It's All in the Narrative

William Spriggs Chief Economist, AFL-CIO

It's All in the Narrative

There is history--the facts of events--and then there is myth and fable--the essence of things, the narratives that shape our understanding of complex events inspiring, motivating, rallying and galvanizing us as people and nations.

In the case of the United States, the narrative all too often leaves out people of color. In part, this focuses us on leaders--portrayed as white males--to carry the hero's weight in forging our great nation. In part, it is to skip over the complexity of seeing a nation that prides itself on freedom having to explain slavery. In part, it was to create a narrative that America was a white country.

When Carter G. Woodson argued to establish what initially was Black History Week in February, it was to force attention on the more complex issues--and to move African Americans from invisibility to central roles in the American narrative.

This is the traditional Black History Week. It coincides with celebrating the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. And this year, it comes as America finishes marking the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.

The history of the United States during the Civil War is quite complex. At the very moment the nation was being torn apart, and its debts were escalating from a massive war effort, the seeds of the nation that would survive were planted. Not least among those seeds was one of its most iconic monuments--the dome of the U.S. Capitol.

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary notice that on Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves would be free in those parts of the South still in rebellion. That same year, the slave owners of Washington, D.C. were given money to compensate them for granting freedom to their slaves. And Lincoln authorized the U.S. Army to formally enlist African Americans into their ranks to fight in the war effort. At the end of 1863, the Statue of Freedom was hoisted to the top of the Capitol dome, symbolizing the Capitol's completion.

The standard history of the building of the Capitol centers on its architects. Removed from the narrative is the extensive use of slave labor--African Americans--who were the primary workforce that cut the timber, sawed the logs into lumber, quarried and cut the stone and made and laid the brick, in addition to serving among the carpenters and laborers. Several hundred payments were made to the owners of slaves for "renting" their slaves to the efforts to build the Capitol. The slave owners are known to us because of the accounting records of the Capitol's construction; these included a future mayor of Washington, D.C., and several city commissioners.

Fortunately, the name of one slave, Philip Reid, is known. Reid was a skilled craftsman who assisted in the foundry that cast the Statue of Freedom. He had been bought by his owner, Clark Mills, an artist who was in charge of casting the statue. Mills paid $1,200 for Reid. So when the slave owners of Washington were compensated for letting their slaves go free, Reid demanded he be paid $1,500. In the end, Mills did receive $350 to let Reid go free. The commissioners responsible for constructing the dome paid Reid $1.25 a day for his talents.

Taking the slaves out of the narrative lets us forget their suffering, and the workers who make our world. It lets us put aside the source of our nation's progress, as does leaving out of the narrative the more than 175,000 African Americans who fought to unite the nation, reaching 10% of U.S. forces at the Civil War's end.

The invisibility continues to this day. By top-lining the national unemployment rate of 5.6%, we get to ignore the 10.3% unemployment rate that African American workers are suffering through. The almost 2 million African Americans, about 22% of the unemployed, who remain actively looking for work are subject to be written out of the national narrative.

The Open Market Committee of the Federal Reserve Board includes the Board of Governors and a subset of the presidents of the Federal Regional Banks. Many of the regional bank presidents are convinced that after 58 straight months of job growth, and the strongest year and best quarter for job growth in more than 15 years, it is time to declare the economy is back to normal--meaning it is time for the Fed to ease off, raise interest rates and let the economy slow to douse chances of overheating the economy and igniting inflation. That narrative means that "normal" will never reach those 2 million workers. Then we'll have a narrative of Wall Street bankers celebrating zero inflation, perhaps deflation, ignoring who suffers for that "progress."


This has been reposted from The Huffington Post.

William Spriggs serves as Chief Economist to the AFL-CIO, and is a professor in, and former Chair of, the Department of Economics at Howard University. Bill assumed these roles in August 2012 after leaving the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government.