Skip to main content
Read page text

Page Text

HISTORY

Slaving for profits

7

ARI KELMAN

Edward E. Baptist THE HALF HAS NEVER

BEEN TOLD

Slavery and the making of American capitalism

498pp. Basic Books. £23.99 (US $35).

978 0 465 00296 2

On September 4 last year, the Economist posted a blistering appraisal on its website of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the making of American capitalism. The anonymous reviewer accused Baptist, a historian at Cornell University, of a litany of sins: “overstat[ing] his case” when arguing that spikes in productivity among enslaved cotton pickers should be attributed to increasingly harsh discipline – “calibrated pain”, in Baptist’s words – meted out by efficiency-obsessed plantation owners; loading too much interpretative weight onto a rickety foundation, purportedly unreliable narratives written by former slaves in the nineteenth century or recounted to oral historians employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression; and, worst of all, eschewing scholarly objectivity in favour of publishing a work of “advocacy” in which “almost all the blacks . . . are victims”, and “almost all the whites villains”.

News travels fast online. Immediately after the review appeared, commenters began to mock its premisses. A journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, lampooned the call for more balance in Baptist’s treatment of slaveholders. “Read a book about the Holocaust. Must be unfair because it painted all the Nazis in a bad light”, Coates quipped on Twitter. Using the hashtag #economistbookreviews, thousands of people strafed the venerable magazine. “Has Rachel Carson ever considered that the makers of DDT have children who need to eat?”; “Dickens focuses too much on the plight of the workers & not the industrialists who were stimulating the economy”. The next day, an essay in Slate offered “A Few Helpful Rules for Reviewing Books About Slavery”, noting, “if American slavery was anything, it was an institution where almost all the blacks involved were victims and almost all the whites involved were villains”. The gossip website Gawker demanded to know who wrote the review. Bloggers piled on. The tweets kept stacking up.

The firestorm greeting the Economist review revealed a publishing landscape reoriented by ubiquitous social media, a US political climate superheated by several highprofile cases of police and vigilante violence against African Americans, a cultural moment in which critiques of capitalism were gaining renewed purchase, and a surprisingly deep engagement among some readers with the historiography of slavery. What the reaction to the Economist’s pan of Baptist’s work failed to do was enlighten observers about the content or quality of The Half Has Never Been Told, a book unusual, even courageous, for its enormous ambition and admirable breadth, but also occasionally confounding due to the author’s rhetorical choices.

“Slave Auction” by Lefevre James Cranstone (1822–93)

Some critics wondered if the Economist had resurrected William Archibald Dunning to review Baptist’s work. A historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction at Columbia University around the turn of the twentieth century, Dunning spawned an eponymous “school” among his graduate students. For approximately fifty years, they rehabilitated the good name of the so-called Redeemers. The Dunningites depicted these Southerners as gracious gentlemen locked, during and after Reconstruction, in an existential fight with venal Republican officials intent on toppling the edifice of white supremacy. Dunning’s followers sometimes looked back on the antebellum period nostalgically, insisting that emancipation and voting rights for African Americans had corrupted the nation’s politics. Through the era of Jim Crow, their scholarship helped to justify de facto and de jure segregation and disfranchisement, finding popular expression in moonlight-and-magnolias treatments of the Old South such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936).

The Half Has Never Been Told, by contrast, builds on work that undercuts the Dunning School. With the publication, in 1935, of W. E. B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction in America, revisionists began blaming the failure of the federal effort to remake the former Confederacy not on carpetbaggers, but on intransigent Southerners who used terrorism – the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante organizations that served as the Democratic Party’s military wing in these years – to prop up an antiquated social and economic order. At the same time, scholars devoted greater attention to the social history of slavery. During and after the era of the modern Civil Rights movement, groundbreaking studies focused on the day-to-day lives of enslaved African Americans: their labour; the overt and covert methods they used to resist subjugation; the durable networks of kinship they constructed; their religion, culture, communities, and so on. These histories, when read together, locate slavery at the core rather than on the periphery of the American experience.

Baptist agrees. He argues that the “peculiar institution” should not be understood as a vestigial organ, an appendix or spleen waiting to be cut from the body politic on the eve of the Civil War, but as the beating heart of the United States’s economic development. Armed with reams of data from scores of archives, Baptist charts the sale of slaves, including prices, demographics and physical characteristics; a cotton market transformed by spiking crop yields; infant mortality among enslaved labourers toiling in the “Black Belt” of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana; and forced marches, slave coffles that mapped a thriving trade in human beings across the South. The crunched numbers reveal, again, that slavery was not a sclerotic and pre-modern system, as scholars have sometimes claimed; it was, instead, “the most efficient way to produce the world’s most important crop [cotton]”. The systematic exploitation of slave labour, Baptist concludes, pumped the lifeblood of American capitalism, and therefore of the American nation.

Other onlookers were upset that the Economist questioned Baptist’s reliance on qualitative rather than quantitative evidence: stories recounted by former slaves. Doubts have long shrouded reform literature produced in the nineteenth century by African American abolitionists, including Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. Sceptics have warned that whites edited these works, that the stories were mediated and reflect antebellum literary conventions rather than unclouded images of slavery. There are related concerns about slave narratives collected by the WPA’s Federal Writers Project. Critics charge that by the late 1930s, when African Americans sat for interviews with ethnographers on the federal payroll, the former slaves were elderly. They may have fallen victim to failing memories or, because of skewed power dynamics, been more intent on impressing their white interlocutors than relating an unvarnished account of their time in chains. The resulting sources are tainted, the argument goes, and should be handled with caution.

This contest over the utility of historical texts – and the nature of historical truth – hinges on power: the knotty question of who has the right to interpret the past using which tools and methods. The Economist’s review calls for a traditional approach, warning of a reliance on narratives produced by individual slaves when “an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen speak for all”. Baptist anticipated the corrective. “No one autobiography or interview is pure and objective as an account of all that the history books have left untold”, he writes. Nevertheless, like many scholars working in a post-colonial context, he lets survivors of bondage speak for themselves. By consulting “thousands of personal narratives”, he promises a layered interpretation. “One story fills in gaps left by another”, he explains, “allowing one to read between the lines.” The alternative would be granting slaveholders monopoly rights on their history, relying exclusively on the oppressors to depict the practices of oppression and the people they oppressed.

The Half Has Never Been Told is part of a visceral turn in studies of slavery. Along with works by Walter Johnson and Sven Beckert, Baptist’s book provides an unflinching por

TLS APRIL 3 2015

Skip to main content