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Lehigh professor rescues forgotten masterpiece on race

T. Thomas Fortune

A neglected masterpiece written by one of the great African-American political and social theorists of the 19th century was recently rescued from obscurity by a Lehigh professor, who edited the book and wrote an introduction to the recent Simon & Schuster release.

Seth Moglen, an associate professor of English and instructor in Lehigh’s Africana Studies program, describes T. Thomas Fortune’s Black and White: Land, Labor and Politics in the South , as one of the most significant milestones in the movement for racial and economic justice in the United States.

“The leading black journalist of the late 1880s and 1890s, Fortune was also a militant activist who founded the Afro-American League, the first national political organization to fight for full equality for black Americans,” Moglen says. “His influence on the generation of black protest leaders that followed him is concrete and direct.”

Moglen explains that it was Fortune who gave sociologist, author and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois his first writing opportunities, and who brought crusading journalist Ida B. Wells to New York to continue her anti-lynching campaign in the pages of his paper, the New York Age.

“And it was Fortune’s platform for the Afro-American League that provided a model for the NAACP,” he says. “There is no way to understand accurately the contours of the modern civil rights movement, from Du Bois and Wells to Martin Luther King, Jr., without understanding Fortune’s early intellectual and institutional contribution to it.

“If you remove Fortune from the history of black politics, it’s impossible to reconstruct the development of the protest tradition. He is the decisive bridge figure between the visionaries of the black abolitionist generation and the rise of the civil rights leaders of the early 20th century.”

Black and White, presents a socialist analysis of racial capitalism, forming both a foundational text for the black radical tradition and a significant development in the intellectual history of the American left, Moglen says.

Plunged into a new form of enslavement

“Having spent his own childhood in slavery, and having survived the horrors of Reconstruction and its aftermath, Fortune set out, in this book, to explain why the abolition of slavery had not made African-Americans free,” Moglen says.

In fact, he says, “Fortune contends that the betrayal of Reconstruction plunged African-Americans into a terrible new form of enslavement. In the late 19th century, black southerners were reduced to peonage through savage economic practices; they were deprived of the vote and other basic civil rights and they were subjected to a reign of terror, characterized by lynching and other forms of racial violence.”

The first half of the book details Fortune’s assessment that white racism had deformed America from its inception. The second half examines the underlying economic system that exploited the labor of black people during hundreds of years of slavery and that continued to exploit them in post-Civil War America.

“Fortune wanted readers to acknowledge the persistence of white racism and to see the racial particularity of the black experience. But he insisted that we must also recognize that the oppression of black people was also part of a larger history of economic exploitation,” Moglen says. “Fortune argued that there could never be justice in the United States if we did not overcome both white racism and the exploitative features of the capitalist economy.”

Despite the book’s significance, it has largely remained unread over the past century, says the Yale- and Oxford-educated Moglen, who initially studied Fortune’s work while conducting archival research as a Ph.D. student at University of California-Berkeley. Although it was not the subject matter he pursued for his doctoral dissertation, he explained that “it’s something I’ve been eager to get back to for 15 years.”

Book "tells some painful truths"

The lack of acclaim for Fortune—who was eclipsed in his own generation by the more moderate leader, Booker T. Washington—can be attributed to the unsettling nature of his writings and to a sociopolitical climate that was unreceptive to bold, revolutionary ideas.

“The book tells some painful truths,” Moglen says. “It calls attention to white racism in America and calls for fundamental change in the economic order. Most Americans have preferred not to face such provocations.”

“But, if we want to do something about the persistence of racial inequality and about the staggering maldistribution of wealth in our society, we need to listen closely to Fortune and others, who learned crucial truths from the experience of slavery—truths not only about racism, but also about what it means to exploit the labor of human beings in order to make a profit.”

Moglen argues that Fortune’s work resonates now with a special force.

“Today, many political leaders and commentators celebrate, under the heading of globalization, a set of economic practices that that are impoverishing and brutalizing millions—in the United States and around the world. If Fortune were here, I believe he would say that we had not heeded the dreadful lessons of slavery, that we were still not willing to question the destructiveness of our economic system and the forms of racism with which it is entangled.”

Since the fall of communism and the easing of the Cold War, Moglen says that social scientists are more willing to consider the complex history of anti-capitalist thought in the United States—and they are more open to considering the work of people like Fortune, who contended that the flourishing of democracy actually requires a more humane and less exploitative economic system

With the exception of two short-lived reprints that were published at the height of the civil rights movement (one in 1968 and another in 1970), Fortune’s seminal work was out of print throughout the 20th century.

“It’s my hope,” Moglen says, “that readers are, at last, ready for this book and that this edition will enable Fortune’s work to reach the wide audience it deserves.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Tuesday, March 06, 2007

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