Color and Class: A Conversation with Joe William Trotter Jr.

December 30, 2021   •   By Jeffrey J. Williams

RACE AND CLASS sometimes seem like separate issues, with one taking priority over the other. But the historian Joe William Trotter Jr. shows how they intertwine in studies such as Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America (2019), which foregrounds “the centrality of the African American working class to an understanding of U.S. history.”

Trotter’s research began in 1985 with Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915–45 and continued in the 1990 Coal, Class, and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia, 1915–32, foregrounding urban and African American history. With those and a number of other books, including From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?: African Americans in the Great Depression and War, 1929–1945 and The African American Experience, Trotter has helped reshape thinking on class and race in American history.

He is now the Giant Eagle University Professor of History and Social Justice at Carnegie Mellon University, and I had a chance to speak with him in Pittsburgh this past summer.

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JEFFERY J. WILLIAMS: To start, can you characterize what kind of history you do?

JOE WILLIAM TROTTER JR.: I consider myself a historian of the African American experience, but I try to view that experience through the lens of the African American working class. When we look at the historiography of African American writings on African American history, for many years we tended to privilege stories of those outstanding figures who rose to the pinnacle of success — Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and other luminaries. Even when we get into the late 20th century, we tend to look at Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm and other heroes who offer inspiring stories about how African Americans engage with the history and culture of the United States and struggle and succeed. But I felt that ordinary, everyday lives of working people were often shortchanged. Many of the unsung workers across different categories of work and occupations contributed greatly to the history of the country and to the history of African Americans. So my work has been about bringing the Black worker more to the forefront within African American history and using that as a way to talk about how the African American community shaped the country.

I also look at the connections between African American work and the communities that they inhabited and the ways in which Black workers were a vital part of the institution-building process within African America. They shaped institutions — churches, fraternal orders, and the entrepreneurial side of the African American experience. A lot of what I work on is during the period of massive migrations of Black people out of the rural South and small-town South into major cities — not only in the North and West but also in the South. The South was becoming a more urbanized place as the North became industrialized. I like to talk about how African American workers were at the core of those processes.

Some of the earlier literature tended to make the migration one of the elite, of the “Talented Tenth.” But I try to point out that, even in the earlier migration, the bulk of people were poor and working-class Black people. The notion that it was an elite migration was based on a very selective assessment of records in more literate writing. And I thought that, across those different periods, we really needed to recenter the Black worker; that was who was moving and fundamentally shaping the new experience.

One term that you use is “proletarianization,” and if there’s a theory underlying your work, it’s about the process of proletarianization. That motivates Black Milwaukee and your next book, Coal, Class, and Color, as well as your books on the Ohio River Valley and your recent book, Workers on Arrival. How do you define proletarianization?

Proletarianization, for me, is the process by which African Americans became, in the cases I study, an industrial working class. In a broader sense, proletarianization is about how people make the transition into becoming a wage-earning working class. It can be industrial, but it can be something else; it’s about the process of people moving from one status into a status that involved them selling their labor as a fundamental part of making a living. In order to understand how that happens and what it means, we have to ask: What was their vantage point of experience before they became wage earners? There are different paths of proletarianization, and one path is from being independent craftsmen who control the trade, control the entry of new people into it, and the ideals, concepts, and knowledge of it, to being wage earners. For them, proletarianization is a downward process, because they’re losing independence by becoming beholden to an employer who calls the shots in terms of wages and working conditions.

On the other hand, if the workers were sharecroppers before that, then their position would be different?

That’s the other side: some people came into that working class from a background of sharecropping, which is so exploitive and degrading that they experience a somewhat upward mobile process because now they see money more often than they did as sharecroppers, where they would be paid in kind. And their independence, while not great, means they have a little bit more latitude to live their lives. It’s still an immiserating experience, but much better, in terms of comparison, to where they were.

The people who really suffer downward is when they have a business that managed to succeed, and all of a sudden, it goes bust, and they have to find employment. They move into the wage-earning class and are no longer exercising decision-making over their lives. White proletarianization was very often a downward spiral because they were landowners or craftsmen. But for Blacks, coming from slavery to proletarianization is an upward step because what can be worse than not owning even your labor power? That’s progress of a sort with some degree of autonomy. So Black proletarianization during the industrial period was something of an upward step. That’s why Black people would celebrate migration from Alabama to West Virginia, Alabama to Detroit, Alabama to Chicago. They were getting factory jobs, and as bad as those jobs were, they were a step above sharecropping. That’s the way I understand it.

In thinking about proletarianization and class, what is the relation to Marxism in your work?

My work is a critique of the way that some people understand Marx and the way Marxist ideology works. But in Marx, a portion of what he says comports with what I was saying about how the movement into the capitalist wage economy is not always a downside for the workers. He sees that the movement into proletarianization is in some ways an upward step for some and a preparation for a protracted but ultimately successful struggle. My work has tensions with and tries to combat some of the ways that Marx is used when people believe that proletarianization is an unabatedly immiserating experience. It is, but that’s too simplistic. So part of my work is a critique of certain understandings of Marxism. Marxism has a tendency to downplay the powerful role of race, and I would never, ever subscribe to that.

There has been a movement over the past 50 years to look at history from below and pay more attention to the working class. Why were you drawn to thinking about work?

Let me just tell you a little about my background. I grew up in southern West Virginia. My father was a coal miner, and I grew up in a coal mining family. There were 14 siblings in my family. My parents, Joe William Trotter Sr., and my mother, Thelma Odell Foster, were both from Alabama. They got married there and came up to West Virginia during the Great Depression, and my father got a job in a coal mine. When World War II got underway, coal mines started to pick up, and there was a demand for workers again. I believe growing up in that kind of environment and seeing my family struggle — my father passed away and my mother became a widow when I was in high school, and she then had to move the family to a small town in Ohio — that work experience of Black people, the poverty that they encounter, made it clearer to my consciousness.

By the time I went to college, I wanted to understand more about this experience. What really cinched this focus was, when I was an undergraduate student, reading a lot of the civil rights literature — the books that Martin Luther King Jr. put out, Stride Toward Freedom in 1958 and Why We Can’t Wait in 1964. And then I was reading Malcolm, and eventually the Black Power book written by Charles Hamilton and Stokely Carmichael.

When was this?

I graduated from college in 1969, and after college, I spent six years as a high school teacher. Then graduate school came in the mid-’70s, and in 1974, something called the Sixth Pan-African Congress was held in Tanzania, and a lot of things happened in the Black freedom movement. Black Power had blossomed and was becoming a target of criticism by those who believed that focusing on race to the exclusion of other factors, like class, was problematic. And at the Sixth Pan-African Congress, African heads of state like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania were beginning to tell African American activists that there was a class dimension that they needed to incorporate into their thinking. In African countries, almost everybody’s Black, so the divisions and the social conflicts take different lines, and class was one of the fault lines in those new decolonized countries. And they said, if Black people in the United States were going to succeed, then they were going to have to add a class analysis to their emphasis on race, so we would have a more balanced and fruitful theoretical framework moving forward. That impacted me.

So I was committed to the idea that we have to introduce more class analysis into our work in African American history, and we had to move workers more to the center because they were the vast majority of the people who constituted the Black community. I wanted to make sure that we didn’t shortchange the way that racial inequality and racial hostility added to the difficulties and challenges that Black working people experienced. I also tried to make sure to illuminate that dynamic relationship between the working people and the Black middle class and educated, professional people. They always forged some kind of unity, although tenuous, and at times class division deepened and challenged that unity.

You show how that works in particular places, especially in the first half of the 20th century. I can see how your work comes from your family background and also from the time.

Yes, my experience was important, and just coming of age in a moment of extraordinary political ferment [was too]. Also, I read Lerone Bennett’s book called Before the Mayflower. Lerone Bennett was an extraordinary writer during the Civil Rights era, and Before the Mayflower is a popular history of African Americans in the United States that went through a lot of different editions. He wrote historical pieces regularly for Ebony, and they eventually started producing books on the African American experience. I credit Lerone Bennett for giving me my first comprehensive look at the African American experience from the African background all the way to the present. He wasn’t regarded well in academia because his work was considered synthetic and derivative, but Before the Mayflower was an eye-opening book, and it became a living piece of my sense of history. Then I also read From Slavery to Freedom, John Hope Franklin’s book. I learned a lot from it, and it had an intellectual impact on me — from the depth of his research and the systematic way in which he was able to explain so much — but it didn’t have the moving edge that Lerone Bennett brought. But I appreciated John Hope Franklin because he made it clear that in order to write a history of Black people, one has to work very hard and be as comprehensive as one can be and also pay attention to the canons of historical scholarship. Both of those came together for me in graduate school.

Those two books helped me to create a consciousness of the Black experience, where race was a prominent part of shaping the experience. But they were not as good at seeing working-class Black people as actors in the story, and so it was against the downsides of those iconic pieces that I tried to grasp the dynamics of the Black working-class experience as a centerpiece for understanding the Black experience and for understanding America better. In graduate school is where I started to find a way to develop and frame that history of African America.

You went to Minnesota in the mid-’70s. What was the field like at that point?

At Minnesota, all of us who were African Americans were in two programs: we were in US History, trained as US historians, and we were also in a field called African Peoples’ History. The African Peoples’ program was ahead of the game on global and transnational history, and it brought Africanist, Latin Americanist, and US historians together around issues of race and comparative class relations. So that program sensitized me to a broader range of African experiences in the United States.

And US history was undergoing tremendous ferment and change: the history from below was beginning to take hold, and I learned a lot from E. P. Thompson, especially The Making of the English Working Class. Looking at this idea of bottom-up history, it reinforced and strengthened my resolve that we needed a better understanding of Black working people.

But here’s the downside: a lot of people believed that you didn’t have to look at Black workers per se to claim a focus on African Americans as a history from below. Because this racial group had been so neglected, people said that however we study it, whether from the leading or the working class, it’s still history from below. I had to take issue with that and say, “No, you can’t just treat the African American experience as entirely history from below. You can’t ignore all the working people who comprise that experience.”

Also, as I said, the people in African history were important for centering class analysis and race. African history was grappling, in serious ways, with class analysis, and I was reading stuff on South African class conflict, or East African class conflict, or Kenyan or Nigerian class conflict. Those ways of thinking about class and proletarian innovation were very influential in my thinking.

Why did you write about Milwaukee?

The reason I wrote about Milwaukee, at a personal level, is that in college almost all my friends were from Milwaukee or Chicago, so I was curious about where they came from. The Black community in Chicago was the most studied Black community in the United States, so I said, “No way am I going to write a dissertation on Chicago!” Also, when I was in graduate school, Milwaukee was a dynamic center of Black activism. Some of it was very interracial because there was a man named Father Groppi who led the youth chapter of the Milwaukee NAACP, and they were marching in an almost all-white community, taking their lives in their own hands, so to speak, and challenging housing discrimination. Groppi gained a reputation nationally for supporting the open housing movement and aligning with some of the radical Black organizations. This white man leading this group of young black people into the neighborhoods? That struck me as pretty powerful.

And there were other activists in Milwaukee, for instance a woman activist named Vel Phillips. My friends who came from Milwaukee talked about these people all the time and about the movement that was going on in their city, so they made these names living for me. I did not know at that time that Milwaukee had great potential because it had these unusual permutations of politics, with a socialist mayor for 40 years, and a Garvey movement, where a man named Reverend Ernest Bland blended socialism and Garveyism.

I was struck in Black Milwaukee when you chart the different kinds of workers and give precise numbers. For instance, in 1910, there’s something like six professionals and 50 semi-skilled workers, whereas by 1930 there’s 150.

When I was writing the dissertation, my advisors were always asking, “What makes this place distinctive?” So they pushed me to think more about how Milwaukee stood out compared to other places. Also, it was the quantitative moment, when everybody was using statistics, and lots of people wanted to understand immigrants in a comparative perspective. With Pittsburgh, for example, there’s a book called Lives of Their Own that came out in the ’80s, and it compares the Poles, Italians, and African Americans. People were beginning to say, “You can’t understand race and racism if you can’t understand the particular experiences of the average Italian and the Poles. And how did those people interact with Blacks and Jews?” The white racial paradigm is complicated, so you had to unravel white racism and figure out where it’s coming from, and how intense is it for all of these different groups? And where are the alliances? If we say that there is a distinctive working-class experience among Blacks, then we also have to talk about whether that experience made it feasible to create alliances with similar workers across the racial and ethnic lines. To what extent did white workers embrace African Americans as brothers and sisters in the struggle?

Also, given that Milwaukee was a socialist city with an ideology that claims equity across ethnic, racial, and even gender lines, what are the possibilities of working-class movements succeeding because people can come together? I’m still wrestling with that issue, and I tell you, it will not go away. I’m still trying to understand to what extent Black workers and white workers managed to bridge their differences in all kinds of ways.

Black Milwaukee is a very granular history, almost a micro-history. It’s a historian’s book, where the notes document the various archives you went to, for instance the MUL, the Milwaukee Urban League, and you conducted interviews with people who had lived there at the time. Where did you look for your information?

Newspapers were important to me, African American newspapers like The Enterprise and Blade. There were some earlier newspapers that I also was able to get access to. Those were very important.

And that was before anything was online.

Yes, we had to go to the microfilm and then roll it through the microfilm reader. But one of the good things about studying a small place and combing as many of the records as you can find is that you can look at almost everything that’s available. Even though they are just segments of knowledge, you can feel pretty comfortable that you’re covering the waterfront. If the study is on a city with a big population with tons of documentation, it’s harder to frame and pare that study.

I’m going to contradict myself now, but even though you might feel like you covered everything, there’s always another source, always another trove of documentation, and that’s why I did a new edition of Black Milwaukee in 2007, with a chapter that took the story back to the foundation of the Black community in 1870, and what happened after World War II, from the 1950s through the early 21st century.

Do you see any new directions for looking at Black working-class history now?

There is the whole health issue that COVID-19 has put on our minds. I’ve been working on a short book trying to show how the jobs that African Americans occupied over a long period of time were jobs that exposed them to or predisposed them to the impact of pandemics and epidemics, so they’re at more risk. There is some history there, and we just need to do it.

Right now, it seems like a particularly fraught political time, with a renewed culture war, but also a promising time, with Black Lives Matter and historical remediations like the 1619 Project. There’s a reaction to those, but that also means they have some force. How do you reflect on current cultural politics?

And critical race theory is under attack. I think that this is a part of a long historical process, where those of us who work in these areas have to fight, always, to make sure you make progress, you institute programs, you sustain those programs, you defend those programs, and you keep making your case that these things are essential to the health and well-being of our institutions and this society. We just have to keep making that case, and we can’t abandon the ship.

You know, it’s a good thing if you feel that you arrived at a point where what you do is considered mainstream and legitimate. But then, after you lived there for a while, you find out that there are some people who never accepted what you were doing. It’s part of a struggle. And if those of us who are in the field don’t realize that, then we haven’t learned from our own professions. We need to take heed that this has never been easy, it has never been totally accepted, so why should we bend to the tide? We have to be strong, firm, keep moving in the direction that we know we must move and realize that this is also part of how we deal with inequality in the present and fight against all these forms of racial, class, gender inequalities over time. The intellectual fight is very important for the social and political fight. We have to see it that way more than ever, so we can fight the current trend to push us out of the academy and push our work under the rug.

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Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted nearly 80 interviews with critics, writers, historians, philosophers, and editors, published in Minnesota ReviewSymplokeIowa Review, and elsewhere. He has written on the form in “Criticism Live” (Biography, 2018) and “The Rise of the Critical Interview” (New Literary History, 2019), and his book, How to be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University, includes profiles drawn on various interviews.