From settler colony to slaveholder republic

Gerald Horne—an organizer, activist, and scholar—holds the Moores Professorship of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston and is the author of more than 30 books, including The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century and The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in Seventeenth-Century North America and the Caribbean. Democratic Left editorial team member Stephen Magro spoke with him about the controversial 1619 Project initiated by the New York Times, the history profession, and the need for socialists to be antiracist and internationalist in their theory and practice. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 1619 Project—and much of your work—puts settler colonialism, slavery, and white supremacy at the center of the unfolding history of the United States. It seems straightforward, so how do we account for resistance to the Project among some historians? The 1619 Project stirred controversy in part because it unsettled the widely accepted “creation myth” of the founding of the United States. Countless numbers of those of European descent profited handsomely from the founding.  They—along with historians who have shaped the dominant narrative—have managed to convince too many that this “immaculate conception” idea of the creation of the slaveholders’ republic is also a universal and undeniable “truth.”  This “truth” ignores the immense losses suffered by Native Americans after the republic was founded. In effect, 1776 overturned the Royal Proclamation of 1762-1763, wherein London cast doubt on the continuance of the settler model of moving west, seizing the land of the indigenes, and expending immense amounts of blood and treasure for the ultimate benefit of real estate speculators, such as George Washington. Likewise, the ruling in Somerset v. Stewart in 1772 [in which Somerset, who had been purchased in Boston and escaped in England was declared to have the right to freedom] was perceived as a threat to the settler model of continuing their lucrative project of mass enslavement.

This is one reason among many why Africans sided with the “redcoats” against the so-called “revolutionaries” and continued to do so by participating in the sacking of Washington, D.C. itself in August 1814, alongside British forces. Meanwhile, as early as the 1790s, the United States was the leader in transporting enslaved Africans to Cuba, and by the 1840s, was paramount in transporting enslaved Africans to the biggest market of all: Brazil.  At one time, descendants of enslaved Africans were barred from archives, not to mention many universities. Once this situation changed, new stories of the founding emerged. The wonder is that it took so long.

There’s an almost mystical enthusiasm about the founding, as though selected ideals expressed in our Constitution are more relevant to U.S. history than the material conditions that existed over centuries. Why this seeming preference for the abstract over the concrete? There is a felt need to align the odious origins of the republic with today’s conditions. The response is what I call “Magical Unrealism,” converting an 18th-century document—that spoke of Africans as 3/5 human, that contains a reprehensible “Fugitive Slave Clause” mandating the return of runaways—into a document that somehow is not only antislavery but is so capacious that it vindicates subaltern rights. And, yes, this skewed misinterpretation is demobilizing. The oppressed and marginalized, instead of relying on their own organizational strength in league with the like-minded in the international community and the fair-minded at home, are enticed to place their faith in the Constitution.  The idea still holds among all too many that in the face of injustice, instead of mobilizing masses, one should simply file a lawsuit. 

You have had praise for the 1619 Project, but your recent work seems to locate the origins of North American racism earlier still—in the sixteenth century. It’s true that in my latest book I explore the 16th-century origins of enslavement of Africans in North America. But objectively, the 1619 Project is a response to massive discontent among African Americans, across class and status lines.  This has driven a search for a new story that will explain the current mess of structural racism and inequality, an unchecked pandemic, and stunningly incompetent and bigoted leadership, which the “creation myth” assuredly does not. The 1619 Project is also a response to the reality that too many in the United States seek to discredit virtually every revolution since 1776, especially those in the 20th century—including in Moscow and Havana—that led directly to the liberation of much of Africa. Thus, Blacks are expected to be critical of those who aided us and laudatory of those who held us in chains. 

You’ve written of the settler colonial project and subsequent white supremacy as a cross-class collaboration among whites. Can you say more about that? In my 16th-century book, I explore the diverse class origins of the 1580s settlement in what is now North Carolina and the 1607 invasion of what was termed Virginia. From the inception, settler colonialism was grounded in class collaboration, in the collective desire to dispossess the indigenous and, eventually, keep enslaved Africans in line. In my 17th-century book, I speak of “The Spirit of 1676”; that is,  Bacon’s Rebellion, wherein a diverse group of settlers revolt against London’s rule in Virginia, because England was not moving with sufficient dispatch to dispossess the indigenous and redistribute the land to the settlers. This involved a retreat from the religious wars that beset Europe and a rebranding—once the Atlantic is traversed—into “whiteness,” a militarized identity politics that continues to prevail, so far. Class collaboration among those of European descent is also an explanation for the presidential election of 2016 and Republican politics preceding same.   

Now that we are witnessing a powerful Black-led uprising against police brutality and white supremacy, what are the implications for socialist strategy? As I write, the press reports that the uprisings post–George Floyd’s murder may rank as the largest mass movement in U.S. history. It remains questionable, however, if the decentralized model of Black Lives Matter is sufficient to meet the moment. But even there, one espies a creative adaptation to what befell centralized organizations with a similar platform—the Black Panther Party—which was bludgeoned  by dint of imprisonment, forced exile, even murder. An opportunity was missed when the Human Rights Council of the United Nations debated in June a motion filed by the African Union in Addis Ababa, demanding a “Commission of Inquiry” into “systemic racism” in the United States.  The motion did not prevail in part—I think—because there was insufficient lobbying by a U.S. movement unaccustomed to seeking global support for our besieged movement. Socialists in theory are thought to be globally minded, and here is an opportunity to display our value by enticing the likeminded abroad to weigh in on our behalf. In turn this should improve the domestic climate, making it more feasible to advance on the all-important front of labor organizing. Therein lies a way out of our current situation.