The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
By Edward E. Baptist
Review by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun
Here, without false patriotic embellishment, or sentimentalism, is the true story of slavery, and how for the last three centuries, it came to dominate every aspect of the American consciousness, and shadow the American way of life.
In America, despite its self-congratulatory democratic pretenses to the contrary, there was no political, moral, religious or economic imperatives, or an alternative higher consciousness, than the will to buy and sell human flesh for profit. Simply put, this book shows how slavery and its meanings were intertwined with the development of capitalism, and how together they have co-evolved to continuously dominate the American mind from the colonial era well into the present.
In this book, the institution that made America ceases to be a quaint abstraction. Here, without benefit of its normal disingenuous rosy blinkers, slavery is seen for what it was: literally the "meat and bones" of a horribly destructive and evil way of life, one built up on the backs of those shackled in irons for a nine thousand mile voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in the filthy cubby-holes of boats, to a forced-march through the swamps of Louisiana, where their bodies were greased-up for the slave markets of New Orleans, and then were "seasoned with the whip," and put to "pushing" to increase their labor output.
The unmistakable justification for this unmitigated evil way was, and has always been: the great profits and riches that slaves could bring. Cotton, tobacco, slaves and the whip, became not just the engines of American capitalism, but also its ideology and its way of life. The brutality of slavery and capitalism developed hand-in-hand; you could not have had one without the other. Period.
There were no "moral-free zones," for the American conscience, no sacred corners of the American way of life tucked away off limits and protected from the willful self-generated evil of slavery. All institutions, peoples, and ideologies were implicated in, corrupted by, or ruled by slavery.
Even the morally pristine Quakers and other abolitionist religious groups, at one time or another succumbed to either owning or exploiting slaves. And even when religious guilt did eventually get the best of them, forcing them out into a "existential moral clearing," where they had no choice but to confront their own consciences and face the contradictions of what it meant to engage in a way of life that was so utterly evil, they still remained white supremacist racists to the bitter end.
In the modern American mind, erroneously we have come to equate abolitionism with being "anti-racist," and "anti-racism" with, being "pro-black." However, as we see, this book frees us from that disillusionment. In fact, both equations were wrong, as it remains as true today, as it was during the colonial era, that other than blacks themselves, there is no "pro-black" constituency in American society. Anti-racism in America does not mean "pro-black," nor does it mean "anti-white supremacy," either.
Here we have the names and addresses of the perpetrators given through the horror stories of their victims. Slaves have been abruptly awakened from the dead to provide their testimonies of their day-to-day lives through a uniquely American made hell. And even though the truth of their stories will remain palpable forever, their stories are not provided here in the typical way, as just another opportunity for false white empathy for the victims to be used to misdirect attention away from the white perpetrators.
Here, the testimonies are provided as a sober reminder, and as an opportunity to reflect on, just how addictive the drug of slavery really was; and on just how utterly evil slavery in America really was. As a consequence of this evil intoxication, this book shows just how utterly evil men had to be, to continuously run the risk each day of their lives of being overrun by the slaves who they had shackled in order to steal labor from them for the entirety of their lives.
This canvas of evil, this dark cloud of all-pervasive fear makes up the main constituent part of American culture. The fear of slave revolts, of race mixing, and the deepest fear of all: that revenge would eventually be exacted for the crimes committed against slave women, all implemented through brutality, rape, use of the whip, callousness, and general meanness, is what inexorably evolved into the American way of life that we have today.
And make no mistake about it, the American way is still one ruled by the same primitive racial fears and traits that have pervaded American culture since the colonial days, and continues to do so today, three centuries later. Witness exhibit number one: our 45th President-elect, Mr. Donald Trump.
This American continent, "the continent of slavery," is the same one that now curiously claims as its moral patrimony, democracy, freedom, equality, justice and religious brotherhood. But in a culture that has evolved from slavery, those traits mysteriously still get stopped at the color line, and thus are not the true moral patrimony of the American way of life. Today's police culture and subconscious racism, and the trail of fears that comes as its baggage, makes clear that the midwife of American culture has always been fear, racial brutality, callousness and meanness. These are all racial meanings inherited directly from slavery, not from democracy.
How could these maestros, drunk with "slashing with the whip," so dependent on slavery for their own survival, have so smoothly flipped the switch from three centuries of unmitigated brutality and evil against their black brothers, to suddenly changing overnight into democracy, equality, justice, and religious brotherhood? Can it really be done without permanent scar tissue? I don't think so. Ten stars
Editor's note: This review was written by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.