The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
For those of you who have heard, and hated, the truism: "History is written by the victors," this is the perfect book for you.
Make no mistake, the narrative distills the very worst (and confirmed) aspects of the institution of slavery.
I've read a number of non-fiction and many more fictionalized accounts of American history -- mostly of the south -- and I've seen it all. Most of them whitewash (quite) or footnote the very real and huge aspect all these black bodies and the full extent to which ALL of America was built upon them. "A deplorable institution that would have gone away on its own, given time." (Sorry. Bullshit.)
What Edward E. Baptist accomplishes is much more impressive than the grand majority of the histories I've read. A lot of them will go into the economic details, the conditions of the folk living there, the social, the outside driving forces. And he does, too. But Baptist does something rather spectacular in this book.
Let's not call plantations by such a romantic term. They are, and always have been, SLAVE LABOR CAMPS. Millions of families were broken apart, sold as commodities (IN BOTH THE NORTH AND THE SOUTH STOCK MARKET). Most were forced into constantly demeaning migrant laborer positions turning them into literal machines meant only to pick cotton and get the quota, every day, or get whipped. And women? You have no idea how many were sold merely for sex. And again, not just the South, but also the North.
All those romantic traditions of the South are whitewash. Literally. What about the Louisiana Purchase? We get Andrew Jackson's fight with the banks, the failure to regain control, and the debt-cycle spree of speculation FOR slaveowners to expand their territory, exploit or wipe out the American Indians to take their land and plant cotton. We have the entire push to build the first intercontinental railroad FUNDED by the slave trade and the immense earnings of cotton. One-fifth of the entire Gross National Product was the slave trade, and make no mistake, the North profited from it all.
It was like the Oil boom a hundred years later. Exploit, exploit, exploit. Have a bad year? That's what hedge funds are for. Mortgage your wealth on the number of heads you own. Want political power? You get to vote based on how many heads you own and how much wealth you bring to the Congress and the Senate.
Let's put it this way: After Lincoln was assassinated, his Vice President did everything he could to reverse all the decisions that had been made in favor of the blacks. Why? The entire economic system revolved around the exploitation of blacks. Jim Crow and the debt system is just a thinly veiled disguise for the MUCH more efficient system of slavery. Keep the fear high, keep them working hard, at a loss, and make SURE that the backbone of your wealth never reaches a position of redress.
This is a book for everyone. Or it ought to be. We must face our history dead-on or we will not appreciate just how much has carried over today. We all need to open our eyes.
Narratives truly do make a difference. If you spend all your time defending or deflecting the fallout of a deeply troublesome system, then maybe you ought to step back and see it for what it really is.
Word choices matter. Stop romanticizing the South. There are always good people anywhere, but let's face it... any system that does this to its own people, who systematically tortures its own citizens whether in the open or under horribly unfair practices, is NOT a good system.
If we are unable to build wealth together... ALL of us together... then I have a good term for us: We're Assholes.
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