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.