Historian Edward Baptist will present his new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 2, at Octavia Books (513 Octavia St.).
The Half Has Never Been Told is a meticulously researched, elegantly crafted work of historical reporting that illustrates the fundamental role of slavery in the creation of the American state. The book positions slavery at the forefront of our nation’s economic success and recognizes the crucial role played by African slaves in building a country in which it is still common for their ancestors to be treated as second-class citizens.
In the New York Times, Eric Foner writes:
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.
Not all reviews have met the book with such enthusiasm. The Economist ran an inflammatory review of the book in which the anonymous author wrote “Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.” After an uproar, The Economist retracted the review and apologized.
Historian William Makintosh theorized on his blog why The Half Has Never Been Told might have rubbed The Economist the wrong way:
Here’s my theory: among magazines, The Economist is perhaps the most articulate, erudite defender of the neoliberal capitalist order. They are too smart to waste their time as Laffer curve snake-oil salesmen or crude economic nationalists (cough cough, Wall Street Journal, cough cough), but nevertheless, the main commitment of their reporting and their commentary is to defend late modern global capitalism as an economic and moral good. Think Davos, not the Tea Party. And that’s why they don’t like Baptist’s book: it demonstrates unequivocally that modern capitalism was born in blood. Let me say that again: whatever else you might say about capitalism, it took on its characteristic modern forms of capital accumulation and labor “management” in the context of American slavery. For a group of journalists with a deep, largely unarticulated commitment to modern capitalism’s fundamental benevolence, this is an uncomfortable truth indeed.
Baptist responded to the Economist review, and its apologetic retraction, in The Guardian:
But the Economist didn’t apologize for dismissing what slaves said about slavery. That kind of arrogance remains part of a wider, more subtle pattern in how black testimony often gets treated – sometimes unknowingly – as less reliable than white. The Economist reviewer was saying that the key sources of my book, African Americans – black people – cannot be believed.