Of Blood and Sweat: Black Lives and the Making of White Power and Wealth
Whether the first people captured in Angola in Africa and brought to the Virginia colony in 1619 were enslaved or indentured servants may seem a moot point, if not preposterous to suggest.
Clyde W. Ford makes the case in his forthcoming book, Of Blood and Sweat — Black Lives And The Genesis Of White Power And Wealth, such a distinction is critical to gain an understanding of how the labor of Black people was the foundation on which white power and wealth were created.
Delving deep into the English common law that was used in Virginia, and other colonies, he cites numerous sources to posit indentured servitude was the norm in the 1600s — for people of all races. The system that worked in England, however, had drawbacks in the colonies, particularly in the tobacco-based economy of colonial Virginia.
First, indentured servitude meant there was a time limit on a person’s service. Secondly, under the common law, when the time of service expired, the master-planter of the servant was required to provide clothing and several barrels of corn — “Freedom Dues” — to the person. Not only was this a cost, the “owner” also lost the services, sometimes skilled, the indentured person had. And the owner had a continuing need for labor to plant, tend and harvest the tobacco. Beyond this, the common law had flaws or loopholes that allowed a person to sue for their freedom. Among these were the time limit of indentured servitude was achieved; that a person’s freedom depended on whether the father was white and a free or not free person; and also, whether or not a person was a Christian.
Indentured servitude in the colonies, according to Ford’s research, applied to more white people such as the Irish and destitute and imprisoned English people than Black people; in 17th-century Virginia, Ford states, 75 percent of the population was a servant and in 1640, he states, there were less than 100 African people in Virginia. In sum, indentured white people made up far more of the population than Black people, and there were far more servants than masters. This created a problem: were all those people given freedom and the rights of equality they could upset the class structure under which they served.
Ford found the ruling gentry solved the problem by passing new laws closing those loopholes. Among those was bringing slavery — based on race — to the fore, thus lessening the need for indentured servitude. This guaranteed white tobacco planters a labor force, drove a wedge between poor whites and Blacks, and was less of a cost to the planters than the former system.
Slavery, however, also had costs, chief among them capturing people in regions of Africa, transporting them to the colonies and then selling them. This led to the creation of an investor class in England. This paid for those costs and returns, with precursors of the popular but flawed derivative bundling of real estate in the modern era. This also led to the creation of an insurance industry that covered losses to pirates, to storm, to sickness or other reasons the investors might lose their investments in enslaved people.
Ford offers chapter and verse through the years, decades and centuries to show how the legal, financial and political systems existed and evolved to benefit and strengthen white power and wealth — from 1619 to the present day. His writing is clear, his research-based arguments compelling. The book is fascinating, eye-opening and worth reading.
“Ford’s overlap of past and present, narrative and commentary is masterful, and makes this volume all the more valuable to those readers wise enough to allow the past to inform the future. Of Blood and Sweat is a myth-busting work of genius that will stand as the last word on this vital subject for a long time to come.”—Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, New York Times bestselling author of A Slave in the White House and The Original Black Elite
In this, provocative, timely, and painstakingly researched book, the award-winning author of Think Black tells the story of how Black labor helped to create and sustain the wealth of the white one percent throughout American history.
Clyde W. Ford uses the lives of individual Black men and women as a lens to explore the role they have played in creating American institutions of power and wealth—in agriculture, politics, jurisprudence, law enforcement, culture, medicine, financial services, and many other fields—while not being allowed to fully participate or share in the rewards. Today, activists have taken the struggle for racial equity and justice to the streets. Of Blood and Sweat goes back through time to excavate the roots of this struggle, from pre-colonial Africa through post-Civil War America. As Ford reveals, in tracing the history of almost any major American institution of power and wealth you’ll find it was created by Black Americans, or created to control them.
Painstakingly researched and documented, Of Blood and Sweat is a compelling look at the past that holds broad implications for present-day calls for racial equity, racial justice, and the abolishment of systemic racism, and offers invaluable insight into our understanding of Black history and the story of America.
Praise for Of Blood and Sweat: Black Lives and the Making of White Power and Wealth
“an essential reckoning with the roots of the racial wealth gap in America.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A compelling argument for long-overdue reparations—though much more than that alone.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Ford’s forceful arguments and writing will compel readers to face the facts of the long history of exploitation and appropriation that have defined so much of America’s struggle with itself to give substance and meaning to its promise of 'freedom' for all.”
— Library Journal
(starred review) “Ford makes a clear case that the past is never over. The wounds inflicted by slavery have never healed, and he argues that they will continue to harm our country until we deal with them honestly. For many Americans, reading Of Blood and Sweat will be an excellent first step in that process.”