“It’s nothing personal; it’s just business.”
How often have you heard someone say something like that to justify something questionable — or outright immoral — in the name of making a profit?
Right now, the nation stands divided, and racism is often right at or very near the top of the maelstrom that tears us apart in every given moment. The answers to how and why that is, are right here in this book. As Mark Twain once wrote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.” Many of those rhyming chords are found right here in this book, and it’s more than a bit chilling once you start to see it. The past doesn’t stay in the past.
Historian Edward E. Baptist paints a portrait in this book of a legacy that often gets glossed over or goes unanswered completely. In the years following the American Revolution, market forces conspired to allow slavery to survive and thrive as an institution, a sacrifice that allowed for other boons to move forward. A heartless, racist president was elected on a populist platform by securing the votes of poor, white people, and he repaid their loyalty by cutting deals with the obscenely wealthy. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer, the market rose to impossible levels before the bottom fell out, and the country ended up in Civil War. At the heart of this drama, tens of thousands of men, women, and children were deprived of their homes, their families, their rights, their lives, and their humanity. And that’s not just those brought low by the slave trade. The Native American tribes were routed, and Mexican people were thrown off their land for the creation of new slave-owning territory. That is what this book explores, those years of expansion and profiteering in the years between the Revolution and the Civil War, backed by the markers of history that confirms all the details: journals, sales receipts, and other such artifacts of the past imperfect. All of the justifications and moral backpedaling are documented. All of the compromises are showcased. Most heartbreaking of all are the firsthand accounts of those who were sold into slavery: their stories in their own words, reminding us of their humanity even as it was stripped from them at virtually every possible turn. Suffice it to say, this book is an unflinching look that does so much more than boil the entire concept down to a couple of names and a suggestion of “yes, this happened… moving on.” Instead, we examine the damage from the inside out, and we internalize the shame.
Baptist’s chapter headings are more than a little disconcerting; each chapter is named for a body part — left hand, right hand, head, feet, blood, etc. — with the prologue from 1937 being the heart and the years following the Civil War described in the afterward as “The Corpse.” It’s macabre, but then, so is slavery. The thing is, each chapter heading has a specific topic. For example, right-handed power (the direct brute force dominance of a slave driver) vs. left-handed power (the passive resistance of enslaved people). Each chapter is explained through the eyes of a slave using two sets of terminology. The first set is used by those in power (economic terms such as credit, debit, hand, and so on) to demonstrate how the system dehumanized the labor force and created pathological bullies. The other set of terms we would understand today returns the suffering to the experience: torture, beatings, rape, lashes, and other punitive measures.
For those who find this helpful, both the print and audio versions of the book come with supplemental material that include maps and diagrams that will help to illustrate the author’s talking points in regard to such things as population, product, and military engagements, among others.
The stories told here are very different than the kind of situations I’ve personally experienced, and heaven willing, they are very different from the kinds of experiences anyone in the modern world would ever have to understand on a personal level. The thing is, slavery still exists in the modern world. It has gone underground, but it still thrives in a myriad of forms. But this book focuses on a time when it was legal and even justified by some truly misguided and greedy people. The country was founded by “great men” with a vision and a purpose, certainly, but great men are not always capable of doing what is good. Worse still, there are plenty of lesser men who are more than willing to profit by that example and opportunity. This book brings us the details of what went wrong at the federal, state, and local levels. We learn who’s to blame, how it perpetuated, and most importantly, it reminds us who paid the price. (Spoiler alert: everyone did. Those in chains paid with their lives while those holding the whips paid with their souls.) And along the way, it covers things that perhaps most people wouldn’t connect up, such as the origins of jazz, the spread and splintering of evangelical Protestantism as we understand it today, and the dangerous economic cycles of boom and bust that persist when unchecked credit spending in the name of empire building leads to downsize risk popping a bubble.
No one enjoys reading a book like this. No one enjoys writing a book a like this. The fact remains, however, that books like this need to be written and read, and the target audiences are typically the ones who claim they don’t enjoy such books. The necessity of such books is built upon the memories of those who were not given the option to live their lives as they would have chosen. These souls were chained together in the holds of creaky boats, shipped en masse across the ocean like cargo, sold at market like livestock, often separated from their families, marched without shoes across hundreds of miles of rough terrain in all manner of weather, and those who survived were set to work in fields and in mines — or worse — for the profit of a select handful of elitists.
I am an American. I love my country and what it claims to stand for. To me, it’s not so much a place as it is an ideal, a responsibility to continually strive towards a promise of a better tomorrow. It’s an understanding that the quest for civil rights is the only political issue that’s been completely clear cut and unqualified in the whole of human history. We either land on the right side of it, or we don’t. We either treat others with respect, or we don’t. In all we do in this regard, history will record the heroes, the martyrs, and the monsters, just as it has since history started keeping score. But maybe I’m biased in that regard. It doesn’t really matter what I think when the record of history speaks so well for itself, when the voices of the past are allowed to speak directly to us. I listen to those voices because I understand that the only way my country can make good on its promises is for all of us to remember the transgressions and keep them from happening again. We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it. We can help raise those who have been held down, and to ensure that a line in the sand is drawn that all of us stand in unison to defend. “Never again” has to be more than just pretty words if the myth of America is ever to become a reality.
The Civil War was fought, not to end slavery, but to perpetuate it despite both moral outcry and industrialization. History has spoken, and yet the crimes continue in new forms. Following the war, Lincoln had a plan to help the nation heal that, it is said, included the raising of African Americans to their potential as citizens following decades of enslavement. We’ll never know for certain as an assassin’s bullet claimed his life just days after the surrender, before he could enact his policies. What we got instead was more of the opportunistic bullshit that found new and inventive ways to legalize oppression and romanticize the horrors. We’ve made considerable progress since the “Reconstruction” era, but we still have so far to go. Sometimes it’s difficult to see that if our lives are marinating in the negative effects at all turns. We just marinate in things until it becomes normalized. I have no idea what it is to live the African American experience in this country. Because I’m transgender, I do know ridicule and oppression. I understand what it means to be labeled as subhuman or even non-human, to be bullied or just ignored, or my personal favorite one: that I and those like me don’t exist at all, that we’re all just mental cases. Those doing the labeling lose their own humanity in the process somewhere, and it just gets ugly all around. On the topic of slavery, it’s not the same reasons, and it’s not the same levels of abuse. Slavery ranks right up there with genocide on the worst possible atrocities that can be committed. Anyone can plainly see that. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s all still injustice and inequality, all part and parcel of the same system of oppression. The very thing that holds us all back the most is identity politics. We fracture ourselves and our cause when we think these things to be separate. Victory comes from unity in common values of humanity, the same everyday values of family and humanity that allowed many of the enslaved peoples to survive in the hopes that freedom might someday be attained. We can be better if we choose to be.
So, please… the next time someone extols the virtues of the so-called “free market” as the way forward in these uncertain and turbulent times, point them in the direction of this book. “Market forces” will not balance the greed and the promise of power. The very idea leads exactly down the path we’ve trodden before. Quite the reverse, market forces proved that productivity and efficiency are higher under the whip than under good wages. Go figure. The same market forces are why and how our economy created international sweat shops. It’s apparently easier to ignore the problem if we don’t have to look at it every day. If we fail to learn from this misery, we will continue to perpetuate it… and that too will amount to little because “it’s just business.” Without heart, this is what unchecked capitalism is capable of doing to people. The same can be said of any other “-ism” you can name. There must be balance and temperance. People have to matter before profit. Compassion is too difficult for most because it makes people think they are weak. That “weakness” is called a conscience; it’s designed to make us better than monsters. Profit is an excuse, not true strength. Bullheadedness just leads to more of what we’ve had: Civil War.
Where money or power triumphs over conscience and humanity, it’s not just business or politics talking. That is literally the textbook definition of EVIL.
As you might imagine, I didn’t get through this book without some tears. Those tears amount to little in the grand scheme. I, for one, would like to think we’re better than this, as a nation and as a species. I’d like to think we are actually smart enough to see the writing on the wall, especially if we can just once stop to look past our own noses and see what’s going on in the world. Freedom is not free, nor can it be paid for in coin. Try to remember that this week while we’re celebrating our Independence Day.
Read this book, and then pass it on to others. Discuss it. And consider that in understanding, there is hope. If there are indeed parallels to be had between then and now, then for every Andrew Jackson that tries to tear things apart, there is an Abraham Lincoln to help hold things together and offer a solution towards true healing.
For those interested, this one’s on the list of my Freedom and Equality Library.