The Half Has Never Been Told (Review)

I’m reluctant to use the phrase, “paradigm shift” in my conversations and writings because it has been so frequently misused and overused.  Paradigm shift is, however, a HalfHas--01good description of how my view of slavery changed focus after reading a few pages of Edward E. Baptist’s latest book.  I wholeheartedly recommend The Half Has Never Been Told–Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism to every citizen of the world.

Edward E. Baptist is an Associate Professor of History at Cornell University.  He specializes in 19th Century American History, particularly the enslavement of African-Americans in the southern states. His premise is that today’s economy has been built, in part, on the foundations of the institution of slavery.  The Half Has Never Been Told certainly presents a convincing case to the reader.  What he writes will make you understand what slavery was and why it was dangerously successful.  At the same time, you will be moved by the gross inhumanity of the institution.

Conventional, current economists and politicians will not like this book at all because it lays bare the workings of the early years of the American economic and political engines.

The stories in this book are shockingly harsh and deeply moving.  Anyone who cares about civil liberties, in any way, will find much to take away from the book.  Once I started reading, I found it difficult to put down.  The quaint, popular image that has been crafted around the Antebellum South and polite society is not present within these pages. The political notion of “States Rights” is revealed for what it actually was.  The dynamics of the institution of slavery still lurk close to the surface in today’s society and economic structure.  That it is true is made abundantly clear in this history lesson.HalfHas-02EEBaptist

The heart of The Half Has Never Been Told is the cotton industry of the 19th Century. “King Cotton” was not only the major economic force in the “Old South”, it was essential to the industrialized Yankee states in equal measure.  By the same token, King Cotton directed much of the industrial revolution, internationally.  Baptist demonstrates how this economic growth and progress was only made possible by the sweat and blood of enslaved African-Americans.  Without King Cotton, the United States would be a much different place than it is today.

When we understand how people justified and rationalized the enslavement of other human beings, a mental light switches on.  The idea that entire groups of people are not allowed basic human freedoms and liberties runs counter to the primary ideals of the United States of America.  When the abolitionist movement finally gained traction in the US, the reasoning behind abolishing slavery was at first based upon false economic beliefs. The actual humanitarian purpose for emancipation was spelled out later.

While I read this book, I reflected about how the “miracle” of King Cotton is very similar to today’s “miracle” of the electronic economy.  Without the overseas sweatshops and the slavery of the rare-earths mining industry, there would be no cheap smart phones, computers, nor the proliferation of the Internet.

It doesn’t take much reflection to see the relationship of the rationalizations invented for the subjugation of African Americans during the slave era is at the heart of the current flare-up of racism in the United States.

Baptist’s book comes to life with the personal stories told by the formerly enslaved people themselves.  What could be a dry, intellectual tome is personalized and humanized in the moving saga of personal struggle and suffering.  The blatant human rights abuses that took place on a large scale and were accepted by polite society boggles the mind.

It was common practice to separate husbands from wives, mothers from their babies, parents from small children.  Any attempts towards reunion were brutally discouraged. The breakup of families, en masse, and its acceptance is almost incomprehensable in the context of present-day norms.

This inhumanity extended to the “whipping machine”.  Labor productivity was fueled, in large part, by violence. Daily quotas of cotton harvest were enforced by the lash of HalfHas-03the overseers’ whips.  Worker efficiency and productivity came at the threat of and exercise of harsh physical discipline.  Degrading forms of punishment and torture kept the slaves in line.  If anybody dared to disobey or try to escape, an example was made by carrying out an act of homicide.

The saga of the slave era is a horror story of a deep and existential nature.  There was no escape possible for an entire people.  That this took place in the home of the brave and the land of the free, in plain view of the public is amazing.  In that this extreme subjugation of humans was acceptable, is more than shocking.

The Half Has Never Been Told has finally been told.  The stories are compelling and enlightening. Baptist’s book is momentous in its scope, tragic in its telling, important in its message, and humane in its revelations.

{ The Half Has Never Been Told–Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist; 528 pages; published September 9, 2014 by Basic Books, New York; ISBN: 978-0-465-00296-2 }

The Blue Jay of Happiness gives this book his highest recommendation.

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
This entry was posted in Books, Controversy, History, Politics, religion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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