Review of The Half Has Never Been Told

Shortly after reading The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist a friend that knew I was reading it sent me a link to a Huffington Post article stating that Ta-Nehisi Coates had suggested it as one of the critical books for understanding the early experiences of Africans and their masters in America. I was pleased to learn that something that I’d chosen to read was part of the critical zeitgeist that had more American’s interrogating the relationship between white and black American life, though found myself at times writhing in my reading chair due to the depredations that enslavers enacted upon their “investments”. This is because while Baptist illustrates the multi-faceted and evolving qualities of American slavery in a aesthetically and rhetorically compellingly manner, there is a discomfort emerges from the experiences of individual slaves that demonstrate a morally corrupt political regime that transformed lives into mere economic calculations on a bottom line. Such discomforting emotions are not, however, to be avoided but are to be confronted if one is to gain a greater appreciation of the realities that informed our contemporary society.

The book opens with vivid descriptions of the coffles driven by the “Georgia men” from the Chesapeake area to the South and West of the U.S. states as well as the territories not yet officially integrated into the federal system. By limning the relationship between center and periphery, a foundational concept within dependency theory, Baptist shows how the slave-owners were able to pressure and persuade their northern political counterparts through a number of means in order to get a power disproportionate to their population size within the Federal government. Key to understanding this is the legal designation of black both as 3/5 of a person and also a property that is wholly subject to the desired of the owners.

This quantification of laborers into abstractions of works had a number of intentions. It sought to erase not only the familial connections by separating family members but also the skills that those slaves in the Chesapeake region had accumulated. In the some of the northern regions those slaves that were skilled in the trades were able to make a more bearable life for themselves, however once in the south and west they became radically alienated. One’s skill as a carpenter, after all, has little use for picking the tiny white pieces of cotton. Incentives for working were almost wholly absent and instead corporeal discipline of a different sort from the North was the norm. Such abstraction was not merely for the purposes of work in the fields but also work in the bedroom. Female slaves increasingly came to be prized for their physical attractiveness and the degree of resistance they put towards males sexual advances.

Illustrated on a bar graph, one can see the productivity rates per slave rising over time as a result of the increasingly violent “whipping machine” at a rate equal to our higher than workers in the industrial north. Increasingly larger capital slave-holders displaced smaller ones. A bubble in the slave market as well as problems selling cotton goods due to the Boxer rebellion caused massive economic disruption and depression. Seeking to flee their creditors, a large number of those that once had “Alabama fever” took their capital investments with them to Texas. While the fact that Atlantic slave trade and dispossession of native lands was the primary impetus for the rise of industrial capitalism is something that has been long established by historians and political economists, this fact is often ignored or unknown amongst the general population. Though Baptist is primarily concerned with the slavery experience, his sections of comparative analysis as to the purported efficiencies of it compared to the inchoate northern industries is useful in explaining how the Southern slave-owning elite were able to become so rich and influential despite their being almost unanimously condemned as cruel and awful people within polite society outside of the South.

The chapter on the transformation of slavery from simple single ownership to financial instruments I found to be exceptionally fascinating. Requiring credit to obtain lands and slaves, intermediary firms would create bonds that were based on slave’s future labors and sell them on the international market. Thus while slavery was illegal in Europe, the capital of Capital, financial firms still implicated the purchasers of them into the nexus of Atlantic slavery. Such individuals weren’t the only ones that facilitated the slave trade and the trade in slave extracted goods. A number of states, specifically Louisiana was influenced by the slave-owning elite to sell bonds for the creation of cotton transportation infrastructure that would be paid for if need be by all and not just the slave-owning citizens.

These items are mentioned as it is meant to present a counter-narrative to the largely Southern antebellum historiography that presented slavery as paternalistic and the northern historiography that presented it as ineffective and irrational. There are many more aspects of Southern slavery and it’s relationship to the industrializing North – be it ideological, financial, etc. – that Baptist goes into that are worth touching upon. I would, however, simply suggest that those interested read the book as it is excellent. And with that said, I’m interested in any books or articles that deal with the manner in which these experiences had on the epigenetic effects of the African-American traumatic experiences. If you know of something please email me. Also, for those interested in reading Eric Foner, one of my favorite American historians, review of the book should read this article on New York Times website.

Review of This Is How You Lose Her

Continuing my study of Junot Diaz I read This Is How You Lose Her, which is a collection of nine short stories set in New Jersey in the Dominican Republic. I read it over two days, finding much of what I loved about The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as well as much of what I disliked about it. I, unlike Maureen Corrigan, liked the style. However like her I had difficulty in finding myself drawn to these characters. More below.

While I am in wholehearted agreement that Diaz’s style is unique and compelling, I say this as someone that doesn’t read a large amount of modern novelists, preferring at this moment the classics of world literature. That caveat given, I find the pacing, the internal dialogue, and the terminology to be compelling. Unfortunately I believe that here the insertion of Spanish here to be much less sensible than that in Wao. It seems without rhyme or reason, perhaps merely to remind the lazy reader that the narrator is from a Spanish-speaking country. This takes away a little for me, but is no big deal.

Another of the aspects that I liked of the collection is that Yunior, a character from Wao, features in a number of these shorts. Through them Diaz provides a fragmented but insightful backstory. Using Oscar’s terms, however, it’s a number of flashbacks instead of a Star Wars Prequel – meaning that we get glimpses of insight that appear to this read more as an accumulation of stories about someone rather than the story of someone. This may seem like a minor issue of semantics, but it is not. Let me delve into this some more as it relates to Yunior and the other characters.

The dislocating pressures wrought by migration, poverty, anomie, alienation and how they make maintaining a strong family and upright individual identity difficult is made clear and visceral through Diaz’s prose. The longing for a better life and willingness to endure painful humiliations because of it is masterfully wrought. The manner in which Diaz depicts his characters faith that once their goals are achieved happiness will be obtained is brilliant and furthered by their subsequent turn to dissatisfactions with the new conditions. These general commentaries on the fleeting nature of the preconditions to human happiness is not the issues. Neither is it the prose that I find problematic. It’s the characters themselves. As I’ve said in my review of Wao, while I am able to follow a narrator with which I don’t have a strong identification with – I am prone to be less sympathetic to them. There is very little in the way of laudable personality traits or character development in the tales and rather than showing deep insight they all seem to have a debilitating lack of self-knowledge and a blinding ignorance on to handle the issues that faces and oppresses them them.

Now after reading a work that I enjoy I typically review critical literature on it. Lacking access as I do right now to online databases I’m limited to Google, but despite this I found this article by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. Being a Hispanic Studies and Literature scholar, she is able to comment upon feelings that the stories evoked in me with greater insight. One of the comments that relates to the above that Paravisini-Gebert made that I resonated with is on this. Comparing Diaz to another Hispanic author (that I am now interested in reading), she states the following:

“If Down These Mean Streets was a book of searing accusation against those forces in American society that con¬demned some ethnic minorities to alienation, discrimination, and disil¬lusionment, it was also a book that assumed that these conditions could be altered through political action and consciousness-raising. There is no such faith in concerted community action in Drown; there is, as a matter of fact, little semblance of a community – in the sense of groups living lives of multileveled communication with each other. There are friends and neighbors who come across each other from time to time in these tales, but they merge and separate, like the proverbial ships that pass in the night, leaving little in their wake. James Woods, in his review for the New Republic, accurately points to the stories “skillfully” catching Diaz’s characters “in their own glue of confusion, unable or unwilling to change anything.”

Now I recognize that a flawed character is part and parcel of the world and literature. A number of my favorite books – The Thief’s Journal, the characters that fill Dostoyevsky and Henry Miller’s oeuvres – as well as the sociopathic characters that I enjoy from the Golden Age of TV have such flaws. These are all, however, drawn together within a greater narrative that gives their tales some greater meaning. While this particular problem I see with the collection could be seen as a problem of art form of short stories itself, counterfactuals exist in Borges, Kafka, Tolstoy and others. Yes these character’s are all “realistic,” but just because they are real doesn’t mean they are worth of our attention. All that said, I feel in closing that I must state that despite my politico-aesthetic criticisms, the book reads well and will likely be read long into the future. I could certainly see myself, like a number of my friends that are in the creative writing profession, use this to teach style from.

Lastly, for those that want to read one of the selections gratis, I would suggest The Cheaters Guide to Love. Reading it I was taken aback at how eerily similar to some of my own experiences in my early 20s and I think it is the strongest work in the collection.