The horrifying truth: The lies we tell about slavery

“It’s symbolic annihilation of history, and it’s done for a purpose. It really enforces white supremacy”: Edward Baptist on the lies we tell about slavery

It’s impolite to talk about money. Perhaps that’s why, when we discuss the history of slavery in this country, we tend to talk about racism, and paternalism, and the way that awful social institutions just stick around, those pesky buggers – talk about anything, that is, except for the profits.

But there were profits, of course, and large ones. Slavery, after all, is a cost-efficient way to extract labor from human beings. It’s an exceptionally brutal flavor of capitalism. And it worked: In 1860, the U.S.’s four wealthiest states were all in the deep South. After the Civil War, though, white Americans found ways to downplay the profit motive. “Above all, the historians of a reunified nation insisted that slavery was a premodern institution that was not committed to profit seeking,” writes Edward Baptist in his new history of slavery, “The Half Has Never Been Told.” (Read the Salon excerpt from the book here.)

Baptist, a professor of history at Cornell, has spent much of his career helping to undo this narrative. In “The Half Has Never Been Told,” he lays out a sweeping economic history of slavery. Baptist traces the flow of human capital from the Atlantic seaboard to the cotton fields of the deep South. He describes how slavers used whippings to extract more work from their property. He details how slave labor and loans secured with human collateral helped drive the industrial revolution.

These observations aren’t new. Baptist’s real achievement is to ground these financial abstractions in the lives of ordinary people. In vivid passages, he describes the sights, smells and suffering of slavery. He writes about individual families torn apart by global markets. Above all, Baptist sets out to show how America’s rise to power is inextricable from the suffering of black slaves.

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