Reading Noel Ignatiev's Memoir of Radical Political AwakeningHistorians in the News
tags: memoirs, autobiography, Noel Ignatiev, working class history
Acceptable Men: Life in the Largest Steel Mill in the World by Noel Ignatiev. Charles H. Kerr, 121 pages.
READ NOEL IGNATIEV’S LIFE STORY AS HISTORY: a chronicle of capitalism and industrial decline, of work and labor organization, of the composition of class and race. But read it also as a story of militancy, of the coming together of vectors which, if we have any prospect of awakening from the nightmare of history, will have to become all of us. “By the time I began working at Gary Works I considered myself a communist revolutionary,” writes Ignatiev in his posthumously published memoirs Acceptable Men. “Going to work in the mill itself was for me a political act.”
In 1961, Ignatiev dropped out of college with two aims: “First, I wanted to be close to the working class, which I viewed as the revolutionary class of the age. Secondly, I wanted to help the class in its struggle for communism.” A decade later he arrived at the blast furnaces of the largest steel mill in the country, the U.S. Steel Gary Works, where iron ore and coke are combined with a limestone catalyst to make pig iron, the brittle alloy that is converted into steel. It was here that he heard a racist remark that in Acceptable Men prompts a longer biographical reflection on a night Ignatiev spent in jail just before he went to college, when he tried to stop a white police officer from beating a black man. Such experiences were the basis of the work he would do much later when he left the factory to become an academic. As he wryly puts it: “In the United States black revolutionaries I knew personally went to prison for decades or were murdered in their beds, while so-called whites went to . . . graduate school.”
Years before Ignatiev arrived in Gary, and decades before he wrote How the Irish Became White, he coauthored a groundbreaking pamphlet with Theodore Allen, the author of The Invention of the White Race. “White Blindspot,” known for introducing the term “white-skin privilege,” took its title from W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, which serves as its first epigraph. “Only the Blindspot in the eyes of America, and its historians,” Du Bois wrote, “can overlook and misread so clear and encouraging a chapter of human struggle and human uplift.” Contrary to the racist and elitist “propaganda of history” that represented the reconstruction of the Southern states following the Civil War as a period of waste and corruption, Du Bois showed that it was actually “the widening and strengthening of human democracy”—a period in which black people proved, against the “contempt and unbridled abuse that has been put upon them,” that they were capable of self-government.
It was this principle that would define Ignatiev’s revolutionary aims—the principle not only that ordinary people have the capacity to govern themselves, but also that despite the relentless everyday repetition of domination and exploitation, despite the condescension with which they are deprived of control over their own lives, they persistently demonstrate this capacity. And so it was that Du Bois wrote, in the passage which provides the second epigraph to White Blindspot, that “the emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black.”
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