The Half Has Never Been Told

In his book “The Half Has Never Been Told,” Edward Baptist delves into the history of the side of American history that historians always neglect to mention. The half that has “ever been told” is what we learn in schools and is accepted as the ‘valid’ history of American economics. We are taught economic history close to what Alfred Chandler wrote in his book “The Visible Hand,” (1977) which leaves out information about labor but includes vast swaths of information about the shiny new technologies created by white entrepreneurs that connected different sides of the country (such as mentioning the Transcontinental Railroad but ignoring the mass deaths of workers for both the Union and Pacific railroads as well as local Native American populations), while painting the industrial revolution as an emergent event brought about by capitalism. Baptist tells a different story of the half of history that is neglected in history classrooms and books alike; how the subjugation and exploitation of millions of people led to ever-increasing profits for all white people in the United States, thereby shaping the economy and the United States as a whole.

Baptist argues that while slavery hasn’t been written out of history, the sheer enormity and evil of it has often been softened to be more palatable to those who profited from slavery. The history of slavery has been contorted to avoid talking about how the expansion of slavery allowed for the modernization of the United States and the enrichment of its recognized citizens (Baptist, 2012, p. 20). The rewriting of history depicts the leadup to the Civil War as a fight about states’ rights or principles, rather than a “struggle between regions about how the rewards of slavery’s expansion would be allocated and whether that expansion could continue.” Baptist draws on Ralph Ellison’s metaphor of the giant African-American man to build the structure for this book, which goes in chronological order.

Baptist starts with “Feet” to describe the forced migration of African slaves from West Africa to the unfamiliar American South. “Heads” describes the violent acquisition of vital parts of Mississippi to solidify slavery in the region. “Right Hand” describes how the slave trade purposefully broke apart families for profits by following Rachel’s story. “Left Hand” describes the ways in which white ‘entrepreneurs’ would use violence to make slaves work harder. “Tongues” describes the ways in which enslavers silenced their critics and “Breath” describes how enslavers “had built a system of slave trading that served as expansion’s lungs” (Baptist, 2012, p. 22). “Seed” discusses the hypermasculinity of the slavery frontier and the violence that went along with it. “Blood” discusses the results of the economic crash in 1837 that led to yet more violence against slaves. “Backs” describes how the North’s profits from cotton spurred the industrial revolution.  Finally, “Arms” describes the expansion of slavery after the Compromise of 1850.

This book is interesting as it combines both the individual life stories of slaves and the broader history of slavery itself. There were many small parts that were particularly interesting, such as the mention of sundown towns where African-Americans are unwelcome, especially after dark. This was interesting because it may have contributed (and probably did) to the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” which was essentially a travel guide for African-Americans to tell them which towns or businesses are or aren’t friendly places to travel (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, n.d.). The Green Book helped African-American travelers steer clear of towns that would be hostile or violent, such as sundown towns. The New York Public Library has digitized a few editions of this guide that can be read online. In the afterword, Baptist mentions that by 1900 the white southern Democrats had taken the away the vote from most black men and “many of the less reliable white men as well” (Baptist, 2012, p. 346). I wonder what Baptist means by “less reliable white men” as it could have a few different meanings. Could this mean white men that opposed slavery and/or the Jim Crow laws? Are these unreliable white men poor men that may sympathize with their African-American neighbors? Are these unreliable white men from a different political party than the Democrats? Or do these unreliable white men have some other characteristic that white supremacists don’t like? The final small interesting bit was the mention that John Wilkes Booth was present in many photos with Abraham Lincoln before shooting him. I am slightly tempted to go out and find these pictures.

The discussion of management is also interesting. Baptist briefly mentions the exclusion of slavery in the history of management, and in the notes provides a link to a peer-reviewed article titled “The Denial of Slavery in Management Studies.” The article discusses how the practice of management sprung not from the minds of capitalist Northerners like Frederick Taylor but from the desire of enslavers in the South to produce more cotton in ever-increasing quantities and at ever-increasing speeds. The article points out that slavery is left out of the history of management, even when management studies are focusing on management’s “complicity in the worst forms of oppression” (Cooke, 2002). By splitting management from slavery, management studies can maintain the paradigm that the industrial revolution was a product of Northern ingenuity rather than the Southern subjugation of slaves.

One very interesting part of the book was the discussion of the ‘poke-easy’ phenomenon on the slavery frontier. This is discussed at length in “Seed.” The ‘poke-easy’ phenomenon is one of hypermasculinity where white men could easily be provoked into violence over the smallest contrivances. A lack of response against an insult was considered a weakness, and would show that a white man was inferior to other white men. This created a culture of violence that not only targeted white men but also white women and slaves. At some point, Baptist describes an old man jolting up at night to point a gun at phantoms rushing at him. There is a parallel between the performative aggressiveness of the slavery frontier and today’s white supremacists (which I am using as a blanket term for neo-nazis, white supremacists, and fascists).

Aside from the fact that both groups see people that are not like them as inferior, both groups are quite tetchy when it comes to their pride. The example given is Robert Potter, a not-so wealthy man who got a decent education through charm and aimed to rise through the ranks of politics. Potter was not poke-easy, and wound up castrating two men he thought were trying to seduce his wife. He got two years jail time, and afterwards castration of a white man became punishable by death. Likewise, it is incredibly easy to anger white supremacists, as evidenced by their tendency to attack protestors or run them over. Just as enslavers viewed African-Americans and women as inferior, today’s white supremacists see anyone who isn’t a straight white male Christian as inferior. The fear of being viewed as inferior was high on the frontier of slavery, just as the fear of ‘racial purity’ pervades white supremacy. Both white supremacists and white men on the frontier of slavery have/had a proclivity for carrying guns. The hypermasculinity in both white supremacists and enslavers points to a possible inferiority complex; to be poke-easy was to be weak and therefore closer to a slave than a free man – a man that appears to be emasculated. White supremacists have updated the term ‘poke-easy’ to become ‘beta’ or ‘cuck,’ along other coded words (Romo, 2017), to mean a man that is weak or has been cheated on.


References Cited

Baptist, Edward E.. 2012. The Half Has Never Been Told : Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Boulder: Basic Books. Accessed September 18, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Cooke, Bill, 2002. “The Denial of Slavery in Management Studies,”General Discussion Papers 30566, University of Manchester, Institute for Development Policy and Management (IDPM).

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “The Negro Motorist Green Book: 1937” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 18, 2017.

Romo, Vanessa. “‘Ghost Skins’ And Masculinity: Alt-Right Terms, Defined.” NPR. September 06, 2017. Accessed September 18, 2017.