Keri Leigh Merritt Interviewed by Robert Greene for Jacobin MagazineHistorians in the News
tags: historians, Jacobin, Keri Leigh Merritt
Keri Leigh Merritt works as a historian and writer in Atlanta, GA. She is the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South and coeditor of Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power.
Robert Greene II is an assistant professor of history at Claflin University and the book review editor for the Society of US Intellectual Historians' blog.
The history of the American South cannot escape the specter of slavery, white supremacy, and severe class divisions. The confluence of these three themes forms the heart of Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South.
Merritt’s book stands in the tradition of W. E. B. Du Bois, Manning Marable, and numerous others who’ve tied together US history and a keen understanding of political economy. The enslavement of millions of Africans warped the South’s economy, politics, and culture — including in ways that often hurt poor white Southerners. Poor whites were seen as a threat to the ruling planter class in the South, and Merritt makes clear that this relationship — heavily influenced, by the potential unity between enslaved Africans and poor whites — altered the political economy of the region. The lessons Merritt writes about in Masterless Men still hold up today, as left-wing and progressive forces across the South continue to press for a multiracial fight against what Martin Luther King, Jr called the “triple evils” of white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism.
Early in your introduction, you state that the central goal of Masterless Men is “situating poor white Southerners into America’s broader political economy.” Why is this such an important thread in US history?
KLM: Poor and working-class whites have almost always been left out of our country’s narrative because in many ways acknowledging their existence is a denial of the American dream, a festering wound in the heart of American exceptionalism. Poor whites in the South have been written out of history for a very political reason: the idea of a “solid white South,” wherein all classes of whites vote the same way and have the same interests, allows the propagation of the Confederate “Lost Cause” narrative, as well as the incorrect (but persistent) notion that all whites are elevated by racism.
This historical lie allows the extremely high levels of inequality between whites in the region to be minimized and generally ignored. Simultaneously, it psychologically unites white Southerners today over a mythical, romanticized, “shared” past as proud Confederates.