A history of slavery that’s ‘Never Been Told’

Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told” was published in September 2014. I found my way into it in the summer of 2015 (record time for me; I’m last to any publishing event).

A history of U.S. slavery, the book has stayed with me, just as the political, economic and moral cataclysm it relates has shadowed all of us.

In taking possession of the tale, Baptist exercises the owner’s prerogative, bestowing new names on his subjects. He redesignates plantation owners “enslavers” and their cotton farms “slave camps.” He redefines physical brutality, both standard overseer fare and more specialized forms of sadism, as “torture.”

“Even white abolitionist critics of slavery and their heirs among the ranks of historians were reluctant to say that it was torture to beat a bound victim with a weapon until the victim bled profusely, did what was wanted, or both,” Baptist writes. “No one was willing, in other words, to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture.”

Fortunes were made in that grinding, unforgiving gear, in Mississippi and Georgia but also Boston, London and New York, where slaves were accepted as collateral for loans and the spectacularly lucrative global cotton trade was financed and facilitated. Cotton powered the creation of wealth, and systematic brutality, exercised by white against black, powered the creation of cotton.

Baptist weighs slavery’s influence in forging black American culture, calling slaves “true modernists” who summoned creativity to survive.

Skillful words made one valuable to self and peers; they helped the enslaved to see themselves not as hands but as voices. And being a voice recognized by one’s peers gave one a reason to live. So no wonder music and dancing on slavery’s frontier emphasized individual improvisation, not imitation, and not unison.

We’re still waiting for a popular book that plumbs slavery’s dominion over whites. Only a curious perspective on the soul assumes that the infliction of torture and the outright theft of generations left scars on the victims but not the perpetrators. And, of course, 1865 marked the beginning of the end for all involved, not the end.

Black advancement through the years elicited white backlash in a rhythmic call and response. Blacks were scarcely out of chains after the Civil War before the Atlanta News was calling for “resistance to the death” to the new order. Reconstruction gave us the Klan and like-minded terrorists, sanctioned by local law enforcement and political leaders if those leaders and the Klan were not already one and the same. The 20th-century civil rights era was met with intimidation, beatings and the occasional murder. It generated a rank politics that kept bearing ugly fruit long after its practitioners swore that the orchard had been paved over.

The response to the first black president has included racist caricatures and pitiful yet persistent efforts, indulged at the highest level of the Party of Lincoln, to relocate his origins and rise to power somewhere, anywhere but here. The numbers of whites participating in such responses keeps steadily declining. But it’s never only a few.

Just as “The Half Has Never Been Told” brings the past to the reader, the reader can’t help but inject the present into its pages. Vivid descriptions of arbitrary brutality circa 1850 exist in time and space, if not in the actual text, with dash- cam video from a Chicago patrol car.

The distinctions, of course, are vast. The world Baptist describes has been obliterated. Yet traces inevitably remain and continue to show themselves from time to time, to unsettling effect.

Francis Wilkinson writes on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View

‘The Half Has Never Been Told’

by Edward Baptist

Basic Books

528 pages. $35