A Visit from Professor Edward Baptist

Mike Jirik, PhD Candidate, UMass History

Last week, the Graduate History Program hosted Edward Baptist (Cornell University), a distinguished historian of American slavery. During his visit, Professor Baptist had lunch with graduate students from the History and African American Studies departments before giving a public lecture. Both of the events centered on his newest book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The book has garnered considerable attention among historians and general readers, partly because of a controversial review in the Economist.[1] Needless to say, this was a much anticipated event for an aspiring historian of slavery and abolition. The conversation during the luncheon was simultaneously enlightening and invigorating, and the public lecture was a major success. After reflecting on those events, I felt compelled to share some thoughts on the lecture, the conversation at the luncheon, and the general importance of Professor Baptist’s work.

While the argument that modern capitalism was built on the institution of racial slavery should be familiar to specialists, what makes Baptist’s analysis provocative and compelling is the way in which he tells this story.[2] By offering a nuanced interpretation of slave narratives, freedpeoples’ autobiographies, and the WPA narratives, Baptist centers the experience of enslaved African Americans in the historical relationship between slavery and capitalism. In his lecture, Professor Baptist described how the slave system functioned. One example was the process of forced migration which helps to explain how slavery spread geographically. Enslaved African Americans were organized into slave coffles and forcibly moved to places such as Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Equally important is Baptist’s concept of torture to explain white slaveholders’ use of extreme physical violence as a method to increase production and extract the most wealth from an enslaved person’s labor. Torture also instilled fear among enslaved persons to comply with white slaveholders and overseers’ demands. For Baptist, enslaved African Americans’ experiences of forced migration and torture and coercion are inextricably linked to the rise of American capitalism. Along with Professor Baptist’s engaging lecture, the conversation during the luncheon was particularly fascinating.

Prof. Edward Baptist giving lecture, "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism"

Prof. Edward Baptist giving lecture, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”

During the luncheon, the conversation touched on several different topics, including the writing process, historiography, and how this history informs the present. Perhaps the most striking part of the conversation surrounded the role of enslaved African American women in the history of slavery and capitalism. The role of enslaved black women’s agricultural and domestic labor is fundamental to this historical narrative. However, that is only part of the story. Enslaved black women also experienced the commodification of their sexuality and reproductive systems. This point cannot be overstated. Black women were often bought and sold for the purposes of reproducing other human beings that would be enslaved. For that reason, black women were subjected to distinct forms of torture, sexual violence, and rape. The commodification of black women’s sexuality was integral to sustaining and perpetuating the institution of racial slavery, and by extension, contributed to the rise of American capitalism. I found this part of the conversation particularly provocative and compelling. In numerous ways, the experience of black women is central to understanding the history of slavery and capitalism.

Taken together, the luncheon and public lecture were tremendously valuable opportunities to interact with Professor Baptist. He was particularly generous with his time, as he spoke candidly with graduate students about his own work and that of students. He also took the time to sign numerous copies of the book. I would like to thank those individuals in the History Department for bringing Professor Baptist to campus and for coordinating these events.

A full house at Prof. Edward Baptist's lecture last week

A full house at Prof. Edward Baptist’s lecture last week

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I took from that day is the importance of historical methodology. Historians have to make important decisions as to which sources to utilize, interrogate, and include in our respective fields. These are important decisions and are not always easy or simple. From the seasoned scholar to the young graduate student, the sources we choose to use and whose perspective we include matters. I think The Half Has Never Been Told is a tremendous example of how historians can interrogate sources, sometimes familiar ones, and provide nuanced interpretations to old questions. The perspective from which Professor Baptist chose to write is a major reason why this book is so significant. Overall, The Half Has Never Been Told is a tremendously important study not only for historians but for society in general, as we are all living with the legacies of racial slavery.

[1] In essence, the Economist review egregiously charged Baptist with being too harsh on white slaveholders. Here is a link to a statement of apology by the Economist and it includes the initial review, http://www.economist.com/news/books/21615864-how-slaves-built-american-capitalism-blood-cotton

[2] See Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944). While Williams’s argument regarding the relationship between slavery and capitalism remains significant, his claim that slavery had become unprofitable has been emphatically refuted by a number of historians and in fact, The Half Has Never Been Told is a part of that historiography.

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