The subtitle of Jacqueline Jones’ new book, A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America, is not a call to ignore effects of the concept of race in law and practice. She finds the definition of race repeatedly twisted to suit the needs of the ruling class and wielded as a tool for subjugation of Black and white labor alike.
Jones builds the book around six individuals, frequently in their own words. Around those individuals’ lives we see centuries of Black resistance, from slave revolts to the Great Migration off the plantations, and from Black caucuses in the unions to bus boycotts.
The first story, of Antonio, transported from Africa in 1654 to a plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, was told not in his own words (he had no English, and maybe no language in common with Native American and even African slaves alongside him), but in his acts of refusal. Antonio escaped the plantation repeatedly, and when recaptured refused to work. His owner had him lashed, tortured and left to die. But at trial two years later, the owner successfully defended himself by condemning Antonio’s defiance as a worker.
While shackled Africans, Native Americans and Europeans worked plantations, the distinction between enslaved and indentured did matter—a landowner who had killed his European indentured servant had been hanged for it. But Jones shows that the category of race, though couched in biological terms, was repeatedly redefined by colonial lawmakers as a way to extend control over labor.
Colonial authorities prohibited missionary activity among African and Indian slaves when slavery was confined to non-Christians, then mandated permanent enslavement even for converts. Likewise, replacing the European pattern of status inherited from the father, lawmakers declared children of slave mothers to be slaves.
That amounted to a government incentive for slaveowners to rape their slaves and thereby increase their property holdings. Generations of rape by slaveowners practicing their concept of family values meant that neither genetics nor skin color could factor into the definition of race.
The final biography, of Simon P. Owens, Marxist- Humanist revolutionary, draws together the strands of four centuries of revolt described in this book. Simon P. Owens, under his organizational name Charles Denby, was founding editor of News & Letters from 1955-1983. Many of his comrades will recall what Jones points out, that the chance to “meet Charles Denby” was an extra inducement for workers and others to come to Detroit for national meetings.
This was one man who embodied all these centuries-long struggles of Blacks and workers. He grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, where sharecropping was organized as close as landowners could get to the plantation system under slavery. He was a Black production worker for 30 years at what would become Chrysler’s Mack Avenue Stamping Plant in Detroit, where he saw the workings of capitalism at the point of production.
He saw how the company would squeeze more labor out of workers, especially in the hot, heavy and dirty jobs where Blacks could get a foothold. He confronted the union, the UAW, which more and more had become the enforcer for the company on the shop floor, and the defender for white workers of the racist status quo.
In 1944 Owens (Charles Denby is the name he earned in his autobiography Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal and in Workers Battle Automation as well as in News & Letters) had seen white workers join a walkout he had led to stop the segregation of Black women into more dangerous jobs. He saw other times where white racism pitted white workers against Black. But he knew that at critical moments Black masses raising a banner of freedom had been joined by masses of white workers, as chronicled in American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard, and he worked for that next revolution.
Owens, in the spirit of Antonio’s refusal in 1654 to work as a slave, both led wildcat strikes in auto and led rank-and-file workers’ relief efforts for the 1949-50 coal miners’ general strike. He expected that voices from below had to be heard for movements to advance. He summed up his confidence in workers in the title of one of his “Worker’s Journal” columns: “Every worker I know is a philosopher.”