Chapter 7 of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism begins with an incredibly violent and unusual description of a new season’s planting.
Here are a few excerpts from that opening section.
The next day it rains hard in the morning, but when it stops the men bring the mules and the plows out. The spongy earth oozes into the hollows, sucking the metal plow points. “Fuck this mud,” the men mutter.
Fuck. From on Old English word meaning: to strike, to beat. Before that, in an even older language: to plow. To tear open.
The seeds are waiting.
In the sack in the shed. Or maybe safe under the entrepreneur’s high bed. The bed where he fucks his wife. Bed brought by wagon from the landing, bed bought with last year’s crop. Maybe he didn’t bring his wife. Maybe the sack is under the bed where he fucks the sixteen-year-old light-skinned girl from Maryland, also bought with last year’s crop. Maybe she is the same girl who washes the bloodstains from the sheets in the morning. Who carries the chamber pot to the woods. Who turns it over, brings it back empty, sets it by his side of the bed. Bumps her toe on the bulging sack, full of tiny seeds….
The next day, the rain falls. Water molecules leach through the seed coat. The helixes awaken. They twist, shudder break apart, draw more molecules to their open spaces, building their own mirrors. From them march streams of chemical messengers; orders that compel whole cells to stretch and split into twins. The embryo plant bulges. It shatters the seed hull from within and forces the stem up toward unseen light.
Squatting in the creek, the girl washes herself frantically. She does not know that if the planter’s seed is motile enough, it has already journeyed up into her hours ago, questing for her own. If this is her time, they will meet…. (p. 216)
Baptist goes on to describe the creation of new cotton seeds and their eventual sprouting into new plants.
This tree-turned-into-a-bush, in short, is fucked. So, too, is the soil. When the enslaved men broke it open for the entrepreneur, he fucked this dirt with them as his tool. He fucked this field. He might fuck their wives out in the woods, or in the corn when it is high. Or their daughter in the kitchen. The the next new girl he buys at New Orleans.
But he fucks the men too. He plants in all his hands the seeds of his dreams. In fact, he plants them all, men and women, in this place, just as he plants as those seeds. Plants, ecosystems, people strain to live their lives according to their own codes, but he twists their efforts into helixes of his own design. He takes their product, keeps it for himself. He breaks open the skin on their backs with his fucking lash, striking their lives with his power, marking them and their world with his desire. (p. 217)
I just reread this post, and the above passage, for the first time in a month. And, while I don’t think I would use it in a high school class, I’ve decided it’s fabulous. I understand it’s a scholarly work; that he hasn’t (and probably can’t) source the use of the word “fuck” in this context; but I don’t care. One problem with writing history is that it rarely gives us the visceral connections to the past that we crave. Many scholars who spend years with these sources pick up myriads of subtle, almost intangible drifts and currents of meaning that defy analysis or categorization. So, if a scholar wants to devote a passage to convey the visceral meaning that they have absorbed from all the source material to his/her reader, I’m going to give them license to do it.
I tend to agree with you.
conversely regarding the f-bomb – on another forum people – especially women – have currently been complaining about reenactors using “inappropriate” language at civil war reenactments – this is certainly a “reenactorism”: how do they think that people behaved under pressure and during a military engagement? pass the cucumber sandwiches if you please
Look at mid 19th century pornography in English and you will see how frequently the word was used by men at least in the 1840-1860 – and certainly there are some rare survivals of cheap novels published in America for soldiers to carry with them during the war
I would say that the f-bomb would be perhaps the least fantastical element of the whole passage
The issue, at least for me, isn’t that “f-bombs” weren’t dropped in the mid 19th century. They certainly were–I’ve read letters in archives that were practically written in blue. It’s that the author seems to have invented dialogue and used an anachronistic meaning for the word for shock value. Most of us as historians wouldn’t go that far. But then, Ed Baptist has published books and I haven’t.
Is this just as much a wilful fantasy as anything put out by flaggers or the Black Confederate fanclub and just far more acceptable because we “share” its politics – again the war seems overlaid by our needs and our desires – and a time travelling value system. Is it about our era’s ongoing fascination with sex and violence and overwriting it onto the Civil War era – e.g insertion of sexually explicit material into the relatively couth and Victorian-mannered written narrative of 12 Years a Slave or the weird 1860s dressed and styled narrative of the rape of the protagonist’s mother in The Butler and the subsequent shooting of his father again total fiction and the subsequent- the popular culture computer game violence made real of Django Unchained – which in some ways could be and indeed just an updated version of those lubricious old south fantasies such as the film Mandingo from the 1970s but now adapted to a political protest narrative that makes it acceptable and virtuous.
Why do we do this ? Is it an alienating device to make the audience consider the reality of slavery? Is it a weird white post black panther construct that the only relations between black and white can be that of exploitation? Is it the Jack the Ripper/Marquis de Sade trope that talking of extreme sex and violence identifies us as cool and liberated?
After all generations of white males – not only Antebellum slaveholders – have been fascinated with the notion of black women’s bodies being more liberated and responsive than those of white women and this fascination threads through films and books – this passage begins to also take upon itself some of that prurient speculation – this right of over-seeing women’s bodies especially dependent women’s bodies, the right of speaking for those bodies. Toni Morrison has experienced first hand being an African American woman and the subject of speculation and stereoptyping and can write about these type of narratives
The myth of the “hot” African American women is often known as the Jezebel stereotype – it also relates to the equally heinous “woman as nature” stereotype – seen again in the double use of seed – in which African American women also feature as more naturally sexual and voracious and more naturally caring and supporting – and there was some early Freudian influenced medical writing in the 1920s and 1930s – even given the Jim Crow experience which suggested that from their sexuality to their uninhibited maternal qualities African American women were far more healthy in their psyches and far more appropriately female than white American women whose feminism and anti-domestic ambition caused social and psychic disjunction.
The crossing over from fiction and history would be howled down if it emerged in a right wing context – I would reasonably expect some footnotes to draw attention as to which sources – e,g, Mary Chesnut as above – I would expect any postgraduate student I was supervising or examining to provide some explication or context or references
Love this passage because it is so visceral and striking, as others have pointed out. Some are taking cover in its status as a curse word, but for me it narrows a little the distance between the comfortable 21st-century reader and the obscenity that was slavery. While I was reading it, I was wondering about the heteronormativity only; surely boys and men were literally fucked as well, if in smaller numbers then the women. Queerness too can be twisted under that ugly system.
I wonder why the phrase “fuck this mud” is assumed to be ahistorical. Americans were good at censoring themselves; moreover, whose testimony do we usually get: men and women of the middle and upper classes who want to come across as genteel. People were much less likely to record any swearing they did in everyday life, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t do it. We get oblique references most of the time, a general sense that it was less common than today, but I never felt swearing is by any means as rare as it appears to be if you limit yourself to thinking written sources = entirety of everyday life.
I think he starts at queering the notion of fucking slaves, Kirsten, but there’s much more that could be done. I must admit that I’ve been pretty heteronormative in my notions of sexuality on the plantation until your comment (even though I’ve done some work on how the sexuality of a couple of Presidents of this era has been presented), so thanks for that.
Do we have any texts suggestive of same-sex abuse? I really don’t know. I imagine that it happened since sexual abuse of all kinds is probably as old as sex itself, but Baptist may have considered it a bridge too far given all the other things he was doing in the passage without having a narrative or something to support it.
That said, as a gay man I’d very much like to see more non-heteronormative content in mainstream history. But on the other hand I appreciate the difficulties inherent in reading into texts things that their authors would have probably taken pains to avoid mentioning.
I am as certain as humanly possible that same-sex abuse happened for the very reasons you state, but I think you are also right about the reason that Baptist didn’t go there.
You are dealing with cultures that historically were, and, in some cases still are, virulently homophobic so that neither perpetrator nor victim were likely to leave any record, written or verbal about it. In addition, the clear evidence of widespread sexual exploitation of enslaved women and girls by slaveowners and their male relatives and employees, the appearance of children who were clearly part white who were born to the enslaved females were not an issue in same-sex abuse. Mary Chesnut, the Confederate diarist, commented acidly about how many plantation dinner tables enjoyed gossip about how many of their fellow plantation owner’s house “servants” strongly resembled the head of the house while studiously ignoring the fact that the same thing was true of the very house slaves who waited upon the gossipers.
Trying to uncover the history of the enslaved is a hard road to travel because of the barriers that were placed in the path of their leaving a historical record. To me, it is a matter of great respect and even awe that as much of a record that is there even exists. It says a lot to the determination of human beings to be remembered and to have their existence KNOWN to have mattered.
Baptist went too far. Historical novels are more appropriate for that kind of experimentation.
Finished the book a few days ago. I am wondering about the novelistic devices deployed as well as his use of non-standardized terminology. I started an extended discussion elsewhere on Baptist’s use of the phrase “slave labor camp” as a substitute for “plantation . ” Shakes you up.
Americans are too comfortable with the euphemisms we use to conceal our fellow countrymen’s crimes against humanity.
It is more accurate and easier to just say plantation.
In what way is it more accurate?
Umm… because that is what they were called. Using the word camp also implies a temporary setup. Plantations could exist for years or not. Camps are much less permanent than that.
What exactly is your argument that slave labor camp is a more appropriate way to describe a plantation?
Using the word camp also implies a temporary setup. Plantations could exist for years or not. Camps are much less permanent than that.
I see your point. Baptist stresses the importance and prevalence of the domestic slave trade. What might be a more accurate word to describe these places from the slave’s perspective? A large percentage of slaves experienced forced separation and movement from place to place. What does permanence mean in this context? Just a thought.
I understand that Kevin. It doesn’t change the fact that from their perspective they went from plantation to plantation or house to house. Lets use their words or the words they understood, and not some other term they never knew, as we understand it today, and then project back into their minds and mouths.
Lets use their words or the words they understood, and not some other term they never knew, as we understand it today, and then project back into their minds and mouths.
My guess is that Baptist would disagree with you that slaveowners would not understand how it is being used.
Plantation owners were familiar with the term “slave labor camp” as we know it today? Regardless, I have no doubt most plantation owners knew exactly what they were doing with their chattel property.
I have no doubt most plantation owners knew exactly what they were doing with their chattel property.
I agree and I suspect that slaveowners did as well, which is why I suspect they would not disagree with Baptist’s reference to “slave labor camps.”
Furthermore people in slave labor camps weren’t actual slaves. They were effectively slaves of the state, but they weren’t someones chattel property.
And in many instances the people in slave labor camps were meant to be worked to death. Slaves on American plantations weren’t supposed to be worked to death. Although, in the Caribbean and in South America slaves were often meant to be worked to death.
It just isn’t a good analogy.
Slave labor camps were used as a means to the Holocaust. Plantations weren’t part of a great genocide. There was a deliberate use of black slaves as chattel property on plantations, but not a deliberate killing of them.
Slaves arguably had greater freedom on a plantation than as a worker at a slave labor camp. No high barbed wire fencing and guard towers. No necessary segregation of the sexes. Slaves often traveled off of the plantation. Slaves, in some instances, ran or oversaw the plantation.
I agree Lyle – it is a sloppy, emotive analogy and a-historical – there is enough accurate powerful primary source material to make any point that one wishes against slavery – resorting to 10th rate Brechtian alienation techniques and glib Holocaust analogies seems to be either attention seeking or overtly manipulative – leading to the question as to why you can not trust people to be able to deal with the straight facts – why must the narrative be hyped up and then considered to be cutting edge
While I think Lyle and Julian have raised valid points, “plantation” has also become an ahistorical word. No mater how much academic work I’ve done on slavery, when I hear the word plantation, the first thing that pops into my head is a pretty house. Only later do I think of them as economic enterprises that were set up to extract as much as possible from humans who were owned as property (and, depending on the time and place, slaves could be worked to death in the United States).
There’s also a wide variety of “labor camps”, beyond just those used in Nazi Germany (and even there, there was diversity between and even within types of camps). While I don’t think I’ll ever use the phrase to describe American chattel slavery, his use of it has allowed me to think about degrees of unfreedom in new ways.
I agree with you too Andrew. Many, if not most, people probably don’t think of slavery or the horrors of slavery first when they think of a plantation.
What this means is that people are ignorant and need to be educated as to what plantations actually were and what all happened on a plantation. What we don’t need to do though is use terms like slave labor camp, to muddle what slavery in America actually was. Unfreedom on a plantation which may have have some similarities to the unfreedom in a slave labor camp, wasn’t the same unfreedom. Plantation is not some euphemism for slave labor camp.
And yes slave labor camp doesn’t only apply to Nazi Germany. Slave labor camps have been used by a variety of states.
I disagree. I think the term cuts through the ‘Gone With the Wind’ myth and focuses on why these places existed to begin with.
I don’t agree with you. You don’t need to use a term like “slave labor camp” to cut through any myths. You just present people with the facts. Most people aren’t stupid and can figure it out for themselves, like you and I have.
I don’t understand this comment at all. Of course you don’t “need” to use such a term, but the author chose to in order to drive home a specific point.
Totally agree with you Julian.
Lyle-You are aware, aren’t you, that slaves travelling away from their plantations needed to carry proof with them that they were absent with their master’s permission and that the penalties for being caught leaving a master’s physical property without permission were severe. The reason that there wasn’t a segregation of sexes in US plantations included, very importantly, particularly in states like Virginia that were exporters in the interstate slave trade, was that increase of slave population by natural increase meant potential income for the master and the reason that Congress barring the African slave trade got the Southern votes it needed to get passed. Slave exporting states opposed any efforts to reinstate the African slave trade, whether in the US Congress, or, later, in the Confederate Constitution. As for slaves running or overseeing entire plantations, please indicate where you have any evidence that this happened in any significant numbers and when it happened. As the slavery as a positive good dogma grew stronger and stronger in the slave states, any suggestion that blacks could function in a role normally held by whites increasingly became anathema. There was even a movement to pass legislation forcing free blacks to either choose a master or have one chosen for each of them or to leave the state.
The August issue of “The American Historian” from OAH had an article by Andrew J. Huebner arguing for “writing history with emotion.” I found his stance convincing. But I’m not sure I would take it as far as Prof. Baptist.
Another issue: The page isn’t visible on Amazon; does he give a footnote for “fuck this mud?” This use of “fuck” strikes me as ahistorical for the mid-19th century; the admittedly limited scholarship on the word suggests that it was then only meant the physical act of sex and was not a catch-all vulgarity as it became later on. Few things annoy me more than historians inventing dialogue.
He doesn’t, which is a bit frustrating. I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the reference definitely needs a citation. Thanks for the reminder re: the OAH magazine article. It’s actually sitting on my desk. Will check it out.
I hasten to add that I partially admire what the author does here for the same reasons other commentators have noted: He takes a risk in order to jar our complacency about slavery. It reminds a little of your frustrations when speakers at round tables give the “same tired stories with the same short list of characters.” And it speaks to recent efforts to make the Civil War “weird” again.
I remember being mildly shocked when Russell Bonds used “damn” in “War Like the Thunderbolt.” The world is turning for us as historians!
These were my feelings exactly. What, in fact, happened to slaves was disgusting enough that the facts speak for themselves and don’t need to be embroidered. Had the word itself been used at that time I would have no issue with it being repeated. That is what I meant by self expression in my earlier comment.
Had the word itself been used at that time I would have no issue with it being repeated.
It was used at that time. Baptist’s first reference of the word is in a quote, but unfortunately does not include a footnote.
Not to belabor the point since it’s probably now been discussed to death but I skipped ahead since I’ve only just finished the intro and, absent a contrary indication from Professor Baptist, I can only conclude he used it as a literary device to (I assume) lay out the chapter.
It’s actually refreshing, to me at least, that an academic writer uses a vulgar word to explain a truly vulgar situation. It jolted me and got my attention, and I’m sure that’s exactly his intention.
I guess I’m old fashioned and maybe old but I was taught that if you needed a curse word to express yourself, then you really don’t know how to express yourself. I expect political columnists to go for shock value, not an alleged serious historian.
alleged serious historian
Ed Baptist is a serious historian, whether you like it or not. Maybe you should think about why a serious historian is doing it this way.
You are entitled to your opinion, for whatever it’s worth, just as I’m entitled to mine and mine is that if a person has to use a curse word to express himself, then he can’t express himself.
You are entitled to your opinion, for whatever it’s worth, just as I’m entitled to mine and mine is that if a person has to use a curse word to express himself, then he can’t express himself.
That’s a rhetorical dodge, saving you from the challenge of thinking what he’s doing.
I understand where you’re coming from. But when used carefully in art (which a well-written work of history certainly is), profanity can be effective in conveying a message. Here, the message seems to be about the shocking ugliness and brutality of slavery.
Anyway, this isn’t Prof. Baptist’s first book. He knows how to express himself.
I think it’s a great way to viscerally convey the intersection of all the different ways slavery was brutally exploitative. If slavery’s not obscene, nothing is. We might have a norm against using obscenities in this context, but transgressing it to make the point is a great way to seize the reader’s attention and focus it on the horrors.
These excerpts remind me of another book once described to me as “written for the Pulitzer jury.” I confess to not yet owning this book, though. Was there an actual “girl?” Did she leave a record of what she was thinking? Or is this a literary device, like describing the thoughts of a murdered man?
A little of both. Baptist utilizes a number of historical figures in his narrative, some of who are better documented than others, but he definitely, at times, goes beyond with descriptions that function as a literary device.
I’m of two minds. First, as a work of history, his use of “fuck” here seems contrived. But read as a work of literature, it’s pretty awesome. There’s a Toni Morrison vibe to it that makes me want to read more. Second, as someone primarily trained as an environmental historian, this metaphor for the violence done to the land by cotton cultivation is appealing. It’s both more stark and fresh than the tired “rape of the land” metaphor. Here, it’s almost not a metaphor anymore.
I tell you, though, it sure got my attention when it came over my feed.
I think his points about what slavery did to the earth is being missed by a lot of the discussions over the language (which might be one downside to using “fuck”), but having picked it up thanks to Christopher, I’m just blown away by the realizations I now have thanks to these few paragraphs.
As for the divide between literature and history, well, I had a professor who always reminded us that just because we’re writing history doesn’t mean we have to be boring in our writing, and choose texts to help us see what was good (and could be scathing of texts that are important but written or edited poorly).
I’d been curious about getting Baptist’s book after following Kevin’s read of it, but now I know for sure it will be on my list.
I think it’s fantastic.
People have been begging for energetic, accessible, *vigorous* writing from academics for years.
Be careful what you ask for.
Ha! I love it. Nice to hear from you, Jonathan.
I agree with Bryce and, yes, it is for real. I have the book. I think he’s straining for shock value but both the seed metaphor and the obscenity lose effectiveness with the sheer repetitiveness of their use (In addition, given the frequency with which it is heard in general discourse, I’m not sure that the obscenity is really all that shocking any more). I think that the passages undermine the point that he is clearly making. It implies that the unadorned realities of the lives of the enslaved aren’t sufficiently appalling in their own right which is not true.
OK, but what about as a way to overcome the lingering paternalistic view through the repetition of a word as it was understood at the time? Thanks everyone for the comment.
Coursening the discourse to use the humanities to achieve a political point, that has worked, NOT. Thanks for the warning, I am even madder at the Economist for the poor review, I needed a more objective review. Also, it’s a curse word because today it is recognized as such in modern English usage. A word means what people ascribe to it today.
Are we supposed to be comfortable reading about slavery?
Can we not be comfortable reading about slavery? We are reading about something in the past when it comes to slavery in America.
I’m more inclined to be shocked by what goes on in my own lifetime.
Doubtless, when you are reading this passage, the second “fuck” takes you aback, because it is the author’s word. Nobody, not even an undergraduate like myself who is used to such language on campus, expects such a word, not in quotations, to be in a book. Books, like movies, strive to manipulate, and Baptist has certainly attained that objective. He wants the reader to be shocked out of his or her detachment from the peculiar institution. It is as if he is slapping Connie Chastain and her ilk out of their delusions of grandeur. Moreover, I think he uses “fuck” so many times to emphasize the misery of slavery. That being said, I probably would not have used that word, outside of quotations, at all. Curse words should be used, albeit sparingly, for effect, but only the less scurrilous kinds (damn, shit, hell, etc.). Then again, Baptist has a distinguished reputation, so I guess he can drop the f bomb profusely for the simple reason that he can get away with it.
He wants the reader to be shocked out of his or her detachment from the peculiar institution.
Curse words should be used, albeit sparingly, for effect, but only the less scurrilous kinds (damn, shit, hell, etc.).
OK, but given the connection made to its original meaning in what way should its use be thought of as a “curse word”?
Concerning, honest, literal agriculture, it should not be considered a curse word. However, “The bed where he fucks his wife…” “… under the bed where he fucks the sixteen-year-old light-skinned girl from Maryland,…” “He might fuck their wives out in the woods, or in the corn when it is high. Or their daughter in the kitchen. The the next new girl he buys at New Orleans.”… “But he fucks the men too […] In fact, he plants them all, men and women, in this place, just as he plants as those seeds.”… and lastly, “He breaks open the skin on their backs with his fucking lash…” those phrases are examples of the usage that has survived up to the present day.
I agree. Seems like he fell in love with the analogy and overuses it to the extent that it overtakes the narrative.
Is this for real?
One use of the word in the context of plowing would have been enough to challenge its modern usage.
Then again, perhaps he is trying to arouse an ample negative reaction to the rape endured by female slaves. Still seems overdone to me.