Bookmarking Our National Transgressions

Going through old bookmarks, I found Eric Foner’s review of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist. Professor Foner is a leading historian of the 19th century. From the review:

Where Baptist breaks new ground is in his emphasis on the centrality of the interstate trade in slaves to the regional and national economies and his treatment of the role of extreme violence in the workings of the slave system….

The cotton kingdom that arose in the Deep South was incredibly brutal….Violence, Baptist contends, explains the remarkable increase of labor productivity on cotton plantations. Without any technological innovations in cotton picking, output per hand rose dramatically between 1800 and 1860. Some economic historians have attributed this to incentives like money payments for good work and the opportunity to rise to skilled positions. Baptist rejects this explanation.

Planters called their method of labor control the “pushing system.” Each slave was assigned a daily picking quota, which increased steadily over time. Baptist, who feels that historians too often employ circumlocutions that obscure the horrors of slavery, prefers to call it “the ‘whipping-machine’ system.” In fact, the word we should really use, he insists, is “torture.” To make slaves work harder and harder, planters utilized not only incessant beating but forms of discipline familiar in our own time — sexual humiliation, bodily mutilation, even waterboarding. In the cotton kingdom, “white people inflicted torture far more often than in almost any human society that ever existed.” When Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans in his Second Inaugural Address of the 250 years of “blood drawn with the lash” that preceded the Civil War, he was making a similar point: Violence did not begin in the United States with the firing on Fort Sumter.

Foner concludes:

It is hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. But many Americans still see it as essentially a footnote, an exception to a dominant narrative of the expansion of liberty on this continent. If the various elements of “The Half Has Never Been Told” are not entirely pulled together, its underlying argument is persuasive: Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.

Reading this review again reminded me of another book review. It was easy to find, although it was published eight years ago. Janet Maslin wrote the review. The book was Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II. Maslin says it’s a corrective for those who think slavery ended with the Civil War:

[The author] is not simply referring to the virtual bondage of black sharecroppers unable to extricate themselves economically from farming. He describes free men and women forced into industrial servitude, bound by chains, faced with subhuman living conditions and subject to physical torture. That plight was horrific. But until 1951, it was not outside the law.

All it took was anything remotely resembling a crime. Bastardy, gambling, changing employers without permission, false pretense, “selling cotton after sunset”: these were all grounds for arrest in rural Alabama by 1890. And as Mr. Blackmon explains in describing incident after incident, an arrest could mean a steep fine. If the accused could not pay this debt, he or she might be imprisoned.

Alabama was among the Southern states that profitably leased convicts to private businesses. As the book illustrates, arrest rates and the labor needs of local businesses could conveniently be made to dovetail. For the coal, lumber, turpentine, brick, steel and other interests described here, a steady stream of workers amounted to a cheap source of fuel.

It’s hard not to think of contemporary practices that mimic the “pushing system” or the cruel exploitation of prison labor. Today, we read about corporations like Amazon that set ever-increasing production quotas. If you don’t meet your quota, you’re fired. If you do meet your quota, you’re quota goes up. Then there’s the way towns and cities like Ferguson rely on fines for their funding. If you can’t pay your fine or miss your court date, you’re hit with a bigger fine or thrown in jail. And, of course, we now have a huge prison-industrial complex that’s devoted to mass incarceration as a way to lower the unemployment rate while increasing corporate income.

After writing the above, I looked at another bookmark. It was to a New York Times interview with someone who isn’t quoted very often in newspapers like the Times or on television: Noam Chomsky. I’d forgotten that he cites both The Half Has Never Been Told and Slavery By Another Name. His subject is “the roots of American racism”:

There is … a common variant of what has sometimes been called “intentional ignorance” of what it is inconvenient to know: “Yes, bad things happened in the past, but let us put all of that behind us and march on to a glorious future, all sharing equally in the rights and opportunities of citizenry.” The appalling statistics of today’s circumstances of African-American life can be confronted by other bitter residues of a shameful past, laments about black cultural inferiority, or worse, forgetting how our wealth and privilege was created in no small part by the centuries of torture and degradation of which we are the beneficiaries and they remain the victims….

Jefferson, to his credit, at least recognized that the slavery in which he participated was “the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” And the Jefferson Memorial in Washington displays his words that “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Words that should stand in our consciousness alongside of John Quincy Adams’s reflections on the parallel founding crime over centuries, the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty…among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgment.”

The entire interview is here.