Grappling with History
An African American and Latinx History of the United States

Grappling with History

The United States is still grappling with its history of slavery, racism, exploitation and oppression. Paul Ortiz provides a compelling history.

Alternative history

An associate history professor at the University of Florida, Paul Ortiz seems uniquely qualified to write this long-overdue, startling alternative chronicle. He’s the director of the award-winning Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, and the author of Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920.

In this innovative history of Black and Latinx peoples in the United States, Ortiz emphasizes the primacy of slavery in the republic’s formation and examines the racist legislation and violent white supremacy that arose following slavery’s abolition. The Los Angeles Times Book Review found that his volume never resembles “an academic text at all – to its immense credit.”

History books in this series, which seeks to counter the dominant white-centric history most Americans learned in school, include An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Each volume has a slightly didactic tone, but that seems inevitable gives the United States’ problemmatic history in regard to indigenous, Black and Latinx people?

The precursor of and model for these books, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, first published in 1980, remains among the top 1,000 best-selling books on Amazon. Zinn showcased how the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, racism and their later manifestations shaped US history far more meaningfully, than, for example, Washington crossing the Delaware or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Zinn’s calm measured tone, backed by ample research, sets the standard for any contrarian view of US history. Paul Ortiz proves a worthy scion of Zinn’s perspective, and there is no higher praise.

Slavery

Ortiz tracks The Age of Revolution, which lasted from the 1770s until the 1840s – from the American Revolution to the uprising of Peru’s indigenous people against Spain. He details how Thomas Jefferson and other US founding fathers owned plantations and slaves, and he asserts – quite controversially – that they fought the Revolutionary War against England, in part, to retain the slaves whose labor enriched cotton, sugar and tobacco plantation owners.

Today, the descendants of former slaves and the descendants of people in Latin America and the Caribbean are heirs to oft-forgotten lineages of democratic struggle that provide vital reminders of how linked our histories are in the Americas.Paul Ortiz

Ortiz captures the hypocrisy that drove government policy until abolition, including using the US Constitution to safeguard slavery. He explains that 5,000 African-Americans served in the Revolutionary War, even as Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton tried to recapture slaves who escaped with the British navy.

Haiti, Mexico and other nations

Ortiz finds a hero in Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led a revolution of enslaved people in Haiti, fighting from 1791 until 1804, when Haiti became free. James Madison, John Adams and John Quincy Adams withheld US support of such independence struggles in the Caribbean and in Latin America.

Ortiz explains a crucial movement that many readers may never have heard of: “emancipatory internationalism.” This involved African-Americans who escaped enslavement and fled to independent Mexico after 1829.Ortiz recounts how – when the US war against Mexico ended in 1848 – whites lynched Mexican Americans and stole their property. California enacted the Mexican Vagrancy Act to seize Mexican-American land. 

[Then-congressman John Quincy Adams in 1836] …paid tribute to the resolute antislavery feeling among the Mexican people, and he beseeched his fellow citizens to consider the moral bankruptcy and depravity of their motives in attacking Mexico.Paul Ortiz

In parallel, Ortiz cites the activities of formerly enslaved African-Americans who purchased their freedom and developed pockets of resistance through their schools and churches. He wants his readers to remember that Black Union soldiers and civilians helped defeat the Confederacy. He quotes W.E.B. Du Bois calling the movement of Black Americans from plantations to enlist as Union soldiers the “first national general strike” in the United States. And he cites Frederick Douglass who said in 1862 that America’s policy centered on legalized slavery and imperialism.

Jim Crow

Ortiz goes into copious detail regarding the shameful history of racist Jim Crow laws, which segregated society and restricted Black voting in the late 1800s. In 1898, the United States started the Spanish-American war against Spain in Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico; Ortiz notes that the US used Jim Crow ”architecture” to confiscate property and dominate Filipinos, Puerto Ricans and Cubans.

The author reports that labor conflicts came to the fore in the 1890s and lasted four decades. Racism, economic inequality and voter suppression fostered labor repression. Employers varied workers’ pay according to the workers gender and race. Labor unions under white control discriminated against minority groups. Craft unions barred Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Blacks.

After World War I began, Ortiz recounts, the Ku Klux Klan attacked Black people who left southern states to work in northern factories. For context, Isabel Wilkerson movingly portrays decades of Black migration from the south to the north, and to mid-western and western states, in her prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns.

In 1919, white supremacists organized race riots in Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Chicago. On Election Day in 1920, whites massacred African-American Floridians who tried to vote. Ortiz relates another horror: the Tulsa, Oklahoma murder of more than 300 Blacks in 1921 as white rioters burned or seized Black-owned property.

Labor struggles

In 1933, Black women in Charleston, SC, demanded the same pay as other tobacco and textile workers, at least $12 a week. Ortiz reports that this sparked resurgent labor radicalism and contributed to the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which unionized workers in food processing and rubber and steel production. But, the author reports ruefully, the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act weakened unions and strengthened intervention on behalf of employers.

Black residents of Montgomery, Alabama launched a one-year bus boycott in 1955. Ten years later, a Black rebellion erupted in the Watts section of Los Angeles. When race relations leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis in March 1968 to support striking garbage haulers, a white racist assassinated him. Ortiz ties this murder to Black labor unrest across the United States.

Ortiz revels in the image of Latin American men and women stopping work on May 1, 2006, International Workers’ Day. The Great American Strike, or El Gran Paro Estadounidense – “A Day Without Immigrants” – left food service, trucking, seaport, garment producing and meat-packing businesses vacant. Latinx workers accounted for nearly 30% of union growth.

Generations of Black and Latinx writers argued that the ability of oppressed people throughout the world to exercise genuine self-determination would strengthen liberty in the United States.Paul Ortiz

In 2012, Black presidential candidate Barack Obama gained 71% of Latinx votes. Four years later, Donald Trump fueled discrimination against Latinx people, Muslims and African-Americans. Making no secret of his opposition to Trump’s policies, Ortiz restates his theme: Nothing can stop people of the Americas from pursuing freedom and equality. 

Ortiz is a historian and writes like one. He is readable, if not inspiring. To his credit, he relies on the outrageous events he depicts to deliver his moral messages. He never preaches, but he sure does teach.

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