The pleasures of whiteness could function as a wage for white workers. The status and privileges conferred by race could be used to make up for alienating and exploitative relationships. White workers could, and did, define and accept their class positions by fashioning identities as “not slaves” and “not Blacks.”
—David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness (13)
White men are always in line. Just go out and shout to them: “Line up, men!” and thousands of them line up.… “Forward march!” you say, and off they march. And now it’s up to you to march them where you please—to war, to death, to shout hurrah, or boo, to work…whatever you say goes.
—Guy Endore, Babouk (22)
Early on in Babouk, Guy Endore’s radical 1934 historical novel of slavery, resistance, and the lead-up to the Haitian Revolution, we encounter a scene of sick French sailors, disgruntled about their working conditions aboard the slave ship Prie-Dieu. Suffering from an outbreak of the grotesque eye-disease ophthalmia, the sailors huddle together, airing grievances: “Who does all the work if not we? Do we not load on the cargo, and feed it, and clean it? And what is our share? A miserable ten or twenty francs a month in addition to kicks and bad food. While the captain and the owners grow rich. What if we were no longer to work for them? Where would they be?” (40).
Another sailor joins in: “I tell you…if there were ten men like me aboard this ship there would have been mutiny long ago. And let me tell you,” he adds, “a pretty piece of money we could get smuggling this cargo of slaves into San Domingo” (40).
Meanwhile, the eponymous Babouk and hundreds of fellow African captives lie in chains and darkness below deck, packed in putrid conditions.
The sailors’ mutinous musing soon extends to French politics: “Yes, and I tell you if there were a thousand like me in France you’d see the end of landlords and noblemen, yes, and bishops and the king, too, for that matter. Pack of bloodsuckers!”
These workers sound almost insurrectionary. But, as Endore suggests, at least for now, the sailors are not prepared to act. “When they heard the captain’s heavy step,” he writes, “they lowered their voices to whispers” and dispersed, fearful of the whip. There is to be no sailor revolt aboard the Prie-Dieu.
The irony of Endore’s presentation hinges on the trope of blindness. The sailors have just been struck blind, victims of a virulent outbreak borne of the conditions imposed on the “cargo” below deck, but that soon spreads to infect all aboard. While the sailors mostly recover from their literal ophthalmia, the recovery rate for the enslaved is far worse. Nineteen Black people are permanently blinded—and subsequently pitched into the ocean as unsaleable—compared to one white man. It is impossible not to notice the parallel to the ongoing COVID pandemic: the ophthalmia spreads all over, yes, but its impacts are deeply unequal, and proves most deadly among those cramped and locked below.
Though the mortality rate is far worse below deck, above it, the literal blindness is doubled by a racialized blindness. The sailors’ lament—“if there were ten men like me aboard this ship”—is based on the “rebels” not seeing the hundreds of human beings below deck as potential fellow conspirators. In the sailors’ insurrectionary imagination, the enslaved do not figure as potential comrades; they are not “men like me.” They figure as “cargo,” loot that can be more “fairly divided” after the “bloodsuckers” at the top are got rid of. The sailors imagine a workers’ revolt, but one predicated on continuing to subordinate, commodify, and profit from the most oppressed workers-to-be in their midst. They aim not to end the “blood-sucking” trade in human flesh, but to profit from it—”more equitably.”
Endore’s point is not just to condemn the sailors’ hypocrisy. The point is also that the sailors’ fantasized insurrection aboard the Prie-Dieu does not occur, and their racialized blindness, Endore suggests, is part of the reason why. Their position above-deck enables these discontented sailors to imagine themselves future owners, while blinding them to their actual potential power, which could only be unleashed by making common cause with the enslaved. Class consciousness is undercut by racist blindness.
These are hardly privileged workers in anything more than a strictly relative sense. “The blind crew was lashed unmercifully,” Endore writes, “if it hesitated to obey” the captain. Indeed, from the captain’s perspective, “the death of a sailor could be borne, but the death of a Negro…would be an irreplaceable loss of capital” (23). The physical conditions of the slaves below deck are inordinately more horrifying than those of the sailors above, and the sailors—doubling as prison guards—enforce those oppressive conditions. But the sailors too, from the standpoint of the slaving business, are expendable.
Endore’s depiction aligns with the findings of slave ship historian Marcus Rediker: “Violent command applied almost as much to the rough crews of the slavers as to the hundreds of captives they shipped. Discipline was often brutal, and many a sailor was lashed to fatality. Moreover, for sailors in the slave trade, rations were poor, wages were usually low, and the mortality rate was high—as high as that of the enslaved, modern scholarship has shown.” Yet, joint insurrections linking those locked below deck and those abused above it were exceedingly rare. Indeed, the very presence of enslaved Africans below deck transformed conditions above it, compelling sailors—who often complained and raged against their despotic captains—to seek common cause with their class oppressors, in light of the simmering rebel threat below. As Rediker puts it, “race” as a means of suppressing and transmuting class conflict, was effectively produced aboard the slave ship.
White racist blindness then, Endore suggests, is not only ethically and pathogenically compromising; it is politically incapacitating, too. It undermines the would-be rebel impulse. After all, if the sailors saw the African captives as fully human and as sharing with them a common interest, bursting the bonds of the captain’s tyrannical rule would become a numerical certainty.
Babouk and the Cages of Whiteness
In re-reading Guy Endore’s “forgotten masterpiece,” thankfully still available through Monthly Review Press, I have been struck by how this novel from 1934, long-noted for its shocking and sophisticated account of slavery and resistance in the lead-up to the Haitian Revolution, is also a penetrating account of the ethical and political deformity and alienation perpetuated by the ideology of “whiteness.” A half-century before the emergence of “whiteness studies,” Endore not only anticipates later developments, but speaks forcefully to some of the persisting pitfalls of academic critical race theory, offering us a critical take on “whiteness” that (1) foregrounds the harm that racist ideology does to both the “white” and “Black” sectors of the working class; (2) underscores the hypocritical ruling-class responsibility for crafting the manipulative banner of “race”; and (3) envisions solidarity as a route to an abolitionist horizon, imagining a figurative “way out” of the curse of whiteness, an exit strategy too often missing from scholarly and popular treatments that treat demography as destiny.
Within some circles today, the very idea that a white American in the Jim Crow 1930s could produce such a text might seem implausible. But it makes sense that Endore of all people would express an acute awareness of the topic. Born to a Jewish family whose father had renamed the family Endore (from Goldstein) to allow them to pass for French and avoid rampant anti-Semitism, Endore saw identity as a porous thing. Like many of his generation, he saw the pretense of Western civilization shattered by the massive bloodletting of the First World War. And in the 1930s, like many left-tending intellectuals, Endore was radicalized by contemporary events both abroad and at home (the rise of fascism in Europe, the horror of Jim Crow in the United States), leading him to see commonalities in struggles across time and space, peoples and nations—between the treatment of Jews, dissenters, the colonized, and modern-day Black people. He was then an “un-American” actively and radically dis-identifying from the ruling institutions and ideologies of white supremacy and eurocentrism—seeking to become less “white” and, we might say, more “red.”
We see in Babouk an attack on what I will broadly call the cages of whiteness, a phrase I put forward in contrast (and complement) to W. E. B. Du Bois’s (and later David Roediger’s) influential notion of the wages of whiteness. The French workers aboard the Prie-Dieu, to be sure, are hardly given pleasure or payment for being white; capitalism is shown to make them sick, physically, while whiteness walls them off from their potential allies as well as their own power. We must further distinguish Endore’s critique of whiteness as alienation from Robin DiAngelo’s now infamous take in White Fragility, which paints a picture of all white people—irrespective of class position—as the “beneficiaries” of anti-Black racism. Reading the ophthalmic scene above, one would need a great deal of textual “blindness” to claim that such miserable, underpaid, sickly, and terrorized French sailors are beneficiaries of this racist and capitalist slaver scheme. Contra DiAngelo, Babouk anticipates the insights of Theodore Allen’s The Invention of the White Race by grasping the creation of the “white race” as a “ruling-class social control formation” aimed at dividing poor European workers from their African siblings—and from their own revolutionary proletarian potential. As Allen painstakingly documents in his two-volume study, the North American legal notion of whiteness did not predate slavery, but rather was developed by the Virginia ruling class over the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, specifically to prevent the type of danger represented by Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676–77, a multinational worker uprising that terrified the local ruling class and nearly burned Richmond to the ground.
If Allen referred to the lure of the “white race” as the “poisoned bait” that kept Euro-American workers on the capitalist hook, and alternately as “chalk dust in the eyes” that obscured their genuine class interests, Endore’s early scene combines these metaphors, offering us the toxic white pus of opthalmia as a figure for the compound deadliness of European workers succumbing to white racism despite their own class oppression. White racism becomes better grasped less as a “privilege” than as a bio-pathological and political disease, undermining European workers’ interests both in body and in mind—while blinding them to the lives of those trapped below.
Maybe if these miserable French sailors could clear the scum from their eyes, Endore suggests, they might be capable of launching the revolt of which they dream.
Conceptually, cages of whiteness allow us to separate—analytically and strategically—Europeans and European-American people from their “whiteness,” foregrounding the difference between these biological human beings, their subjectivity, their ultimate interests, and the structural position into which they have been placed (often by circumstances not fully of their own choosing). Cages of whiteness also foreground how the ideologies and structural alienation of race inflict mutual, though unequal, confinement and harm on both white and Black workers—including physical, moral, and spiritual costs.
The cage framing further emphasizes an aspect of class/race relations that tends to disappear from much of whiteness studies, namely the role played by the capitalist-imperialist ruling classes in establishing and maintaining structures that deliberately deploy “race” as a strategy for dividing and dominating the multinational labor force on which elite profit and power depend. Finally, the hermeneutic of cages more immediately conjures the possibility—and necessity—of bursting this reciprocal prison, casting antiracism as not merely a matter of relinquishing “unearned privileges,” but as a matter of mutual human liberation.
Endore’s split-deck slave ship allegory should ring painfully familiar. Do we not still today often hear declarations made against various forms of oppression or exploitation, in ways that ignore others inside that same system, including those even more egregiously abused “below”? How often do we hear of aggrieved “Americans” rallying for their “rights” to a “bigger slice of the pie,” but without considering where the ingredients for that pie actually come from and who harvested them? How often do we see labor unions fighting for their “fair share” but without recognizing the struggles of those further down on the hierarchy of a tiered and divided labor movement? We might ask broadly, to what extent do claims on the “American Dream” today still tend to be predicated on expanding “middle-class” access to cheap consumer commodities in a way that remains oblivious to a racialized imperialist labor system that thrives on superexploitation, sub-subsistence wages, and global apartheid. Even in the U.S. labor movement and across much of “progressive” U.S. political culture, do we not still suffer from the white pus of ophthalmia, our sense of the cause before us distorted—and our political capacities undermined—by the inherited divisions of the allegorical slave ship?
After all, in a world where capital has globalized its mode of superexploitation, the “blindness” is not just “subjective”; it is built into the structures of the “objective” world around us. The pus, so to speak, is no longer just in our own eyes, but melded to the walls and floors—warping the mirrors in which we have been taught to find our reflections. From a “First World” perspective, even a working-class one, the most brutal forms of systemic superexploitation can at times seem increasingly distant (tucked “below deck”), or else, when we do dare look beneath, utterly overwhelming to the point of despair.
As Endore details, the slave traders and captains have done all they can to degrade and divide those below deck against themselves—by language, culture, religion, and ethnicity, even by physical size—encouraging rivalry, and making it difficult for them to communicate with the other enslaved. “No,” the narrator informs us, “it would never do to have a shipload of slaves all from one tribe. In fact, one must not even chain two from the same tribe together. For the first duty of the careful slaver is to prevent one black from striking up an understanding with another” (23). Against such division, desperation, and deliberately constructed chaos, it is all too easy for the French sailors to shut themselves off from the motley Africans below. The slave system’s capacity to dehumanize and divide the enslaved, in other words, functions doubly: to control the captives as well as to distance “white” workers from them, despite their physical (and pathogenic) proximity. As Endore makes clear, the barriers to multinational or interracial solidarity are not just ideological, they are institutionalized practices and social structures that shape the scene before the worker even gets a chance to enter it.
How, then, might such structures and practices be overcome, and with them, the ideologies and self-defeating identities of working-class “whiteness”?
“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”
If the white pus of ophthalmia aboard the Prie-Dieu offers us an emblem for a traumatic transatlantic affliction into racism, another moment, near the end of Endore’s novel, offers us an alternate “race” origin story. This one is spoken aloud by the storyteller and revolutionary Babouk himself—a figure loosely based on the historical figure of Boukman Dutty, a leader who helped touch off the slave revolt of August 1791 that would bring on the Haitian Revolution. If Endore’s first treatment of white blindness emphasizes the ethical monstrosity and political alienation of European slave ship workers, Babouk’s final story, told on the eve of slave revolution, emphasizes whiteness as founded in fear and shame, in the aftermath of violent expropriation and ruling-class terror. This later episode also offers a glimpse of what the abolition of whiteness might look like.
At issue is the very last story that Babouk relates to his fellow slaves, the night before launching an attack on the capital, Le Cap, a bloodbath that will leave Babouk a martyr to a still-unfinished revolutionary cause. As with several of Babouk’s innovative stories, this one offers a revision of the Bible, specifically the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.
In the traditional Old Testament story, Cain kills his brother Abel out of jealousy and is given a mark by God, forever after registering Cain’s guilt. It was a story that, as of Endore’s writing, had already been appropriated for racist purposes. Southern U.S. Protestants in the slavery era, for instance, had maintained that the dark skin of Africans marked them “descendants of Cain,” utilizing the Biblical curse as justification for slavery. However, through Babouk’s last story, Endore reverses and re-grounds the racial resonance.
In Babouk’s version, Cain and Abel are both created Black: there is as of yet no racial division in the world. Not until Cain, who “refused to work,” first begins stealing from the hard-working Abel, and second, whips his brother when he protests (171). Hereafter, Cain effectively makes Abel his slave, until one day he whips him so hard that Abel dies. Abel’s blood flows into the earth, provoking a cosmic cry to the heavens. As Babouk relates the rest of the story to his rebel comrades:
But God had heard the cry of Abel’s blood and called out to Cain: “What have you done to your brother Abel?”
And Cain was frightened at the voice of God that his face went white with fear.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” he cried, his face now white with terror.
Then God said: “Cain, you shall be white henceforth, as a sign that you are not your brother’s keeper. And your hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand shall be against you.”
“And thus it is to this day,” Babouk concludes, “the race of Cain is not the keeper of his black brothers. And as a sign of God’s curse upon him, his race is white.” (171, emphasis added)
Cain’s whiteness here is (re)cast as an expression of fear in the wake of fratricide born of economic exploitation (and resistance). Not only does Endore reverse the racialization of the “mark”—making Cain’s descendants “white” rather than “Black”—but he roots the mark of whiteness in the fear and guilt that flow in the wake of the violence of economic expropriation. Whiteness becomes the paradoxical mark of predation and privilege, but also of paranoia, the inheritance of those whose ancestors stole from others, who used violence to enforce the theft, and who feel thereafter afraid—and perhaps also ashamed?—for the way they have betrayed God’s demand that they treat their brothers with kindness and love. Whiteness here becomes the punishment for stealing and killing one’s disavowed kin.
Rooting race not in biological (or even cultural) difference but in a history of oppressive practices (the theft of labor, the whipping of workers, the killing of a brother), this final origin story invites readers not only to lament the past and present abuses of Cain, or to mourn (or avenge) the murder of Abel, but also to think about what the negation of whiteness might look like in the future to come. After all, if the descendants of Cain could somehow come around to showing solidarity with those their ancestors robbed, murdered, or abused, returning the products of expropriated labor, finally becoming their “brother’s keepers,” what would become of that white mark then? Might it not…begin to fade? To the extent that people become their brother’s keepers, Endore suggests, the curse of whiteness might be diminished, if not abolished altogether and, with it, white fear and terror.
Arguably, it is precisely such an overcoming of whiteness, both as blinding plague and as paranoid curse, that Endore was after with his 1934 text. European-Americans too, he suggests, are trapped in this cage of whiteness: “white” workers, unable to see or comprehend their African fellow laborers, remain cut off from their own human and political potential, and thereby doomed to cling to the boots of capitalist tyrants. Meanwhile, even white property owners—arguably the more direct inheritors of the murderous crimes of Cain than poor white workers—remain cursed, forced to live in fear and terror forevermore, worried beyond (but not without) reason that someday the ancestral violence will be turned against them, that the descendants of Abel, agents of God’s harsh Old Testament justice, will “hunt us out among the girders of our dying skyscrapers as once we hunted them through their forests” (182).
For Endore, however, the point was not to hunker in this cage of white terror (or white guilt) but to burst it asunder, making possible, through revolutionary praxis, a global humanity, beyond the trap of racist capitalist empire.
- ↩ Ironically, this is French for “Pray God,” and also connotes a prayer stool.
- ↩ Emphasis added.
- ↩ Of course, within some years, there will be a revolt—and a revolution—in France, complicating the picture. Notwithstanding the limits of these French sailors, some of that revolutionary ideology—liberté, egalité, fraternité—would indeed come to circulate among the enslaved of Haiti, too.
- ↩ The former, the white doctor who has been treating the slaves below deck, begs to be killed as well, feeling his life now to be ruined. The captain has him confined to quarters.
- ↩ Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Viking Press, 2007), 6–7. For more on the historical accuracy of Endore’s account of slavery, see David Barry Gaspar and Michel-Rolph Trouillot, afterword to Babouk (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1991).
- ↩ The question of how trust and communication with the enslaved could be established after the crime of their kidnapping remains daunting—as is that of where to sail such a liberated vessel in the late eighteenth century.
- ↩ Guy Endore and Elizabeth Dixon, Reflections of Guy Endore (Guy Endore Papers, Oral History Program, University of California, Los Angeles).
- ↩ For more on Endore, see my essays: “‘Down with the Rebels Against the Bill of Sale!’: Guy Endore’s Radical Imagining of Haiti and Revolution,” Monthly Review Essays, September 7, 2019; “Guy Endore and the Ironies of Political Repression,” Minnesota Review 70 (2008): 141–51. See also Carl Grey Martin, “Guy Endore’s Dialectical Werewolf,” Le Monde Diplomatique, September 15, 2014; Alan Wald, “The Subaltern Speaks,” Monthly Review 43, no. 11 (April 1992); Alan Wald, “Strange Communists I Have Known,” in Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
- ↩ Endore’s novel appeared in 1934, the year before DuBois’s influential Black Reconstruction (1935) would coin the “wages of whiteness” while discussing the racial divisions that weakened the U.S. working class in the wake of the Civil War. Babouk also appeared four years before the much-better known text Black Jacobins (1938) by C. L. R. James, a work which it likely influenced.
- ↩ For a treatment of this self-destructive effect of “whiteness” in the contemporary United States, see Jonathan M. Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland (New York: Basic Books, 2019).
- ↩ We should note, following Allen, that racial codes and ruling class social control strategies in Saint Domingue and across the plantation colonies of the West Indies would evolve differently than those in Virginia and across North America—specifically by making room for a free class of Black and mulatto people that would serve the elite social control function of a “buffer strata” between masters and the enslaved—the same role played by poor whites in Virginia.
- ↩ To take one example: How much of Jeff Bezos’s widely reviled rocketing revenues are generated by his techno-Taylorized warehouse employees in a place like Bessemer, Alabama (subject to a recently defeated union election), and how much stem from the superprofits transferred stateside from the globalized sites of production where those myriad Amazon products are actually made?
- ↩ See John Smith’s Imperialism in the 21st Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016). To be clear, mine is not an argument that all oppressed people must “check their privilege” and fully account for all other forms of oppression before asserting their own immediate concerns and interests. It is rather an argument about the political limits of revolutionary or socialist mobilization that does not think to “look below” in our efforts to build broader and deeper alliances across proximate sectors of the proletariat. Of course, there is no shortage of liberal discussions of suffering “others” in need of charity, sympathy, or humanitarian aid. But conceiving these others as struggling against a common enemy—rather than as merely suffering—is a different matter. See Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (London: Verso, 2013); Jean Bricmont, Humanitarian Imperialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006).
- ↩ The Europeans are first identified by Babouk and his fellow captives, we should note, not as “whites,” but rather as “red men,” a more accurate description of their actual sunburned complexions (2). They too must be taught the proper colors of race.
- ↩ As Endore interjects later, on the eve of slave insurrection: “Through centuries [the ruling whites] had maintained their feeling of superiority over the Negro race only by constant proof of it through whipping and torture. The fellows did look so damnably like human beings that one must keep perpetually insisting on those minute differences of black skin and heavy lips and wide nostrils and kinky hair, as must the white masters, for that matter, be continuously insisting on the bad grammar and unwashed hands of their peasants and workers. In fact, one must call upon the Church, upon God, upon nature, upon science for constant reassurance, and even then only by stepping on the Negro a dozen times a day can one be really positive” (169).
- ↩ Such syncretic Christianity, we should note, is a major motif throughout the book, as Babouk rises to informal leadership among the enslaved in part by riffing off inherited legends and fables while also creating altogether new tales. He appropriates African and European sources alike, scenes from the plantation as well as motifs passed on from elsewhere, crafting witty interventions in an evolving situation, shaping slave consciousness toward the horizon of “universal revolt” (157).
- ↩ While the more common Biblical justification traced black enslaved peoples to the “sons of Ham,” Noah’s son, the mark of Cain was also occasionally put to similar use. It was not until 1995 that Southern Baptists officially denounced their prior utilization of this story for racist purposes. See Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning (New York: Bold Type, 2016); Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
- ↩ Admittedly, Endore does not spell this positive possibility out explicitly. But his narrator’s frequent estranging and mocking of “whiteness” throughout the book—I have only given a small sample here—invites and provokes readers to dis-identify from the terms of “white” identity.