During a symposium on We Are Not Slaves, Ernest McMillen, a co-founder of SNCC, Dallas, and an activist for the incarcerated, observed that, “The prison system is a microcosm, a concentration, of what is actually in the whole of society. This idea of going from the universal to the particular, and back to the particular and to the universal, is very important for people to see,” McMillen continued, “because the very forces [of oppression] that are at work concentrated in the prison system, are the same as those at work in our everyday society—from economic exploitation, to racism, to sexism, to untold injustices that we see every day. They are perfected first in the prison system.” This incredibly thoughtful observation is precisely why I wrote We Are Not Slaves.
*This post is part of our online roundtable on Robert T. Chase’s We Are Not Slaves. On Friday, January 15, at 12noon EST, Chase will be in conversation with Talitha LeFlouria about this book. The event is free and open to all. Click here to register for the event. During a symposium on We Are
“Hicks’ poignant conclusion reminds us that the ravages of COVID-19 leave today’s incarcerated peoples especially vulnerable. In a recent discussion with Kinetik Justice, the co-founder of the Free Alabama Movement, he told me that he had been placed in permanent solitary because of his organizing, but was recently relocated. In his words, “it’s obvious that several people in this neighborhood have been exposed to the virus and it’s very probable that the Administration knew that prior to moving me. Could it be coincidence? Lol. Well, it could be.” 2 This twenty-first century punitive cell displacement near a bio-virus harkens back to the disciplinary strategy I uncovered of purposeful cell displacement to generate racial and sexual violence. The disciplinary tools may change, but the strategies remain similar. Hughett’s final point is where I also concluded We Are NotSlaves, ending carceral violence “will require abolishing the prison.” That political project requires resistance against both the prison particular and the universal carceral apparatus and with a broad coalition of people inside and outside of prison.”
“Of the many myths told about American slavery, one of the biggest is that it was an archaic practice that only enriched a small number of men.
The argument has often been used to diminish the scale of slavery, reducing it to a crime committed by a few Southern planters, one that did not touch the rest of the United States. Slavery, the argument goes, was an inefficient system, and the labor of the enslaved was considered less productive than that of a free worker being paid a wage. The use of enslaved labor has been presented as premodern, a practice that had no ties to the capitalism that allowed America to become — and remain — a leading global economy.
But as with so many stories about slavery, this is untrue. Slavery, particularly the cotton slavery that existed from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the Civil War, was a thoroughly modern business, one that was continuously changing to maximize profits.
To grow the cotton that would clothe the world and fuel global industrialization, thousands of young enslaved men and women — the children of stolen ancestors legally treated as property — were transported from Maryland and Virginia hundreds of miles south, and forcibly retrained to become America’s most efficient laborers. As they were pushed into the expanding territories of Mississippi and Louisiana, sold and bid on at auctions, and resettled onto forced labor camps, they were given a task: to plant and pick thousands of pounds of cotton.
The bodies of the enslaved served as America’s largest financial asset, and they were forced to maintain America’s most exported commodity. In 60 years, from 1801 to 1862, the amount of cotton picked daily by an enslaved person increased 400 percent. The profits from cotton propelled the US into a position as one of the leading economies in the world, and made the South its most prosperous region. The ownership of enslaved people increased wealth for Southern planters so much that by the dawn of the Civil War, the Mississippi River Valley had more millionaires per capita than any other region.
In recent years, a growing field of scholarship has outlined how America — through the country’s geographic growth after the American Revolution and enslavers’ desire for increased cotton production — created a complex system aimed at monetizing and maximizing the labor of the enslaved. In the cotton fields of the Deep South, this system rested on the continuous threat of violence and a meticulous use of record-keeping. The labor of each person was tracked daily, and those who did not meet their assigned picking goals were beaten. The best workers were beaten as well, the whip and other assaults coercing them into doing even more work in even less time.
As overseers and plantation owners managed a forced-labor system aimed at maximizing efficiency, they interacted with a network of bankers and accountants, and took out lines of credit and mortgages, all to manage America’s empire of cotton. An entire industry, America’s first big business, revolved around slavery.
“The slavery economy of the US South is deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves, and were extracting money from the labor of enslaved people,” says Edward E. Baptist, a historian at Cornell University and the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.
Baptist’s book came out in 2014, the same year that essays like the Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” and protests like the Ferguson Uprising would call attention to injustices in wealth and policing that continue to affect black communities — injustices that Baptist and other academics see as being closely connected to the deprivations of slavery. As America observes 400 years since the 1619 arrival of enslaved Africans to the colony of Virginia, these deprivations are seeing increased attention — and so are the ways America’s economic empire, built on the backs of the enslaved, connects to the present.
I recently spoke with Baptist about how cotton slavery transformed the American economy, how torture, violence, and family separations were used to maximize profits, and how understanding the economic power of slavery impacts current discussions of reparations. A transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When you talk about the sort of myth-making that has been used to create specific narratives about slavery, one of the things you focus on most is the relationship between slavery and the American economy. What are some of the myths that get told when it comes to understanding how slavery is tied to American capitalism?
Edward E. Baptist
One of the myths is that slavery was not fuel for the growth of the American economy, that it actually the brakes put on US growth. There’s a story that claims slavery was less efficient, that wage labor and industrial production wasn’t significant for the massive transformation of the US economy that you see between the time of Independence and the time of the Civil War.
And yet that period is when you see the US go from being a colonial, primarily agricultural economy to being the second biggest industrial power in the world — and well on its way to becoming the largest industrial power in the world.
Another myth is that slavery, in and of itself as an economic system, was unchanging. We fetishize machine and machine production and see it as quintessentially modern — the kinds of improvements in production and efficiency that you see from hooking up a cotton spindle to a set of pulleys, which are in turn pulled by a water wheel or steam engine. That’s seen as more efficient than the old way of someone sitting there and doing it by hand.
But you can also get changes in efficiency if you change the pattern of production and you change the incentives of the labor and the labor process itself. And we still make these sorts of changes today in businesses — the kind of transformations that speed up work to a point where we say that it is modern and dynamic. And we see these types of changes in slavery as well, particularly during cotton slavery in the 19th-century US.
The difference, of course, is that this is not the work of wage workers or professional workers. It is the work of enslaved people. And the incentive is not “do this or you’ll get fired” or “you won’t get a raise.” The incentive is that if you don’t do this you’ll get whipped — or worse.
The third myth about this is that there was not a tight relationship between slavery in the South and what was happening in the North and other parts of the modern Western world in the 19th century. It was a very close relationship: Cotton was the No. 1 export from the US, which was largely an export-driven economy as it was modernizing and shifting into industrialization. And the slavery economy of the US South was deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves and were certainly extracting money from the labor of enslaved people.
So those are the three myths: that slavery did not cause in any significant way the development and transformation of the US economy, that slavery was not a modern or dynamic labor system, and that what was happening in the South was a separate thing from the rest of the US. . . .”
When the new york times magazinepublished its 1619 Project in August, people lined up on the street in New York City to get copies. Since then, the project—a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social, and economic institutions—has spawned a podcast, a high-school curriculum, and an upcoming book. For Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter who conceived of the project, the response has been deeply gratifying.
“They had not seen this type of demand for a print product of TheNew York Times, they said, since 2008, when people wanted copies of Obama’s historic presidency edition,” Hannah-Jones told me. “I know when I talk to people, they have said that they feel like they are understanding the architecture of their country in a way that they had not.”
U.S. history is often taught and popularly understood through the eyes of its great men, who are seen as either heroic or tragic figures in a global struggle for human freedom. The 1619 Project, named for the date of the first arrival of Africans on American soil, sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America’s founding documents, the story of the country’s great men necessarily looks very different.
The letter sent to the Times says, “We applaud all efforts to address the foundational centrality of slavery and racism to our history,” but then veers into harsh criticism of the 1619 Project. The letter refers to “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing’” and says the project reflected “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Wilentz and his fellow signatories didn’t just dispute the Times Magazine’s interpretation of past events, but demanded corrections.
In the age of social-media invective, a strongly worded letter might not seem particularly significant. But given the stature of the historians involved, the letter is a serious challenge to the credibility of the 1619 Project, which has drawn its share not just of admirers but also critics.
Nevertheless, some historians who declined to sign the letter wondered whether the letter was intended less to resolve factual disputes than to discredit laymen who had challenged an interpretation of American national identity that is cherished by liberals and conservatives alike.
“I think had any of the scholars who signed the letter contacted me or contacted the Times with concerns [before sending the letter], we would’ve taken those concerns very seriously,” Hannah-Jones said. “And instead there was kind of a campaign to kind of get people to sign on to a letter that was attempting really to discredit the entire project without having had a conversation.”
The parallels between present-day business management practices and slavery have been persistently neglected in mainstream discussions about the history of U.S. enterprise.
The most striking parallel between slavery and scientific management can be found in the “task idea,” which Taylor described as “the most prominent single element in modern scientific management.” The task system is closely identified with Henry Laurence Gantt, who is well known today for the Gantt chart, a scheduling tool, which still bears his name. During the heyday of scientific management, Gantt developed a “task and bonus system,” which paired a flat task and a time wage with bonuses for overwork. Workers would be paid a base wage plus an additional piece rate for production above a certain minimum. By combining an achievable (rather than a maximal) task with bonuses, workers would enjoy the security of a minimum payment but also be encouraged to strive beyond it.
Economic growth can accompany choice, but it can also build on violence and injustice.
Yet while they introduced some novel details, neither Gantt nor Taylor created the task system. It has a much longer history and was one of the principal methods of organizing labor under slavery. Under the task system, an enslaved person would be assigned a set “task” or quota that he or she was expected to complete by the end of the day; this was in contrast to the gang system, where enslaved people labored under constant supervision for a set period of time. In some cases, slavers who used the task system even gave monetary bonuses for achievement above set targets. They “dangled the carrot” in a way that resembles not just Gantt’s methods but those of the gig economy today. Indeed, except for the base payment and the critically important ability for workers to quit, Gantt’s new system was in nearly every respect the same as the system used by some slaveholders, a fact that Gantt made no attempt to hide. Rather, he acknowledged that the word “task” was “disliked by many men” because of its connection to slavery, and he regarded this negative connotation as its “principal disadvantage.”
This is less surprising considering Gantt’s roots in the South. Born on the eve of the Civil War to a slaveholder in Maryland, Gantt’s father, Virgil Gantt, owned more than sixty men, women, and children. As Gantt wrote, “The term ‘task master’ is an old one in our language; it symbolizes the time, now happily passing away, when men were compelled to work, not for their own interests, but for those of some one else.” Gantt’s goal was not to abolish this old system but to adapt it to modern needs. As he explained, “The general policy of the past has been to drive, but the era of force must give way to that of knowledge, and the policy of the future will be to teach and to lead, to the advantage of all concerned.”
In a sense, scientific management replicated slavery’s extractive techniques while jettisoning the institution itself. Gantt’s rhetoric was not necessarily of distance but of progress; he purportedly liked to say that “scientific management marked a great step forward from slave labor.” James Mapes Dodge, a Philadelphia manufacturer and early supporter of Taylor, explained in 1913 that “we cannot tell who first liberated the germ idea of Scientific Management, as it was born to the world in the first cry of anguish that escaped the lips of the lashed slave.” Dodge’s reference was metaphorical, to a vague and distant past where slavery prevailed, not to the slave South. But he understood that “the present generation” had inherited “from the past the relationship of master and slave” and saw it as the job of scientific management to move beyond it.
The Permanent Memorial to Honor the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, in New York City, acknowledges a tragic chapter in the nation’s history. Some have argued that reparations for slavery would help heal long-festering racial strife. EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS
” In 1865, toward the end of the Civil War, Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman promised slaves that they’d receive 40 acres and a mule. Land was even set aside, but the promise was recanted by President Andrew Johnson. Ever since, the issue of reparations has come up many times, often fiercely debated. Although most Americans generally don’t support reparations, according to University of Connecticut researcher Thomas Craemer, it matters greatly how the question is worded, who would get reparations and in what form. For example, the idea of reparations paid in educational benefits are more popular than others, Craemer says.
On the other hand, one of the cases often made against reparations is that it’d be impractically difficult to calculate how to fairly take and give so many years after the fact. But in a new paper, published in the journal Social Science Quarterly, Craemer makes the case that there are other examples of historical reparations paid many decades later after “damages” were incurred. He also has come up with what he says is the most economically sound estimate to date of what reparations could cost: between $5.9 trillion and $14.2 trillion.
Craemer came up with those figures by tabulating how many hours all slaves—men, women and children—worked in the United States from when the country was officially established in 1776 until 1865, when slavery was officially abolished. He multiplied the amount of time they worked by average wage prices at the time, and then a compounding interest rate of 3 percent per year (more than making up for inflation). There is a range because the amount of time worked isn’t a hard figure.
Previous estimates of reparations have ranged from around $36 billion to $10 trillion (in 2009 dollars), Craemer says. Those calculations mostly looked at wealth created by slaves as opposed to services provided, resulting in underestimates. Craemer believes that “the economic assumptions underlying [his method] are more sound” than those used in previous papers.
The paper also illustrates several historical examples in which reparations were paid, many decades later, despite being initially unpopular—showing that repayment of age-old claims is not without precedent . . .
Reparations will never bring one life back, and it’s totally inadequate to the terror of the [past], but having a meaningful symbol of reparations is a good thing, not just for recipients but for the people who provide it,” he says.”
A cast iron bust of Cudjo Lewis, one of the last survivors of the slave ship Clotilde, can be found in front of the historic Union Missionary Baptist Church in Africatown. (Graveyardwalker (Amy Walker) Wikimedia Commons )
“The excitement and joy is overwhelming,” says Woods, in a voice trembling with emotion. She is 70 years old now. But she’s been hearing stories about her family history and the ship that tore them from their homeland since she was a child in Africatown, a small community just north of Mobile founded by the Clotilda’s survivors after the Civil War.The authentication and confirmation of the Clotilda was led by the Alabama Historical Commission and SEARCH Inc., a group of maritime archaeologists and divers who specialize in historic shipwrecks. Last year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) joined the effort to help involve the community of Africatown in the preservation of the history, explains Smithsonian curator and SWP co-director Paul Gardullo.”
“After the Emancipation Proclamation, the newly freed Africans tried, but failed to return to their beloved homeland Africa. The story describes the group reuniting from various plantations, alongside American-born, formerly enslaved men, women and children. The Africans bought land and founded their own settlement, which came to be known as Africatown.”
The Full Story:
“At the heart of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told is the claim that the profits and accumulations of slavery contributed to the formation of contemporary capitalism. Like Beckert, he turns to the history of the cotton industry, though he focuses on the United States from the colonial era to the end of the Civil War. Yet if Beckert’s story is the world the slave owners made, Baptist’s is the world made by the slave. “Enslaved African Americans built the modern United States,” he declares, “and indeed the entire modern world, in ways both obvious and hidden.” We know the claim that enslaved African Americans built the modern United States is not new. This “half” has, in fact, been told—multiple times and more often than not by black writers, some of whom are fleetingly mentioned in Baptist’s footnotes. But the claim that African Americans built the world is simply wrong. Baptist’s book is marked by such rhetorical excesses, which lend themselves to a blinkered and narcissistic American exceptionalism. The result is an oversimplified view of capitalism and slavery that ignores the historical contributions to modernity of Africans in the Caribbean and in Africa itself.”