Folks, I know it’s been a while, but you know how life is sometimes. However, this week’s book is going to make up for my prolonged absence, I swear!
So good news first – no matter how much I fuck up this review, it won’t be worse than what the economist (yes, that economist) did. Because this esteemed magazine published a review so bad it had to be taken down within 24 hrs.
But let’s start at the beginning. This book made its way onto my reading list thanks to none other than Barack H. Obama. I don’t know why I googled ‘Obama reading list’, but I did (it must have been after I read Michelle Obama’s book and she mentioned in passing that her husband reads up to three books at the same time. Nerd. Anyway.) So this book comes recommended by a Nobel Prize Winner, and even though that doesn’t mean much anymore after the Prize went to Kissinger, it’s still a very good, excellent book.
So. When I say ‘slavery’, what comes to your mind? Cotton plantations? Yes. But what else? I must admit, my mind drew a bit of a blank there. I mean, I knew things were Not Good for slaves, but it took this book to make me understand just how horrible of an institution this whole thing was.
(Just to be clear – and I think these days on the internet you can’t be careful enough – I was always against slavery.)
Baptist does something I have never come across in any other history of the United States, and that is – let former slaves talk. It turns out that during the Great Depression, there was a program to find former slaves and interview them. I never heard about this!
And it takes hearing from them to make you understand that there is a different between your run-off-the-mill indentured work and slavery. Because… Well, slaves made property out of people. But what that means in detail is this – if you’re a slave, you can be sold, used and discarded at any time. You are not a person. You are a possession.
If you’re a mother, you can come home from an exhausting day in the field to find your kids gone, sold, without being told. You will experience daily torture, both mental and physical, and if you are a woman, you will be raped. It is an existence without any escape. (The author casually quotes a figure saying that of the millions – MILLIONS – of slaves in the South, fewer than a hundred managed to flee to the safe North.)
Slavery, Baptist says, should be understood as ‘stealing people’. Slaves weren’t sold, his argument goes, they were stolen from their families. Slaves weren’t just ‘whipped’, they were tortured, day in, day out.
And the worst of it? it worked. You see, there is this argument – that I, I must admit, fully subscribed to- that goes like this: ‘Slavery is an ancient institution, and inefficient. Free people can pick cotton better and faster than enslaved ones, hence the South -and slavery- was always destined for ruin.’
Well, no. If slavery was so inefficient, why was the South the biggest cotton producer in the world? In fact, in 1860 – shortly before the start of the Civil War! – the South produced more cotton than ever before.
The mystery is solved when you realize the missing link: Torture. Quite simply put, if you torture people enough, they will be productive. If you can exhort enough profit from a slave, you will get fantastically rich if only you own enough slaves.
(Rudely spoken, if a slave costs $1,000 and makes double that in cotton profits in a year, you got yourself a bargain, if you are willing to sell your soul, that is.)
And here comes the ugly truth, the central thesis of this book: Slavery made the United States into a capitalist country. It allowed the States – and, let us admit, the world – to escape the limits of profitability that haunted the industrial revolution.
Cotton, let us remember, was the first truly international good of trade – produced in the US, shipped to England, where it got transformed, and then sold all over the world.
It was American Slaves that made the world.
(It should also be mentioned that slavery wasn’t just pushing the profits – it was also the source of new financial products. American and British banks had no problem accepting slaves as collateral for mortgages. If the slaver failed, the slaves paid the price – they were sold, while the slaver was allowed to start all over again.)
This book is one of those books that makes you question everything you know and how you have seen the world before.
See, for example, this near total abortion ban in Georgia? Yes, the Christian Evangelicals are running amok, but it also fits in nicely with another fact – that Southern Males, for the longest time, saw women’s bodies as theirs. (It is no coincidence either that all of the states with the highest rate of death in childbirth are the ones with highest rate of poverty of African American women. It is all connected.)
So please, do Obama a favor and read this book. It will blow your mind.
And next time you hear someone argue that slavery was doomed from the start, tell them that it took a Civil War, millions of deaths, and almost 200 years to defeat it.