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The SCU of Alabama and Black Consciousness

The SCU of Alabama and Black Consciousness

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Published by Christopher Eby

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Published by: Christopher Eby on Jul 02, 2011
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The Lived Experience of Sharecroppers in Depression-Era Alabama:An Intersection of Marxism and Cultural NationalismChristopher EbyThesis Advisor: Dr. Mark HuddleDate of Submission: May 2, 2011
 
2
In his
Crisis of the Negro Intellectual
, Harold Cruse writes of a dichotomy that heconsiders a persistent stumbling block to the progressive black leader
 — 
the choice betweenMarxism (Paul Robeson, Richard B. Moore, Richard Wright, the elderly W.E.B. Du Bois, etc.)or cultural nationalism (Marcus Garvey, Baraka, Stokely Carmichael, etc.). Cruse considered thelatter position necessary to any meaningful social progress on the part of the African-American;the unique nature of the black American
 — 
her history of corporeal labor exploitation combinedwith the unique racism of the era and place
 — 
required
in Cruse‟s estimation that race
consciousness be fostered above all for any meaningful change to happen in the streets, in thehome, in the workplace. Although the title of his book would seem to restrict its application tothe intelligentsia, Cruse was careful to equate the failings of Paul Robeson with high housingprices in Harlem as well as those of the Communist Party with a setback in African-Americanpolitical leadership. Implicit
in Cruse‟s critique, we can say with some certainty, is the anti
-Marxist position that the failings of an entire group or race are attributable to
its leaders‟ lack of 
the appropriate
ideology
, or in the case of American blacks, their (in)ability to recognize thesingularity of the African-American Diaspora, to use it as a separating agent, and to put it in theservice of politics.
1
The black masses, in Cruse, are led successfully by key figures andpersonalities only when the latter have clearly delineated a position on the matter, and Cruse
asserts that Marx and Engels could not possibly have understood the Negro‟s
exceptional historyin America. Black Marxists, in his estimation, are and have been deluded, much like the
 prisoners in Plato‟s cave
, who see shadows and mistake them for corporeal entities because of their unique situation
 —shackled to “essentially opportunistic pro
-
 Negro policies” without
perceiving their inauthenticity.
2
 Against the totalizing taxonomy of black consciousness versus class consciousness, of which Cruse is only the most notable adherent, I propose an idea that is at once both radical andeminently observable: 20
th
-century America has failed to realize both the socialistic goals of thelater Martin Luther King, Jr. and the empowering pan-Africanism of Stokely Carmichael notbecause of an ideological failure at the highest echelons of black leadership but because of theconditions affecting the black worker, conditions that explain the willingness of the black masses
1
See Harold Cruse,
The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual
(New York: New York Review of Books, 1967),94, 223-8.
2
Ibid.
, 263. Dismantling the prospects of a platform of class unity with the hackneyed notion that
Marxism was “invented” by white Europeans and is thus inapplicable to the unique needs of African
-Americans, Cruse endorses a peculiar form of American exceptionali
sm: “Marxism as a method of social
inquiry is not native to America but to Europe
 — 
it was transplanted to America by Europeans who neverceased being Europeans. But there has never been a nation that developed like the United States, or asystem that develo
 ped like capitalism within the United States.” See Cruse,
 Negro Intellectual
, 262. It is
no wonder, then, that Cruse‟s thought develops away from Marxism: the former does not recognize any
sort of universality in the struggle for black economic rights
 — 
for Cruse,
class
is the lowest commondenominator of economic exploitation only in specific countries and under certain political systems.
 
3
to support politically and endorse fully the set of ideas most likely to, first, effectuate economicopportunity in the short-term and, second, ameliorate the violence and prejudice of Americanracism. Put another way, working-class blacks have engaged rigor
ously with both of Cruse‟s
positions but been exclusive to neither.
3
If there is a binary lacuna between American blacks,then it exists between intellectuals like Cruse who think that arcane distinctions determine theeffectivity of a shared impulse
 — 
that of black advancement under the conditions of capitalism, animpulse first expressed by the not-so-radical Booker T. Washington
 — 
and working-class blacks,whose self-preservative malleability and willingness to fluctuate between two diametricallyopposed dogmatisms (in order to secure immediately needed ends) precludes any notions of thenecessity of ideology.
4
If ground is to be surrendered to the dichotomists, then it is only on theterrain of loyalty or fidelity that they can establish any superiority.The fate of any historical analysis is a restricted scope. If history is an attempt todetermine a network of causes for an event, then this network will always be diminutive andreductive, infinitely specific, necessitating its own delimitation. With that in mind, I hope not toreduce the accomplishments and actions of the Sharecroppers Union of Alabama to those of eachof its individuals but to portray their earliest struggles for survival as evidence of ideology
‟s
inessentiality to the effectivity of a collective impulse, particularly if it originates from an
“intimate” setting of oppression
. Since ideology necessarily requires fidelity, I argue that it waslargely unimportant to Depression-era black sharecroppers, since the exigencies of Southernracism and labor exploitation made fidelity
 — 
whether to orthodox Marxism or Garveyism
 — 
implausible and dangerous. At Camp Hill in 1931 and Reeltown in 1932, black Alabamasharecroppers exemplified, respectively and perhaps paradoxically, racial exclusionism and classsolidarity, attempts at bi-racial cooperation as well as unprovoked physical confrontations withwhites. And it is through considering this impulse
 — 
dramatized in these two cases by thehardships of the Great Depression and the unique predations of Southern capitalist elites onsharecroppers
 —that we can delimit ideology‟s proper 
application to proletarian struggle: asfodder for intellectual leisure rather than as the
sine qua non
of the revolutionary vanguard.
3
 
The reader need only consider the effect of Nixon‟s “black capitalism” campaign on the
politicallyradical African-American
or even the ostensible unilaterality of black political affiliation (with today‟s
Democratic Party).
4
In fact, I would argue that this fact goes a long way towards explaining the influence of Christianity inthe lives of working-class blacks, and the inescapable consequence of this influence for black sharecroppers was a type of folk Marxism in which certain tenets were overlooked as inessential to thevirtues of Marxist social action.
For more, see Robin D.G. Kelley, “‟Comrades, Praise Gawd
for Lenin
and Them!‟; Ideology and Culture among Black Communists in Alabama, 1930
-
1935,” in
Science and Society
52, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 59-82. Helpful to understanding this fusion of Marxist social action andChristianity are the words of French philosopher Francois Laruelle,
who calls ideology “
an effective,indescribable
dimension of human phenomena,” not a medium through which the subject can finally
 prioritize
 phenomena for action; “it must be taken with the object of science rather than dismissed
a priori
by a
science [in this case, the „science of the past‟].” Francois Laruelle,
Philosophie et Non- philosophie
(Paris: University Presses of Paris, 1987), 121. Original translation by Christopher Eby.

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