Why American history should begin with slavery

How it began.
How it began.
Image: Photo/Jaap Buitendijk
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“Was slavery really that bad?”

This was by far the number one question I was asked after viewing Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. My response is always simple: “No, it was worse.”

So when the review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism debuted in the Economist (with no author byline in Economist style, transparency would at least inform us of the reviewer’s credentials), and referred to his work as failing to be an objective view of slavery because, “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains,” the response was swift and fierce.

The reviewer remarked that Baptist:

“is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses ‘the traditional explanations’ for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.”

Here, even I am confused. What is a “traditional explanation” for American success that does not involve exploitation? The “lure of open land” only expanded slavery westward. “High wages” in the north were all a part of an economy intensely complicit in manufacturing cotton textiles. It was Eli Whitney and his “Yankee ingenuity” that invented the cotton gin and “government policies” that insured slavery’s survival.

The review stands out as part of a larger problem among American history and slavery in general: the desire to see the past through rose-colored glasses. There is a particular kind of assessment that is often confused with patriotism, as a way of only showing America as its best hard-working self. Diminishing American slavery as some sort of necessary evil is not history, it’s advocacy and white supremacy of the worst kind.

We live in a country that often prefers to begin its narrative with New England and the Puritans fleeing religious persecution and following it up with the pseudo-romance of the “First Thanksgiving” rather than beginning with the rise of African slavery in the Chesapeake. It is no surprise or coincidence that four out of the first five US presidents were all slaveholders from Virginia. Yes, the story of America is one of intense work ethic, but mainly the work ethic of laboring slaves. Nothing in this country comes even remotely close to comparing to all of the profits gained by slave labor. The real issue is that history is not objective, it’s political. Where a story starts and ends is political. Language that defines winners and losers is political (i.e the Civil War or the War of Northern Aggression). In history, adjectives are political.

Let’s be honest, while the historian’s search for sources should be impartial, no one should go into an archive with blinders on. No one says, “Let’s look at the Holocaust objectively, Nazi Germany had a tremendously effective anti-smoking campaign.” Or “Let’s be objective, without South African Apartheid where would Nelson Mandela be?” It’s even akin to asking the woman who was raped, “Let’s be objective, what were you wearing?” This kind of thinking is a way of giving white supremacy the benefit of the doubt. While black people continually have to prove their pain or else they run the risk of not being objective such as in Ferguson. White Americans are bestowed with the privilege of never having to prove their empowerment by neglecting to tell the experiences of those who were at the expense of the power. There is a terrible tendency in this country to claim one is overreacting to white actions as villainous, but underreact to black pain as exaggerated.  For example, we overreact by continually linking black bodies to criminality and underreact to the problem of mass incarceration.

Unfortunately, reviews like the one published in the Economist are not new. One of the major critiques of 12 Years a Slave was that the film was seen as too violent, inflated even. However, the question that few people seemed to ask was not, why so much violence, but why this story? Why Solomon Northup? In Hollywood, the answer is simple. Because a story like Solomon, a free black man who is literate and talented, and hardworking, and married with children, and happened to meet the wrong people at the wrong time, somehow does not deserve to be enslaved. He was tricked! Yes, Solomon was a victim. His story, his narrative, makes it easy for white audiences to sympathize with a black man who in their mind assimilated and accommodated their notions of acceptableness. The sympathy is almost entirely placed upon Solomon’s plight and not the other four million African Americans enslaved. But make no mistake, if Solomon had say, stolen a box of cigars during his freedom, no one would care about his kidnapping. As for Patsey, she is not a victim. We simply look at her and then dismiss her because somehow, she was just born this way. This line of thinking is not only absurd, but reinforces the idea that while some black people should not be enslaved, others should be.

Nearly 100 years ago, American scholar and intellectual W.E.B Du Bois was also accused of being impartial in a field monopolized by white men. He once wrote, “One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over.” He noted that the difficulty with this philosophy was that “history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.” I can only imagine that Edward Baptist and the story of The Half that Has Never Been Told was an attempt to tell the truth, that the success and wealth of this country cannot be disconnected from the institution of slavery. Shame on those who try.