stereotype of the contented slave, which was taken over without much conceptual refinement by U. B. Phillips and others, has been attacked by recent historians in language much the same as that employed by the abolitionists more than a hundred years ago, according to which slaves hated bondage and longed to be free. “That they had no understanding of freedom,” Kenneth Stampp argues, “… is hard to believe.” A few pages later, and without any intervening evidence, Stampp progresses from this cautious thought to a fullblown statement of the case for “resistance.” “Slave resistance, whether bold and persistent or mild and sporadic, created for all slaveholders a serious problem of discipline.” He concludes, in a burst of rhetoric, that “the record of slave resistance forms a chapter in the story of the end-less struggle to give dignity to human life.”(2)

It should be apparent that the traditional terms of reference, on either side of the dispute, are not sufficiently precise to serve as instruments of analysis. One of the faults of Phillips’ work is his consistent failure to distinguish between cruelty and coercion. By compiling instances of the kindness and benevolence of masters, Phillips proved to his own satisfaction that slavery was a mild and permissive institution, the primary function of which was not so much to produce a marketable surplus as to ease the accommodation of the lower race into the culture of the higher. The critics of Phillips have tried to meet him on his own ground. Where he compiled lists of indulgences and benefactions, they have assembled lists of atrocities. Both methods suffer from the same defect: they attempt to solve a conceptual problem—what did slavery do to the slave—by accumulating quantitative evidence. Both methods assert that plantations conformed to one of two patterns, terror or indulgence, and then seek to prove these assertions by accumulating evidence from plantation diaries, manuals of discipline, letters and other traditional sources for the study of slavery. But for every instance of physical cruelty on the one side an enterprising historian can find an instance of indulgence on the other. The only conclusion that one can legitimately draw from this debate is that great variations in treatment existed from plantation to plantation. (But as we shall see, this conclusion, barren in itself, can be made to yield important results if one knows how to use it.)

Even if we could make valid generalizations about the severity of the regime, these statements would not automatically answer the question of whether or not widespread resistance took place. If we are to accept the testimony of Frederick Douglass, resistance was more likely to result from indulgence and rising expectations than from brutalizing severity. (3) A recent study of the geographical distribution of authentic slave revolts shows that most of them occurred in cities and in areas of slavebreeding and diversified agriculture, where, according to all accounts, the regime was more indulgent than in the productive plantation districts of the Cotton Kingdom. (4) Open resistance cannot be inferred from the extreme physical cruelty of the slave system, even if the system’s cruelty could be demonstrated statistically.


There is the further question of what constitutes resistance. When Kenneth Stampp uses the term he means much more than open and flagrant defiance of the system. To him resistance is all noncooperation on the part of the slaves. And it cannot be denied that the annals of slavery abound in examples of this kind of behavior. Slaves avoided work by pretending to be sick or by inventing a hundred other plausible pretexts. They worked so inefficiently as to give rise to the sus-picion that they were deliberately sabotaging the crop. They stole from their masters without compunction, a fact which gave rise to the complaint that slaves had no moral sense, but which is better interpreted as evidence of a double standard—cheating the master while dealing honorably with other slaves. Nor was this all. Their grievances or frustrations led at times to the willful destruction of the master’s property by destroying tools, mistreating animals, and setting fire to plantation buildings. Less frequently, they took the ultimate step of violent attack on the master himself. Perhaps the most common form of obvious noncooperation was running away; every large plantation had its share of fugitives.(5)

The question which inevitably arises, as Stampp piles up incident after incident in order to show that slaves were “a troublesome property,” is whether this pattern of noncooperation constitutes resistance.

Resistance is a political concept. Political activity, in the strictest sense, is organized collective action which aims at affecting the distribution of power in a community; more broadly, it might be said to consist of any activity, either of individuals or of groups, which is designed to create a consciousness of collective interest, such consciousness being the prerequisite for effective action in the realm of power. Organized resistance is of course only one form of political action. Others include interest-group politics; coalitions of interest groups organized as factions or parties; reform movements; or, at an international level, diplomacy and war. In total institutions, however, conventional politics are necessarily nonexistent. (6) Politics, if they exist at all, must take the form of resistance: collective action designed to subvert the system, to facilitate and regularize escape from it; or, at the very least, to force important changes in it.

Among despised and downtrodden people in general, the most rudimentary form of political action is violence; sporadic and usually short-lived outbursts of destruction, based on a common sense of out-rage and sometimes inspired by a millennialistic ideology. Peasant revolts all over the world, have usually conformed to this type. (7) In total institutions, prison riots are perhaps the nearest equivalent. In American slavery, the few documented slave rebellions fall into the same pattern. (8) What makes these upheavals political at all is that they rest on some sense, however primitive, of collective victimization. They require, moreover, at least a minimum of organization and planning. What makes them rudimentary is that they do not aim so much at changing the balance of power as at giving expression on the one hand to apocalyptic visions of retribution, and on the other to an immediate thirst for vengeance directed more at particular individuals than at larger systems of authority. In the one case, the sense of grievance finds an outlet in indiscriminate violence ( as against Jews ) ; in the other, it attaches itself to a particular embodiment of authority (as in prisons, where a specific departure from established routine may set off a strike or riot demanding the authority’s dismissal and a return to the previous regime). But in neither case does collective action rest on a realistic perception of the institutional structure as a whole and the collective interest of its victims in subverting it. That explains why such outbreaks of violence tend to subside very quick-ly, leaving the exploitive structure intact. Underground resistance to the Nazis in western Europe, on the other hand, precisely because it expressed itself in an organized underground instead of in futile outbreaks of indiscriminate violence, had a continuous existence which testifies to the highly political character of its objectives.

It is easy to show that Negro slaves did not always cooperate with the system of slavery. It is another matter to prove that noncooperation amounted to political resistance. Malingering may have reflected no more than a disinclination to work, especially when the rewards were so meager. Likewise, what is taken for sabotage may have originated in apathy and indifference. Acts of violence are subject to varying interpretations. If there is something undeniably political about an organized, premeditated rebellion, an isolated act of violence could arise from a purely personal grievance. Even the motive of flight is obscure: was it an impulse, prompted by some special and immediate affront, or was it desertion, a sort of separate peace?

These acts in themselves tell us very little. We begin to understand them only when we understand the conceptual distinction between resistance and noncooperation; and even then, we still feel the need of a more general set of conceptions, derived from recorded experience, to which slavery—an unrecorded experience, except from the masters’ point of view—can be compared; some general model which will enable us to grasp imaginatively the system as a whole.


Only the testimony of the slaves could tell us, once and for all, whether slaves resisted slavery. In the absence of their testimony, it is tempting to resort to analogies. Indeed it is almost impossible to avoid them. Those who condemn analogies, pretending to argue from the documentary evidence alone, delude themselves. Resistance to slavery cannot be established (any more than any other general conception of the institution can be established) without making an implicit analogy between Negro slavery and the struggles of free men, in our own time, “to give dignity to human life” by resisting oppression. The question, in the case of slavery, is not whether historians should argue from analogy but whether they are willing to make their analogies explicit.

Stanley Elkins compares slavery to the Nazi concentration camps and concludes that the effect of slavery was to break down the slave adult personality and to reduce him to a state of infantile dependence, comparable to the condition observed by survivors of the concentration camps. In evaluating this particular analogy, we are entitled to ask how well it explains what we actually know about slavery. In one respect, it explains too much. It explains the fact that there were no slave rebellions in the United States comparable to those which took place in Latin America, but it also rules out the possibility of noncooperation. Elkins’ analogy suggests a state of internalized dependency that does not fit the facts of widespread intransigence, insubordination, and mischief-making. Stampp may not adequately explain this pattern of behavior, but he convinces us that it existed. Elkins is open to criticism on empirical grounds for failing to take into account a vast amount of evidence that does not fit his theory of slave behavior. Many of Elkins’ critics, however, have not concerned themselves with the substance of his analogy. Raising neither empirical nor theoretical objections against it, they have seized on its mere existence as a means of discrediting Elkins’ work. He should rather be congratulated for having made the analogy explicit, thereby introducing into the study of slavery the lands of questions that modem studies of total institutions have dealt with far more systematically than conventional studies of slavery.

Elkins was careful to emphasize the limits of the comparison. He did not argue that the plantation resembled a concentration camp with respect to intentions or motives; “even ‘cruelty,’ ” he added, “was not indispensable as an item in my equation.” His “essentially limited purpose” in bringing the two institutions together was to show the psychological effects of closed systems of control; and the objections to the analogy may after all derive not from the analogy itself but from a tendency, among Elkins’ critics, to take it too literally. As Elkins observes, the “very vividness and particularity [of analogies] are coercive: they are almost too concrete. One’s impulse is thus to reach for extremes. The thing is either taken whole hog . . .; or it is rejected out of hand on the ground that not all of the parts fit.”

It is precisely because all the parts don’t fit that an analogy is an analogy rather than a literal correspondence, and it ought to be enough, therefore, if just one of the parts demonstrably fits.(9)

The real objection to Elkins’ analogy is not that analogies in themselves are pernicious but that there is no compelling theoretical reason, in this case, to stop with one. The concentration camp is only one of many total institutions with which slavery might have been compared; a total institution being defined, in Erving Goffman’s words, as “a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life.”(10) An excellent example—the one, indeed, that springs immediately to mind—is the prison, “providing,” Goffman says, that “we appreciate that what is prison-like about prisons is found in institutions whose members have broken no laws.”(11) In several respects, prisons, especially penitentiaries, are more analogous to plantation slavery than concentration camps. Prisons are not, like the concentration camps, designed as experiments in deliberate dehumanization, although they often have dehumanizing effects; in this respect the motive behind the system more nearly approximates that of slavery than of the concentration camp. More important, the problem of control is more nearly analogous. The disproportion between the authority of the guards and the impotence of the inmates is not absolute, as it was at Dachau and Buchenwald, but subject, as it seems to have been under slavery, to a number of variables—the temperament of the guard or master, the composition of the prisoners or slaves, the immediate history of the institutions involved.

Prison officials, like slaveowners and overseers, face a constant problem of noncooperation. “Far from being omnipotent rulers who have crushed all signs of rebellion against their regime, the custodians are engaged in a continuous struggle to maintain order—and it is a struggle in which the custodians frequently fail.” (12) This situation occurs, according to the sociologist Gresham Sykes, because although the custodians enjoy an absolute monopoly of the means of violence, their enormous power does not rest on authority; that is, on “a rightful or legitimate effort to exercise control,” which inspires in the governed an internalized sense of obligation to obey. In the absence of a sense of duty among the prisoners, the guards have to rely on a system of rewards, incentives, punishments, and coercion. But none of these methods can be carried too far without reaching dangerous extremes of laxity or demoralization. As in most total institutions—the concentration camp being a conspicuous exception—rigid standards of discipline tend to give way before the need to keep things running smooth-ly without undue effort on the part of the custodians. An absolute monopoly of violence can be used to achieve a state of total terror, but it cannot persuade men to work at their jobs or move “more than 1,200 inmates through the mess hall in a routine and orderly fashion.”(13)

The result, in the maximum-security prison, is a system of compromises, an uneasy give-and-take which gives prisoners a limited leverage within the system. To the extent that this adjustment limits the power of the guards, a corruption of authority takes place. (14)

Plantation literature produces numerous parallels. We can read the masters’ incessant and heartfelt complaints about the laziness, the inefficiency, and the intractibility of slaves; the difficulty of getting them to work; the difficulty of enlisting their cooperation in any activity that had to be sustained over a period of time. We can read about the system of rewards and punishments, spelled out by the master in such detail, the significance of which, we can now see, was that it had had to be resorted to precisely in the degree to which a sense of internalized obedience had failed. We see the same limitation on terror and physical coercion as has been observed in the prison; for even less than the prison authorities could the planter tolerate the demoralization resulting from an excess of violence. We can even see the same “corruption of authority” in the fact that illicit slave behavior, especially minor theft, was often tolerated by the masters in order to avoid unnecessary friction.

One of the most curious features of the “society of captives,” as described by Sykes is this: that while most of the prisoners recognize the legitimacy of their imprisonment and the controls to which they are subjected, they lack any internalized sense of obligation to obey them. “The bond between recognition of the legitimacy of control and the sense of duty has been tom apart.” (15) This fact about prisons makes it possible to understand a puzzling feature of the contemporary literature on slavery, which neither the model of submission nor that of resistance explains—the curious contradiction between the difficulty of discipline and the slaves’ professed devotion to their masters. Those who argue that the slaves resisted slavery have to explain away their devotion as pure hypocrisy. But it is possible to accept it as sincere without endorsing the opposite view—even in the sophisticated form in which it has been cast by Stanley Elkins—that slaves were children.

The sociology of total institutions provides a theory with which to reconcile the contradiction. “The custodial institution,” Sykes argues, “is valuable for a theory of human behavior because it makes us realize that men need not be motivated to conform to a regime which they define as rightful.” (16) It is theoretically possible, in short, that slaves could have accepted the legitimacy of their masters’ authority without feeling any sense of obligation to obey it. The evidence of the masters themselves makes this conclusion seem not only possible but highly probable. Logic, moreover, supports this view. For how could a system that rigorously defined the Negro slave not merely as an in-ferior but as an alien, a separate order of being, inspire him with the sense of belonging on which internalized obedience necessarily has to rest?


It might be argued, however, that slaves developed a sense of obedience by default, having had no taste of life outside slavery which would have made them dissatisfied, by contrast, with their treatment as slaves. It might be argued that the convict’s dissatisfaction with prison conditions and the insubordination that results derives from his sense of the outside world and the satisfactions it normally provides; and that such a perspective must have been lacking on the plantation. Elkins, in denying the possibility of any sort of accommodation to slavery short of the complete assimilation of the master’s authority by the slave, contends that a consciously defensive posture could not exist, given the total authority of the master and the lack of “alternative forces for moral and psychological orientation.”17 This objection loses its force, however, if it can be shown that the slave did in fact have chances to develop independent standards of personal satisfaction and fair treatment within the system of slavery itself.

Such standards would have made possible a hedonistic strategy of accommodation, and in cases where such a strategy failed, strong feelings of personal grievance.

It is true that the plantation sealed itself off from the world, depriving the slave of nearly every influence that would have lifted him out of himself into a larger awareness of slavery as an oppressive social system which, by its very nature, denied him normal satisfaction. In order to understand why slaves did not, as Elkins suggests, become totally submissive and ready to accept any form of cruelty and humiliation, it is necessary to focus on an aspect of slavery which has been almost totally ignored in discussion of slave personality. The typical slave, although born into slavery, was not likely to spend his entire life, or indeed any considerable part of it, under a single regime. The slave child could anticipate many changes of situation. It would appear likely, from what we know of the extent of the slave trade, that most slaves changed hands at least once in their lives; slave narratives and recollections suggest that it was not at all uncommon for a single slave to belong to several masters in the course of his lifetime of servitude. In addition, the prevalence of slave-hiring, especially in the upper South, meant that many slaves experienced a temporary change of regime. Even if a slave remained on the same plantation, things could change drastically, as the result of death and the accession of an heir, or from a change of overseer (especially significant in cases of absentee ownership). (18) Given the wide variation in standards of treatment and management techniques—a variation which, we suggested earlier, seems the one inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the traditional scholarship on the management of slaves—we are left with a situation that must have had important psychological implications. An individual slave might—like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom—experience slavery both at its mildest and at its harshest. He might be sold from an indulgent master to a cruel one or vice versa. He might go from a farm where he maintained a close and intimate relationship with his master to a huge impersonal “factory in the fields,” where his actual master would be only a dim presence. These changes in situation led many slaves to develop standards of their own about how they ought to be treated and even to diffuse these standards among the stationary slave population. By comparing his less onerous lot under a previous master to his present hard one, a slave could develop a real sense of grievance and communicate it to others.(19) Similarly, slaves were quick to take advantage of any new leniency or laxity in control. (20) Hence it is quite possible to account for widespread noncooperation among slaves as resulting from a rudimentary sense of justice acquired entirely within the system of slavery itself. These standards would have served the same function as the standards convicts bring from the outside world into the prison. At the same time it is necessary to insist once again that they give rise to a pattern of intransigence which is hedonistic rather than political, accommodationist rather than revolutionary.

If this picture of slave motivation is less morally sublime than contemporary liberals and radicals would like, it should not be construed as constituting, in any sense, a moral judgment on the Negro slave.

Sporadic noncooperation within a broad framework of accommodation was the natural and inevitable response to plantation slavery. It should go without saying that white men born into the same system would have acted in the same way. Indeed, this is the way they have been observed to act in modern situations analogous to slavery. In total institutions, the conditions for sustained resistance are generally wanting—a fact that is insufficiently appreciated by those armchair moralists who like to make judgments at a safe distance about the possibilities of resistance to totalitarianism. Rebellions and mutinies “seem to be the exception,” Erving Goffman observes, “not the rule.”

Group loyalty is very tenuous, even though “the expectation that group loyalty should prevail forms part of the inmate culture and underlies the hostility accorded to those who break inmate solidarity.” (21)

Instead of banding together, inmates of total institutions typically pursue various personal strategies of accommodation. Goffman describes four lines of adaptation, but it is important to note that although these are analytically distinguishable, “the same inmate will employ different personal lines of adaptation at different phases in his moral career and may even alternate among different tacks at the same time.” “Situational withdrawal,” a fatalistic apathy, is the condition into which many inmates of concentration camps rapidly de-scended, with disastrous psychic consequences to themselves; it undoubtedly took its toll among slaves newly arrived from Africa during the colonial period. “Colonization,” which in some cases can be regarded as another type of institutional neurosis, rests on a conscious decision that life in the institution is preferable to life in the outside. . . There are no definite communal objectives. There is no consensus for a common goal. The inmates’ conflict with officialdom and opposition toward society is only slightly greater in degree than conflict and opposition among themselves. Trickery and dishonesty overshadow sympathy and cooperation. . . . It is a world of I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine,’ rather than ‘ours/ ‘theirs, and his.’ “

Clemmer adds, p. 293: “Such collective action of protest as does arise, comes out of an immediate situation in which they themselves are involved, and not as protest to an idea.”

world. Colonization, in turn, must be distinguished from “conversion,” the inmate’s internalization of the view of himself held by those in power. In Negro slavery, this is the “Sambo” role and is accompanied, as in the concentration camp, by an infantile sense of dependence. Colonization, on the other hand, would apply to the very small number of slaves who agreed to reenslavement after a period as free Negroes. (22)

The fourth type of accommodation is “intransigence,” which should not be confused with resistance. The latter presupposes a sense of solidarity and an underground organization of inmates. Intransigence is a personal strategy of survival, and although it can sometimes help to sustain a high morale, it can just as easily lead to futile and even self-destructive acts of defiance. In slavery, there was a substantial minority who were written off by their masters as chronic trouble-makers, “bad niggers,” and an even larger group who indulged in occasional insubordination. It is precisely the pervasiveness of “intransigence” that made slaves, like convicts, so difficult to manage, lead-ing to the corruption of authority analyzed above. But as we have already tried to show, there is nothing about intransigence that precludes a partial acceptance of the values of the institution. In fact, Goffman observes that the most defiant of inmates are paradoxically those who are mostly completely caught up in the daily round of institutional life. “Sustained rejection of a total institution often requires sustained orientation to its formal organization, and hence, paradoxically, a deep kind of involvement in the establishment.” (23)

The same immersion in the institutional routine that makes some inmates so easy to manage makes other peculiarly sensitive to disruptions of the routine, jealous of their “rights” under the system.

Indeed, periods of intransigence can alternate, in the same person, with colonization, conversion, and even with periods of withdrawal.

The concentration camp was unique among total institutions in confronting the typical prisoner with a choice between situational withdrawal, which meant death, and conversion, which, in the absence of alternatives, came to dominate the personality as a fully internalized role. In other total institutions, however, all four roles can be played to some extent, and “few inmates seem to pursue any one of them  very far. In most total institutions most inmates take the tack of what some of them call ‘playing it cool’ This involves a somewhat opportunistic combination of secondary adjustments, conversion, colonization, and loyalty to the inmate group, so that the inmate will have a maximum chance, in the particular circumstances, of eventually getting out physically and psychologically undamaged.” (24) The slave had no real prospect of “getting out,” but unless he was infantilized—a hypothesis that now seems quite untenable—he had a powerful stake in psychic survival. He had every reason to play it cool; and what is more, slavery gave him plenty of opportunities.

But the most compelling consideration in favor of this interpretation of slavery is that the very ways in which slavery differed from other total institutions would have actually reinforced and stabilized the pattern of opportunistic response that we have described. The most obvious objection to an analogy between slavery and the prison, the mental hospital, or any other institution of this kind is that slaves for the most part were born into slavery rather than coming in from the outside as adults; nor did most of them have any hope of getting out.

We have answered these objections in various ways, but before leaving the matter we should point out that there is, in fact, a class of people in modern asylums—a minority, to be sure—who spend the better part of their lives in institutions of one kind or another. “Lower class mental hospital patients,” for instance, “who have lived all their previous lives in orphanages, reformatories, and jails,” are people whose experience in this respect approximates the slave’s, especially the slave who served a series of masters. As a result of their continuous confinement, such patients have developed a kind of institutional personality. But they are not, as one might expect, Sambos—genuine con-erts to the institutional view of themselves. Quite the contrary; these people are the master-opportunists, for whom “no particular scheme of adaptation need be carried very far.” (25) They have “perfected their adaptive techniques,” experience having taught them a supreme versatility; and they are therefore likely to play it cool with more success than those brought in from the outside and incarcerated for the first time. These are the virtuosos of the system, neither docile nor rebellious, who spend their lives in skillful and somewhat cynical attempts to beat the system at its own game.


There is a passage in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative that suggests how difficult it was even for an ex-slave—an unusually perceptive observer, in this case—to understand his former victimization without resorting to categories derived from experiences quite alien to slavery, categories that reflected the consciousness not of the slaves themselves but, in one way or another, the consciousness of the master-class.

Douglass described how eagerly the slaves on Colonel Lloyd’s Maryland plantations vied for the privilege of running errands to the Great House Farm, the master’s residence and home plantation. The slaves “regarded it as evidence of great confidence reposed in them by the overseers; and it was on this account, as well as a constant desire to be out of the field from under the driver’s lash, that they esteemed it a high privilege, one worth careful living for. He was called the smartest and most trusty fellow, who had this honor conferred upon him the most frequently.”

Then follows a passage of unusual vividness and poignancy: The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. . . . They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. Into all of their songs they would manage to weave something of the Great House Farm. Especially would they do this, when leaving home. They would then sing most exultingly the following words:—

I am going away to the Great House Farm!

O, yea! O, yea! O!

This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.

But as these passages so clearly show, the “horrible character of slavery” did not he, as the abolitionists tended to think, in the deprivations to which the slaves were forcibly subjected—deprivations which, resenting, they resisted with whatever means came to hand-but in the degree to which the slaves (even in their “intransigence”) inevitably identified themselves with the system that bound and confined them, lending themselves to their own degradation. In vying for favors they “sought as diligently to please their overseers,” Douglass says, “as the office-seekers in the political parties seek to please and deceive the people.” (28)

Even more revealing are the reflections that follow. “I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear.” It was only from without that the slave songs revealed themselves as “the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish-anguish, it should be noted, which expressed itself disjointedly, “the most pathetic sentiment” being set to “the most rapturous tone.” It was only from without that the “dehumanizing character of slavery” showed itself precisely in the slave’s incapacity to resist; but this perception, once gained, immediately distorted the reality to which it was applied. Douglass slides imperceptibly from these unforgettable evocations of slavery to an abolitionist polemic. It is a great mistake, he argued, to listen to slaves’ songs “as evidence of their contentment and happiness.” On the contrary, “slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.” Yet the slaves whose “wild songs” he has just described were those who were “peculiarly enthusiastic,” by his own account, to be sent to the Great House Farm, and who sang “exultingly” along the way. The ambiguity of the reality begins to fade when seen through the filter of liberal humanitarianism, and whereas the songs revealed “at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness,” in Douglass’ own words, as an abolitionist he feels it necessary to insist that “crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery.” (27)

If the abolitionist lens distorted the “horrible character” of slavery, the picture of the docile and apparently contented bondsman was no more faithful to the reality it purported to depict. But this should not surprise us. It is not often that men understand, or even truly see, those whom in charity they would uplift. How much less often do they understand those they exploit?


1 Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago, 1959), Ch. I.

2 Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution (New York, 1956), pp. 88, 91.

3 Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Cambridge, 1960), pp. 132-133.

4 Martin D. de B. Kilson, “Towards Freedom: An Analysis of Slave Revolts in the United States,” Phylon, XXV ( 1964), 179-183.

5. Stampp, Peculiar Institution, Ch. III.

6. Total institutions are distinguished not by the absolute power of the authorities—a definition which, as will become clear, prejudges an important issue—but by the fact that they are self-contained, so that every detail of life is regulated in accordance with the dominant purpose of the institution. Whether that purpose is defined as healing, punishment, forced labor, or (in the case of the concentration camps) terror, all total institutions are set up in such a way as to preclude any form of politics based on consent.

7. See E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Manchester, 1959); Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York, 1957).

8. Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, the only significant slave uprising in the period 1820-1860 that got beyond the plotting stage, would seem to be com parable to a millennialist peasants’ revolt. Turner was a preacher who, according to his own testimony, received the visitation of a spirit commanding him to “fight against the serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” Quoted in Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York, 1943), p. 296. See also Aptheker, Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion (New York, 1966).

9. Elkins, Slavery, pp. 104, 226.

10. Erving Goffman, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (Garden City, 1961; Chicago, 1962), p. xiii.

11. Ibid.

12. Gresham M. Sykes, The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison (Princeton, 1958), p. 42.

13. Ibid., p. 49.

14. Ibid., pp. 52-58.

15. ibid., p. 46.

16 Ibid., p. 48.

17. Elkins, Slavery, p. 133n.

18.  Frederic Bancroft, in Slave Trading in the Old South (New York, 1959), concludes (pp. 382-406) that more than 700,000 slaves were transported from the upper South to the cotton kingdom in the years 1830-1860, and that most went by way of the slave trade. He also estimates (p. 405) that in the decade 1850-1860 an annual average of approximately 140,000 slaves were sold, inter-state or intrastate, or hired out by their masters. This meant that one slave in twenty-five changed his de facto master in a given year. When we add to these regular exchanges the informal transfers that went on within families, we get some idea of the instability which characterized the slave’s situation in an expansive and dynamic agricultural economy. The way slaves were sometimes shuttled about is reflected in several of the slave narratives, especially Frederick Douglass, Narrative; Solomon Northrop, Twelve Years a Slave (Auburn, Buffalo, and London, 1853); and [Charles Ball] Fifty Years in Chains: Or the Life of an American Slave (New York, 1858).

19. Positive evidence of this development of internal standards and of the vacillation between contentment and dissatisfaction to which it gave rise is as difficult to find as evidence on any other aspect of slave psychology. As we have indicated, adequate records of personal slave response simply do not exist.

There is, however, some indication of this process in the slave narratives and recollections. One of the most revealing of the slave narratives is Charles Ball, Fifty Years in Chains. Ball’s account seems huer than most to the reality of slavery because, unlike most fugitives, he escaped from servitude at an age when it was difficult for him to acquire new habits of thought from his free status and association with abolitionists. Ball recounts the common experience of being sold from the upper South with its relatively mild and permissive regime into the more rigorous plantation slavery farther south. Upon his arrival on a large South Carolina cotton plantation, Ball, who was from Maryland, makes the acquaintance of a slave from northern Virginia who tells him what he can now expect. “He gave me such an account of the suffering of the slaves, on the cotton and indigo plantations—of whom I now regarded myself as one—that I was unable to sleep this night.” (pp. 103-104.) Later, he describes himself as “far from the place of my nativity, in a land of strangers, with no one to care for me beyond the care that a master bestows upon his ox . . .” (p. 115). The regime is indeed a harsh one, and he feels very dissatisfied, except on Sunday when he is taken up by the general hilarity that prevails in the slave quarters on the holiday. Eventually, however, he experiences a temporary improvement in his situation when he is given to his master’s new son-in-law, who seems kindly and permissive. In a remarkable description of slave hedonism, Ball recalls his state of mind. “I now felt assured that all my troubles in this world were ended, and that, in future, I might look forward to a life of happiness and ease, for I did not consider labor any hardship, if I was well provided with good food and clothes, and my other wants properly regarded.” (p. 266.) This is too good to last, however; and Ball’s new master dies, leaving him in the hands of another man, “of whom, when I considered the part of the country from whence he came, which had always been represented to me-as distinguished for the cruelty with which slaves were treated, I had no reason to expect much that was good.” (pp. 271-272.) His new master turns out to be much less harsh than anticipated, but the master’s wife, a woman with sadistic tendencies, takes a positive dislike to Ball and resents her husband’s paternal attitude toward him. When the master dies, Ball recognizes his situation as intolerable and resolves upon flight. ( p. 307. ) Ball’s narrative reveals the way in which a slave could evaluate his changes of condition by standards of comfort and accommodation derived from experience within the system itself. In desperate situations, this evaluation could lead to extreme forms of noncooperation.

Despite the fact that he was recalling his experience after having escaped from slavery and, presumably, after coming under the influence of northern antislavery sentiment, Ball’s general attitude remained remarkably accommodationist, at least in respect to slavery at its best. In a revealing passage, he notes that the typical slave lacks a real sense of identity of interest with his master, is jealous of his prerogatives, and steals from him without qualms. Yet, Ball concludes, there “is in fact, a mutual dependence between the master and his slave. The former could not acquire anything without the labor of the latter, and the latter would always remain in poverty without the judgment of the former in directing labor to a definite and profitable result.” (p. 219.)

20. See Stampp, Peculiar Institution, pp. 104-108.

21 Goffman, Asylums, pp. 18-19. Cf. Donald Clemmer, The Prison Community (New York, 1958), pp. 297-298: “The prisoner’s world is an atomized world. “

22. Colonization, while uncommon among slaves, is frequently encountered in prisons and particularly in mental institutions. The high rate of recidivism among convicts and the frequency with which mental patients are sent back to asylums reflect not simply a relapse into a former sickness which the institution did not cure, but in many cases, a sickness which the institution itself created—an institutional neurosis which has its own peculiar characteristics, the most outstanding of which is the inability to function outside systems of total control.

23. Goffman, Asylums, p. 62.

24.  Ibid., pp. 64-65.

25. Ibid., pp. 65-66.

26. Douglas, Narrative, pp. 35-37. 

27. Ibid., pp. 37-38.

(Civil War History, Volume 13, Number 4, December 1967, pp. 315-329 )

“Boss Lady’s” Slide into the Great Big Nothing

By Curtis Price

Posted October 15th, 2021

 They thought she could never die, so often had she escaped death, even after she got on dialysis and chain-smoked away with oxygen tank on. But finally she was dead, lying in the red velvet coffin with that same hardened look of pure meanness she wore all her life. They knew she had truly died because someone stole the diamond rings off her still-warm fingers after she had gasped her last breath, an act that would have warranted a stabbing or pistol-whipping when she was alive.

“Boss Lady” had come down South from the mean streets of East Detroit – the Mack Avenues and Jefferson Streets – after her mother was stabbed to death. The murderer was never found, and, in all truth, probably not sought too much; after all, what was one more, early, poor black death in Motor City? Relatives in Alabama took the family in. Years later, rumors circulated that “Boss Lady” had killed her mother to get money to buy heroin. Whether it was true or not was beside the point. It was believable.

“Boss Lady” hit the streets running. At first, she was doing stick-ups. But then she graduated to running a boosting ring, made up of crack addicts who would go out to the Huntsville suburbs and shoplift. All they got for their efforts was a place to lay their head and a few rocks to smoke. “Boss Lady” kept the rest, which she fenced at substantial profit. Crime, after all, is just another form of capitalism so her profiting off others should come as no surprise.

Soon, “Boss Lady” expanded her business enterprise. She became a major crack dealer in Northern Alabama, picking up shipments from Houston and New Orleans. Many of her expanding network of minions, as well as rivals in the game, took falls, but she survived unscathed, leading some people to whisper she was ratting people out. Her ruthlessness was the stuff of legend; once, in a bar argument, she stubbed her cigarette in a woman’s eye. She was the enforcer, keeping order in her own crew and as a woman in a man’s world, had to be tougher, more vicious.

I met her after her prime, after she finally ended up doing a long bit in the Federal pen. She was still doing her thing, but others had stepped in and taken chunks of her market. Again, street-level capitalism is no different from its “respectable” counter-part of Brooks Brother suits and board rooms. You crush competitors, you win over rivals’ customer base.

We had a mutual friend in common, someone who had known her for decades. We ate a few time collectively in those all-you-can-eat down-market Chinese buffets, the kind where a vague, musty smell wafted through the dining area; the kind where women, bent over scooping ice cream, let long hair dangle in the food. It was a cuisine that made TV dinners look like Michelin and who knew if the mystery meat, which never tasted like the labels, was some stray neighborhood dog or cat, as rumors had it. These buffets were – and continue – to be popular with working-class people because eating there is one area of their lives where there are no limits, no constraints. The ultimate cost of the ticket, though, only tallies up later down the road: in obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, those three Pale Horsemen stalking the blue-collar South.

Our common friend had told me her history, but warned never to let her know. She, of course, knew that I knew, while pretending she didn’t know that I knew and I did the same in return, a kind of mashup “Victor/Victoria” verbal role play. I liked her, even though I found her draining to be around for too long. She had the sleek demeanor of an apex predator always on the prowl.

But it was also like admiring a beautiful, coiled, poisonous snake, with multi-hued scales: you admired it from afar; you didn’t want to get too close. She asked for my number and we texted innocuous texts a couple times, but that was it. Until several years later out of the blue, she accidentally sent me pix of a couple bricks of white-whatever, a photo destined for someone else with the same first name. She told me to delete it, which I did. But I never saw her again.

“Boss Lady” died surrounded by her courtesans, but they secretly hated her and she returned the favor, never trusting anyone around her. She knew her strength was ebbing and that dark day was dawning. She wanted to immerse herself in the presence of people, even if these people were just grinning in her face. No one liked her; she was feared more than respected – but never liked. When the news got out of her death, many in black Huntsville secretly cheered.

Our mutual friend said she won’t be “peddling her poison anymore.” But I kind of admired her in a cool, clinical sense. She had grown up with nothing and never learned how to read or write. But despite the deck stacked against her, she ended up with a nice house, a couple cars, and money in the bank. She was never one to flash her wealth. Her sisters, on the other hand, were living in the projects, with multiple children, waiting for the monthly check. “Boss Lady” never fell into that trap, she wanted more out of life, even if she hurt people right and left going up – and hurt people right and left going down.

The Twilight of the American Left

By Park MacDougald

Posted September 4, 2021

“The most vulgar, simplistic view of the Left — that dissolves all the supposed distinctions between centrists, liberals, leftists, socialists, communists into one homogenous Democratic blob — happens to be correct.” So writes Benedict Cryptofash, an anonymous Twitter user and self-described “anti-leftist” whose other theoretical contributions include “the Left and Right are fake and gay” and “only libtards care about policy”.

Despite appearances, Cryptofash — his pseudonym mocks the tendency of online leftists to accuse their critics of “cryptofascism” — is not your typical Right-wing internet troll. He’s a Marxist who regards “leftism” as the ideology of bourgeois supremacy, the twenty-first-century equivalent of the classical liberalism that Karl Marx spent his mature years attempting to demolish. “My critique focuses on the Left,” Cryptofash writes in one of his periodic straight tweets, “not because they are worse than the Right, but because they are better than the right at precluding proletarian class consciousness.”

Cryptofash is one of the more visible members of a political tendency known as the “post-Left”, the latest in the endless stream of new and strange ideologies thrown up by social media. Although professing commitment to traditionally Left-wing goals such as anti-capitalism, the post-leftists are defined mostly by their aggressive hostility to both the Democratic Party and the radical Left — including the Democratic Socialists of America and the academic-literary Left of magazines such as Jacobin, n+1 and Dissent.

Aside from Cryptofash, other leading lights include What’s Left? co-hosts Aimee Terese and Oliver Bateman, editor of The Bellows Edwin Aponte, the Irish writer Angela Nagle and a coterie of pseudonymous Twitter accounts, such as @ghostofchristo1. Red Scare co-hosts Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova might be considered fellow travellers.

The core assertion of the post-Left is relatively simple: The real ruling class in America is the progressive oligarchy represented politically by the Democratic Party. The Democrats are the party of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the Ivy League, the media, the upper layers of the national security state and federal bureaucracy, and of highly educated professionals in general. The Republicans, however loathsome, are largely a distraction — a tenuous alliance between a minority faction of the ruling class and petit bourgeois.

Effectively incapable of governing outside the bounds set by the Democrats and Democrat-aligned media, corporations, NGOs and government bureaucracies, the GOP’s real function is to serve as a sort of ideological bogeyman. By positioning itself as the last line of defence against phantasmic threats of “fascism” and “white nationalism” coming from the Right, the ruling class is able to legitimise its own power and conceal the domination on which that power rests.

Leftists, in this telling — whether Ivy League professors or Antifa militants on the streets of Portland — are thus little more than the unwitting dupes of the ruling class. However much they profess to hate the Democratic Party, they are, in practice, its running-dog lackeys. They support the party electorally, harass and cancel its designated enemies and enforce pro-Democrat ideology in the media, academia and the workplace. Crucially, they also help maintain the permanent state of moral emergency that serves as a pretext for the expansion of ruling class power, whether in the form of the increasingly direct control that tech monopolies wield over political discourse or the pursuit of Covid policies that transfer wealth upward and subject workers to a dystopian regime of medical surveillance.

At the core of this diagnosis is the idea that “identity politics”, “antiracism”, “intersectionality” and other pillars of the progressive culture war are mystifications whose function is to demoralise and divide the proletariat.

Similar criticisms have been made by Left-wing writers such as Adolph Reed and Walter Benn Michaels, but whereas these “class-first” leftists tend to regard “identitarianism” as a liberal deviation from authentic leftism, the post-leftists regard the idea that there still is a radical Left meaningfully distinct from the Democrats as meaningless. And because post-leftists see the Democrats, and by extension the Left, as their primary enemy, they have no problem engaging and even entering into provisional alliances with the populist Right, especially on cultural issues. Hence the right-wing memes.

Of course, the post-leftists operate at varying levels of coherence and theoretical sophistication, and most of them have produced far more in the way of podcasts and tweets than sustained considerations of political theory. (Cynically, one might say they are less of a “tendency” than a Twitter clique centered around Aimee Terese.) But it would be a mistake to dismiss it altogether on those grounds — the Dirtbag Left’s Chapo Trap House podcast, after all, has played an outsized role in the revival of millennial socialism, and it is always difficult to predict which of today’s shitposters will be setting the tone of the culture five years from now.

For one thing, the post-Left channels powerful currents of Marxist and post-Marxist critique that have been downplayed or forgotten during the “Great Awokening” and the recent socialist renaissance: from Amadeo Bordiga’s communist hostility to “anti-fascist” collaboration with the bourgeoisie to Christopher Lasch’s early writings about the medical-therapeutic state as a tool of class domination.

But perhaps the most obvious spiritual predecessor to the post-Left is the Italian-American philosopher Paul Piccone, the founder and long-time editor of the critical theory journal Telos and another Marxist who eventually left the Left only to find himself in a strange alliance with the Right.

Piccone began his career as a disciple of Herbert Marcuse and proponent of his theory of “one-dimensionality”, which held that capitalism had advanced to such a degree in the West as to effectively abolish all opposition to itself. With the proletariat co-opted by consumerism, radicals, in Marcuse’s view, should instead look for resistance from racial minorities and other outcasts who had yet to be integrated into the system.

But by the late 1970s, Piccone, reacting to the failures of the New Left, had broken with Marcuse. He began to argue that the new social movements that Marcuse had perceived as expressions of anti-system negativity had in fact been forms of what Piccone dubbed “artificial negativity” — pseudo-radical protest movements generated by the system itself.

Piccone agreed with Marcuse that by the mid-20th century, capitalism had triumphed over all internal resistance. But he believed that because the system required such resistance in order to periodically restructure itself and avoid stagnation, it had begun to manufacture its own controlled opposition. He interpreted the initial Civil Rights movement, for instance, as a product of the system’s need to “rationalise” the segregated labour market of the South, after which it seamlessly transitioned to promoting black nationalism in an “attempt to artificially reconstitute an otherness which had long since been effectively destroyed”. The allegedly radical protest movement against the Vietnam War had, similarly, merely allowed an evolving US capitalist class to abandon an imperial quagmire that had become obsolete.

Indeed, Piccone grew so pessimistic about the “artificial” nature of Western leftism that he spent much of the rest of his career seeking out extant pockets of, and resources for cultivating, “organic negativity” — his term for social practices and political formations that genuinely stood outside the logic of the system. Some of these he found on the far-Right, in the regionalism of the Italian Lega Nord, the anti-liberal political theory of Carl Schmitt, the paleoconservatism of Paul Gottfried and Samuel Francis, and the right-wing “identitarianism” of Alain de Benoist. Such explorations, or flirtations, were justifiable because, in Piccone’s view, nearly all of what passed for radicalism in the mature societies of the West was pseudo-radicalism that ultimately served capitalist interests.

Although Piccone could be more than a bit conspiratorial, it is not hard to see how his “artificial negativity” thesis could be applied to a great deal of the officially sanctioned cultural radicalism of today, which may help to explain why ideas similar to his are beginning to resurface. One can also point to the experience of leftists during the Trump years who found themselves corralled into an anti-Trump popular front that had them allying with not only centrist Democrats but also Never-Trump Republicans, including many of the architects of the Iraq War.

Bordiga had famously argued against this sort of broad-based “anti-fascism”, which he warned would “breathe life into that great poisonous monster, a great bloc comprising every form of capitalist exploitation, along with all of its beneficiaries”, and this is indeed what happened — socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, initially popular for their opposition to the “corporate” establishment of the Democrats, ultimately fell in line behind the party’s leadership and urged their followers to do the same.

The Trump years also revealed something about the nature of power in the United States that, once seen, is difficult to unsee. For all the warnings that Trump would turn out to be Hitler, he in practice turned out to be more like Berlusconi — a vulgar entertainer with a sordid personal life who in most respects ended up governing like a normal politician.

What happened on the other side of the aisle was more subtle but also, in the long run, more sinister. We saw the national media collaborating with shadowy intelligence agents and researchers to launder a conspiracy theory about Russian collusion and, later, employ the same playbook to block Trump’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. We saw constant media-generated and wealthy NGO-funded campaigns against racism and sexism welded to the electoral priorities of the Democrats. We saw “Critical Race Theory”, a crude ideological rationalisation of the Democrats’ coalitional logic, elevated to the level of quasi-official religion. We saw Twitter suspending The New York Post for publishing embarrassing information about Joe Biden’s son in the run-up to the election and payments processors such as PayPal partnering with progressive NGOs to monitor their customers and report “extremists” to law enforcement.

In short, we saw the consolidation of a near-unified ruling class bloc explicitly aligned with the Democratic Party against the potential disruption of Trump. This development has already created a host of strange new political alliances. If it holds, we should not be surprised if more than a few anti-capitalist radicals begin to reassess who their real enemies are.

(This post first appeared on Unherd, August 21, 2021,

Those Were the Days

By Kwame P. Dean

Posted August 17, 2021

I can’t shake it. After the expensive testing, overfilled flight and 15 hours straight in my mask in planes, trains, and automobiles, my 20 month hiatus from home ended with a feeling that things had changed in some fundamental ways.

Maybe “Midwest nice” has taken a beating as much as the economy during the dual political and viral pandemics? There seems to be a wariness in the air. The side eyes I got elevated the simple act of wearing a mask in Walgreens to social/political commentary.

In my first day back, my next door neighbor felt the need to declare his love of country in our socially distanced welcome back chat. People talked about birthday cakes for dogs in a grocery store parking lot. Starbucks gives away “pupachinos” and beer for dogs is a thing. Football season started. All normal stuff and yet it feels off. It’s like everyone has been exposed from their carefully cultivated hiding places where they usually reveal themselves only to those they are sure will agree.

My long hair is a dead giveaway in this Trump town that I’m not playing by the rules on purpose even as my skin color indicates that the game isn’t mine to play anyway. I’m not the only one though as others are participating in acts of defiance from mocking mask mandates on trains through quietly refusing to get vaccinated. It is their game and yet they refuse to play because this time they disagree with the rules promoting individual inconvenience for the greater good.

There are unhoused, addicted people living in a park conveniently served by the drug dealer working there. The police aren’t too interested in any of them. Small towns aren’t so small anymore. What we thought were big city problems are more commonplace. Maybe the problems so many urbanites have to deal with encroaching on these once imagined bastions of wholesomeness contributes to a certain disappointment if not cynicism? That could be a part of the eroding trust in institutions and each other. An implicit social contract has been broken.

The January 6 insurrection was billed as an effort to “stop the steal”. It was more than about the election. This political double entendres also meant to stop the taking of a way of life, a constructed political and social hegemony that guaranteed at least a slight advantage to nativists and their allies. We now know many of the insurrectionists came from political districts that experienced large demographics shifts in the last 10 years.

As the 2020 census headlines shout about the first decline in the percentage of white population in the US since 1790, the ongoing sense of loss of control, that most never really had, will continue to prop up know nothing, media born demagogues. They will profit off of every perceived slight against the mythical status quo.

The feeling in the air reminds me of the opening of the tv show “All in the Family”. Archie and Edith Bunker sit together at a slightly out of tune upright piano lamenting days gone by. I wonder how many are singing a similar song today? How toxic is it when they do?

“And you knew who you were then

girls were girls and men were men

Hair was short and skirts were long…

I don’t know just what went wrong

those were the days”

“Those were the days”

Songwriters: Charles Strouse / Lee Adams

Alabama Gulag: My Coerced Flight Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

By Curtis Price

Posted July 28, 2021

On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad  was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.

I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.

Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless,  prisoner under their control.  I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.

To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue  Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.

No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.

A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration?  Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.

I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.

It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.

I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.

At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.

I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.

I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.

Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while  demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”

At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed.  I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.

People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her.  Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.

We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.

Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won-  the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf.  The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)

On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.

On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.

The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.

I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days.  Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days  back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.

Hinterlands: Rural Detroits

“Now Open – Fireworks”

By Curtis Price

Posted July 15, 2021

Leaving the bleak, blue-collar Decatur, Alabama neighborhood known as Old Mouton, which aptly ends in a near vacant strip mall, I hit 67, the highway shunting traffic into 20, filled with the 24-7 rumble of trucks barreling toward Memphis. But by not turning on 67, I drive straight, ending instead little by little in a rural area. A few turns later, the grass grows higher and the distance between older, non-descript buildings widens. This is an area that hasn’t seen development in decades.

One of those turns leads to Old Trinity road, a narrow, worn-down, two- lane street that goes on for several miles before dead-ending in the town of Trinity. Driving along Old Trinity road, I cruise through sparsely populated, residential areas, mostly mobile homes and wooden houses that look like large shacks. The air is heavy with humidity and the smell of vegetation broiling in the mid-day sun. What is striking is the amount of decay. It seems every third house is abandoned, some buckled in.

 It reminds me of a rural Detroit. Some structures have been burnt, but most still stand, tottering like street corner drunks in knee-high weeds. Backwoods near the train tracks, lays two piles of rubble, obscured by trees and dancing shadows, the remains of older houses hastily dumped without proper burial. Were they torn down and dropped off from elsewhere? Abandoned, did they implode under their own weight in the backwoods where they formerly sat? Were they ripped apart by tornadoes? Each reason is equally plausible and the true reason obscured.

Trucks rumble through here too, from the factories at one end of Old Trinity near Woodruff.  Most factories off Woodruff are small, looking as if they might employ a few dozen to a hundred workers. Except for the Wayne’s Farm Poultry plant. Wayne’s Farm is large and a reason why, despite Alabama’s repressive anti-immigrant laws, so many Latinos have settled in Decatur. But the rest look like they’ve been there for ages. Again, no new development.

Yet a few dozen miles away, in Huntsville, lay shiny, one-story sprawling suburban industrial parks engineering advanced weapons systems with the latest technology. A gleaming new Mazda plant, rising like an industrial Phoenix out of former cornfields, is sprouting up midway between Huntsville and Decatur. Such on the local level is capitalism’s combined and uneven development. Some areas are raised and stroked while others knocked down and gutted.

Alabama, of course, is fully rooted in the globalized economy. In recent decades, the state  became a Southern site for the auto industry, with Japanese transplants scattered along the north-south central axis. Aerospace has gotten a toe-hold in the Mobile area too, with Airbus. AAA USA and VT Aerospace now embedded. Contrary to lazy stereotypes, Alabama’s union density is the highest in the Deep South, although none of the transplants and aerospace factories are. (1)

Yet as Allan Tullos notes in Alabama Getaway, “In its newly celebrated global presence, Alabama shows contradictory faces, represented through the glad-handing eagerly extended by development officials and in labor practices reminiscent of an earlier era. Effusive in offering infrastructure improvements, tax breaks, and promises of compliant labor, state officials hop from industrial recruiting trips abroad to meetings in Montgomery with representatives of governments to discuss trading relationships. Meanwhile, the Birmingham-based Drummond Company faces repeated charges of union busting, failure to protect labor leaders from murder, payments to paramilitary terrorists, and exploitation of workers in unsafe conditions at its vast, open-pit coalmining operation in near La Loma in Columbia, South America.”

Tullos wrote over a decade ago. Today, however, outside the major cities, other parts of the state – rural and depopulating – are being primed, like post-industrial versions of Third World slum scavengers, to dispose of refuse generated elsewhere.

The most notorious example of this, notorious only because it couldn’t be hidden, was the infamous “poop train.” In 2018, a train piled with millions of pounds of human excrement from New York, was forced to stop in Parrish, Alabama, after a neighboring town successfully won an injunction banning New York shit from being unloaded. Parrish, not having zoning regulations, instead hosted the “poop train” unwillingly until behind-the-scenes wrangling sent it on its journey elsewhere. The state’s attorney of Alabama described the landfill as “America’s biggest industrial pay toilet.” As a SLATE article noted, “According to the AP, it’s common for Northern states to ship their waste to rural areas in the South, and landfills on inexpensive land can make good money from the practice.”(2) How many other such landfills are sprinkled over Alabama is anyone’s guess; it’s an industry shrouded in secrecy and willed silence.

In Gadsden, a city of 40,000, in central Alabama and once the second economic powerhouse in the state after Mobile, the last remaining factory – Goodyear Rubber – which had been in the city since the 1930s – shut down, stripping the city of its major employer and tax base.  Soon afterwards, Pilgrim’s Pride, a major poultry processor, proposed Gadsden to site a rendering plant, turning foul-smelling discards from pulverized chicken flesh into pet food and other uses. Unusual for this part of the South, community opposition has been fierce, with the outcome still up in the air.

In Anniston, a majority-black city 20 minutes drive from Gadsden, rocket fuel and low-level radioactive waste from around the country gets sent for processing at what remains of the local Army base, where mustard gas and other chemical weapons captured from WWII German armies were once stored before being disposed of on site in a pre-environmental regulations era. Yet only another hour away, a new graphite factory using state-of-the-art techniques in Alexander City will refine mined graphite to power electric batteries for Montgomery’s Hyundai plant. Ruthless development tied to equally ruthless economic stripping of economically superfluous areas.

In this way, having been separated from most viable economic activity, Alabama’s hinterlands stand primed for new roles as dumps for waste from elsewhere, a phagocytoxic neo-colonialism surfaces where instead of the North exploiting the state’s raw materials, the North spits out its undesired effluvium, a trajectory possibly to be boosted by China’s clampdown on recycling Western waste.  (3) Southern states supply an attractive alternative, with cheap, plentiful land, low population densities, and capital-friendly business cultures. In such a scenario, disposable people in the rural South will have a future processing toxic discards shipped in from more prosperous locations.


1. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

2. “Poop Train From New York Stuck in Parrish Alabama.”

3. “We’re Not a Dump: Poor Alabama Towns Struggle Under the Stench of Toxic Landfills.?

Human Fragility: On the Suicide of a Co-Worker

By Thom Elliot

Posted June 28, 2021

After the factory closed and my dreams of a secure working future as an operating manager of an e-waste concern died, I was initially unemployed for approximately a day. In a kind of mourning, I drove around my area and applied at two places, an LED sign manufacturer and PC Server & Parts which refurbished used computers and sold them online. I worked two days at the sign manufacturer, which I enjoyed, but it only paid $10 an hour, and I was simultaneously hired at PC Server for $13.50. I felt I couldn’t responsibly turn that down, so I quit the sign manufacturer and went to work at PC Server.

The first two weeks are a short story in themselves, working next to Pancake, a rather portly blonde with a prominent but obscure Nazi symbol (the Wulfsangle) tattoo on his forearm, who was obsessed with fishing, breasts, mudding, and getting shithoused. I was moved into the inventory warehouse after telling my supervisor that shipping was “pure suffering,” and so it was to be hefting computers around instead. I worked there for two weeks in inventory, learning the ropes etc, and for the most part enjoying it, working hard tearing down computers or stowing them etc, but definitely not fitting in with the forty or so nearly identical white men. I don’t fish or play video games, so the opportunities for socializing were nonexistent. I was regarded as the alien being I am, and that was mostly fine.

On the Monday morning of my third week, there was a meeting. We all gathered in the inventory section and the supervisor said “Well, Dylan died this weekend”. Dylan, a handsome, well built, fresh faced all-American type, blonde twenty three year old who I spoke to once because he was wearing a Cannibal Corpse shirt. I found out we both were at the final Slayer concert in Michigan. There was a moment of silence, and then the supervisor asked if anyone had any words. An older guy with spiky white hair, cartoonishly large gold colored crucifix, who seemed to wear only one shirt Bikers 4 Trump (who pointedly never spoke to me), said “Well, Dylan was a good worker, never had problems with anyone…and was a good worker,” then awkward silence, someone else said almost the same thing “Dylan worked hard, and never had problems with anyone,” more awkward silence.

So after saying I didn’t know him at all really, I said my usual short existentialist rap about “You’re never too young to die, you could die today, so the time for meaningful experiences with each other is now,” the supervisor muttered that it was well said, and we all went back to work. I go back to my section and the older dude was talking to some of the others, said he knew Dylan since he was ten years old, and that it’s a shame but “at least he got to see Trump’s first term.” For the rest of the day, a lot of these guys, including Pancake, all wanted to talk to me, I think they knew I had some experience with this sort of thing.

Over cigarettes, a guy confessed his mother had jumped out of a building two weeks before, but because of some situation the funeral was that weekend, so he now had two suicide funerals in one week. That’s how I found out the story. Dylan had been out with the manager of inventory, Jake, drinking on Friday night. There was some unclear skirmish between them over a woman while they were drinking, and on the way home, Dylan had become so distraught over it, at 65mph he jumped out of the truck. Jake immediately pulled over, and to the bleeding, twitching wreck of Dylan, he gave him mouth to mouth until he died at the roadside. His life hadn’t even started yet, and was already over.

 That night, I had nightmares, I was being attacked by invisible ghosts, slashed and molested by things I couldn’t see, and later that I lost Jenny in a surreal foreign airport and couldn’t find them. I barely slept, the nightmares so vivid and inescapable. The next day, I approached a couple people and just wanted to talk, I said “well I’m definitely traumatized, had nightmares all night” and would get cut off with “I don’t want to talk about it.” That happened twice, no one wanted to talk. I quit that day, did an Irish style goodbye, meaning I didn’t say anything, just clocked out and left. No moral of the story, no edifying truth, just human fragility.

Review: “The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren”

By Curtis Price

Posted on June 11, 2021

The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren. Edited and with an introduction by Bettina Drew. University of Texas Press, 1995

In “Texas Stories,” Nelson Algren populates his hardscrabble vignettes with the flotsam and jetsam of Depression-era America; characters that drift obsessively across the desolate, windswept Texas landscape like so many sagebrushes tumbling down the gullies of a prairie ghost town.

But even though the tramps, loners, carnival hustlers, whores (not “sex workers”), illiterate Okies, and Mexican convicts on the run gathered in these 14 short stories and sketches written at different stages of Algren’s long career belong to an era long since passed, “Texas Stories” resonates with contemporary relevance.

This is because Algren, who died in 1981, blends a sharply-honed psychology with his trenchant social protest, avoiding cheap sentimentality by focusing as equally on the tragic-comic and grotesque aspects of his character’s motives as he does on the underlying economic and social wrongs that have sent them spinning to their fate.
At his best, in short stories like “Kewpie Doll,” the balance works powerfully. In “Kewpie Doll,” a mundane, descriptive account of a boisterous crowd of poverty-stricken rural townspeople pilfering a train for winter coal, yields sharply to a horrifying conclusion – the decapitation of a child lost in the crowd on the tracks as the train takes off, all the more tragic for its seeming randomness. (It’s a powerful, disturbing imagery that Algebra recycled in “Somebody in Boots,” if memory serves me right.)

Unlike most of the U.S. left, Nelson Algren wasn’t afraid to embrace the tragic sense of life, something the American South marinates in, and which finds its highest expression in the blues tradition as well as classic C&W such as Hank Williams. He scorned those who had “pink pills for social ills” (that could have been a line in a hip-hop track!), which explained why he was of the left without being in it. After a brief dalliance on the periphery of the CP in the 1930s, Algren never joined anything again, preferring to be the perpetual outsider who could speak the truth without stepping on the toes of tender, mawkish sensibilities and rigid, party-line orthodoxies common, respectively, to reformist and revolutionary milieus.

 This hard-nosed social realism is a welcome contrast to the shallow “fully automated luxury communism” found in professional-managerial class circles in coastal elite cities, toxic waste-dumps of flatulent, campus-metastasized leftism, in which this layer stokes Twitter and social-media-fed recrudescence that is the polar opposite of genuine engagement.

Linking the Southern blues tradition to radical politics, with greasy overalls and dirt-under-fingernails, will be an ongoing subject that we will return to in future essays. In the meantime, it’s well-worth remembering one of Algren’s favorite quotes, from the Russian realist writer Alexander Kuprin: “The horror is that there is no horror.”