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
Edward E. Baptist (Credit: DeDe Hatch)

“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.

Naturally, this makes some people rather uncomfortable. Reviewing Baptist’s book last month, the Economist huffed that “all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.” A few days later, the magazine took the rare step of withdrawing the review, pointing out that slavery was “an evil system.” The message was clear, though: Even today, many are uncomfortable acknowledging the full brutality of an institution that helped build the modern world.


I reached Baptist at his home on the Cornell campus. Over the phone, we spoke about capitalism, the historical vision of Steve McQueen, and why it’s easier to find a memorial for a Confederate soldier than for an American who died enslaved.

How did slavery drive the economy of the 19th century United States?

It drives it in some obvious ways and some less obvious ways. The obvious way is the absolutely central role of cotton to the functioning of the economy. Cotton ends up supplying about 50 percent of all the value of exports in the U.S. for most of the period from the early 1800s to the Civil War.

That income doesn’t just stay in the South. Certainly a lot of it is going to enslavers, but a lot of it is also going to bankers and merchants, and later to insurers and shippers. Ultimately, the U.S. starts up its own cotton textile industry.

The U.S. is a developing economy. It’s also a capital-importing economy. It needs credit. Lending to the slaver sector is secure and it’s profitable. Secure, because there’s a reliable liquid market for human collateral. And profitable, because enslaved human beings are making cotton, the world’s most widely traded commodity.

When you start to look at slavery in this larger, global context, places like Europe and New England, which we tend to separate from the slave system, end up seeming implicated.

Absolutely, and not just because of the direct and indirect investment of Northern savers and lenders in the Southern system. The South — and especially enslavers — are really the first reliable market for Northern industrial products. In fact, U.S. policy sets that up. Congress creates a tariff which protects the U.S. market for cotton textiles of low quality. So this allows U.S. textile mills in New England, which are not capable of making the same quality of cloth on a mass scale as British mills are, this gives them a protected market. And that protected market is basically the South, and it’s basically the cloth that’s bought by slave owners every year and given out to the slaves.

You write that few people realize “how crucial systemized torture was to the industrial revolution.”

In 1800, when cotton expansion started, workers could generally plant and cultivate about twice as much cotton as they could pick. Slave owners decide that they want to increase the amount that is picked, so what they start doing is weighing the amount each slave picks per day and establishing that as an individual daily picking quota. People were given quotas. If they didn’t meet the quota, they would be whipped. Over time, the quotas are increased.

And over time, the amount that people pick increases dramatically. There are people who say, “Oh, it’s because of the seeds [of easier-to-pick cotton cultivars],” and I’m sure that makes it possible to pick more, but enslaved people actually have to figure out how to move their hands and their bodies fast enough, and do that all day long, in order to meet their quotas. They still have to do that, and they are threatened by torture if they don’t make it. I say torture deliberately. We have, over time, sort of bowdlerized, we’ve used euphemisms. But if this was happening to U.S. POWs, we’d have no trouble calling it torture.

The average enslaved person picked cotton four times as quickly in 1860 as in 1800.

Reading your book, I felt as if you were telling the story of capitalism taken to its absolute extreme, in which the right to personal property trumps all other rights, and in which human lives become tradable commodities. Can we read your book as a cautionary tale of capitalism run amok?

Absolutely. An economist I know wrote a review of my book on Amazon. Basically, he said that this book shouldn’t have been written, because it’s going to tell countries around the world that slavery can be more profitable than free labor.

But you have to tell the truth about things. And I think that the truth is that if you allow people who have wealth and have private property to put profitability, to put efficiency, to put productivity and economic growth, to put those above other considerations — to put them above human rights, to put them above democracy, to put those things above morality — if we let people put those things first, and we have been doing it far too often since the early 1970s, then we are going to have disastrous, unsustainable results.

You don’t use the word “plantation” in the book. Instead, you use the term “slave labor camp.” How did you make that choice?

There’s a story that was started by a pro-slavery advocate in the 1840s and 1850s, and that really went national after about 1890. And the story was that the plantation was not really an economic space, it was a space of a very traditional feudal society in which slave owners had been sort of born into the system, they had inherited slaves who were dependent on them and, yeah, sure, they had to have some discipline so that the crops could be made, but, essentially, these were not spaces that were focused on profit or on exploitation. I think “plantation” obscures what actually happened.

When you hear about someone having plantation weddings, or you see these plantation bed and breakfasts, how do you respond?

There’s a great study that was done 10 or 12 years ago by a couple of British scholars, a black man and a white woman, who would go to these historical plantations and observe what they said on the tours. Were enslaved people described as slaves, or were they described as servants, or in some cases even workers? If they were described as workers, the investigator would ask, “Do you have records of the payroll?” They went to about 180 of them. Many of them simply didn’t discuss the reality of what happened at all, even though enslaved people were the vast majority of human beings who lived in those places. It’s symbolic annihilation of history, and it’s done for a purpose. It really enforces white supremacy, and it hides facts from us.

How does that narrative translate to history textbooks?

Well, I think history textbooks are very different from what they were 50 years, 60 years ago, when the plantation myth really did reign unchallenged. But at the same time, they still do things that symbolically annihilate the lives of enslaved people and the influence of slavery in American history. We’ll now see some acknowledgment that plantations were profitable enterprises rather than things that were run as kind of a charity. But we take this history and put it in one chapter that says, “Here’s the downside of the main narrative of expansion and industrial development, cultural transformation, the rise of American nationalism, and the history of American politics that ultimately leads to the Civil War.” And it puts slavery outside of that story.

How do you think this presentation affects how descendants of enslaved Americans think about their own history and their place in society?

When I speak to mostly African-American audiences, I do not have to spend any time convincing them that the exploitation that occurred in slavery moments is a) horrific and b) essential to the rise of the United States and its development. I think the fact that mainstream history is still struggling with that, I think that means mainstream history loses credibility with the African-American audiences. They always know there are things that mainstream history is trying to cover up. It is essentially, on some level, not a completely honest history, and it’s a history that is having to, on some level, placate whites.

I have to ask you about that Economist review, which implied that some enslavers weren’t that bad, and that some black people were culpable in this system. Were you surprised to read that kind of response in such a prominent publication? What makes it possible for an editor or a reviewer to think that’s appropriate?

Well, for the latter question, I have no idea. But I wasn’t shocked. The resistance to reckoning with the role of slavery in the trajectory that makes the U.S. the most powerful nation on earth, that’s real; that’s very, very deep. White Americans, many of them still do not want to see the U.S. as anything other than a savior nation, and whatever we say about the role of the U.S. in global history, it’s absolutely clear to me that slavery is essential to the rise of U.S. power. Again, maybe there’s some alternate history in which it doesn’t go that way, but that’s not the history that we live in.

I’ve heard lots of things like what the Economist said before. I meet people who don’t know about the book, and they can say, “What do you do? And I say that I write about the history of slavery. And they will give me what the Economist said.

What do you say when you’re able to respond? When the person’s sitting right next to you?

It’s not that these people don’t know that there’s another argument out there, but it’s important to them to say that slavery wasn’t profitable, or that lots of blacks were slave owners, which is not really true. So then I have to say, well, let me explain to you the historical facts as I understand them. And then things are awkward. But what can you do?

How has Hollywood shaped perceptions of slavery? There are obvious examples like “Gone With the Wind,” which is a classic soft-pedaling of slavery and glorification of plantation life. But how does a revenge film like “Django Unchained” fit into these conversations, or something that’s hailed as a realist masterpiece, like “12 Years a Slave”?

I don’t think you can underestimate the cultural impact of “Gone With the Wind.” “Gone With the Wind” builds on all this rethinking of history that goes along with Reconstruction.

Something like “Django,” you know, it’s a peek inside of Tarantino’s brain, I guess. I don’t know quite what to say about that. Not all historians agree with me, but I thought “12 Years a Slave” was great. Steve McQueen just went into the text and said, “OK, here’s what it says. We’re gonna depict it.” Historians have had a lot of trouble doing that.

Your own approach to historiography is rather unusual. In some sections of the book, you write from the imagined perspective of enslaved people. In one scene, you described the 50 billion neurons shutting down in the brain of a dying man, and you frame one section through a discussion of the etymology of the word “fuck.” What’s the thinking behind this visceral historiography?

The larger project in the book was to put enslaved African-Americans where they actually were in history, which is at the center of U.S. history from the Revolution to the Civil War. So much of our historical understanding is still devoted to writing them out of that role. I think you have to really try to get the reader to make them the protagonist.

I actually don’t think what I do is so unusual, if you’re writing about white historical actors. I mean, there is book after book devoted to what was actually going on in Thomas Jefferson’s head, or what was actually going on in Abraham Lincoln’s head. It’s speculation. We take every piece of context we can and we try to construct a sort of picture of what was going on in their minds at any given point. And there’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s also nothing wrong with it when I do it. But the difference is then I’m doing it from the perspective of enslaved people. We’re not used to it. We’re used to seeing them as historical objects, rather than as historical subjects. As acted upon, rather than actors.

There are Confederate monuments — and monuments for Union soldiers, as well — scattered across the South. But finding a monument to enslaved people is difficult. How do you think our society should memorialize this brutal chapter in American history, and the enslaved people who suffered through it?

You’re bringing up an issue which is absolutely central. And you’re right that memorialization of an enslaved people is really scarce, almost nonexistent.

In Richmond, there’s a lot of discussion about how to memorialize the enslaved past of the city. In fact they just blocked the building of a big baseball stadium, about half of which I think would have been set on a major historic site that was part of the slave-trade infrastructure of Richmond. And then the other place that I see it happening is entirely led by one guy in Natchez, Mississippi. And he essentially forced the National Park Service and the city of Natchez to memorialize a spot just north of the center of town called the Forks of the Road, which was the second-biggest slave trade center in the cotton South.

There’s nothing on the New Orleans levee, there’s nothing like the Trail of Tears memorializations — the mappings and the road signs and the document of the paths taken by native peoples who were expelled from the deep South and sent up to Oklahoma. There’s nothing like that to map out the routes that hundreds of thousands of people walked. It’s not there, and it needs to be there. It needs to be done.

There’s also a small movement underway to remove the names of slave owners from buildings on college campuses. Is it desirable — or possible — to excise these names from positions of honor? Is slave owning so entangled with white history in the United States that those efforts are futile?

If you were to really give a full and fair good look at complicity, and you were going to excise the people that were complicit, you’d have to take the names off most buildings. But more seriously, I think what’s probably more important is to think carefully about what we have done and what we are doing. If we’re going to keep a name, we need also to tell the truth about that person’s complicity.

Does accounting for this past include the federal government paying reparations to the descendants of slaves?

That’s the question that always comes up, and when it’s a mostly African-American audience, it comes up pretty soon, because it’s not like this is a new issue in African-American understandings of their history. I’ll put it this way: I think the fact that we’re having a discussion about reparations is great, and I give [writer] Ta-Nehisi Coates, in particular, a great deal of credit for getting this discussion going again.

The possibility of reparations is one major reason why, as a culture, we have become so angry and worked up about the issue of the history of slavery. There are inequities that, to anyone who’s not blind, start with slavery. And the fact that we’ve never done anything about them, that they’re still live issues, that’s why we get upset about the issue of slavery, in general.

One really healthy thing to do would be to start by bringing the funding of the endowments of historically black colleges and universities up to the level of historically white universities.

As a historian, do you feel that slavery is an original sin that the United States will never be able to overcome? Or is there some seed of hope in what you’re writing?

Let’s think about original sin. Original sin is something that, theologically, we can never escape, because we’re not angels, right? We can’t stop being human beings and start being angels. But we can stop being white. By that I mean, not that we can change our pigmentation, but that we can stop consciously and unconsciously demanding the privileges of whiteness, and we can act in affirmative ways to undermine the privileges of whiteness. And that’s the way that the country will get past it, by abandoning white supremacy as a constitutive way in which our politics and our economics and our culture were ordered.

This is not something that’s going to happen tomorrow; it’s not going to happen, obviously, because we elected Barack Obama, or something like that. It’s a far, far deeper set of transformations. That’s how we can move to the point where we can see that the country has redeemed itself in some ways from this legacy.