I think I am beginning to get a grip on what some people find troubling about Edward Baptist’s new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Before saying anything I should point out that my understanding of the historiography of slavery is limited. I’ve read a number of important titles, but given the amount of scholarly output in the field over the past few decades I haven’t penetrated too far below the surface.
The rumblings that I am hearing over social media and elsewhere are probably best reflected in Jim Downs’s recent piece at the Huffington Post:
The application of a capitalistic framework leaves out a whole lot of the history of slavery, and in fact works to the advantage of those who want us to believe in the invincibility of capital at the cost a whole host of other crucial factors, like agriculture and the environment, that played significant roles in the expansion of slavery. Soil, land, climate, rainfall and other environmental forces played more of a part in dictating cotton’s future than the entrepreneurial desires of the most rapacious slaveholders or the demands of the international markets…. If capitalism becomes the omnipresent demigod dictating power relations, no wonder some readers conclude slaves are victims and slaveholders are villains.
First, based on his essay it’s not clear to me that Downs has actually read Baptist’s book; however, I can certainly appreciate the concern expressed above. In situating the expansion of slavery in a capitalist framework the author does indeed ignore a good deal of recent scholarship. There is a certain amount of determinism at work in this story as both slaveholders and other participants in this vibrant and uncertain economy respond to various market forces. And as much as Baptist attempts to paint a human portrait of individual slaves such as Charles Ball they largely respond to or are acted upon by slaveholders.
There is no Genovesean-style negotiation between slave and slaveowner on Baptists “slave labor camps.” But even more to the point there is no resistance (not even subtle forms) among slaves, which has been a staple of interpretation in recent years. In fact, one such claim that slaves resisted by controlling the pace at which they worked is completely turned on its head as Baptist explores rising cotton quotas for individual pickers and the use of torture as an incentive.
To alienate one’s hands and rewire them for someone else was torment. Enslaved people, however, discovered how to do it. They had no choice. So they watched and talked to others, learning their speed. They created on their own, new efficiencies that shortened the path from plant to sack and back in space and time. And above all, they shut down pathways in the brain so that the body could dance like a Patsey, could become for a time the disembodied “hand” of enslavers’ fantastic language. The whole effort left permanent scars. Years after she learned to pick cotton in Alabama in the 1850s, an elderly woman named Adeline still couldn’t stand to watch clerks weighing the meat she bought at the grocery store: “Cause I remember so well that each day that the slaves was given a certain number of pounds to pick. When weighing up time come and you didn’t have the number of pounds set aside, you may be sure that you was going to be whipped. (p. 139)
It’s not simply that Baptist leaves no room for resistance, but that he describes the process of picking almost as an art form. There is almost a logic of behavior beginning with broad market forces that determine decisions of slaveholders that ultimately shape the lives of slaves on the ground. Half way through the book and apart from a brief exploration of slaves working through the necessity of pooling food and other resources in individual cabins and the importance of music we almost never see them outside their masters’ control.
Regardless of where this book falls in the historiography of slavery and, more specifically, studies of slavery and capitalism, I am not troubled by Baptist’s conclusions or his picture of slaves as victims. At some level doesn’t being owned by another constitute something along the lines of victimization?
I don’t see a need for a turf war between scholars who take a broad economic view of the expansion of slavery over time and those who look closely at the social aspect of slave communities and slave culture. We can learn something important from both perspectives. It reminds me of the rub in physics between explanations of how the largest objects in the universe behave in contrast with the smallest. We need both – at least for now.
Anyway, I am going to keep reading.