When you study history, one thing that happens is you start to realize how recent and arbitrary everything in society is. How quickly things shift, and how inevitable those changes feel to the people who grow up in their aftermath. Countries, borders, governments, the judicial system, the police force, and prisons may all seem as eternal and indestructible as life itself, when in reality they are very recent inventions whose staying-power was not self-evident only a couple hundred years ago.
Two people who know this all too well are Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley. Their book Dixie be Damned — 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South is now out with AK Press, and it’s a must-read for anyone interested in the history of resistance.
Like the title reveals, Dixie be Damned looks at the last few hundred years of revolt in the South, covering slave uprisings, maroon societies, mine strikes and mass-prison outbreaks of convict laborers, textile mill strikes, urban riots, prison riots, and many decisive moments in between. In the book, Stafford and Shirley paint a picture of America where rebellion against slave and property owners, bosses, and law enforcement is a constant as much as its ongoing suppression and obscuration. One where prison walls now appear indestructible as a result of hundreds of years of successful prison breaks. One where prisons are filled with black and brown people because the “end of slavery” only meant the democratization of bondage and the criminalization of black life. And one where work is increasingly fragmented, precarious, surveilled, and all-consuming because when it isn’t, people unionize, go on strike, and sabotage their workplace.
It’s a great book, where each chapter focuses on a specific era of uprisings, the individuals and families that fueled them, the alliances that made them possible, and the tactics employed. Given that so much of history is written by “winners”, their book is an impressive collection of accounts and stories that normally don’t get told. The book’s focus on the South is also refreshing – and so necessary in the aftermath of last week’s shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Dixie be Damned covers many instances of insurrectionary activity and slave rebellion in Charleston, including stories about Denmark Vesey, the former slave who distributed insurrectionary literature from the Caribbean to Charleston and member of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church until it was burned to the ground in 1822.
We interviewed the book’s authors Saralee Stafford and Neal Shirley, both contributors to Mask Magazine. Read what they have to say about how they came to write the book, and why it’s so highly relevant today.
What is the story behind this book?
SS: I don’t know if Neal and I ever “officially met.” Just by virtue of being an anarchist in North Carolina, you inevitably find yourself stuck in a room with everyone else who identifies that way. I remember seeing Neal speak about anti-prison activity in 2010, specifically critiquing the discourse of abolition in a way I’d never heard anyone do so concisely before. I was really impressed. During that time, Neal put out “The Stockade Stood Burning” through NC Piece Corps, a small southern insurrectionary distro he ran, and I picked it up and was stoked to meet another anarchist who was willing to grapple with autonomous rebellions that weren’t led by “anarchists” but just normal pissed-off people who lived in the region. Neal overheard that I was also into researching and reading about southern history and one day he sent me an email asking if I wanted to be a part of a larger writing project. I responded along with many others, but like a lot of anarchist projects, only the two of us ended up following through. We kind of accidentally wrote a book together, forming a friendship along the way. Throughout the time of writing the book we experienced occupations together, helped each other organize events, started other projects, collaborated with prisoner support efforts, hung out in the streets during the last two winters of anti-police activity in our town, and generally explored where our affinities lied as we spent more time in social struggles side by side.
It’s probably like this everywhere (unless you live in a major metropolis), but here in the South, everyone wants to get out the second they figure out where else they can go. For us, it has been an active choice to stay here. We’re not stuck, and there’s no way we could have written this book on the West Coast or in New York. There’s this concept of “historical amnesia” regarding awareness in this country, especially of colonization and slavery. The South is not exemplary of historical amnesia, but what is an exception about southern history is the way it has been fetishized and used to uphold certain “truths” for the rest of the country. “The South” is of course part mythology, and it has functioned as some kind of original sin – a repository for all of the country’s hatred and fear and shame. Part of the narrative of the South is around victimhood and backwardness, which the ideology of progress needs in order to maintain its hegemony on reality. We were frustrated with almost all of the ways that historians have written about rebellious subjects, and based on our own experiences of revolt here, we wanted to disrupt those accounts. We just had to look harder and ask more questions. Of course a lot of that work had already been done, just not really from the perspective of people who want to destroy society rather than make it better.
What was the process like?
NS & SS: Our process probably wasn’t “typical”; we’d never written a book before, aren’t academics or paid by a university in any way, and sometimes had to get creative when finding sources or accessing historical archives. How we did the research and writing also evolved over time, in that we didn’t originally know we would be writing a book, so we very much went about the process slowly, “in the cracks” of the rest of our lives. It wasn’t uncommon to put the book project down for a time to prioritize the newest wave of anti-police demos, or jail support, or care for a friend or family member, or taking on a second or third or fourth job. In all, it took around three years to get to the point where we can now hold the book in our hands, which still feels surreal.
We ended up using a variety of archives and library resources in order to access interviews, newspaper articles, court transcripts, even old videos, as well as a lot of typical secondary and tertiary source material. We live near several large research universities, one of which is uniquely chill about letting non-students purchase cheap library cards that give virtually all the same access that a real student might have. Although, there were a few instances where we had to a return a book we were still using because a grad student had requested it. This was definitely a source of bitterness, as we would sometimes read some Phd candidate’s dissertation on a related subject matter, and be scandalized that this person was probably getting paid a salary to write something whose research and analysis was, to us, so remarkably uncritical and shallow. They had all the resources, but were asking all the wrong questions. On the other hand, we were basically imposters. If you had asked us what the Chicago Manual of Style was, we would have just run in the other direction.
The book covers many cases of cross-racial alliances, and the various ways that poor and rebellious white people were made invisible or erased from accounts about uprisings. You go on to talk about how race was constructed as a way to paint rebellion as a threat against all white people, thereby misrepresenting the interest poor white people had in the success of rebellions, and in participating in them. How does this observation inform how you think about race, identity, and revolt today?
NS & SS: Let’s start with the “outside agitator” as a white northerner, anarchist or communist, before we get to the question of erasing rebellious white subjects. From the early days of chattel slavery, up until today, the outside agitator theory supports the white supremacist narrative that black and brown people are too ignorant or lazy to rebel on their own. Even in the distinctly Black rebellion in 1868 in Ogeechee, where the battle cry was “No white man should live between the two Ogeechee [rivers]”, plantation owners were trying to say it was radical labor activists from up North in collusion with the Governor who started these rebellions. We have seen the various ways that the white “outside agitator” myth was used by the police and their media spokespeople to inflame internal conflicts and delegitimize Black armed rebellion from Ferguson to Baltimore in the last year. It’s not only absurd, it’s racist and directly reifies the colonial notion that Black people were providentially ordained into slavery. When you do this research and you really break down what’s going on when people employ these narratives you realize that this isn’t just propaganda to delegitimize armed self-defense, arson, and riots, but it also strives to create the notion that all white people in these revolts are either cops, infiltrators, or outsiders that have no genuine reason to be angry. That then makes developing any kind of actual affinity on the ground – even if it’s just some practical shit like washing someone’s eyes from tear gas – all the more difficult.
So on the one hand you have the white participant in revolt as that of both an outsider and an agitator, which reaffirms the idea that white people and people of color are all somehow completely removed from each other’s day-to-day lives, and that when revolts happen, white folks only show up to stir up these normally peaceful, unmoved black people. On the other hand you have the disappearance of white folks from certain uprisings because to imagine them as co-conspirators would destabilize white supremacy. These people have often been called “race traitors” or “white trash” or have actually been re-written as black or brown by the media/state to erase the evidence that there was cross-racial, class- and regional-based solidarity from the first day the ships arrived in Jamestown to a few weeks ago in Baltimore.
However, the other problem is that a lot of white people today want credit for being good “allies” in these rebellions. A lot of times we get involved in shit and we start to make it about class instead of race, or about how we’re all against the police and don’t really wanna talk about the systematic terror, torture, and genocide of Black people.
The way we tend to look at identity is based on something that is forged in resistance and rejection, which is perhaps different than how most people talk about identity, as some kind of positive and emancipatory category. Ashanti Alston once said in a speech, “I think of being Black not so much as an ethnic category but as an oppositional force or touchstone for looking at situations differently.” For instance, we see Blackness emerge not only as a state of not being white, as a differentiation, a marking of otherness, or a marking of bondage. It also evolves as an identity in resistance to whiteness, to capital, and to enslavement. To be Black was often to refuse and attack those systems. Perhaps paradoxically, this became an identity that could then be placed onto non-Black subjects who were also resisting those systems, though that happened only superficially. For example, multi-racial subjects who were often written about as white when not rebelling, became “mulattos” during rebellions. The formerly European maroons in the Great Dismal Swamp, for example, were sometimes called “tawny” by the media, and even fought in Black regiments during the Civil War. We should not confuse this with the controversy going on about Rachel Dolezel right now. She used blackface as a way to gain legitimacy or authenticity within a Black organization and anti-racist organizing, and of course more importantly to gain social and political capital – literally to get a job. The rivers of irony overflow. There’s money in identity right now, in ways there wasn’t before.
And what does this tell us about whiteness? It definitely shows there’s a crisis of legitimacy and authenticity there. But what it also points to is that when white people decide to not remain complicit with white supremacist social life, and do things that attack that construction of power, their own identity as “white” comes into question. Of course, the difference being that all white folks have to do to fold right back into safety and legitimacy that our whiteness gives us is to stop actively participating in struggles.
Perhaps there is a messianic moment that delivers us from identity during the insurrection, or whatever. But the idea that being in the streets together or living in a commune can dissolve the identities that divide us and individualize us is perhaps a temporal reality, one that functions as mythology when we’re actually back at work or on the subway or in school. There’s a tension there that we all continue to wrestle with. For as long as these structures exist, we can’t just excuse ourselves from asking critical questions about identity and race and affinity, and that in turn forces us to think about the kinds of relationships we build in between these swells of conflict and activity.
What are some of the most obvious examples of how today’s society of wage labor, militarized police, and wage labor is really a continuation of a society of slavery?
NS & SS: Most of us are taught in shitty public high school history classes that the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Reconstruction all represent a fundamental, ethical-political break from the evils of slavery in this country. These things are supposed to represent a hard line separating a before and an after. But what one finds if one does the research is that chattel slavery and the wealth, geographic expansion, and infrastructural development that it enabled are all absolutely fundamental to the success of this country, and that in this sense there is no hard line separating that “evil” past from our present. Just by itself, this fact means we are still living with the effects of slavery today.
It goes much deeper, though, into the ways that slavery and its fugitive-hunting posses are the literal fathers of our modern police system. That’s not meant as a metaphor – in many counties in the South, the literal beginning of an institutionalized police force can be traced to specific posses of white male slave catchers. This evolves during and after slavery, with the active aid of northern industrialists who, along with the Union Army’s assistance, sought to remake southern political economy into a wage system that could produce the same kind of profits so cherished during slavery. The convict lease, and later prison system, reflect this directly.
None of this goes to say that “we still have slavery” – that statement would be a vulgar oversimplification, ignorant of the specific kinds of exploitation that no longer exist here. But looking at the prison society we have now and the forms of 21st century debt-bondage and prsdrecarity that drastically limits the options of “free” workers, it becomes obvious that labor under capitalism was always and always will be characterized by some kind of bondage.
Comparing the last year of rebellion against the backdrop of three hundred years of revolt, what do you see?
NS & SS: All the ways that the state sought to contain and repress the urban riots of the late 60s, which we write about in the second-to-last chapter, are still haunting us today. The state still desperately needs the Black political class of preachers, activists, academic types, and politicians, who really got their start on the backs of the Civil Rights movement, to step in and stop these uprisings from happening, or at bare minimum channel them into more politically “legible” kinds of activity, such as making demands of those in power, civil disobedience, permitted marches, and so on.
Some things are of course very, very different now. The Latino population, which also faces severe police violence, has grown tremendously in some locales in this country, and those folks’ relationship, or lack there of, to the formal political system and its NGO spokespeople is sometimes very different. One could also identify a growing trend, at least since the ’92 LA riots, of young white people showing up to these demos, not just as “allies” or “activists,” but sometimes as people who are genuinely interested in attacking cops and fighting back for their own reasons. That represents a small minority, of course, but it’s interesting in terms of cross-cultural pollination and perhaps hints at an ongoing destabilization of whiteness.
All of that primarily concerns the anti-police sentiment that has become so visible as of late. But much of what’s going on now speaks to other aspects of the book’s history as well, in particular some of the lessons about unions, spontaneity and organization. There is a tendency in the South for class conflict to explode beyond the boundaries of the workplace. The 21st century has seen the final transitions to the service economy in many cities, and the informal tech economy has expanded tremendously. Work is increasingly precarious, decentered from the workplace, and in that context it can be fruitful to look to history for creative inspiration in how we might attack capitalism in non-workplace centered ways.
What do you do with your time when you’re not working on this book?
SS: Well, last night after getting done with a book talk, we immediately went to shove as much slow roasted pork in our faces as we could and drink margaritas. Then we went to this dance party called “illegal” that our friends, none of whom came to the book talk because they had better things to do, met us at. We danced a little, got in a fight with some creepy dancing touchy-man who wouldn’t leave us alone, then snuck into a salt water pool owned by Duke University. We’re also both basically 30, and I guess 30 really is the new 20, because those are all the same things we were doing ten years ago. The difference being, now Neal is a lot better at fighting and I know a little bit more about taking care of a body, so maybe together we won’t get too badly hurt. We’re both tauruses and so are very stubborn and loud and talk way too much, especially when we think we know what we’re talking about.
I am desperately trying to convince different places to let me into nursing school. I’ve been working in the women and gender related health world as a layperson for a while and am worried that if I keep bartending and working in the service industry for another ten years I’ll be put in an early grave. There’s a lot of things I want to learn to do that don’t involve this project and that mostly involve learning about bodies, how they work, what happens to them when you do various things to them, stuff like that. I have a dream of having a city house for partying and a country house for living with my friends, running some kind of weird clinic where we do everything from abortions and STI testing to helping people die with dignity and autonomy.
NS: I can’t possibly answer that question as well as she did. For the record, though, I didn’t order a margarita last night, but I should have. But I am definitely too loud and a Taurus, so Saralee is spot on there. What else… I train way too much in a few different martial arts – I haven’t fought in a cage in a while but I’ve been doing a lot of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournaments. Me and some others in town have been active in setting up a local anti-repression committee to help with bail and legal shit for folks arrested at future things, which has been a cool way to get closer to some comrades here in Durham while doing something practical in the downtime since last winter. I also basically try to swim in the river once a week, I grow a lot of tomatoes, I’m counting the clock down to the beginning of Alabama’s football season, and I’m trying (but failing) to avoid going back to catering work since I stopped teaching at my old MMA gym. On that note, right now I’m talking with some folks about setting up an MMA and BJJ gym locally that would be sliding-scale for radicals, queers, anarchists, and neighborhood kids in the area, and could maybe serve as some kind of social center on the weekends. Anyone who has done that sort of thing who reads this should totally get in touch. We’ll see.