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The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

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Americans tend to cast slavery as a pre-modern institution—the nation’s original sin, perhaps, but isolated in time and divorced from America’s later success. But to do so robs the millions who suffered in bondage of their full legacy.

As historian Edward Baptist reveals in The Half Has Never Been Told, the expansion of slavery in the first eight decades after American independence drove the evolution and modernization of the United States. In the span of a single lifetime, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out tobacco plantations to a continental cotton empire, and the United States grew into a modern, industrial, and capitalist economy. Until the Civil War, Baptist explains, the most important American economic innovations were ways to make slavery ever more profitable. Through forced migration and torture, slave owners extracted continual increases in efficiency from enslaved African Americans. Thus the United States seized control of the world market for cotton, the key raw material of the Industrial Revolution, and became a wealthy nation with global influence.

Told through intimate slave narratives, plantation records, newspapers, and the words of politicians, entrepreneurs, and escaped slaves, The Half Has Never Been Told offers a radical new interpretation of American history. It forces readers to reckon with the violence at the root of American supremacy, but also with the survival and resistance that brought about slavery’s end—and created a culture that sustains America’s deepest dreams of freedom.

498 pages, Hardcover

First published September 21, 2013

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Edward E. Baptist

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 826 reviews
Profile Image for Tom.
167 reviews15 followers
October 5, 2014
I don't often publicly post reviews of the books I'm reading on Goodreads. But, for me, this was such an important book that has changed my way of thinking in one sense: I now believe, even 150 years after the American Civil War, that some form of national and international reparations are necessary to the victims of the international slave trade and slavery in the United States (and elsewhere).

I've read a lot as a lay person on the Civil War and Reconstruction era, but no book before has done such an insightful analysis of the economic impact of the slave and cotton trade in the United States and internationally. More than just the Southern enslavers and their Wall Street financiers, as I previously assumed, benefitted financially from this trade. The North built a diversified industrial economy based on the profits of this trade, and England and other European nations vastly expanded textile and other industries with the profits. The author, Edward Baptist, analyzes historical accounts and economic data to show the ways that new financial products used enslaved people as collateral and were sold to bondholders in this country and abroad to enrich investors worldwide. He rightly describes Southern plantations as forced labor camps, and shows how slaves were moved south and west to expand slavery internally in the United States at a time when the international slave trade had ended. He shows how torture was used to vastly increase production vastly beyond the increases achieved by innovation and industrialization in the North, despite being an intensively labor-based, inefficient system.

In other words, one of the primary reasons the United States became and is the world's leading economic power is because of the advantages it gained on the backs of slaves. (Other Western nations, too, vastly benefited from this system.)

From a review in the New York Times:
"Mr. Baptist’s work joins that of historians like Walter Johnson at Harvard (“River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom”) and Craig Steven Wilder at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (“Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities”). Taken together, their books, both from 2013, connected the dots among plantation labor, London bankers and Northeast factories, and the creation of Ivy League universities.

“Empire of Cotton: A Global History,” by Sven Beckert, a Harvard history professor, due out this year, looks at global capitalism through the lens of the history of cotton. Daina Ramey Berry, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, is writing a book on the monetary value of enslaved people from before conception (slaves were valued for their reproductive abilities) to after death.

In an interview, Mr. Johnson said “Half” had broken new ground in the way it explored the relationship between slave markets and capital markets. In particular, he said, Mr. Baptist shows how the Bank of the United States (in which federal funds were deposited) was lending money to slave traders. Planters would mortgage their slaves to raise money, and those mortgages were sold to investors. Mr. Johnson also cited Mr. Baptist’s argument that huge increases in cotton-picking over the course of the antebellum period were due almost entirely to violence against slaves. Historians have often attributed that increase to the emergence of new, easier-to-pick strains of cotton and the cotton gin, Mr. Johnson said.

Seth Rockman, a historian at Brown University, himself at work on a book about how New England industries manufactured plantation goods, said Mr. Baptist had advanced the story by connecting “the day-to-day violence of plantation labor to the largest macroeconomic questions of the West’s economic takeoff in the 19th century.”

I'd encourage anyone to read this important book and ponder its implications
Profile Image for Matt.
935 reviews28.6k followers
July 3, 2020
“We have seen the mere distinction of color, made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
- James Madison, speech at the Constitutional Convention, June 6, 1787

It is rather remarkable the degree to which slavery is footnoted, rationalized, and otherwise marginalized in American history. This is not to say that it’s ignored, because it’s not. Whole libraries have been devoted to the subject. Rather, it is isolated, as though it were a discrete event. Unless you take it upon yourself to learn more, the story of slavery as provided by our schools and our media is sanitized and compartmentalized. When slavery is taught in class, it’s given its own chapter, walled off from everything else. I’ve read entire volumes on the Civil War that hardly mention the “peculiar institution.”

That’s not just inappropriate, it’s inaccurate. Slavery is built into the American DNA; it is a poison in the bloodstream that cannot be separated from the body through which it runs. That’s tough to accept if you just want to read a triumphalist narrative without any ambiguous moral shading. Nevertheless, it is true, and no less a personate than James Madison recognized this. As an Enlightenment thinker, he struggled visibly to reconcile his profound ideals with his own ledger sheet, which contained actual human beings listed as property.

The Half Has Never Been Told recognizes slavery as a widespread disease that permeated almost every aspect of American history up to the Civil War. In and of itself, that is not a big deal, since most legitimate histories are unequivocal in their condemnation of slavery. The difference here is that Edward Baptist demonstrates this fact in a brutal and provocative manner. It not only tells you about slavery, it asks you to view it through the eyes of those who suffered the experience.

The first thing that should be said about The Half Has Never Been Told is that it’s about as subtle as a bat to the head. While deeply researched, it is written more as a polemic than a staid and objective history. It is meant to shake you up a bit.

One of the strange characteristics about our understanding of slavery is that even though we acknowledge it as “bad” or “wrong,” we have little idea of the depth or contours of that evil. It is one thing to know a factoid about slavery (such as George Washington owning 123 slaves at his death), and another thing entirely to explore what that means in graphic human terms. Too often, you hear something along the lines of slavery was bad, but… Baptist is here to cut that argument off at the knees.

The Half Has Never Been Told is not told as a strictly chronological narrative. Instead, Baptist takes as his inspiration a line from a Ralph Ellison essay: “On the moral level I propose we view the whole of American life as a drama enacted on the body of a Negro giant who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which and within the action unfolds.” Accordingly, Baptist names each chapter after a body part, and uses that part as a jumping off point for a thematic discussion about an aspect of slavery. The chapter “Feet,” for instance, is about the forced migrations of the interstate slave trade, as enslaved black men and women from states like Maryland and Virginia were sold to the cotton frontiers.

Baptist is not always successful with this approach. At times, the metaphor gets stretched pretty far, and Baptist is forced into contortions to make a subject fit beneath its heading.

The subtitle here is “Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.” As a rule of thumb, subtitles should not generally be taken too seriously. That is the case here. Baptist is not making a singular argument that slavery created American capitalism. Instead, broadly speaking, he wants to attack several major assumptions made about the institution. First, Baptist argues that slavery was not fundamentally different or separate from the modern economy. Rather, it played a huge role in American economic growth and expansion. Second, he disagrees with those who argue that slavery would have withered and died on its own, a view often propounded by those with anti-Lincoln, pro-Lost Cause beliefs. Instead, slavery at the time of the Civil War was still expanding, and still profitable, meaning it was unlikely to disappear without some catalyst. Finally, Baptist wants to move beyond seeing slavery simply in terms of a denial of liberal rights (which it is), but as a system of deliberate, systematized violence.

Baptist takes, as the title suggests, a bottom-up approach. He reframes traditional histories – which tend to make blacks into supporting actors in their own drama – by starting with the slave perspective. He is very interested in the experiential aspect, and follows – where he can – the paths of individual slaves such as Charles Ball, who in 1805 was sold away from a Maryland plantation and set marching in a coffle to South Carolina.

Baptist is excellent at detailing the daily life of a field hand picking cotton. He uses a wire brush to scrub away notions of a bucolic life of smiling, singing work gangs toiling willingly for a benevolent master. Instead, he details how threats and the lash squeezed every last ounce of blood-efficiency out of the men and women in the fields. His writing is pungent and pointed, his set pieces evocative. He uses every scrap of source material at hand to fill in the pieces of his story.

Here, though, it is worth mentioning that he takes some liberties. Often, when following an individual, there are gaps in the record. In certain instances, he relies on other, unrelated sources to fill in the background. I don’t mind this, but it did bother me that Baptist wasn’t up front about this in the text. It was something I pieced together as I read the endnotes. More worrying, there were moments when Baptist appeared to use a hypothetical slave to illustrate a point. Again, I am fine with this technique if it is used with proper safeguards. In this book, however, Baptist doesn’t give a disclaimer. This, of course, leaves him open to criticism, no small thing in book that has already courted controversy.

Baptist’s prose is both beautiful and blistering. He swears at you, liberally. He literally changes the vocabulary of slave studies. The word plantation barely exists. Instead, Baptist uses the jarring (and accurate) descriptor, slave labor camp. This new lexicon takes a bit of getting used to. In the beginning, I was a little put off by the tone of smug self-righteousness. No one likes being lectured, and there were moments when this felt like one. Either this decreased or I got used to it, because by the end, I was fully onboard with Baptist’s style.

(This is just an impression, but Baptist seemed to loosen up as the book progressed. In the early going, he questioned the motives of just about everyone, even such men as John Quincy Adams, a longtime opponent of slavery who helped argue the case of La Amistad before the U.S. Supreme Court. This everyone is terrible motif wears thin very quickly. Yet Baptist softens this position, to such a point that he uses much of the final chapter on a full-throated defense of Abraham Lincoln. Towards the end, he even allows a bit of dry humor to shine through).

Pacing is definitely an issue I struggled with. The Half Has Never Been Told weighs in at 420 pages of text. Certainly not a monster length. Nevertheless, it took me awhile to get through. Partly this was due to the organization of the material, or lack thereof. By using themes and experiences as his book’s spine, Baptist has to jump forward and backwards in time. It is sometimes hard to know exactly where he is going with a story thread. Digressions tend to lead to other digressions that lead to yet other digressions.

As mentioned above, Baptist deliberately places white politics and white politicians on the backburner, in favor of placing the stories of the enslaved front and center. With that said, he is excellent in his handling of this material. He marvelously distills the essence of various incidents such as Andrew Jackson’s war on the Bank of the United States, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. His disquisition on 19th century American economics is enlightening, and told in a way that is both sophisticated and comprehensible. For instance, his discussion on the relationship between political elites, the banks, and state legislatures taught me more about the creation of a white underclass than the whole of Nancy Isenberg’s otherwise-laudable White Trash. Taxpayers bailing out rich folk, you see, is an old U.S. tradition.

Despite the claims of the publisher, I didn't find anything radical or novel in terms of information. The tentacle-like reach of slavery into the American economy has been covered before. So has the cruelty of slavers. Indeed, a lot of this material can be found in Walter Johnson’s equally-brilliant River of Dark Dreams (both share the same pointed language, and the centering of black experiences).

What sets The Half Has Never Been Told apart is its confrontational presentation. Baptist’s rhetoric is probably not going to change anyone’s mind, and might actually harden the positions of those still fighting for the Lost Cause. More than that, his linguistic flourishes can smack of elitist self-congratulation, while also disrupting the narrative by insisting upon itself. Yet it certainly is an attention-grabber, and maybe that’s the way that slavery needs to be presented to younger generations. Maybe calling a plantation a slave labor camp is no big deal. But by the time I finished, it occurred to me that it might be.
Profile Image for MrsJoseph *grouchy*.
1,011 reviews83 followers
Want to read
September 10, 2014
There was recently a huge controversy regarding a review of this book - the review - by The Economist - was very dismissive of slavery which prompted an article.

I have copied a portion of the rebuttal article below, which is what prompted my interest in this book.

The Economist's review of my book reveals how white people still refuse to believe black people about being black by Edward E. Baptist

In 1845, Frederick Douglass, a fugitive from slavery, joined dozens of white passengers on the British ship Cambria in New York harbor. Somewhere out on the Atlantic, the other passengers discovered that the African American activist in their midst had just published a sensational autobiography. They convinced the captain to host a sort of salon, wherein Douglass would tell them his life story. But when the young black man stood up to talk, a group of Southern slaveholders, on their way to Britain for vacation or business or both, confronted him. Every time Douglass said something about what it was like to be enslaved, they shouted him down: Lies! Lies! Slaves were treated well, insisted the slaveholders; after all, they said, the masters remained financially interested in the health of their human “property”.

In a review of my book about slavery and capitalism published the other day, the Economist treated it the same way that the tourist enslavers treated the testimony of Frederick Douglass on that slave-era ship long ago. In doing so, the Economist revealed just how many white people remain reluctant to believe black people about the experience of being black.

Apparently, I shouldn’t have focused my historical research on how some people lived off the uncompensated sweat of their “valuable property”, the magazine’s anonymous reviewer wrote: “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” Worst of all, this book reviewer went on, I had, by putting the testimony of “a few slaves” at the heart of book about slavery, somehow abandoned “objectivity”’ for “advocacy”.

Of course, the reviewer wasn’t treating me like the slaveowners on the Cambria treated Douglass. They threatened to kidnap him and send him to New Orleans – the largest slave market in North America. No, a single nameless reviewer from a single stodgy magazine couldn’t do much to me.

Still, the review enraged a significant number of people. Within a few hours, Twitterstorians scorched the earth of the magazine’s comments page with radioactive reviews of the review. The parodies and viral disdain forced the Economist to retract the review and issue a partial apology.

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.
Profile Image for Thomas Ray.
1,090 reviews347 followers
August 5, 2019
An important and eye-opening book. We learn:

Slavery was brutal. People were tortured to force them to pick cotton superhumanly fast and efficiently.

Slavery was far more efficient and effective than free labor.

Cotton was *the* commodity of the Industrial Revolution. The American economy, South and North, and that of Britain and Europe, rested on cheap cotton produced by enslaved people.

It was slavery that lifted nonenslaved people out of the Malthusian trap.

War truly was necessary to end slavery. It would not have ended on its own. Powerful people never give up power voluntarily. Southern enslavers controlled U.S. government policy from colonial times until the 1850s. The minute they saw they weren't going to get all their demands met, they seceded: *before* Lincoln was inaugurated.

Brilliantly well-written.

And, slavery in all but name is still the foundation of the world economy, and is getting worse, in the U.S. and elsewhere. Only during 4 decades after WWII in the U.S. did government enforce rules allowing a middle-class society to exist. Since the late 1970s, we've been galloping back to the early middle ages: a few superpowerful superrich, the rest workers in destitution.


p. 160: "Here is something that is no accident: the most popular and creative genres of music in the history of the modern world emerged from the corners of the United States where enslavers' power battered enslaved African Americans over and over again."

p. 163: "being a voice recognized by one's peers gave one a reason to live."

p. 166: "Oh Suzanna" is "the story of an enslaved man trying to find his true love, who'd been taken to New Orleans"

p. 195: David Walker, An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, Sept. 1829

p. 236: Bryan Edwards, Jamaican planter, history of the West Indies, 1790s.

p. 371: Joshua Giddings and Salmon Chase, "Appeal of the Independent Democrats," 1854: "labor cannot be respected when any class of laborers is held in bondage."


(An injury to Juan is an injury to Al!)
Profile Image for Laura Jordan.
387 reviews11 followers
October 23, 2014
God damn.

Describing the execution of Amar, one of the central figures of the 1811 slave revolt in the Lower Mississippi Valley:

"The militia stood Amar up in the yard at the Widow Charbonnet's place. Herded into an audience, the men, women, and children who knew him had to watch. The white men took aim and made Amar's body dance with a volley of lead. In his head, as he slumped and fell, were 50 billion neurons. They held the secrets of turning sugarcane sap into white crystals, they held the memories that made him smile at just such a joke, they held the cunning with which he sought out his lover's desires, they held the names of all the people who stood circled in silence. His cheek pressed on earth that his own feet had helped to pack, his mouth slackly coursing out blood, as gunpowder smoke gathered in a cloud and blew east. A white officer's sideways boots strode toward him. The dancing electrons in Amar's brain caressed forty-five years of words, pictures, feelings, the village imam with his old book, his mother calling him from the door of a mud-brick house. The memory of a slave ship or maybe more than one, the rumor of Saint-Domingue -- all this was there, was him -- but his cells were cascading into sudden death. One last involuntary wheeze as a soldier raised an axe sharpened by recent practice and severed Amar's head from his body" (65).

So after finishing this book (and after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's article in the Atlantic this summer), I'm completely convinced of the need for the American government to start issuing reparations. The immensity of the crime perpetuated against African-Americans -- both under slavery and Jim Crow -- is nothing short of astonishing. Baptist's work really has illuminated a (forgive the pun) white-washed historical truth: that without the forced abduction, migration, and labor of millions of people, this country would have emerged in the 19th century as little more than a post-colonial backwater.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,099 followers
July 24, 2020
For those of you who have heard, and hated, the truism: "History is written by the victors," this is the perfect book for you.

Make no mistake, the narrative distills the very worst (and confirmed) aspects of the institution of slavery.

I've read a number of non-fiction and many more fictionalized accounts of American history -- mostly of the south -- and I've seen it all. Most of them whitewash (quite) or footnote the very real and huge aspect all these black bodies and the full extent to which ALL of America was built upon them. "A deplorable institution that would have gone away on its own, given time." (Sorry. Bullshit.)

What Edward E. Baptist accomplishes is much more impressive than the grand majority of the histories I've read. A lot of them will go into the economic details, the conditions of the folk living there, the social, the outside driving forces. And he does, too. But Baptist does something rather spectacular in this book.

Word choice.

Let's not call plantations by such a romantic term. They are, and always have been, SLAVE LABOR CAMPS. Millions of families were broken apart, sold as commodities (IN BOTH THE NORTH AND THE SOUTH STOCK MARKET). Most were forced into constantly demeaning migrant laborer positions turning them into literal machines meant only to pick cotton and get the quota, every day, or get whipped. And women? You have no idea how many were sold merely for sex. And again, not just the South, but also the North.

All those romantic traditions of the South are whitewash. Literally. What about the Louisiana Purchase? We get Andrew Jackson's fight with the banks, the failure to regain control, and the debt-cycle spree of speculation FOR slaveowners to expand their territory, exploit or wipe out the American Indians to take their land and plant cotton. We have the entire push to build the first intercontinental railroad FUNDED by the slave trade and the immense earnings of cotton. One-fifth of the entire Gross National Product was the slave trade, and make no mistake, the North profited from it all.

It was like the Oil boom a hundred years later. Exploit, exploit, exploit. Have a bad year? That's what hedge funds are for. Mortgage your wealth on the number of heads you own. Want political power? You get to vote based on how many heads you own and how much wealth you bring to the Congress and the Senate.

Let's put it this way: After Lincoln was assassinated, his Vice President did everything he could to reverse all the decisions that had been made in favor of the blacks. Why? The entire economic system revolved around the exploitation of blacks. Jim Crow and the debt system is just a thinly veiled disguise for the MUCH more efficient system of slavery. Keep the fear high, keep them working hard, at a loss, and make SURE that the backbone of your wealth never reaches a position of redress.

Sound familiar?

This is a book for everyone. Or it ought to be. We must face our history dead-on or we will not appreciate just how much has carried over today. We all need to open our eyes.

Narratives truly do make a difference. If you spend all your time defending or deflecting the fallout of a deeply troublesome system, then maybe you ought to step back and see it for what it really is.

Word choices matter. Stop romanticizing the South. There are always good people anywhere, but let's face it... any system that does this to its own people, who systematically tortures its own citizens whether in the open or under horribly unfair practices, is NOT a good system.

If we are unable to build wealth together... ALL of us together... then I have a good term for us: We're Assholes.

71 reviews
January 21, 2015
This is the review I'd like to have read before buying this book. If I had read it, I probably wouldn't have bought it.

1) The book is "well written" in that its author has a strong command of prose, perhaps too strong for his own good. At many points in the book, which sometimes reads far more like a novel than a non-fiction piece, he waxes eloquent about the 'seed which with latent potential bursts up through the sweat soaked soil to break upon the new morning in foreign white crests etc. etc.' While that was a paraphrasing of the author's words it is not far off. The author often goes on for several paragraphs in poetic verse about the difficulties of slavery or the beauty of some natural process or anything else that comes up. While this is not a terrible thing, and there is a time and a place for it, I felt the author was far too free with his verse when he should have been conveying facts. Many times I found myself rolling my eyes and saying: "yeah yeah I get it, now let’s get back to the subject matter again."

2) He treats his subject material as extremely malleable when it comes to "what actually happened." Due to his tendency to wax eloquent as mentioned in (1) he often prefers to 'tell stories' rather than relate facts. This leads to him picking up the trail of a few actual slaves and conveying what happened to them personally. Unfortunately the accounts are imperfect and incomplete and so he obligingly fills in the gaps. However, he does so seamlessly and as a reader I often found myself unsure of what can be said to have actually happened and what was mere fantasy placed in prose to connect the dots. This is aggravated by his penchant to tell hypothetical stories which are completely made up and filled with a plethora of "perhaps" as he recounts the “typical day in the life of” moments of a hypothetical 'average' slave man or woman. As above, none of this is wrong or entirely damning, it merely detracts from the subject matter and puts the reader in the difficult position of having to evaluate each new piece of information to parse whether it is reliable or merely another questionable anecdote meant to engage the reader's emotions.

3) The title is largely misleading. I bought this book expecting a text on: "Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism." What I found was instead: "Another Book of Slave Stories and a Text on how Slavery was Worse than You Thought." Once more, I'm not saying that it wasn't a good book to write, but I found myself increasingly frustrated as the author made almost no attempt whatsoever to connect slavery to "The Making of American Capitalism" outside of saying “people benefited from having slave labor and therefore made money.” That is true, but hardly revolutionary. One chapter discussed the creation of fiat money, the spread of credit, and other significant economic events but completely stopped discussing slavery for the duration of the chapter except for occasionally mentioning "and then people used credit/paper money to buy slaves" (just as they of course did to buy literally everything else). The rest of the book discusses slavery and it's horrors in great detail, but makes no attempt to discuss economics even in passing. Again, although this doesn't mean the book is necessarily a poor one it does mean that it is other than what it appears to be.
That is what I would have most wanted to know before buying it.

In short. The book was 'well written' and even informative, but overly prosaic and told a far different story than what the subtitle seems to claim. While I do not regret reading it and did learn from some of the chapters; had I known what it was before buying it, I would likely have purchased something else. The text is heavy on story, heavy on emotion, heavy on prose, somewhat lighter on facts, and very light on economics or "The Making of American Capitalism."

I think there are probably people out there who would really enjoy this book for what it is. I, and presumably others, was merely looking for something quite different when I bought it.
Profile Image for Ross Blocher.
431 reviews1,388 followers
July 2, 2020
In his expansive The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Cornell historian Edward E. Baptist fleshes out the incomplete story of slavery most of us received in school. In the process, he punctures many myths that have sought to downplay slavery's horrors or detach slavery from America's DNA. Baptist incorporates the tales of former slaves, many (such as Solomon Clay and Lorenzo Ivy's) recorded as part of the Works Progress Administration's project to collect stories starting in the 1930s. The twice-escaped Charles Ball, who who published his own memoir in 1837, appears regularly as a thread to connect many of the book's themes. The individual stories humanize and illustrate larger societal and economic trends as the account transitions to the broader scope of trade, banking, territorial acquisition, industrial progress, legal precedent, military movement, international relations and other forces animating America's growth. While it might read more like a textbook than narrative, think of it as the readable and essential textbook we all should have had in school. Baptist's aim is to show that slavery-backed cotton production was not merely one industry among many that buoyed the new nation's fledgling economy, but the backbone that lifted both South and North to the international stage as an economic and military force.

The book's chapters are thematically broken into parts of the body, inspired by an illustration that author Ralph Ellison gave of American history as the story of a giant black man tied down, like Gulliver. The titles give a sense of the shifts in focus: Feet, Head, The Right Hand, The Left Hand, Tongues, Breath, Seed, Blood, Backs, Arms and an afterword: The Corpse.

So much is covered that I would be hard-pressed to give an orderly or comprehensive summary. Instead, I'll recount some salient notes. America's participation in the international slave trade, originating in 1619, was already a point of discomfort for the founders. They realized on some level that their proclamations of liberty ignored a very large blind spot, but couldn't find the courage or consensus to face it. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hancock and Franklin were all slave owners. By the end of the Revolution, the slave population was already 800,000, or roughly a sixth of the population. The first concession was in 1807, when importation of new slaves from Africa was halted, but at that point the population was self-sustaining, growing to some 2 million by 1830 and 4 million by 1860. Southern politicians held great power in Congress, ensuring that children were automatically born as slaves, and securing other legislative wins such as the Three-Fifths Compromise (each slave counting as 60% of a person for representation and taxation) as well as retention of "ownership" rights in new territories (cf. the horrific Dred Scott decision). In the late 1700s, cotton eclipsed tobacco as the country's cash crop, and cotton's role can hardly be overstated. We're all familiar with the cotton gin, which made it easy to process an separate cotton fibers for textiles. The price of cotton dropped below that of wool, and we had an export for Britain and the world to pump cash into the American economy. However, there was no way to automate the picking of the cotton itself (harvesting machines would not appear until the 1930s). Enter slave labor. Charles Ball recounted that in 1805 he was able to pick 50 pounds in a day (can you imagine?). With characteristic American "innovation" and efficiency, slave owners eventually extracted up to 150 and even 200 pounds per person per day by demanding increased quotas, applying the standards of able-bodied men to all pickers (even young children), modifying diets (a heavy breakfast followed by just enough to sustain work into the night), and applying constant supervision with the threat and actuality of violence. The mill workers of 1860 generated 5-6 times more than their counterparts of 1820. One punctured myth is that slave labor was somehow inefficient when compared to paid labor. While this falsehood might have been well-intentioned propaganda (to propose an economic case for a move away from slavery), it does not give credit to the immense stolen value of the slave's work. In 1836, roughly at the peak of the cotton trade, $77 million of the US's $1.5 billion economy was from cotton, the largest sector after subsistence agriculture. Additionally, the cotton trade fed into so many other activities that roughly $600 million of the economy was derived directly or indirectly from cotton and the credit associated with it. The north may have been free, but it also profited greatly from slavery.

Another economy revolved around enslaved people themselves. Baptist shares the growing, shrinking and shifting prices of slaves in response to various forces of supply and demand. Many slavers would game the system as one might trade stocks or flip houses, buying low and selling high. Territorial expansion often drove these price differentials, and families were ripped apart indiscriminately in the process of selling someone south, or west. So many of the stories express the anguish of waking up to find your child, mother or father was suddenly gone... without the hope of ever finding them again. Slaves purchased on the Atlantic coast might be placed on a boat to sail around Florida and westward, or marched in groups of 15-20 for weeks on end to reach a new market over 700 miles away. All the while, they were bound by collar, hand and foot. Upon reaching their destination, they'd be kept in a jail and given food and rest for a few days to improve their appearance. Baptist shares descriptions from advertisements and auctions: a "likely" young man might sell for $600 to $2,000 depending on the time and place (five-figure sums when converted to today's money). Men were described by their work capacity and physical fitness, and women typically by their attractiveness. The "Seed" chapter details the horrific ways in which sexual abuse was an assumed benefit of slave ownership, and often figured into the price. Women were groped and humiliated publicly while on the auction block. These people were seen as commodities that could be bought with credit as an investment, or sold to finance a vacation or tuition, or when times were tough. A runaway slave sparked the outrage of lost investment: and yet, many slave owners themselves would renege on their commitments, moving quickly to a new territory to avoid paying slave-backed mortgages or debts. There was a term for it: GTT, or "Gone to Texas", a way to start a new life in a territory then outside the US. It was only when slaves and abolitionists started using the language of theft that they finally started to make some traction. Slaves were people who had been stolen. Their value did not belong to the "owners"; it was stolen goods. This was an important conceptual shift.

Other myths punctured include the absurd notion that enslaved Americans never fought back, or that they were somehow content in their roles. Escape attempts and revolts were common, and a system of enforcement, intimidation, excessive violence and asymmetrical warfare served as a deterrent to those who might upset the status quo. Attempts of escape, group assemblies, displays of independence, or even attempts at self-education were met with whipping, shackling, hanging, burning, mutilation, branding, and jailing. Baptist has compiled, with collaborators, a collection of thousands of "runaway ads" that demonstrate just how common it was for slaves to seek freedom, despite the life-threatening disincentives.

The book's primary account ends right as the Civil War kicks off, though the afterword broadly covers the period between 1861 and 1937. I remember, at some point in my youth, a teacher telling me that the Civil War was fought over states' rights and that slavery was an relatively minor consideration. This gnawed at the back of my head for years as one of those things that didn't jibe with everything else I knew. I wish I could remember who it was who said that, because it is one of the central sanitizing lies whose echoes still bounce in 2020 as we debate the presence of Confederate flags and monuments. The Half Has Never Been Told demonstrates just how central slavery was to the political debates leading up to the war, and how firmly it was written into the states' secession proclamations. The book also makes it clear how American capitalism was catalyzed and ignited by millions of people whose capital-generating labors were directly funneled to others. When slavery finally came to an end, our nation found new and ever-innovative ways to extend those inequalities and ensure that this stolen capital would never return to the descendants of those who rightly earned it. A dollar saved compounds over time, but so does a dollar stolen, and the effects of this theft and violence resonate painfully into our present. The Half Has Never Been Told is an important look at America's original sin and its ongoing legacy. I listened to it as an audio book, which is a good (if challenging) way to spend 20 hours.
Profile Image for Steve.
312 reviews3 followers
August 30, 2021
The perfect rebuttal to the often promoted myth that the United States was founded on 'freedom' and 'democracy'.

To the contrary this superbly sourced study lays bare the disturbing and frankly horrifying reality of American history during the first few centuries where an almost sociopathic "winner take all" capitalism ruled without any conscience or regulation.

The wealthiest and often most ruthless men were inevitably the political 'leaders' of the time and included among these most vicious of 'leaders' are those same Founding Fathers that many right-wing Americans seem to hold so dear. What can be said of the 'values' of such 'leaders' that they placed a premium on greed, violence, oppression combined with apathy towards the suffering of their fellow humans as central to the American ethos?

When they weren't engaging in a perverse form of Utopian Genocide against the indigenous native population, they were funneling African Slaves into the territories they conquered to be exploited and then discarded in the mad quest to produce astronomical volumes of the most valuable global commodity of the time, cotton.

I'll give the author credit for incorporating personal anecdotes of individual slaves into what is otherwise a quite dry yet comprehensive, erudite and extremely well-sourced study of slavery's impact on the creation, development and success of the US Economy.

Somehow reading about 150,000 slaves imported into Mississippi cannot convey the same anguish that a personal account of a man being sold to a slave owner in another state without even being allowed a farewell to his wife and children does - just called in from the field, shackled and sold down the river without being afforded the human decency of a wave good-bye to his children.

Slavery is EVIL - and while is is far from unique to any culture, nobody did it better (or profited more) then The United States of America who continues to reap the benefits to this day, just as the descendants of those they oppressed continue to suffer injustices.
Profile Image for Becky.
1,378 reviews1,651 followers
January 20, 2019
If you know me, or have followed my reviews for a while, you'll know that I grew up and went to school in the south, specifically northern Florida (aka southern Georgia), and by now you should already have guessed that this meant that our State Sponsored Education regarding slavery, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement (plus all other subjects) left a bit to be desired. My family was military, so we were first generation Floridians with no southern heritage, and thankfully my mom has always been a very open-minded, intelligent, and fair person who, I like to think, passed on those traits to me. My point is that I grew up hearing the skewed "states' rights" reasoning for the Civil War, but on some level always knew it was bullshit. This book outlines the reasons why it is bullshit, and does it brilliantly.

I honestly don't even know how to review this book. It covers so much ground, offers so much information and context and historical detail that I absolutely know that it would be impossible for me to adequately review it and do it justice. So, as per usual, I'm going to just wing it, and see what happens.

Before we start, I think it should go without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway) that this review is likely to get political, which is not my favorite thing to do online. But, it's not really possible to avoid with this review. If you don't agree with my opinions or views, great, you're entitled to disagree with me. You are not entitled to my review space to say so. Write your own review if you want your perspective out there in the world. Discussion about the book is fine, but trolling or general shittiness will be deleted. OK - moving on!

First of all, I should say that I listened to the audio of this book, which I highly recommend. The way this book is laid out, with the chapters being named for parts of the body so often abused and exploited by slavery, and each of those chapters including stories of real people affected by the events of the chapter, listening to it on audio brought a personal quality to it, adding depth and meaning and allowing me to empathize and really get what was being conveyed. The structure, and the inclusion of individual slave stories, in addition to the reader bringing it all to life, made what could have otherwise been a very informative but probably boring book into something truly powerful and important, because while the historical economics lesson was interesting, breaking it up a bit and showing how it actually affected real people made all the difference.

This isn't just a history of slavery in the US, or even just of how slavery helped shape capitalism here, it's a history of exploitation, of class warfare, of political power and manipulation, of greed, and of the unchecked cruelty that speculation and profiteering off of the backs of disenfranchised people encouraged. It goes into details that are usually not mentioned in history classes or other slavery-related materials. Too often, books and movies kind of glamorize slavery, as though it was a cushy gig for loving masters who really just need a few cheap pairs of hands to help around the house and farm. Gone With The Wind is one of these, even though as a story, I do love it still. (I am human and complex and can appreciate a thing while also recognizing its flaws and criticizing it for them.)

There were points in this book that I had to take breaks from listening to it, because it got to be too heartbreaking, listening to these stories of actual people enduring the trials of slavery. Saying it like that seems so blasé, as though slavery was just an annoyance, like having to work retail or babysit your co-worker's dog while they are on the vacation you haven't taken in 10 years. But at the risk of stating the super fucking obvious, slavery was goddamn horrific, and way too many people fought way too damn hard to try to make it an unending core principle of the United States. This book digs deep to show the many ways in which it was literally the fucking worst institution in our history, and has stats and documents to back it up - there are 64 pages of notes at the end of the book for reference.

This book goes into the many facets and actual day to day realities of life as a slave, and shows the escalation of violence necessary to keep the capitalistic rate of growth ever increasing. From forced migrations (being sold south to Georgia), to being split from husbands or wives, children, or in many cases, literally everyone you've ever known, to being raped, beaten, mauled by dogs, or outright killed for disobedience or failure to meet quotas... it was brutal. Incredibly, soul-crushingly brutal to listen to stories of people being treated in the most horrific ways man can think of, and it's just... accepted by society because the victims happen to look different, and were thought of as chattel, property, not actual people.

This book outlines the rates of production of cotton, and how it was higher during the most violent years of slavery than ever, and shows that slavery as an institution would never have stopped on its own. It was too profitable. When a single slave has a quota of hundreds of pounds of cotton to pick every day, and the threat of being brutally whipped by the overseer for being short, or even just late to weigh in, you cannot tell me that paid labor would be more efficient than terrified forced laborers. It was only by fear and force and complete disenfranchisement that the system kept growing and producing ever more cotton.

It also shows how, but for some very providential key moments and decisions in history, those people would have won. Considering how bad it has been for black people in this country since then, you know, now that "racism is over", I can't even begin to imagine how bad it would be if that progress (little as it is) had never been made. The way that black people are viewed, as angry, as wild, as dangerous, as just plain bad, all has its roots in the ways that white people justified owning and brutally exploiting them (they aren't really people), and then why they justified why they HAVE to own and brutally exploit them, because you don't want angry, wild, dangerous, bad BLACK people to just be FREE to do as they like, DO YOU?

Utterly disgusting. It was all just fear-mongering so that slave owners could continue to get rich off of the forced labor of other, powerless people. So much of this book made me angry and ashamed. So much of it was like watching the attitudes and dog whistles we see from the current administration and the creatures that have been emboldened by it to crawl out from under their dung heaps, only there was no Twitter back then, and the dog whistles were just straight up regular accepted attitudes and speech. And to be fair, racism isn't this administration's invention, obviously. It has never gone away, it just got more subtle, and changed and adapted with the times and accepted behavior.

It was kind of shocking just how many political parallels there were to current day. For instance, threats and actual violence were common among members of Congress back then. Now we have a Congressman from Montana who won his election after bodyslamming a reporter, and the president praising him for it. Not to mention violent protests and rallies.

Black people were demonized as dangerous and if they were freed, they'd overrun the country and rape and kill white citizens, or worse, want to BE citizens(!). Besides the obvious racism toward black people that still exists, Trump uses very similar wording (drug dealers, criminals, rapists, animals) to describe Mexican people and demonize refugees and asylum seekers as evidence that we need a wall. (We don't.)

White men bought and sold "fancy girls" - young slave women, usually mulatto or light skinned, who were bought and sold into forced prostitution specifically because they were attractive and white men loved to rape them. Also, James Henry Hammond, who loved to rape his slaves, also molested his four white nieces, ruining their lives, yet was still elected to Congress. Modern parallels - we have plenty to choose from! A "man" elected to the Oval Office who has cheated on 3 wives, talks about his own daughter as though he wants her to be #4, and proudly bragged of sexual assaults. A Supreme Court Judge was confirmed after being accused of sexual assaults. We had a dead pimp elected to Congress in Nevada. Also, Roy Moore.

Those are just a few off the top of my head. Times sure have changed, huh?

Anyway, this book was a rollercoaster ride. Not in the traditional sense of a book being nonstop excitement and twists and turns, but because even though I knew the general arc of the story before I started reading, this book adds such a depth of information and nuance that it really completely changed my understanding of the story, and the country, I thought I knew.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. It should be required reading.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,650 followers
May 22, 2016
This book is so beautifully written and so eye-opening. I think it should be read in tandem with Empire of Cotton to understand how the roots of democracy, capitalism, and slavery were intertwined in uncomfortable and long-lasting ways. We're still living with the great sin of slavery so we might as well lear all we can.
Profile Image for B. P. Rinehart.
747 reviews256 followers
August 24, 2019
"It has been said that the Civil War was 'unnecessary' because slavery was already destined to end, probably within a few decades after the 1860 election. Yet this is mere dogma. The evidence points in the opposite directions. Slavery yielded ever more efficient production, in contrast to the free labor that tried (and failed) to compete with it, and the free labor that succeeded it. If slave labor in cotton had ever hit a wall of ultimate possibility, enslavers could have found new commodities. Southern enslavers had adapted slavery before, with incredibly profitable results. Forced labor that is slavery in everything but name remained tremendously important to the world economy well into the twenty-first century. And the lessons that enslavers learned about turning the left hand to the service of the right, forcing ordinary people to reveal their secrets so that those secrets could be commodified, played out in unsteady echoes that we have called by many names (scientific management, the stretch-out, management studies) and heard in many places. Though these were not slavery, they are one more way in which the human world still suffers without knowing it from the crimes done to Rachel and William and Charles Ball and Lucy Thurston; mourns for them unknowing, even as we live on the gains that were stolen from them."

This is the United Nations International Decade of People of African Descent . Here is a preface document that is relevant to this review: http://ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/...

Starting from the heart and ending with a full corpse, this book is a revolutionary, but very familiar (depending on what you already knew) look at how the United States went from laughably broke at the end of the American Revolution to being the 19th century version of Saudi Arabia in terms of world-supplying resource. Ed Baptist quotes from Ralph Ellison's Shadow and Act that American history was a drama played on the body of a "Negro giant." He takes this as the theme of the book and looks at how the discovery of how easily cotton could be grown provided the key jewel in the crown of the Industrial Revolution. Baptist looks at enslavers ever growing quest for both making the enslaved pick more cotton and obtaining more land for them to be transported to. He also looks at attempts by the enslaved to resist (until that fails) and simply survive, by any small measure, the process.

Baptist's labor in this book is stunning. He lays any type of pleasantry or "respectability" language aside and gives you the very cold, harsh, brutal truth of what happened between the 1780s and 1860. This book gives an amazing amount of respect and dignity to the people who were, in their words, always being "stolen" and destroyed by enslavers. This book's authenticity moved me in a profound way and really made me feel what people like Lorenzo Ivy, Charles Ball (who is a key character in this book), Rachel, Ben, Amar and other enslaved people whose stories are examined in this book. The examination of the impact that forced migration south and west had on Africans turning into African-Americans in the process (as well as their culture and religion that survives to this day in modern African-American, and really Western, culture). The use of both the primary sources of the oppressed and oppressors was very powerful.

The economics thread of this book (this is an "economic history") really enlightened me. Though I think most African-Americans would have guessed that American slavery built American capitalism, I was surprised at how much it also contributed to Europe's Industrial Revolution, in particular Great Britain. Essentially, blood-soaked cotton was turning Great Britain into the world power that would never see nighttime. As much as the UK loves to mouth-off about banning the slave trade and slavery itself before the rest of the Western world, it was British entrepreneurs, stock brokers, and government officials invested in cotton before the Panic of 1837 and enslaved people directly afterwards, so much for that. The fact that Monaco was still trying to get the state of Mississippi to pay its debts in the 1930s was amazing.

I hope this book gets taught not just as a history book, but as an economics book. This book lays bare the fact that slavery's economic mission...was a rousing success. The numbers do not lie: setting a minimum number that a person had to meet and beating them severely when they did not reach that number while raising that number every time it was met-for 80 years-can turn you from a third world country to a first world country in under a century if you do it on a industrial scale (and never pay the people you beat and also raping them, lots of rape). This is one of those sad, cynical facts about the nature of the world (just look at any 20th century genocide, it usually does what it sets out to do). The after-effects of 250 years of degradation and depravity go un-punished and in-fact, as recent years have shown, can be used to effectively disposes the decedents of enslaved people in the United States (I remind you that Mike Brown of Ferguson is buried just across town from Dred Scott). Please read this book! It is one of the best history/economic texts I have read in some time.

"The militia stood Amar up in the yard at the Widow Charbonnet's place. Herded into an audience, the men, women, and children who knew him had to watch. The white men took aim and made Amar's body dance with a volley of lead. In his head, as he slumped and fell, were 50 billion neurons. They held the secrets of turning sugarcane sap into white crystals, they held the memories that made him smile at just such a joke, they held the cunning with which he sought out his lover's desires, they held the names of all the people who stood circled in silence. His cheek pressed on earth that his own feet had helped to pack, his mouth slackly coursing out blood, as gunpowder smoke gathered in a cloud and blew east. A white officer's sideways boots strode toward him. The dancing electrons in Amar's brain caressed forty-five years of words, pictures, feelings, the village imam with his old book, his mother calling him from the door of a mud-brick house. The memory of a slave ship or maybe more than one, the rumor of Saint-Domingue -- all this was there, was him -- but his cells were cascading into sudden death. One last involuntary wheeze as a soldier raised an axe sharpened by recent practice and severed Amar's head from his body"
Profile Image for mis.
295 reviews30 followers
February 26, 2015
this book is excellent, and it's been really important for me, changing the way i think about u.s. history, and the history of capitalism for that matter.

there are a lot of things in here that i either had no idea about or got totally obscured by the way that u.s. history was taught to me -- mortgages were taken out on slaves, southern slavery was closely connected to northern & european industrialization, westward expansion went hand in hand with this enormous increase in cotton production. i realize that u.s. slavery was so much more complex and brutal and dynamic than the version i learned about in history classes (always set off to the side in its own chapter, as if it can be plucked out of a more respectable u.s. history) especially as enslavers and their allies shifted their focus westward.

i like reading books like this because it's as though this whole hidden history is revealed, and all the over-simplified, white-washed crap i've been fed is upended. there is a certain satisfaction in that, but it's tough, too. there's something a little crazy in the way that huge myths about u.s. history go unchallenged and many people's stories are silenced. it makes you start thinking about the stories we tell ourselves about what is happening in the world right now... and it makes me regret the ways that i am failing to see through the shit...

anyways. i highly recommend this one.
Profile Image for Robert Owen.
76 reviews20 followers
September 20, 2014
In “The Half Has Never Been Told” Edward E. Baptist explores the engines of American economic growth during the first half of 19th century, and the consequences that growth had on American slavery and its victims. What makes this book unique…..and outstanding….is the thoroughness with which Baptist explains the daisy-chain of economic motivations that led to the expansion of slavery from Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina at the end of the Revolutionary War into the then western states and how those motivations conspired to rebrutalize slavery in order to establish and then perpetuate economic gain.

In that the depredations suffered by Africans under slavery were monstrous, the tendency is to think of slave holders as big ‘ol meanies who, because they were simply spiteful, horrible people, just woke up every morning trying to dream up new ways to torment, humiliate and degrade their victims. However, by explaining the dehumanized role slaves were brutally compelled to play in the context of a vast, international economic machine, the whippings, the beating, the rapes, the separations of families and the multitude of other horrors to which American slaves were routinely subjected come to make a bizarre, monstrous kind of sense. In a world where people cease being human beings and, instead, are nothing more than irksome and recalcitrant units of wealth generating productivity, no depredation is too extreme if it results in greater output. As the prosperity of not only slave holders and their overseers, but indeed, the entire non-slave community is dependent at all levels on the wealth created by this machine, even those not directly involved in the individual day to day acts of barbarity are nonetheless motivated to sanction and promote their perpetuation. In making these economic dependencies clear, Baptist’s exposition helps to explain how the universally common human inclination to aggrandize one’s self at the expense of others can, under the opiate of personal economic gain, metastasize into a passionate, sincerely held yet nonetheless hateful belief in racial supremacy.

Baptist’s discussion is rich in nuance and detail. On the one hand he explains the minutiae of markets and credit, supply and demand, productivity and growth whose dictates motivated behavior. On the other, he attempts to demonstrate how shifts in these forces affected the lives of individual slaves. The speculative opportunities of uncultivated land in the west led to the forced separation of slave families to both finance expansion and to provide a labor force to work the fields. “Innovative” financial products that privatized profits and socialized losses facilitated easy credit to entrepaneurs and fueled the drive to turn more and more land into revenue generating assets. These forces, in turn, accelerated the need to acquire more slaves resulting in more slave dislocations and the application of ever more brutal “production enhancing” techniques order to maximize return. As speculative bubbles inevitably collapsed, the consequences of the resulting financial pressures were visited upon individual slaves who were compelled to work even harder and suffer themselves being sold in order to satisfy creditor’s demands for payment. In that Baptist tells these stories from the perspective of those who benefited from the game as well as those who suffered most from it, he makes the stories real, comprehensible and utterly sickening. Perhaps most importantly, in articulating the forces motivating behavior of people who lived 150 years ago, his work allows one to recognize how variants of those same forces are at work today….and how very similar the essence of these consequences are.

By way of brief critique, despite his clear-eyed and cogent discussions of the forces motivating behavior and the consequences of that behavior on winners and losers alike, Baptist occasionally lapses into impassioned flights of.....what to call it?...."literary art" to describe how horrible, how cruel or how touching the plight of some of his victims were. While I understand the impulse that drove him there and agree that the juxtaposition of economic interest and cruel consequence was necessary to prove his thesis, I would have preferred it had he turned the impassioned drama down a couple of notches. Generally, I found some of it overwrought and, rather than lead me deeper into the core of his idea, it tended, instead, to drive me away a la “what’s this guy trying to sell me”. The compelling strength of the work and the clarity of his explanations, however, more than compensate for these (what I found to be) periodic lapses into literary histrionics.

For anyone interested in American history, America’s racial history and / or the development of income inequality over the course of American historical time, this book is a must read.
Profile Image for Joseph Stieb.
Author 1 book148 followers
February 26, 2017
There comes a point in every historical field when you can start to talk about over-saturation. Authors put forth dramatic claims to new conclusions, topics, and evidence. However, it is important to be critical of these claims because each historian has an incentive to claim their stuff is new and innovative. Although I liked and learned from many aspects of this book, I found little new material in this book and much repackaging of old material in new-fangled jargon.

Baptist's thesis is that slavery was central to the creation of American prosperity, capitalism, and modernization and that slavery itself was not a backwards form of labor but a productive, often scientifically efficient mode of production. The most innovative part of the book deals with the application of assembly line intensity, aka the whipping machine, to the harvesting of cotton, which provided the raw material for a huge part of the American and global economy. Baptist puts to bed any idea that slavery was inefficient or that it would have died out eventually, putting the free labor critique in a very different light. Granted, he is not the first person to argue this.

This thesis is correct, but overstated. First, it is arbitrary to put slave production at the core of American economic development, industrialization, and modernization. Other developments, including the development of factory production, steam power, and the railroad, are just as vital to this product, so he only foregrounds slavery in order to bolster his argument in an attempt to sound more original. Second, it is ludicrous to say that slavery in the Old South was a modernizing institution. Okay, enslavers did apply industrial efficiency to slave production and treat slaves as commodities, both of which could be seen as modern. However, slavery's domination of the Southern economy greatly retarded this region's modernization and industrialization. Look, for instance, at the South's helplessness in the face of Northern industrial might and population during the Civil War, the poor education (even among whites), the lack of modern communication and transportation, the stronger persistence of racism and religious fanaticism. The South arguably is still feeling the effects of slavery's constraints upon modernization, so I think Baptist was grasping at straws here.

You can definitely learn a lot from this book, but it feels somewhat aimless and unstructured. In contrast to the title, the book ranges all over the place, including several chapters about slave culture that are interesting, but really just summarize other research. Baptist deploys TONS of body metaphors, which drive me crazy in most usages. He basically uses the word body whenever possible, which is really an academic fad that adds nothing to our understanding of slavery. Sometimes they work, such as his chapter on political compromise and economic progress on the back of slaves, but usually they are just distracting and annoying.

Despite these criticisms, one excellent aspect of the book is the discussion of forced slave migration. Baptist shows how during the cotton boom planters in the Southeast sold their rapidly proliferating but increasingly useless slaves into the unstable, brutal, but potentially lucrative Southwestern cotton fields. This was a terribly sad process to read about. It also underscored the true weakness of slaves in the face of the legally backed, popularly approved, and economically profitable system of slavery. This is a solid antidote to Ira Berlin and others who focus on the effectiveness of slave resistance and the importance of slave agency. Although they are writing about slightly different times, Baptist shows that slave attempts to resist violence and relocation were largely ineffective because of the vast economic, political, and ideological forces arrayed against them.

If you are looking for an in-depth, well-supported academic book about slavery and you haven't read much on the topic, this would be a solid book. I still recommend Kolchin's survey more because it is more comprehensive, shorter, and less jargon-filled.
Profile Image for Darian Jones.
113 reviews1 follower
January 7, 2015
This should be required reading of every high school student in America without regards to ethnicity or socio-economic status. It is one of the best books I have ever read and in my top three historical texts. Never have I read a book that has touched me in such a powerful, visceral, and connecting way to the legacy of my ancesters and how they shapped the world. In grade school, such a big deal was made about Benjamin Bannekers impact in designing D. C. but the labor of the enslaved and their production of cotton created the global economy as we know it and made possible the industrial revolution. Haiti and Napolean, the truth behind the Louisian Purchase, Andrew Jackson the Beheader... we were told in such a sanitized way that the enslved basically accepted their fate and offered Nat Turner as the one rebel who stood up, but there were scores and scores and scores more....
Profile Image for Kusaimamekirai.
667 reviews220 followers
August 21, 2023
When presidential candidate Ron DeSantis recently came out and claimed that slavery had some positive benefits in that slaves were able to learn trades such as carpentry or blacksmithing, he was rightly pilloried on the right and left of the political aisle.
Yet in a perverted way, I was glad to hear DeSantis express his thoughts in the open because his opinion is shared by far more people than are willing to admit it. From the moment slavery was legally put to an end (its practical end is a far more complex issue) people like DeSantis have been looking to downplay the horrors that it wrought upon the country.
While some today choose to disengage completely and argue that they weren’t personally responsible for slavery so let’s move on, others recognize that this argument is untenable and instead choose to look for the spaces where they can assert that sure, slavery was bad but you know there were some kind slaveowners too! And trades!
It’s a line of thinking that allows you simultaneously to sympathize with the horrors of the past (and your potential guilt) while also allowing you to look away from it and assuage your guilt
Edward Baptist’s book “The Half Has Never Been Told” doesn’t allow you to look away.
It’s a devastating survey of how slavery impacted and corrupted every part of American life from North to South, white or black. For Baptist, slavery is the black body that overlays everything America is or was since its inception. As such he gives his chapters titles like right hand, head, and blood that each read like a criminal indictment against the slavery.
One by one, Baptist deconstructs myths we tell ourselves about slavery like:

1) Slavery was dying out and would have gone away on its own without the Civil War.
—In truth, the demand for cotton in England and crucially in the North as well, was as high as it had ever been. Hundreds of thousands of enslaved people were forcibly migrated from the upper South to the lower South to work the cotton fields to meet the demand.
—Furthermore, with the annexation of Texas and the potential opening up of new land out West, the demand for new slaves to clear and work those lands would have seen exponential growth, as it always had in the past.

2) The United States government used to be less intrusive than it is now.
—In the case of slavery, this is demonstrably false.
Leaving aside the “states rights brought about the Civil War” argument (Southern states were quite content to interfere with the anti-slavery laws of the North when they demanded federal intervention to force them to recapture their runaway slaves), the United States government actively took part in financing cotton production via federal loans through first the Bank of America in which slaveowners purchased land and in turn more slaves to work it. Slaveowners in fact took out “mortgages” on their slaves which were guaranteed first by the government, and later by smaller state run banks in which any failure to repay saw the costs of repayment fall to taxpayers. It was in effect as Baptist points out, incredibly similar to the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2018, except with human beings.

3) The North were the good guys.
—Sadly not so much.
While slavery was outlawed in the North, this didn’t stop Northern speculators from buying land (and slaves) in the South and remotely running operations. Others would supply basic equipment such as sun hats, axes, hoes, and other vital items necessary for cotton production, to Southern slaveowners.

4) Some slaveowners weren’t so bad.
—Baptist explains this far more eloquently than I can but even if you were one of the rare slaveowners who didn’t sell human beings away from their friends and family into backbreaking labor in the South, even if you didn’t whip them to within an inch of their lives for the most minor offenses or not picking enough cotton over a 12 hour workday, even if you didn’t brand them with hot irons, rape them or humiliate them, you still owned them.
It shouldn’t be difficult to understand but you can’t be a good person and hold someone against their will. If you do this, everything else is inconsequential. End of story.

There is so much more here, including how deeply entrenched America’s economy was in cotton production, and by extension the slave trade, that although Baptist doesn’t make the argument, it’s hard not to think after reading this book that some form of reparations are a basic start to healing scars at the bedrock of the country.
At heart though, Baptist reminds us, and Mr. De Santis’s comments show us that we desperately need to be reminded, how deeply entrenched slavery was and continues to be in America life. It was not a historical epoch that came and went. It remains all around us in our buildings built by slaves, in neighborhoods and families molded by it, and even our very economic way of life. No good, not even the most infinitesimal amount, came from from physically and psychologically brutalizing half of our population during slavery and for generations afterward. It’s not something that can be dismissed, much less healed any time soon. It can however be acknowledged or as Baptist would say, the half about slavery that has never been told can begin to be spoken. Only then can we begin the slow process of coming to terms with what has been lost and what can begin to be found.
Profile Image for Kameel.
860 reviews119 followers
May 15, 2021
This Cornell historian is discussing the incomplete story of slavery most of us received in school. In the process, he cracks many myths that have sought to downplay slavery's horrors or detach slavery from America's DNA. The author included the tales of former slaves, many (such as Solomon Clay and Lorenzo Ivy's), the twice-escaped Charles Ball, who who published his own memoir in 1837, appears regularly as a thread to connect many of the book's themes. The individual stories humanize and illustrate larger societal and economic trends as the account transitions to the broader scope of trade, banking, territorial acquisition, industrial progress, legal precedent, military movement, international relations and other forces animating America's growth. Baptist's aim was to show that slavery-backed cotton production was not merely one industry among many that buoyed the new nation's fledgling economy, but the backbone that lifted both South and North to the international stage as an economic and military force. The book also makes it clear how American capitalism was catalyzed and ignited by millions of people whose capital-generating labors were directly funneled to others. One of the hardest things was listening to this more than 20 hour audiobook and sitting through every chapter talk about how slave owners, overseers and men who stole slaves from other plantations would rape girls as young as 12 years old (there was also so gang rape involved) and black men could do nothing to save their women and children. In addition selling slaves and breaking up families was also very difficult to hear...although we've often hear this tale and know it to be true, it was still extremely difficult. Also, how everyone around the world capitalized from slavery. When slavery finally came to an end, America found new and innovative ways to extend those inequalities and ensure that this stolen nation would never return to the descendants of those who rightly own and built it.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book2,118 followers
January 30, 2019
The book very skillfully mixes a wrenching portrayal of individual human suffering, gleaned from oral histories of former slaves, with a solid economic history of the U.S. economy during the slave era. It's a powerful combination. Baptist's strongly supported thesis is that the economic growth of the 18th and 19th centuries was fueled neither by entrepreneurial drive, nor by technical innovation, but instead by the toil of enslaved people. Having read the book, this feels very obvious to me now, but as I was reading it I could feel my own resistance to Baptist's thesis, because I have been taught well over many years to believe otherwise--that the plantation economy of South as well as slavery itself were backward economic institutions that were destined to be overwhelmed by the capital-intense North. But who bought all that cotton, who turned it into textiles, who profited from cheap cotton? Who benefitted most from cotton being produced by free labor? Not just the South. By laying out very carefully the flow of money, credit, land development and slave labor, from the late 18th to mid-19th century, Baptist leaves the reader with a very strong understanding of how all white Americans, not just those in the South, benefitted from the subjection of African Americans into slavery.

Baptist, a Cornell history professor, breaks out of academic-speak altogether and presents the material in unique ways. I felt his narrative creativity served to jolt me out of any received wisdom about slavery so I could think in new ways. In one section Baptist writes for example from the point of view of a dying man, a leader of a slave revolt at the moment of his execution. Less flamboyantly but even more effectively for me, Baptist consistently replaces the word "slaves" with "enslaved people." That may sound like a small difference, but it reframed the fact of slavery in a new, more factual way.The word "slave" has been used up, in a way, to the point where it is very hard to divorce the word from the centuries-old idea of a "happy slave" being cared for by paternalistic "masters." "Enslaved people" gets back to the heart of the atrocity, back to the bare fact of a person held against their will and entirely at the mercy of another human being.

It's a book that causes heartache, as it should. It's very hard to look straight at this topic and see it for all its horror. It also left me with the feeling that very little has changed, when I think about how much of U.S. economic growth still depends on the labor of the powerless, whether it be farm workers here in the U.S., or the near-slave labor making everything from shirts to semiconductors overseas. This greater criticism of capitalism is not in any way a part of Baptist's thesis, which is wide-ranging enough as it is...but even so, the book led me to certain kinds of conclusions about how the rapid accumulation of wealth in any capitalist economy seems to depend on the subjugation of others.
Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,553 reviews812 followers
November 3, 2017
File this under "could have been half as long and thus made its points more effectively," but then, perhaps also file under "has something for everyone." If you were unaware that slavery in America was horrific and brutal, this book will tell you all about that (and if you were aware, you will quickly grow tired of the sub-Dickensian heart-string pulling: I know slavery was horrible, puerile melodrama doesn't help me in any way). If you want solid statistics and argument about the reliance of economic growth on American slavery, this book will give you that (and if you don't, don't worry, another heart-string puller will show up sooner or later). In the end, I just skimmed the narratives, particularly the 'representative' ones that Baptist put together himself. I'm happy to read the stories told by actual ex-slaves; I have no interest in made-for-TV-actual-reproductions-of-possible-events. I advise you do the same, and focus on the argument: property in humans made possible the tremendous economic growth of the USA in the nineteenth century, and that growth also fed into world markets. Our economies would not exist as they do today were it not for the enslavement of millions of men and women.
Profile Image for Randall Wallace.
543 reviews417 followers
March 30, 2023
This invaluable book shows how much America’s present wealth is owed to it’s nasty past with slavery; specifically, America perfected the idea of turning the screws, through capitalism, on the race you want to exploit (in this case the black race). Baptist shows that every year slaves had to pick more cotton than they did the year before because capitalism by nature to ruthlessly seek maximum efficiency for profit. Thus there were increasingly fewer safe advantages to being a hard working slave – if overseers saw you could be more productive they just pushed you harder. Even good slaves were whipped as well to keep the fear in them, the result being a money making machine that was hell on earth for it’s victims while bent on maximum extraction of human effort. Other places in the world historically kept slave families together, but not America where the most extreme form of slavery evolved. Women were sold alone so they would not waste time caring for their young ones. Enslavers enforced their own rules against slaves cooperating together. If a fellow slave next to you while picking cotton was shot dead, you did not look up. You had only one job – to abandon hope. Picking cotton fast was painful bloody work and in order to survive all pickers had to disassociate in true PTSD fashion from the pain to get through each day.

In school we were not taught that slaves were tortured. Threat of the whipping machine alone increased production over time, not technological innovation. And so the entire southern economy was based on unrelenting torture with the collusion of northern bankers (2 million slaves meant two billion dollars worth of collateral which was 20% of the wealth of US citizens at the time). When northerners complained to the south for ethical and financial reasons, the southerners threatened to return to the colonial state with Great Britain by reaching out to it rather than to end slavery. How many of us were told in school that the birth of the industrial revolution and the modern world depended on systemized torture? To get a handle on the size of the crime, let’s go back to 1807 and look at American immigration; notice that four out of five new immigrants were slaves! Yet most of us were clearly taught in school to see immigrants were huddled masses yearning to be free. My country ‘tis of thee, SWEET land of LIBERTY? Well, not if you were black, brown, gay, indentured, Irish, catholic, working class or even female.

Baptist notes that despite the centuries of abuse, blacks brought to American culture: ragtime, jazz, blues, country, R&B, rock and roll, soul, funk, and hip hop. At the same time whites brought to American culture: double standards, racism, sociopathy, syphilis, and Ayn Rand. Or maybe the whites just brought only Ayn Rand and Ayn already had syphilis and was already a sociopathic racist who lived on double standards? Back to the facts: In the end the Civil War (with 40,000 of it’s 200,000 black soldiers dying) costs 700,000 lives but ends up only providing a mere thirty years of freedom for a few million people because Reconstruction ends quickly with a compact of white supremacy. Long ago ex-slave Shang Harris saw clearly through that common racist double standard that black people are thieves and wrote, “What was the first stealing done? It was in Afriky, when the white folks stole the niggers.” Slavery=Theft.

Americans fight the tyranny of Great Britain by Revolution to become free citizens yet enslave people imported against their will who did nothing wrong with one hundred times the tyranny they themselves were unable to stand under the British? Reading this book will make it hard to continue to see the southern aristocratic “Gone With the Wind” plantation culture in a Leslie Howard elegantly noble polished light at all. Southern white men understood slave ownership of black women to mean sexual ownership as well. Thus slave traders also became sexual pirates. Back in those days, in white culture, you didn’t walk about in public without a weapon noticeable on your person. Politicians threatened each other constantly with honor violence and extreme verbal abuse. If you were hard to “rile up”, you weren’t called “as cool as a cucumber” or “diplomatic”; you were called “poke easy” and you became a target for every sadist in town. Slaves were also branded “poke easy” because they did not fight back and thus open for ridicule, as if they were not already treated badly enough. Baptist notes the well-documented clash throughout American history between the violent white ideal of the vengeful hero and the core of both black and white America that instead wanted to live by moral choice and not led by fear.

Here’s a last cool Baptist fact: three fourths of the white south had no slaves at all. Wow, so with no skin in the game, why did those three fourths fight? Terrific book, a must read…
410 reviews7 followers
June 6, 2020
Reading this book now was a comfort, as counter-intuitive as it may seem. But given it’s starting point, the book does end on a higher note (even though it does mention Jim Crow). But mostly it was a comfort because it feels right. It feels right to reclaim history and add one more tiny piece to the puzzle that is my understanding of the world.

And the book’s contribution to that understanding are significant. It sets out to prove that slavery was the defining force for young America (before and even after the Civil War), in all important realms: politics, economy, geography, society, religion and culture. And it succeeds on all counts. It also does so in a very readable and understandable manner and with beautiful poetic prose.

Lots of people have commented on how its language is not as dry and academic as they prefer and how it interweaves facts and eye-witness accounts (filled out and supported by many individual sources). Your preferences may vary (and personal taste always plays a central role in book enjoyment), but in my view the argument that this undermines the book’s claim is ridiculous. Why would adding flavor to statistical data make the data less relevant. If anything, given that history is a social science, showing how both period testimony and hard data point to the same conclusions make the conclusions more compelling. Analysis and weighing of sources is, after all, at the core of historical science. In any case, in my view this is history at its best because it weaves psychology, sociology, economics, law and politics together to paint a coherent picture of the period and place analyzed (America after the Revolution and before the Civil War). And thus you get a complete, nuanced, layered view.

On a personal note, this book reminded me of my own grievances and stoked my anger. My history has been stolen from me (I’m not American). All throughout school I suffered through textbooks and history classes presenting truncated views of history, glorifying national “heroes” and sometimes outright falsifying history by what they left out. Not to mention the dry drone of dates (the beginning and end of reigns, battles and church-building, of all things). Oh, and history officially ended shortly after 1945 in my country. I’ve since overcome my resentment of, and disinterest in, history, but I’ve never been able to make up for lost time, nor have the generations after me. Needless to say, our lack of understanding of our own history robbed us not only of our national identity but also (and that was obviously the goal) of our political voice and our activism. The plunder of our nation safely hidden, our politicians could rest easy for another couple of decades. And the glorifying nationalist textbooks created an ideal breeding ground for ethnic patriotism combined with pseudo-religious fervor (by which I mean glorifying a particular form of religion solely for its ethnic and nationalistic connections and not observing its actual tenets).

When the dust settled at the end of 2016, we had thus made a very similar and equally catastrophic choice in our own elections. Naturally, any and all subsequent protests have proven futile and the exploitation of our nation and its national resources continues unhindered by any popular opinion (if it even is popular opinion that thieving lying scoundrels should not rule our nation). So I consider stealing history from a country’s people a crime of the highest order and its ripple effects cannot be overstated.
Profile Image for Barry.
898 reviews37 followers
March 1, 2021
Original review (1/21/21):
Baptist seems to have a few different goals in mind with this history of slavery. First, he does a great job of showing the stark brutality and cruelty of slavery. I’m not sure who would argue otherwise, but it’s certainly important that every American understands this.

Second, he demolishes the claim that the use of slaves was economically inefficient and therefore this practice would eventually have become obsolete without the need for a war. The ruthlessness of the slavemasters ensured that their human cotton-picking machines worked at a blistering pace. It’s true that paid employees may work hard for good wages, but not as diligently and quickly as slaves subjected to the whipping machine. It turns out that torture and the threat of torture can be very effective motivators.

Third, he makes the guilty-by-association insinuation that since slavery and capitalism developed and expanded simultaneously, the economic system is somehow to blame, and that slavery lies at the very heart of capitalism itself. Here Baptist overreaches.

Baptist is hardly the first to use the history of slavery as a weapon to attack capitalism. But one could use the same technique with any number of other social evils. For instance, prostitution. Prostitution and capitalism have both flourished together. But even if some degree of symbiosis can be demonstrated, it’s absurd to say that prostitution lies at the heart of the capitalist system. Both arguments fail as condemnations of capitalism, but both succeed as condemnations of human nature. Indeed, unless scrupulously monitored, capitalism has the ability to efficiently distribute both goods and evils.

For a more thoughtful and helpful review, check out this one by Joseph:

Addendum (2/28/21):
After reading “The 1619 Project: A Critique” by Philip Magness, I must revise my opinion and rating for Baptist’s book. Apparently, a number of other historians have discovered and pointed out many serious flaws in Baptist’s work, including significantly overstating (by a factor of 10) the economic output of slavery, and misquoting primary sources to better lend support to his thesis. According to Olmstead, “Baptist’s study of capitalism and slavery is flawed beyond repair.” Perhaps worse yet, Magness states, “Baptist, to his discredit, has generally declined to answer the substantive criticisms of his work, even as his errors spread to wider audiences via the press.“

So I’m changing my rating from 3 stars to 2.

Here’s my review of “1619 Project: A Critique”

And here’s a more useful review of “The 1619 Project” by Venky:
12 reviews
November 1, 2014
If you haven't read many books about slavery or 19th century America this is a good one to turn to. It doesn't rely on the racist shibboleth of many historians that the Civil War was about "states' rights"; in fact, repudiating that ugly fiction is perhaps the book's central goal. But the book disappointed me on a couple of fronts. First, it's not really about "American Capitalism" at all, but more generally about the role slavery made in the American economy (which wasn't capitalist for much of the time period covered in the book). Secondly, it doesn't focus on those economic forces as much as I had hoped. Instead, it's a general history of slavery in the 19th century with a secondary focus on the economics of chattel slavery in the growth of the U.S. leading up to the Civil War.

Historians aren't always known for their prose, so I admire Baptist in his attempt to bring some artistry to the work. But this book is loaded with strained metaphors, including the central metaphor of the body he uses (John Winthrop would be unimpressed), rendering the prose tortuous to read at times.
Profile Image for Julian Douglass.
313 reviews12 followers
February 2, 2022
A tour de force in the story of slavery, the early republic, and the devil's bargain that the United States took to become one of the economic powerhouses in the world. Mr. Baptist shows us that slavery wasn't just a southern issue, many people in the north either supported slavery, or tolerated it up until the 1840's, that slavery was the United States little engine that could, and that it was an institution that had many supporters, or willful backers.

The methods and the harsh realities of the practice doesn't make it any less horrific, and that while it did make a country, it came at a heavy cost. Mr. Baptist really did his research and paints a picture that has been seared into my mind for sure.

The only issue was that he would sometimes get off topic in my mind. He'd be telling one story, then go off on a tangent about something else. There was a bit of whiplash to be sure, but overall, a fantastic book.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,135 reviews52 followers
November 15, 2021
Interesting read on the inter-state slave trade and its relationship to cotton and the brutality around increasing yields that amounted to torture. The author invoked controversy with his views. The opposition came mainly from economists.

One slave by the name of Ball was sold as part of the inter-slave trade and he connects many of the earlier chapters together.

4 stars
Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 6 books207 followers
February 1, 2016
Being no expert on the history of the American slave trade, I have no pretensions towards being able to second-guess the scholarship here but it seems sound, it just doesn't seem as surprising as Baptist suggests it should be.
The basic argument is that the success of the American experiment and economic expansion was built on the backs of the slave trade, which seems a given. Baptist gives us a view of the inner workings of this process, much of which is sort of creepily fascinating. There was a vast internal slave trade that moved slaves from the Atlantic Coast into the interior as new states were forged on the corpses of the native population. This in turn required a self-perpetuating political cycle that guaranteed this would be slave states and so on. Overall, though, and this is the most interesting part, the entire American economy (and global, really), required that the slave trade perpetuate and thrive. Northern shipping and manufacturing, up until the 1840s, anyway, required that slavery exist so that it could prosper. And thus as business, so the politicians.
These are the best parts of the book, where politics and economics meet and we really get a sense of how fucking cynical and rational these assholes, North and South, were. It's sickening at heart but a lesson worthy of learning because the same thing is happening all over again now, just on a global scale.
The book suffers though because of Baptist's well-intentioned parallel approach: he uses a vast amount of little-used slave memoirs to detail the internal migrations and horrors of slavery, but the bouncing back -and-forth between descriptions of rape and whipping and then the political machinations and wranglings is not seamless and often clumsy. I understand the intention of using both, because the narrative sort of demands it, but it makes the work a little bipolar.
Profile Image for Jeffrey.
205 reviews2 followers
February 27, 2015
This book is not for the faint of heart. And it is difficult to justify a rating of less than five stars, even though I have some issues with the book.

First, Professor Baptist is a powerful writer. His prose rings of hammer strokes on anvils. He gives modern and beautiful voices to pains and grievances centuries old. Smoothly transitioning between historic narrative and stories retold again and again, gluing it all together with a good bit of hard data. If nothing else, his many critics have failed to produce even a freeman's worth of data to counter it.

Second, though I've read some similar styled books in the past, this one hit home the various brutalities of slavery as a kind of side show to the numerous other brutalities. Placing the kind of wage theft in capital terms, the very ideas and thoughts of the American Slaves were systematically stolen from them.

We live in an era where the descendants of a people who contributed so much to the growth and success of our society are still marginalized. Where the creeping ghosts of Jim Crow still abound. Where code words are still used by a certain elite to elicit fear and support and unconsciously or consciously reinforce a caste like hierarchy.

This book won't change that, but it may provide a path for some readers to engage with uncomfortable truths.

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