in Interview

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: An Interview with Gerald Horne

Dr. Gerald Horne is a prolific author — he published three(!) books in 2014 alone. He is a professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, an advocate for justice, and the former executive director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers (in the USofA). Last year, I read his book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, and I thought it was one of the best books I read that year. It helped me to make a lot of sense of why the American revolution always felt different to me than a number of the other revolutions I have studied (essentially, the American revolution was a revolution fought by local elites, whose wealth and power was rooted in stealing land from Indigenous peoples and enslaving Africans; when Britain threatened the American Settlers with the emancipation of the slaves, and also blocked the Settlers from expanding westward — not to mention increasing taxes on imports, especially the importation of slaves, in order to pay for a war Britain had fought to ensure that Spain and France did not overrun the American colonies — the Settler elite revolted). This makes the American revolution a “counter-revolution” and explains much about American revolutionary history up until the present day (remember when Time Magazine named George W. Bush the Person of the Year and branded him, on their cover, as an “American Revolutionary”? That makes sense within the American counter-revolutionary context).
Dr. Horne, despite his busy schedule, was kind enough to briefly respond to a few questions that I sent to him. I want to thank him very much for his willingness to do this and for all that he does. Thank you, Dr. Horne!
(1) I have long been fascinated by revolutionary moments and those people and events which precede them and make revolution not simply imaginable but historically possible. However, I have primarily focused upon moments like Russian, French, and Haitian revolutions. However, the American Revolution hasn’t interested me to nearly the same degree. I think your book helped me to understand why. Rather than referring to this as a genuine revolutionary moment in history, you refer to it as a “counter-revolution.” I think that this is a very critical point. However, you don’t much contrast the history you describe to other revolutions in order to draw out this distinction to readers who may be less familiar with the various moments I have mentioned here. Perhaps you could take a moment to do so? Furthermore, to what other historical events would you compare this “counter-revolution” (the Tea Party comes to mind for me, or the so-called Oath Keepers who showed up in Ferguson – making counter-revolutionary action an ongoing American practice – but perhaps you have some other examples in mind)?
The Haitian Revolution led to the abolition of slavery. The revolt against British Rule in 1776 led to the successful rebels ousting their ‘colonial master’ from leadership of the African Slave Trade—while London moved toward abolition. That is a major theme of the book. I also chide historians in the U.S. who have been quite critical of revolutions globally—Russian, Cuban, French, Chinese, etc.—but have been remarkably quiet about the obvious defects of the so-called ‘Revolution’ that took place here.
When protesters march under the banner ‘Black Lives Matter’, they are providing a direct challenge—and affront—to 1776, which is why there is so much pressure for these protesters to drop this slogan in favor of the more anodyne, ‘All Lives Matter.’
As I note in the book, even—particularly—left wing historians have done a poor job of historicizing and theorizing the depth of conservatism among Euro-Americans generally, the working and middle classes particularly. You have ‘theoreticians’ who claim their reason for being is blocking the rise of fascism in the U.S.—yet have little or nothing to say about the 1991 gubernatorial election in La., where a Euro-American majority voted for a fascist.
Assuming [neither]climate change nor world war overcomes us all, historians of the future will be—and should be—unsparing in their critique of contemporary U.S. historians; left-wingers generally; and—especially—those who purport to discuss ‘race.’

(2) One of the things that struck me about your text was the very long history of solidarity between Indigenous peoples and Africans, as they united to take up arms and struggle against the European Settlers who were profiting from the theft of Indigenous and African lives, labour, and land. Similarly, in the aftermath of 1776, it was Africans and Indigenous peoples who lost out as the slave trade was able to continue to flourish and the path was now cleared for further Settler expansion westward – to the West was more land to steal, so that more enslaved Africans could be made to work there. In light of recent murders in the part of Turtle Island occupied by your nation – the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and Aiyana Jones being simply the most prominent ones – a number of Indigenous voices in the territories colonized by my nation have been calling for a renewed solidarity with African Americans (to use the contemporary term you favour most in your text, although I’m not always sure what you think of that term in and of itself?). For example, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson recently wrote an article called “Indict the System: Indigenous & Black Connected Resistance” and this reminded me of ways in which the American Indian Movement (founded in 1968) drew inspiration from and established connections with the Black Panther Party (founded in 1966). However, what you demonstrate is that alliances between Indigenous peoples and Africans go back to the very arrival of Africans on the shores of Turtle Island. This seems to be a part of history that is neglected – perhaps unsurprisingly given the “divide and rule” tactics favoured by empires (Indigenous scholar and grassroots community mobilizer, Andrea Smith has a great article about this entitled, “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” which shows how black and Indigenous/colonized populations can be played off against each other). Given our current context, could you speak some more about how these alliances were formed in the past and how that past might inform our present analysis and actions?
The term ‘African-American’ is obviously problematic. I have a footnote in the text explaining my use of the term. I would only add that I use it in deference to members of this oppressed group who cling to this term as a hard-won victory.
Yes, there is quite a bit on indigenous and African alliances in the book. And, as noted, the settlers worked overtime to disrupt and poison this alliance. Here I will allow my past words to speak, not only in this book but in ‘Negro Comrades’; ‘The White Pacific’; ‘Black and Brown’.
(3) I’ve noticed that the theme of anger or rage is deployed regularly throughout the text when you refer to enslaved Africans. This is tied to themes of rebelliousness, violence, ferocity, and militancy. References are too numerous to cite exhaustively, but a few examples can be picked – “the enslaved resisted fiercely” (vii), “Slavery inevitably bred angry disaffection” (2), “the burning rage of Africans” (63), “the militant thirst for freedom of the Africans” (72), “furious Africans” (120), “fierce militancy” (120), and so on. I think you emphasis this, in part, to demonstrate the historical agency and historical significance of Africans in world events. However, this topic of being angry and refusing to stop being angry is one that has been expressed a fair bit amongst authors associated with Indigenous resurgence up here (Taiaiake Alfred, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Audra Simpson, and Glen Coulthard all come quickly to mind). Specifically, the point is made here that anger is pathologized and defused with rituals or rhetoric geared towards reconciliation – but reconciliation that occurs within a settler colonial framework that wants to see genocide, colonization, and settler violence as past events and not as a part of the present socioeconomic, legal, and political structures of the Canadian State. In response to this, people are urged to remain angry, to refuse to stop being angry, until we shift from tokenistic, depoliticized recognition and ritualistic immaterial reconciliation, to concrete acts of restitution and respect (of, amongst other things, Indigenous sovereignty). Again, in light of recent attention given to police murdering unarmed African American adults and children – which is part of a broader racist structure in the USofA, which Michelle Alexander so capably describes in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – the topic of anger and rage has also gained some prominence. And this has taken place despite Obama continuing to do what figureheads always do: calling for restraint, for calm, for law and order, and for people to protest in a “productive” (i.e. nonviolent, i.e. not destructive, i.e. non-threatening, i.e. obedient, i.e. compliant, i.e. impotent[?]) manner. So, I was wondering if you could speak a little more directly about the historical significance of the anger and rage of which you speak in your text, and also what the implications of that might be for our present historical moment.
Anger is the fuel that propels the movement. Again, U.S. Society does not like to see anger and fury among us Africans since it reminds the settlers of the contested origin of the state. Moreover, settlers today need to know that though they may have forgotten the ugly origins of the post-colonial state—many of us have not and continue to be infuriated.
(4) Another theme running through the book is how the notion of “whiteness” was used to develop a unity or solidarity amongst very different European Settler groups. “Whiteness” becomes that which united various ethnic groups (Dutch, British, Scottish, Irish, and so on) that had previously defined themselves against each other, just as it united various religious groups (Protestants and Catholics) who were accustomed to being at war with one another. “Whiteness,” you argue, came into being due to the presence of enslaved Africans and Settler fears about those enslaved people rising up – as they repeatedly did – and perhaps turning the tables and enslaving the Settlers. Hence, quoting T. H. Breen, you point out that whites achieved racial solidarity at the expense of blacks (41). This then benefits some European folks because the “reluctance of Africans to be subdued mandated an increase in the settler population, which meant ushering previously disfavored Europeans into the warm embrace of “whiteness” (45). Further, as your examination of the white pro-slavery wall of Georgia shows, without Africans present, notions of “whiteness” tended to collapse as class, ethnic, and religious tensions amongst Europeans rose to the surface (93). Whiteness “would not be viable absent the presence of Africans to exploit shamelessly” (122; see also p135). What I’m wondering is if whiteness continues to serve the same purposes today and require the same opposition to, not only Africans, but people of colour more generally. What do you think? Furthermore, given that those newly constituted “white people who were closest to the slave trade and profiting most highly from it (as well as those who were profiting from waging genocide against Indigenous peoples), were also those who were most vocal in their praise of liberty and freedom (cf. p232), I wonder how that nexus of themes – freedom, liberty, slavery, genocide – still fit together today. Care to explore this some more?
Part of the problem today is that an avalanche of amnesia and forgetfulness has covered up the vicious origins of ‘whiteness.’ Think about it: what group today is most likely to use the term ‘identity politics’ as a dismissive descriptor? Those of the left who are defined as ‘white’: is not this curious? It reminds me of how settlers were always carping about London treating them as ‘slaves’—while they were busily enslaving Africans and indigenes.
In succeeding centuries there have been stiff challenges to the ‘whiteness’ project. There has been the ‘class project’ inaugurated in 1917 and Tokyo’s attempt to invert the racial pyramid before 1945. Both projects failed, not least because many workers and middle class folk defined as ‘white’ assisted in the execution; perhaps they felt they had more to gain from the ‘whiteness’ project. Today, this latter perception undergirds conservatism, and not only in the U.S.
However, in the U.S., it is virtually forbidden to ask why and how it is that so many of the working class defined as ‘white’ refuse to join their class brethren of diverse ancestries in the class project. Why is it that 9 of 10 in the Deep South of European origin vote across class lines for conservatives? That question is rarely posed. Why is it that 6 of 10 of European origin in the U.S. vote conservative? Indeed, I suspect that because this question is rarely asked that many otherwise intelligent folk are not even aware of these basic stats!
Of course, if folks confronted honestly the history of these settler regimes, which involved cross class alliances to subdue indigenes and Africans, then doling out benefits—in the form of the former’s land—on the basis of ‘whiteness’, there would be more awareness of why so many ‘whites’ today continue to make a cagey wager that the bad old days not only can be revived but have not gone away.
(5) One of the things that struck me while reading your text was how misinformed I have been about the root causes of Britain’s decision regarding the abolition of slavery. I was raised in an Evangelical Christian environment that valourized people like William Wilberforce, John Wesley, George Whitefield, and John Newton. Here, the emphasis was always on how good, well-established, white Christian men were able to save the poor, defenseless, black folks (although maybe things weren’t worded quite that way). However, what your text makes apparent is that it was the fight of Africans for freedom, paired with the broader geopolitical issues of the day (notably France and Spain’s willingness to free and arm Africans to go back to fight the British, along with Britain’s need to increasingly rely upon black people in its own navy and army) that led the inexorable drive towards abolition. Indeed, Christianity already had a long history by then of being quite comfortable with slavery and, as you highlight in your text, Samuel Johnson once referred to Settlers as those who “sought to convert Africans to Christianity in order to make them docile” (235). Now there are significant differences between the avenues for change commended by these two different stories about history – on the one hand, the lesson I was taught was that well-intentioned people situated in positions of wealth and privilege, but holding pious values, could gradually effect positive change for people who are powerless; on the other hand, the lesson you are teaching is that those who are oppressed actually have the ability to change their own situation should they rise up and act ferociously and militantly and refuse to cease striving until their goal is accomplished. Christianity – even in contemporary movements for change – seems to be much more linked to the reformist position which may, in fact, be much more impotent than the reformists think. What role do you think Christianity plays in both creating and changing or preventing the change of our contemporary situation (as I believe something like 87% of African Americans identify as Christian [versus 83% of total Americans, and 79% of African Americans say that religion is “very important in their life” versus 56% of the total])?
As for Christianity, I shall pass. Let’s just say that the current correlation of forces domestically do not allow for the kind of honesty the question demands.

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