Slave Self-Activity and the Bourgeois Revolution in the United States: Jubilee and the Boundaries of Black Freedom

In: Historical Materialism
Brian Kelly School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast

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For more than a generation, historical interpretations of emancipation in the United States have acknowledged that the slaves played a central role in driving that process forward. This is a critically important advance, and one worth defending. But it is also a perspective whose influence seems increasingly precarious. This article explores the complex relationship between the slaves’ ‘revolution from below’ and the bourgeois revolution directed from above, in part through an appraisal of W.E.B. Du Bois’s argument about the ‘slaves’ general strike’ and the wider revolutionary upheaval encompassing civil war and reconstruction. Grounded in a close familiarity with sources and interpretive trends, the article offers a detailed reading of shifting perspectives in current historiography, a comprehensive review of left engagement with Du Bois’s work, and an extended ‘critical and sympathetic’ appraisal of his major work from within the framework of the Marxist tradition.

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