Acceptable Men

A book release party in Gary, Indiana, this Saturday, Sept. 25, will celebrate the life and times of Noel Ignatiev, a long-time South Side resident and organizer who became a celebrated author, academic and abolitionist of whiteness. 

Ignatiev died in November 2019. His posthumous work memoir “Acceptable Men: Life in the Largest Steel Mill in the World,” published by Charles H. Kerr Press and available Sept. 25, covers Ignatiev’s life through the 1970s, when he organized with the Sojourner Truth Organization in South Chicago and worked in the blast furnace division at U.S. Steel Gary Works. 

The event will be held outdoors starting at 5 p.m. at the Nelson Algren 616 Soundstage on South Lake Street in Miller Beach, Gary, near the Miller Station on the South Shore Line. (There are regular trains from Chicago.) U.S. Steel Gary Works directly borders Miller Beach to the west. 

The event’s roster includes former co-workers from Gary Works, members of the Sojourner Truth Organization, and younger activists involved in similar struggles today. “I'm excited to see some steelworker families. It'll be different than your typical Chicago lefty event in that regard,” says Kingsley Clarke, Ignatiev’s closest friend, former Sojourner Truth Organization member, and member of the Kerr Press board of directors. 

“Acceptable Men” describes the everyday ways that workers subverted the power of racist management in the mills, from work evasion to writing collective statements, filing lawsuits and staging wildcat strikes.  

Ignatiev writes about the machinist, the boilermaker, the welder, and the millwright’s trades with elegance and clarity as he describes the coordinated effort it took to keep the gigantic mill running. The title of the book is taken from Biblical apocrypha, “For gold is tried in the fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of adversity.” (The furnace, in this case, is the blast furnace Ignatiev worked on at the mill.) 

Ignatiev, who spent two decades working in industry in Chicago and Indiana, also paints a picture of the 1970s as a time when competing radicals and leftists flocked to factory floors in order to push their particular doctrine. When he started out, he seemed no different. Fresh from the SDS, Ignatiev was a staunch anti-racist, and immediately went to work fighting against racial segregation in the work place. 

“The mainstream left's attitude on anti-racism at the time, however, was summarized as ‘Black and white unite and fight,’” says John Clegg, an organizer of the event who is working with a new group to help expand the press. “Noel and the Sojourner Truth Organization wanted to support Black autonomous organizing, not simply to integrate this Black workforce into traditional unions, but rather to support their independent organizing in the workplace with a vision of socialism.”

It was there in the mill and while working with the STO that Ignatiev began to theorize about structural racism and white privilege, and developed his goal to abolish the construct of whiteness itself. He later went on to found the journal “Race Traitor” in 1992 which declared on the spine of every issue, “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” 

The Sojourner Truth Organization operated their worker center out of an office on 88th and Exchange in South Chicago, and collective members provided legal aid to workers involved in local struggles. Ignatiev lived in Gary for the majority of his time working in the mill, but moved to 57th Street and Blackstone Avenue in Hyde Park in the late 1970s before eventually ending up closer to the worker center. 

“He was interested in the wider significance of workplace struggles,” says Clegg, “and wrote extensively about the role of Black struggles in American history. Eventually he would end up writing a book, ‘How the Irish Became White,’ about the emergence of racial division in the American working class.” 

Clarke, who was Ignatiev’s best friend, shows up in the memoir as the attorney with a “scraggly beard and cut jeans” who represented Black workers fighting for affirmative action in the mill. “It was a very important part politically, both in the memoir and in Noel’s history,” says Clarke.

The memoir is a brief glimpse into Ignatiev’s life, and ends when he leaves the steel mill and enters Harvard University in his mid-40s on a full ride. “He imagines (how his comrades in the steel plant) would both be very skeptical of his new life, but also appreciate the advantages that it has over working in this very dangerous steel plant,” says Clegg. 

This isn’t the first time Kerr Press has published Ignatiev’s works. In the 1990s he collaborated with the Kerr Press editors Penelope Rosemont and Franklin D. Rosemont, who guest edited and published a surrealist issue of “Race Traitor.” 

Kerr Press was founded in Chicago in 1886, making it the oldest left-wing publisher in the US. “Today, we hope that we can play a role in what we see is a revival of radical movements across the United States, especially since last summer's rebellion. We've seen a kind of upsurge in radical political thinking in the US. We hope that Kerr can be a conduit for that.” says Clegg. 

The event marks an intergenerational effort to revitalize the press, as its publishing has slowed over the last few years. Clegg’s role in Kerr Press is to help come up with a new series of books over the coming years. “We came to the older Kerr generation and offered to help revive the press and make it relevant to a younger generation,” says Clegg. 

“Starting with Noel’s memoir made a lot of sense, because in some ways we are the generation who've been very influenced by his work on anti-racism. When he died two years ago, and left us this memoir, we were very sure that it would be the first book that we will publish.”

He says they’re also trying to build relationships with local bookstores to distribute their books more widely. 

Noel Ignatiev, “Acceptable Men: Life in the Largest Steel Mill in the World.” $12. Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company.

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