The core narrative about American slavery has received its largest challenge in three generations over the last decade. The work of scholars between 1950 and 1980 forced new bodies of evidence and new standards of analysis into a debate that largely relied on the explicit hatred of Africans and their descendants for the previous century. From Jacqueline Jones and Nell Painter through John Blassingame, Peter Kolchin, and John Hope Franklin, teachers and students found powerful new insights about the nature of the American South and its enduring impact on the nation’s identity at the end of the twentieth century. As Eric Foner recognized in the New York Times this weekend, a new chorus of voices is needed to end traditions of cowardice and deceit that mark sesquicentennial anniversaries over the next decade.
Walter Johnson’s two books, Soul by Soul and River of Dark Dreams, opened the door to using economic history to force a confrontation between the nation’s present and its past. Shifting the debate away from the plantation settings in the first book, Johnson revealed the irrational alchemy of race, fantasy, and commerce that built modern conceptions of free enterprise. The second book expands this vision into the national policy debates and reminds readers how close the United States came to destroying any possibility of a sovereign Mexico. It would seem a minor note from a present-day perspective except that such an historical twist may have guaranteed the survival of African enslavement in perpetuity. Taken further, such changes may have turned the Americans into an Axis power in the middle of the twentieth century. What then for any notion of human freedom?
A few weeks ago, the voices descended from those that would have swallowed Mexico and seen Hitler as an ally took to the pages of a popular British economic magazine. An anonymous voice condemned another historian, Ed Baptist, for scrutinizing the economics of African enslavement and emphasizing the voices of kidnapped Africans to demonstrate the salience of his analysis. Thousands of scholars and educators rallied to Baptist’s defense and his new book, The Half Has Never Been Told, sits atop the Amazon bestseller list for books about slavery. Baptist extends Johnson’s points about the centrality of extracting value from the bodies of Africans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With a better synthesis of the quantitative data than Johnson presents, Baptist reveals hundreds of important voices describing the horror of enslavement as a system of industrial capitalism. His chapter titles – “Heart”, “Blood”, “Right Hand”, “Left Hand”, “Tongues”, “Breath”, “Seed” – proceed like an indictment, reminding readers of the screaming, enduring injustice still ignored today. Who now has the courage to turn those pages?
All of this work owes a mighty attribution to the character and essence of works by scholars like Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and Vincent Harding, to name just two. Peniel Joseph, one of the historians who will redefine the profession in this century, drew the nation’s attention to Stokely Carmichael this summer. He reminded his audience that the audacity of Black Power was not the audacity of a voter’s hope. Carmichael’s audacity was the living, manifested memory of the countless millions whose suffering Johnson and Baptist have begun to make legible since 2000. Carmichael challenged the world to reinvent itself in a vision of true and inclusive economic justice, to pull up its roots of violent economic exploitation, no matter what the immediate cost. This task remains unmet by scholarly production, and, thus, public policy remains inured against these appeals. Will any future people rise to the cause?
The study of slavery is essential to creation of a truly humane civilization. For three years, students and teachers have collaborated at Barnard College and Monmouth University to document the systemic, economic history of injustice around the world. Going beyond the reclamation of historic documents and perspectives to reveal the truth of a market system built on rape and murder, the asset maps reveal the cold, quantitative realities about the scales that must be balanced. Last week, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) revealed the first data to show how contract law governed auctions of the enslaved in order to generate sufficient value to build the United States. Tobacco and cotton were not enough. Duke University will advance this conversation in November through their Global Inequality Research Initiative. This moment is the time to make real the promise that “all are created equal.” Do we have enough audacity, enough ambition, to succeed?
Dr. Walter Greason founded the International Center for Metropolitan Growth (ICMG_International Center for Metropolitan Growth) and is the author of the award-winning historical monograph, Suburban Erasure. He is also the primary instructor for the “Engines of Wealth” initiative at Monmouth University. His work is available on Twitter (@worldprofessor / @icmgrowth), Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). For bookings (workshops and speaking engagements), contact NJ History (email@example.com).