The Fruit of One’s Labor? Work, Race, and Ability in the History of U.S. Capitalism around 1900

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on Disability and Disability History, the Business History Conference, the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA), and the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Disability Studies; Labor and Working-Class; Race


This panel explores inequality in American history with regard to notions of able-bodiedness, class, and race. In particular, the panel addresses how in turn-of-the-century capitalism able-bodiedness was tied to self-responsibility.
As dis/ability scholars have argued, the development of industrial capitalism and wage labor in the nineteenth century brought with it a modern imperative of able-bodiedness. Taylorist concepts of scientific management and efficiency created new norms for the classification of productive bodies, as well as their ability to work and to govern themselves. The homo oeconomicus—the enterprising self—became the ableist ideal of the era. Studies on Racial Capitalism have recently pointed out anew how the structural exploitation of black working bodies continued beyond slavery, through systems of debt obligations, expropriation, and other property politics. These processes were perpetuated by the devaluation of black bodies and selves.
By pairing up these two perspectives – the critiques of ableism and racism – the papers of this panel will focus on political economies of the body that produced inequality through racialized ideals of able-bodiedness and self-responsibility. They scrutinize how the perceived inability to self-manage labor and the fruits of one’s labor was a crucial rationale for colonizing people, while the capacity to maintain one’s labor power and to acquire and manage property signified economic and individual success.
In the post-slavery era, African Americans’ access to land ownership and the fruits of their labor became a field of intense negotiation. While some former slaves may have profited from their own work by building up a small portion of property, the vast majority remained in a cycle of having to exploit themselves for the profit of white landowners. Processes of expropriation were based on rendering African Americans as not credible or not capable of exercising economic citizenship. This contributed to cementing the image of homo oeconomicus as being white.
Autonomy, a key ability of liberal citizenship in the decades around 1900, seemed increasingly legible on people’s bodies. Bodies—their shape and health—appeared to be the fruits of one’s labor on oneself. In the era of the “survival of the fittest,” the American ideal of the “self made man” became updated and connected to the self-made body. Improving one’s body became a privileged site for white middle-class men demonstrating their capability of responsible self-government.
By scrutinizing the nexus of ability, race, and work, the panel sheds new light on the body history of capitalism and inequality in the US. The first paper discusses how Walt Whitman—in a little-known newspaper column—called upon white middle-class men to work on their bodies in order to claim political power. The second paper analyzes the practice of sharecropping as a pivot in reorganizing racist hierarchies via debts politics in a post-slavery economy. The third paper addresses how early human capital theory linked able-bodiedness to capitalist prosperity and devised ways of how individuals could increase their body capital. The fourth paper shows how time work management in the interwar years created new taxonomies and hierarchies of racial and bodily fitness.

Papers Presented

The Color of Working Hours: Historicizing Race, Time, and Ableism in Interwar Fordist Labor Economies

This paper examines the intersections of race, time, and ableism in the making of wartime/interwar labor economies of the Detroit auto industry. Time—or more specifically clock-based temporalities—whether as units of measurements, discipline, commodities or lived experiences were and remain one of the defining characteristics of industrial modernity. How peoples and societies choose to mark time via the rhythms of nature or the rigidity of the clock varies across historical contexts. Time is relative, born of specific historical contingencies; a phenomenon that is both an agent and affect of social difference. Time-work management was constitutive of the new industrial Fordist order, which emerged in the interwar years. Indeed a working body’s in/ability to master time, to embody temporal discipline—on both physical and physiological levels—was a key metric of industrial fitness. This paper analyzes how the new temporal regimes engendered by assembly line mass production created new taxonomies and hierarchies of racial and bodily fitness. Though black workers had long been seen as “defective by definition” due to their ostensible physical and mental inferiority, this degeneration explicitly coalesced in their oft-cited inability to embody and or internalize the temporal discipline required to master the infamous speed up. Drawing on the vast archival sources of the industrial management literature of the Ford Motor Company, African American social agencies, and the rising tide of Eugenic thought, this paper employs a temporal lens to trace the contours of racial and bodily inequality in early Fordist labor economies.

Presented By
Paul Lawrie, University of Winnipeg

“The True Wealth of Nations is the Health of its Individuals”: The Body Politics of Early Human Capital Theory

In the early twentieth century, economic theorists responded to the era’s concerns about social progress and productivity by focusing on the economic benefits of health. With a reformulation of capital theory, Yale University economist Irving Fisher paired up with progressive reformers and nutritionists by pointing to the economic significance of bettering the health and working capacity of Americans. Fisher introduced the body as human capital that could yield income, and he suggested that people could and should increase the income value of their bodies. From this perspective, healthy eating and hygienic living were understood as investments into the body by which enterprising selves could do their bit to accumulate not only individual but collective capital. It is no coincidence that Fisher was the cofounder of the Race Betterment Foundation. The early twentieth-century conception of human capital can be understood as an economic version of the survival of the fittest idea that connected the self-responsibility of individuals with visions of white racial progress and prosperity. People’s self-conduct became the focus of reform efforts and the scale for judging good citizenship. After all, allegedly self-induced illnesses and deficiencies were considered to pose an economic as well as racial burden on American society. The paper discusses conceptions of human capital in progressive America and shows how it shaped a racialized body that was marked by the constant improvement of income and life.

Presented By
Nina Mackert, University of Leipzig

Chronic Debility, Female Fatigue, and the Failed Rehabilitative Futures of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois

My talk reframes and recontextualizes both Washington’s Up from Slavery and Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk as rehabilitative narratives responding to a post-Reconstruction racial health politics that operated through the calculated debilitation of the physical bodies and mental health of free Blacks. Yet both stories of racial progress are unsettled by the disturbing presence of a feminized chronic disability that insists on an alternative imagining of racial progress.

Although early twentieth-century African American racial uplift is often seen as divided by the opposing race politics of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois, both Washington’s autobiography and Du Bois’s essays on the Southern Black Belt address the complicated, and not always consistent, ways that the literal physical and mental health--the matter of Black lives--and the semiotic meanings and larger discursive narratives attached to their health-- functioned as key tactics shaping and controlling African Americans’ place within post-Reconstruction racial capitalism. The regulation and exclusion of freed men and women from this capitalist liberal state depended on a slow violence of health debilitation, or a quotidian, attritional violence that sought to dis-able (and not simply discriminate against) Black people and render impossible or unsustainable their participation as new economic men and women in a shifting industrial order.

In the first part of my talk I will trace out how Washington’s Up from Slavery is a “prosthetic autobiography” intended to inculcate self-care and risk management as much as recount Washington’s own self-made success. In Up from Slavery Washington aims to groom, scrub, monitor, and control the functions of the Black body and mind so as to raise freed men and women to an optimized heath vitality in the face of the slow racial violence of health debilitation. Yet, despite an emphasis on sanitary habits in Up from Slavery, Washington’s narrative of overcoming and rehabilitation is constantly interrupted by the persistent presence of a feminine, and feminizing, chronically disabled body, including Washington’s first two wives, whose own counter stories of fatigue insist on an alternative chronic time of racial progress.

Similarly, Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk reflects “disability troubles” that disrupt his desire for the race’s evolutionary progress toward the full manhood of men of culture. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois discloses the post-Reconstruction South regulated and disciplined free Blacks into a surplus life for New South racial capitalism through a health vulnerability. At the same time, in Du Bois’s famous chapter “Of the Meaning of Progress,” Du Bois’s vision of a post-Reconstruction “ugly progress” is disrupted by the disabled Black woman Josie who derails the progressive manly time of Du Bois’s history to insist on a different imagining of how free men and women should care about—and for--a Black future.

Presented By
Stephen Knadler, Spelman College

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Robert McRuer, George Washington University
Robert McRuer is Professor of English and former Chair of the Department of English at the George Washington University. He is the author, most recently, of Crip Times: Disability, Globalization, and Resistance (NYU, 2018). He is also the author of Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (NYU, 2006) and The Queer Renaissance: Contemporary American Literature and the Reinvention of Lesbian and Gay Identities (NYU, 1997). With Anna Mollow, he co-edited Sex and Disability (Duke UP, 2012) and with Abby L. Wilkerson, he co-edited the award-winning special issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies on Desiring Disability: Queer Theory Meets Disability Studies (Duke UP, 2003). His research is centered at the intersections of queer and disability studies, particularly in a global context.

Presenter: Stephen Knadler, Spelman College
Stephen Knadler is Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English at Spelman College where he teaches courses in U.S. literature and cultural studies. He is the author of The Fugitive Race: Minority Writers Resisting Whiteness (U Press of Mississippi, 2002), Remapping Citizenship and the Nation in African American Literature (Routledge, 2009/10), and Vitality Politics: Health, Debility and the Limits of Black Emancipation, which was published by the University of Michigan Press this past fall 2019 and received the Tobin Siebers Prize for Disability Studies in the Humanities. His recent research bringing together Black Studies and Critical Disability Studies has also appeared in American Literature, J-19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, and Arizona Quarterly. He is currently working on a project tentatively titled “Neurodiverse Afro-Fabulations.” 

Presenter: Paul Lawrie, University of Winnipeg
Dr. Paul Lawrie is an Associate Professor of History and a Senior Fellow of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg. His work has been published in Canadian Review of American Studies, Oxford Handbook of Disability History, Disability Histories and Truth in the Public Sphere. His first book Forging a Laboring Race: The African American Worker in the Progressive Imagination (NYU Press, 2016), examines evolutionary science and industrial management in early 20th century America. His current project The Color of Hours: Race, Time and the Making of Postwar Urban America examines how temporal geographies of race mediated racial difference in the American city from the time-work management of the factory floor, the curfews of housing projects to the vagrancy statues of the city streets.

Presenter: Nina Mackert, University of Leipzig
Nina Mackert is Assistant Professor of North American History at Erfurt University, especially interested in the history of food and body politics with an emphasis on the practices of eating, dieting, and measuring food and bodies. She obtained her PhD in History in 2012 from Erfurt University with a dissertation on the productivity of the US-American delinquency scare between the 1940s and 1960s (Jugenddelinquenz: Die Produktivität eines Problems in den USA der späten 1940er bis 1960er Jahre, published in 2014 with UVK). Afterwards, she has been working in the research project The Eating Self: A History of the Political in the United States from the 19th to the 21st Century, publishing “’I want to be a fat man / and with the fat men stand’ – U.S.-Amerikanische Fat Men’s Clubs und die Bedeutungen von Körperfett in den Dekaden um 1900,” Body Politics 3/2014.
Currently, she is working on a book on the history of the calorie, as part of the transdisciplinary joint research project Food, Health and Modern Societies: Germany and the United States. Her most recent publications include “Feeding Productive Bodies: Calories, Nutritional Values and Ability in the Progressive Era US,” Histories of Productivity: Genealogical Perspectives on the Body and Modern Economy, ed. by Peter-Paul Bänziger and Mischa Suter, London: Routledge, 2016 and “Making Food Matter: ‘Scientific Eating’ and the Struggle for Healthy Selves,” Food, Power, and Agency, ed. Jürgen Martschukat and Bryant Simon, New York: Bloomsbury, 2017, 105-128. Together with Jürgen Martschukat, she is the editor of the blog, and of “Fat Agency,” a theme issue of the journal Body Politics 5 (2015).