Fighting Fascism and White Supremacy by Understanding History

In a time of upheaval, historian Gerald Horne’s latest book The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in Seventeenth-Century North America and the Caribbean exposes the origins of many forms of oppression that continue to define contemporary social conflict and political struggles around the world. Horne explains that the history of white supremacy is illusive but can be traced back to the Crusades when it wound its way into philosophy, Christendom, colonialism and capitalism.

Conjuring the ghosts of William Patterson and Paul Robeson, who called for building international coalitions to fight white supremacy and injustice, Horne’s underlying message is internationalism. Horne is currently working on his next book about the 16th century set to be released next year, titled The Dawning of the Apocalypse. I recently spoke to Gerald Horne on the Time Talks Podcast about his latest book, where he elaborated on his philosophy of teaching, the origins of white supremacy, Bacon’s Rebellion and the Trump presidency, families being separated at the border and US foreign policy.

Chris Steele: When I spoke to you last time, we spoke about representations of resistance in the classroom with not having students see the first image of a person of color as someone enslaved. Can you speak about your teaching philosophy and how this relates to the work you do?

Gerald Horne: Well, I accept wholly and fully the predicate of your question. I think that particularly with regard to students of African descent (but not exclusively students of African descent), it’s very important for them not to see Black people only in the role of slaves…. One of the many scandals of historiography in the United States is not dealing with that history, which I think leads to a misimpression that the slave population was inert, or as … Kanye West said, 400 years of slavery is “a choice.” Basically, I mean that kind of opinion comes clearly from this idea of presenting enslaved people as passive.

Now, with regard to teaching, particularly the history of North America, I think number one, students need an explanation of why we’re speaking English in the first instance, particularly given that — as I say in my book The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism — in the early 1600s, England was fundamentally a minor power in Europe. And students need to understand how this minor power in the early 1600s became a major power by the late 1600s, and of course, the answer, in brief, is slavery. I think that it’s important in talking about … European settler colonialism in North America to also deal with the conflicts and contradictions in Europe. Not least the Ottoman Empire, that is to say Turkey, and not least the religious conflict between Muslims and Christians and Jewish people, and between Protestants and Catholics, and between Catholics and Jewish people; and somehow all of those conflicts in the 17th century get resolved on the basis of the common altar of race. It reminds me of the Michael Jackson video of “Beat It” — you have the two gangs and Michael Jackson comes between them and sort of reconciles them, while this is what happens between the Protestants and the Catholics, they say, “Why are we fighting? We should unite under this common banner of whiteness and we can loot everybody.” Basically, that’s what happened. Let the transcript show the speaker is now chuckling. That’s part of what I try to impart to my students.

You’ve said that the $64,000 question is elusive when it comes to the origins of global white supremacy, and you and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz have suggested that it lay in the Crusades. In one of your footnotes [in The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism], you say a scholar dates the word “race” back to 1508. Do you find its origins with Christendom, colonialism, capitalism or a combination of all three?

Well I would say a combination of all three. You know it’s interesting, I mean I’m working on a book now on the 1500s.

That’s The Dawning of the Apocalypse?

Exactly, and you begin to see — like if you look at the Crusades, which you can plot from the late 11th century, these are pan-European projects from the inception. They’re taking Christians from all over Western Europe to march to what might be called the Holy Land and to oust the Muslims. And then of course, we all know that slavery is a phenomenon in any case during that period — not only enslaving of Africans but of course, enslaving of other Europeans…. So, I would say that the Crusades would be one root of not only slavery, but a pan-Europeanism, which then bleeds into whiteness. I would also suggest … looking at the Iberian Peninsula and the fact that Muslims were ruling in Spain from about 711 in the so-called Christian era AD, up until they were formally ousted circa 1492, and then expelled altogether in 1609, and this conflict in Spain between Muslims and Christians. It seems to me a predicate for the construction of whiteness, not to mention the expansion of Spain across the Atlantic. And indeed, what befalls the Muslim population on the Iberian Peninsula in the 1500s is strikingly similar to what befalls the Indigenous population of the Americas and Africans as well in the 1500s; that is to say, falling victim to enslavement and then of course, whiteness being sort of the vehicle that propels that.

Another aspect that I think we’re going to have to deal with is what’s happening in the 1300s with the African leader Mansa Musa. The story is well-known about how he’s a Muslim and then of course, starts dealing with the rise of the enslavement of Africans and the rise of whiteness. You have to contemplate that some of the earlier areas subjected to enslavement in so-called sub-Saharan Africa were heavily Muslim dominated as they are today…. And this idea of African wealth that [Musa] exhibited attracted the dedicated attention of many potential colonizers. Which actually, when I think of Mansa Musa, I also think about the movie Black Panther, where you have this African kingdom and they’re to keep their wealth shrouded, so to speak. And I think that Mansa Musa might have been better off if he had not made such an exhibition of the vast wealth that he was controlling because it tended to attract the ravenous attention of outsiders to the detriment of his people. But in any case, I think that in terms of explaining and shedding light on the dawning of the apocalypse or the dawning of settler colonialism, it’s important to understand the Crusades. It’s important to understand what was going on in the Iberian Peninsula, particularly Spain, and it’s also important to understand the phenomenon that was Mansa Musa.

Well, I want to move up a little bit now to 1676 with Bacon’s Rebellion. You say, “This was a turning point creating a cross-class collaboration between and among Europeans that has yet to disappear in North America, the headquarters of settler colonialism.” As you point out, some on the left and some historians are split on this, and they portray this, as you say, “a revolt from below targeting an elite is ipso facto righteous.” Can you speak on this interpretation of Bacon’s Rebellion?

Well, you know, it’s interesting. Let’s look at the United States in 2018, when you have a vulgar alleged billionaire as president, actually a conman, who obviously receives significant support from the Euro-American working class and middle class…. He had 63 million votes. He won Wisconsin, Michigan, not to mention Dixie, where routinely the right wing wins 90 percent of the Euro-American vote and an amazing cross-class coalition. And so, what I’m suggesting is that obviously we need a new interpretation of the history of the United States and the history of its origin as a settler colony. And Bacon’s Rebellion is something of an exemplar because it represents the kind of class forces that you see then materializing in November 2016. That is to say, in Bacon’s Rebellion, you see that those increasingly defined as “white” are rising up against London and the colonial structure because they don’t think the colonial structure is moving rapidly enough and aggressively enough to seize the land of the Native Americans. And of course, that’s an impetus also for 1776 — a scant century later when, per the Royal Proclamation of 1762-63, London expressed exasperation at continually moving West, expending blood and treasure, seizing the land of Native Americans so it could be turned over to real estate speculators like George Washington (although admittedly, there was a “trickle down” to poor Europeans).

I think it would be a mistake to act like there wasn’t something called the “American Dream” — that is to say, people starting off relatively poor and becoming wealthy…. It comes at the expense of seizing land of Native Americans, enslaving Africans, etc. So, London was faced with a real dilemma in 1676 because, at the same time, the Caribbean, particularly Barbados and Jamaica, were quite typically on fire. The Native Americans in what is now New England were rebelling. And it was easier to try to accommodate the European settlers in Virginia, where Bacon’s Rebellion takes place, as opposed to conciliating the Africans, whose unpaid labor you needed from a colonial point of view in the Caribbean, or the Indigenous population in what is now New England, because their land was, quote “needed” unquote. So, this leads of course, to the accelerated move away from religion as an axis of society to race, whereby you could accommodate and conciliate poor Europeans, giving them a social promotion through the device of whiteness, and also try to seize more Native American land to accommodate them and also move away from indentured labor — which was quite horrific in terms of its exploitation — and move more towards enslaved African labor, which you also see after 1676. As I say in the book, 1676 is a real turning point in the history of settler colonialism in North America.

You already touched on [the fact] that Nathaniel Bacon was from a wealthy family. He created this bridge to colonize Indigenous land. Do you see intersections between him and Donald J. Trump, with his attack on the Latinx/Chicano population and his instant approving of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines?

Well clearly, obviously, and it’s becoming more ominous by the day. What Donald J. Trump is doing — which sadly and unfortunately many of our progressive friends have not — is that he’s globalizing and internationalizing his movement. If you notice, as we speak, he’s castigating Prime Minister Theresa May in London and touting as a potential successor, Boris Johnson, her recently defrocked foreign secretary, who is to her right. In Germany, he’s been castigating the traditional conservative Angela Merkel and [Trump’s] ambassador in Berlin. Richard Grenell [the current US ambassador to Germany] has gone on record as saying that he sees part of his job as boosting forces to the right of traditional conservatives, sort of these neo-fascists who now rule in both Rome and Vienna.

And what’s remarkable is that despite this tremendous electoral victory in Mexico … I don’t see a parallel movement of our progressive friends to try to send delegations immediately … to confer with our counterparts and the progressive movement in Mexico City in light of the election of López Obrador, the next president of Mexico….

Certainly, there is a parallel between Nathaniel Bacon and Donald J. Trump. In fact, I’m awaiting one of our creative artists to either do poems or paintings or plays drawing parallels between Nathaniel Bacon and Donald J. Trump.

In response to migrant families being separated, director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office and member of the Ojibwe people, Jesse Wente tweeted, “Colonial states separate children from parents because they know it works. It destroys and traumatizes for generations. It’s an attack on the future as well as the present. It’s not partisan issue, it’s a colonial one.” Can you speak on this and this long legacy of colonialism and white supremacy?

Sure. There’s a young historian at Emory University in Atlanta by the name of Dawn Peterson who has just written a book on the inglorious history of Native American adoption into European settler colonial families. And you can draw a straight line from that dastardly history to recent scandals … on the Texas-Mexico border, because what’s going to happen now is [an] alleged inability to find parents of some of these youth who have been sequestered, due to their being doled to US families. But simultaneously, if you look at what’s been going on in El Salvador for years now, you’ve had a kind of fraudulent adoption industry taking place where youth from El Salvador are being adopted by US settler families, often times by means that are hardly fair, mostly foul….

So, given this history and also given the history of US foreign policy … for example, in the 1970s, US imperialism supported the Argentine junta, which was quite notorious for seizing the children of leftists and dissidents, throwing the parents into the Atlantic Ocean and then doling out the children to be adopted by military officers in the junta. In fact, that policy was so notorious it led to a quite affecting film, which I recommend, called The Official Story — it’s an Argentine film.

Then of course, we don’t even have to talk about the African slave trade … the images are rampant of slave owners and slave traders ripping infants from the arms of weeping mothers and selling the mother down the river and selling the infant down another river…. These are, shall we say, open secrets: They’re not secrets at all; in fact, they’re open scandals. I think that’s the better phrase that can be used.

These things tie right back into the Carlisle [Indian Industrial] School of separating Native Americans and trying to take away their culture as well — it was cultural genocide that took place.

Oh clearly, it’s a clear case of appropriation. It’s interesting, doing this research of 1500s and dealing with the Muslim population in Spain, for example. After the Muslims are ousted after ruling for hundreds of years … the new Christian authorities — they ban certain dances that the Muslims engage in, certain food and recipes that the Muslims use and engage in. And it’s a very curious form of not necessarily cultural appropriation but cultural liquidation, which is also a phenomenon that we have witnessed under settler colonialism in North America.

The underlying message I see in your work is internationalism and you end The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism stating: “This impact of global currents on nefarious domestic trends should remind today’s strugglers that their interests would be better served by spending less time debating with the American Civil Liberties Union about the ‘rights’ of fascists and more time conversing with potential and actual allies in Beijing, Moscow, Havana, Brussels, Pretoria and elsewhere.” Can you speak about how throughout US history — such as in Chile or Guatemala — the US has supported fascism in its foreign policy, the roots it laid, and the current attack on antifa, such as anti-mask legislation in the US and current anti-fascist movements?

Well, I’ve been thinking about Chile a lot lately because I’m quite familiar with the overthrow of the socialist government on September 11, 1973 … and the rise of Augusto Pinochet. And one of the reasons I’ve been thinking about it is because many progressive Chileans were just shocked by the rise of fascism; they thought that their democratic structures were less fragile and brittle than they actually were. It reminds me of the United States because people in the United States were shocked by the rise of Donald Trump and his neo-fascist trends. They overestimated the strength of their “democratic” institutions, although I must say that people in the United States have less reason to be shocked than the people of Chile — even though of course, you have settler colonialism in Chile, and you had a certain level of enslavement in Chile as well, but not to the dimensions that you had in North America.

And so, it’s shocking to me that in a country built upon genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans to whom the Constitution and the Bill of Rights did not apply, that people could be shocked that … [it] might serve as a precursor and a precondition for the rise of neo-fascism in 2018. I mean, obviously, there’s been an overestimation it seems to me of democratic traditions in the United States…. So, obviously we have a lot of work to do — that’s for sure — but I think our work could be facilitated if we had a clearer understanding of how we got to this point and if we cast aside these fantasies and illusions that masquerade as US history.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.