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Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism: General Information
Douglas Decelle composes an unbiased and organized summarization of "The Half Has Never Been Told". Throughout this summarization, he touches on each chapter and highlights the importance of varying issues that were at the focus of Baptists' thesis. These pivotal points shine a light on the capitalization of slave labor and provide a formalized outlook on the book.
Political compromise and profit motives preserved slavery at the United States’ birth and kept it expanding for a century. Slavery wasn’t merely a backward institution ended by the Civil War, a common assessment. Instead, historian Edward E. Baptist asserts that it underwrote American wealth and power and inspired modern capitalism. Charting the parallel growth of cotton and the rosters of enslaved people, Baptist details the intricate relationships between slavery and the US economy. In the process, he brings to life the people whom slavery had turned into commodities.
Historians discuss how they believe Baptist utilized the limited availability of first-hand evidence to further procure the narrative which he utilized to present his stance of slavery's impact on the US economy. For the newer crop of historians, the important relationship is not the psychological one between master and slave. It’s the economic one between slaves and the markets that moved and trapped them. Source: (The Chronicle of Higher Education - Marc Perry)
Scott Curtis, author, discusses how Baptists' critical outlook on slavery sheds a new light and provides a deeper interpretation into the age of slavery and its economic role within the United States economy. Despite the backlash he has received from many historians, Curtis emphasizes the importance of painting a full picture of slavery and its role in economic growth at that time.
In his opinionated blog, Bradley Hansen, a professor of economics at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, critiques "The Half Has Never Been Told", stating that, "the fundamental flaws in the book arise from Baptist’s historical methods, not his economics." Source: (Bradley Hansen's Blog)
Kevin Levin opens a discussion panel, focusing on the varying critiques of 'The Half Has Never Been Told". In his discussion, Levin dissects varying interpretations of the book and accompanying reflections from various news outlets (ie New York Times). Levin opens a virtual discussion panel where others are able to input their own opinions for consideration.
The Economist - Controversial Article and Ensuing Backlash
After publishing a scathing review of Edward Baptists' "The Half Has Never Been Told", the journal received copious amounts of backlash for comments such as, "not all slave owners were bad...". They have since apologized and left available the originally released review.
Author Arit John provides an in depth look into the public backlash and erroneous structure of The Economist's critical review of Baptists' "The Half Has Never Been Told". In said review, the most critical pieces from the Economist stems from the claim that "not all slave owners were bad". John provides social media examples from both The Economist and Baptists' private account to provide a timeline of the public responses to the review that sparked outrage amongst historians and economists alike. Source (The Atlantic - Arit John)
Baptist discusses The Economist's review of his book, pointing out the errors in the article where the publishers seek to diminish the value of slavery at that time while failing to recognize the economic value of this slave labor. Throughout his response to The Economists' review, he defends his stance that one must look through microeconomic and macroeconomic spectrums and isolate the economic factors of slavery in order to grasp a true understanding of the concepts he presents. Source: (Politico Magazine - Edward Baptist)
Interviews with the Author
Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
Interviews with Baptist
(UMass Amherst - 2015) Edward Baptist aims to educate the students and faculty of UMass Amherst on American slavery and the ways in which its effects have led to persisting inequality both socially and economically. Baptist provides a basic overview of his book, The Half Has Never Been Told, as he clearly describes specific slave testimonies, general themes, as well as the methodology of his research. He draws parallels between U.S slavery and the current capitalistic system in America such as the idea that industries such as finance and technology have an overemphasis on productivity. Baptist continues to claim that this current overemphasis on productivity is coupled with unrealistic expectations for employees to hit their goals. Baptist’s arguments are enhanced through visual aids including scanned photos of ledgers that depict the daily amount of cotton picked by each slave. This also demonstrates the unattainable goals put in place for the slaves.
(Georgetown University - 2016) Similar to his talk at UMass Amherst, Baptist gives a broad overview of The Half Has Never Been Told, calling both institutions and individuals to acknowledge the ways in which the United States has been built from slavery. Additionally, Baptist discusses his personal motivations for studying slavery such as his desire to spread the idea of monetary reparations for the Black community as a solution to current racial wealth inequality. A unique aspect of this talk is a discussion between Baptist and the well-informed moderator named Maurice Jackson. Mr. Jackson is a history professor at Georgetown as well as the first chair of the D.C commission on African American Affairs. Their discussion included topics ranging from the idea of efficiency to parallels involving slavery and modern-day capitalism.
(Google - 2014) In this video, Baptist speaks at Google’s office in Cambridge, Massachusetts to discuss his book, The Half Has Never Been Told and provide details about slave labor and the cotton production process. The major strength of this video is the question and answer portion as it takes up over half of the video and contains intelligent questions. The Q&A portions expands upon ideas and topics that are frequently mentioned in The Half Has Never Been Told. These topics include a brief analysis of slavery in the Caribbean as well as what Baptist believes he contributes to the broader discussion of slavery. More specifically, Baptist believes his research is new and innovative because he not only analyzes slavery in the 1800’s, but also examines the ways in which it has contributed to the current capitalistic economy in the U.S. It is important to note that in this discussion, Baptist emphasizes that the slave narratives are essential to his research on slavery.
(American Forum - 2015) This video from the Virginia Public Media (VPM) is a conversational style Interview with Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist Douglas Blackmon. Mr. Blackmon is an expert on the topic of slavery and is known for his book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Baptist and Blackmon engage in an in-depth discussion on topics such as the slave auction process, methodology of the WPA narratives, and the sexual exploitation of slaves in the 1800’s. Prior to auction, slaves were ranked based on their cotton picking performance and provided with absorbent amounts of rich food so they look stronger in the weeks leading up to their sale. Although many critics claim that the WPA slave narratives are unreliable, Baptist asserts that people must utilize these narratives to better understand the slave experience. The narratives should be accompanied with written empirical evidence such as ledgers from slave owners.
Al Zambone is joined by Bob Elder, Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University and, like Al, a historian of the American South where they discuss the capitalistic nature of slavery. Elder argues that historians see slavery as a benign source of labor rather than from a capitalist position. The two discuss how Baptists' attempts to produce books that reach a wide range of audiences dilute his credibility as he tries to make his mark through adopting newer positions. Source (Historically Thinking Podcast - feat. Al Zambone and Bob Elder)
Slave Narrative Reconsidered: Strengths and Limitations
The slave narratives are autobiographical accounts of enslaved black people which were assembled during 1936-1938 and contain testimonies from over two thousand ex-slaves across all states in the confederacy. According to Yetman, the methodology behind the collection of these ex-slave narratives demonstrates a high level of representativeness and a decreased chance of sample bias. This article discusses the evolution of the slave narratives beginning with the earliest narratives that were collected in the 18th century for the purpose of challenging the positive images of slaves which were being spread by pro-slavery Americans. Yetman describes the way in which the creation of the autobiographies became a more sociologically rigorous and organized process aimed at preserving the true firsthand accounts of the slaves. Finally, he concludes by detailing the private efforts to secure interviews in the late 1930’s as well as the subsequent New Deal programs that supported later collection efforts.
Yetman provides an overview of the backstory of the slave narratives. The slave narratives can be constituted as reliable because they were collected from ex-slaves from different states, backgrounds, and personal experiences. But the author discusses possible issues with the methodology of the slave narratives such as the old age of the ex-slaves, a lack of structure in the questioning process, and bias on the part of the interviewers (194). Our understanding of slavery has been enhanced by the creation of the narratives. However, there are limits to using them as one would empirical evidence such as statistical data. The author also addresses the history of the interest in these narratives. In the 1900’s, there was a shift in black culture that emphasized individual and collective empowerment that surged more interest in black literature, and specifically the slave narrative collection. Yetman emphasizes that the narratives grew out of the rising popularity of black literature and the unique goals of the Federal Writer’s Project.
Blasingame points out that the testimonies of ex-slaves may be the key to understanding slave life. However, neither whites nor blacks can report the objective truth because testimonies are merely one individual’s perception. Blasingame contends that the white editors displayed clear racial bias because certain details and dialogue were left out in an effort to appeal to the large base of white readers. Further criticisms detailed in the article are that there was an unrepresentative sample of black women in the narrative collection, the ex-slaves were too old to give accurate recollections of events, and the poor interviewing technique discouraged truthful testimonies. Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, Blasingame argues that the narratives and WPA interviews are complimentary sources as the interviews include women who were missing from the narratives and the narratives contain ex-slaves from the border states who were missing from WPA interviews.
The creation of the slave narrative project was bolstered by the Federal Writer’s Project and Roosevelt’s New Deal as part of an effort to strengthen the economy by employing workers to collect the narratives. In this article, Hill includes a side-by-side comparison of an actual slave narrative as well as an appraisal sheet to allow the reader to see firsthand how these documents were laid out and preserved. The appraisal contains information about the slave’s name, location, source, and method. The purpose of obtaining testimonies written by the slaves themselves in addition to the oral interviews was to provide multiple perspectives so the reader can connect information together regarding specific themes and events that occurred during slavery. White editors conducting interviews of formers slaves on a state-by-state basis allowed the editors to construct an image of American life that may not be truly representative. Hill concludes with the claim that it is important to study the lives of enslaved people at the time of slavery as well as their lives after slavery. Furthermore, it is critical to analyze how the existence of slavery shaped black life in America from the 18th century to present day.