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  • The Half that has Never Been Told

    The Half that has Never Been Told

Published 28 February 2015
Baptist’s important book would seem to raise the question of what Black America is due today in light of the fact that the United States owes its emergence as a wealthy and powerful capitalist state to Black slaves.

Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014). 

I’ve never quite been a fan of the United States cultural convention called Black History Month (BHM). This is for three reasons. First, it’s always seemed insulting to me that Black Americans are given February – the shortest month of the year and one with little particular significance to the Black historical experience – to honor their past.  

Second, BHM’s official representations of that past rarely seem to acknowledge anything close to the fully atrocious and criminal, white-imposed horror of much of that experience.  The horror includes two and a half centuries of Black chattel slavery followed by the re-imposition of slavery in all but name across much of the former US Confederacy; many decades of vicious Jim Crow segregation in the US South; and a long history of savage racial inequality and related de facto racial apartheid that continues up to the present, when the median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households and more than 40 percent of the nation’s2.4 million prisoners are Black. 

Third, it can be dangerously misleading to suggest that Black history can be meaningfully broken out from the broader year-around and 239-year record of United States history, segregated into a separate month of its own.  The Black experience has always been at the heart and soul of American History, much more than a footnote or appendix to the “bigger” national story.   

Every Modern Method of Torture

For a useful antidote to all this, I can think of no better starting point than historian Edward Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014).  Nobody should accuse Baptist of underplaying the dreadfulness of the US Black historical experience. Among other things, his remarkable and richly researched volume chronicles the astonishing raw violence and terror inflicted on millions of Black Americans who suffered in bondage over the eight decades between US national independence (1783) and the US Civil War (1861-1865).

Baptist is rightly irritated by those who tell you that “the worst thing about slavery as an experience was that it denied enslaved African Americans the liberal rights and liberal subjectivity of modern citizens.” Slavery denied those rights egregiously, of course, but it also murdered Blacks in huge numbers and “stole everything” from surviving slaves through “the massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire…” (Baptist. pp. xviii-xix).

The Half Has Never Been Told tells an unpleasant story. Over a generation, the infant US South grew from a thin coastal belt of burnt-out tobacco plantations into a giant continental Empire of Cotton. This remarkable expansion was rooted in regular and ferocious white violence.  The brutality and bloodshed included mass-murderous Indian Removal (cotton slavery required constant westward territorial extension), forced slave migrations, the endemic fracturing of slave families, and, last but not least, the ubiquitous and systematic torture of Black slaves: the regular application of extreme torment to extract ever more production out of a commodified population.  As Baptist observes:

“In the sources that document the expansion of cotton production, you can find at one point or another almost every product sold in New Orleans stores converted into an instrument of torture [used on slaves]: carpenters’ tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaws, hoe handles, irons for branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs. Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in ‘stress positions,’ burning, even waterboarding…descriptions of runaways posted by enslavers were festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds” (p. 141)

A Great Capitalist Success Story

Baptist’s other and intimately related major argument is with Americans’ tendency to see slavery as a quaint and archaic “pre-modern institution” that had nothing really to do with the United States’ rise to wealth and power.  In this tendency, slavery becomes something “outside of US history” (xix), even an antiquated “drag” on that history. That tendency replicates a fundamental misunderstanding curiously shared by anti-slavery abolitionists and slavery advocates before the Civil War.  While the two sides of the slavery debate differed on the system’s morality, they both saw slavery as an inherently unprofitable and static system that was out of touch with the pace of industrialization and the profit requirements of modern capitalist business enterprise.

Nothing, Baptist shows, could have been further from the truth. Contrary to what many abolitionists thought, the savagery and torture perpetrated against slaves in the South was about much more than sadism and psychopathy on the part of slave traders, owners, and drivers.  Slavery, Baptist demonstrates was an incredibly cost-efficient method for extracting surplus value from human beings, far superior in that regard to “free” (wage) labor in the onerous work of planting and harvesting cotton. It was an especially brutal form of capitalism, driven by ruthless yet economically “rational” torture along with a dehumanizing ideology of racism.

It wasn’t just the South, home to the four wealthiest US states on the eve of the Civil War, where investors profited handsomely from the forced cotton labor of Black slaves. By the 1840s, Baptist shows, the “free labor North” had “built a complex industrialized economy on the backs of enslaved people and their highly profitable cotton labor.”  Cotton picked by southern slaves provided the critical cheap raw material for early Northern industrialization and the formation of a new Northern wage-earning populace with money to purchase new and basic commodities. At the same time, the rapidly expanding slavery frontier itself provided a major market for early Northern manufactured goods: clothes, hats, cotton collection bags, axes, shoes, and much more. Numerous infant industries, technologies and markets spun off from the textile-based industrial revolution in the North.  Along the way, shipment of cotton to England (the world’s leading industrial power) produced fortunes for Northern merchants and innovative new financial instruments and methods were developed to provide capital for, and speculate on, the slavery-based cotton boom.

All told, Baptist calculates, by 1836 nearly half the nation’s economy activity derived directly and indirectly from the roughly 1 million Black slaves (just 6 percent of the national population)  who toiled on the nation’ southern cotton frontier (p. 322). Sectional differences aside, The Half Has Never Been Told shows that “the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich” decades before the Civil War. The US owes much of its wealth and treasure precisely to the super-exploited labor of Black chattel in the 19th century. Capitalist cotton slavery was how United States seized control of the lucrative the world market for cotton, the critical raw material for the Industrial Revolution, emerging thereby as a rich and influential nation in the world capitalist system by the second third of the 19th century:  

“From 1783, at the end of the American Revolution to 1861, the number of slaves in the United States increased five times over, and all this expansion produced a powerful nation…white enslavers were able to force enslaved African American migrants [pushed ever further westward as the century proceeded] to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people. Their practices transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market, and cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity at the time, as it was the key material during the first century of the industrial revolution.  The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization” (p. xxi).

The R Word

These are things – the sheer horror of US cotton slavery and the pivotal centrality of that horrific system to US development and “success” – you never hear about when you take one of those “old time South” plantation tours that are regularly conducted for visitors at many former slave labor camps (plantations) across the former Confederacy. These white-pleasing excursions are dedicated to the myth of the slave Cotton South as a delightful and chivalrous time and place outside the main modern, capitalist, and imperial currents of American history.

Baptist’s important book would seem to raise the question of what Black America is due today in light of the fact that the United States owes its emergence as a wealthy and powerful capitalist state to Black slaves who suffered unimaginable misery and ordeal under the whips, irons, shocks, cages, sickness, disfigurements, heartbreaks, and other torments of capitalist cotton slavery between the American Revolution and the American Civil War.  As Baptist muses with irony, “if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of citizens, one must merely offer them the title of citizen – even elect one of them president – to make amends.  Then the issue will be put to rest forever.”

So what would Baptist like to see happen in the way of actual repayment?  That’s hard to say. In an interview with Salon’s Michael Schulson last fall, he appeared to approve of a growing movement to remove slave-owners’ names from college and university buildings. He’d like the endowment funds of historically Black colleges and universities raised to the same levels as those in historically white institutions of higher learning. He thinks Black slaves and Indian nations and tribes who were murdered, maimed, displaced, and tortured on behalf of King Cotton should be properly memorialized and recognized in public historical monuments and the like (the South is full of statues and memorials to “heroes of the Confederacy” – soldiers who fought to defend slavery during the Civil War). The aforementioned plantation tours should start to tell the truth about what really happened in the Hellish forced labor camps of the cotton South, Baptist thinks.

That’s all well and good, but it’s pretty weak tea given the monumental findings of The Half Has Never Been Told. The real logic of Baptist’s book points to a demand the professor seems unwilling to openly embrace because of the sneers and reprimands it is likely to evoke from academic and other authorities: a massive federal program of reparations paid to Black Americans in partial and belated compensation for the massive horror and theft that lay beneath the highly profitable and nationally pivotal system of US capitalist cotton slavery.  

Paul Street, a former historian and recovered academic, is an author and writer in Iowa City, Iowa.  His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).
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