It is said that men and women make history, but not under circumstances of their choosing. What is the history of slavery in the United States of America? Whose true story is it, that of the slave master or the enslaved labourer? Was slavery a separate, pre-modern institution, or an integral part of modern-day capitalist America? How was family life for the enslaved? Was it peaceful or violent?
The author, Edward E. Baptist, in 498 pages of a historical narrative, with notes, illustrations and an index, makes an important point. Modern America’s rise to riches is built on enslaved labour. It is the truth, in short. And he cites ample evidence. But in a way, it is not his story. It is the story of the enslaved, the half that has never been told.
It is a poetic narrative of the most violent and traumatic story of modern exploitation; of consequent resistance both passive and violent; and of glorious ingenuity in many fields of human effort in bondage. The heart of the story, its head and limbs, its spine and breath, and the horrific blood-letting, all are woven together in a captivating narrative. From the first arrivals of white settlers and black slaves through the expansion of settlements and enslavement, the author embraces the other half’s story; the violent, capitalist contradiction between the settler’s freedom and the oppression of blacks and native Indians. It exploded into a bloody, four-year civil war, which ended chattel slavery in 1865. The federal union was preserved under President Abraham Lincoln, but the denial of human rights, Toussaint Louverture’s equal citizenship, persisted beyond that year.
Heart of the story
The truth is freedom, we are told. But that depends on whether “we can find the right questions.” A federal government project for job-creation set out to get answers to some historical questions on slavery. That is how Mr. Lorenzo Ivy, who lived through slavery and survived it along with others, came to tell his story. For example, “Have you been happier in slavery or free?” As if the old man may have a romantic, enslavement story to tell, he responded:
“My mother’s master was named William Tunstall. He was a mean man. There was only one good thing he did, and I don’t reckon he intended to do that. He sold our family to my father’s master George H. Gilman.”
Having conceded an unintended good deed by the cruel slave master, he continued: “Old Tunstall caught the ‘cotton fever.’ … Everyone was dying to get down south and grow cotton to sell. So old Tunstall separated families right and left. He took two of my aunts and left their husbands up here, and he separated altogether seven husbands and wives. One woman had twelve children. Yessir. Took ‘em all down south with him to Georgia and Alabama.” (p.xx)
Cotton king and enslaved subject
Cotton, sugar, tobacco and a slave have one thing in common: property that can be bought or sold as a commodity. The difference, of course, is that a slave is a human being, with a mind and feelings. But white human beings in America and elsewhere, at the time, found material interests in owning black human beings. An impossible exploitation equation, that resulted in unparalleled violence and separation on enslaved family life. In Ivy’s words on the “coffle-chain” of slaves:
“They sold slaves here and everywhere. I’ve seen droves of Negroes brought in here on foot going South to be sold. Each one of them had an old tow sack with everything he’s got in it. Over the hills they came in lines reaching as far as the eye can see… in double lines chained together by twos. They walk ‘em here to the railroad and shipped ‘em south like cattle.” As if to stretch the imagination of the interviewer, Pa Ivy continued, and inspired part of the title of this book: “Truly, son, the half has never been told.” (p.xxi)
Indeed, it has been a permanent battle to reveal the historical truth about enslavement in the United States and elsewhere. Following the American civil war and from 1875, Mr. Ivy secured an education as a schoolteacher, and in turn “educated generations of African-American children.” And to this day, and through this book, we are being educated and organized around the “untold half” of the enslavement story.
On the importance of Pa Ivy’s untold half, and by way of introductory emphasis, the author states that: “In the span of a single lifetime after the 1780s, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out plantations to a sub-continental empire. Entrepreneurial enslavers moved more than 1 million enslaved people, by force, from the communities that survivors of the slave trade from Africa had built in the South and in the West to vast territories that were seized – also by force – from their Native American inhabitants. From 1783 at the end of the American Revolution to 1861, the number of slaves in the United States increased five times over… to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people.”
Enslaved labourers, along-side the violence and separation brought on their family life, not only produced cotton more efficiently. They actually powered American industrialization. The author continues: “Their practices rapidly transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market, and cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity at the time, as it was the key raw material during the first century of the industrial revolution… and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization. In fact, slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation….” (p.xxi)
Resistance to racism and exploitation
Denial of the true nature of enslavement had consequences. One was the truth sought freedom to be heard throughout. African-Americans, in solidarity with themselves and others, fought everyday and everywhere to break the chains of bondage. Over the bleeding hills and sun-baked cotton fields, through the malaria marshes and meandering rivers, the Ivy spirit of freedom and survival reigned. Embattled by the iron will and cruelty of the enslaver, this free spirit prevailed in many shades. It was a collective resistance, like a modern-day #abolishslavery movement, that exploded into civil war. With betrayal bestowed after victory, it “developed into first the civil rights movement and later, Black Power.” And cultural expression was ever present, in music, dance, paintings and other ways.
This other half being told, by Ivy and other survivors, is a story worth telling. It is not just a story of violence and enforced family separations. Nor is it one of only calculating profits earned from selling cotton and humans. Instead, the author narrates Ivy’s untold half of African-American suffering, resistance and creative genius with the help of metaphors. He is inspired by the works of others, particularly the great African-American Ralph Ellison. He quotes the latter, and portrays this “untold half” of enslavement “as a drama enacted on the body of a Negro giant…,” except in motion. Ellison’s imagery in the Invisible Man, or Toni Morrison’s Beloved not mentioned, that relay Ivy’s harsh reality in fiction.
It is poetic imagery, which helps the reader to endure a gruesome story. And most importantly, to appreciate the truth that: “the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich….”
Moreover, a global, capitalist economic system also emerged and developed, based on enslaved and stolen labour. This was its “rosy” dawn and genesis, if the truth be told. “With the creation of innovative financial tools, more and more of the Western world was able to invest directly in slavery’s expansion… and allowed enslavers to turn bodies into commodities with which they changed the financial history of the Western world.” (p.xxvi)