Review: The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist
We have not taken American slavery seriously. It is seldom taught correctly in schools. In essence, we still believe in the Lost Cause myths that slavery was not all that bad and that it was just an extension of slavery in other historical empires like Ancient Rome. Edward Baptist writes in his book The Half Has Never Been Told that those myths are wrong. In fact, not only was American slavery different than slavery in other countries, it also built the modern American economy in the 19th Century. Cotton, the driver of economic growth in this country, was picked by Black enslaved people. As a result, Black enslaved people built America.
The strongest chapter in Baptist’s book is Chapter 4 titled “Left Hand”. In it Baptist describes how enslaved people resisted their enslavers by sabotaging tools of the plantation. Enslavers, however, struck back by using torture methods to make sure slaves were efficient. It worked. In 1800, 1.4 million pounds of cotton was picked in America by enslaved people but by 1860 that amount increased to 2 billion pounds. How did enslavers do it?
They did it first by instituting quotas on how many pounds an enslaved person needed to pick daily. If they did not meet the quota, an enslaved person was sure to be tortured. Many enslaved people had to disembody themselves in order to meet the quota. Little things such as cutting their finger on a boll or major things such as an overseer shooting another enslaved person in the head could not stop them from packing their baskets with cotton, dirt, and or rocks in order to make quota. This cruel phenomenon had dire consequences for enslaved people, many of whom suffered from PTSD years later at the sight of a scale.
One of the strengths of this book is the voice and the stories of the former enslaved. Baptist uses slave narratives and Works Progress Administration (WPA) records to tell the first-hand accounts of enslaved people who were forced to migrate in coffles from the Mid-Atlantic to the Deep South, the torture they experienced, and even how they dictated their own history histories. For example, Eenslaved people were the ones who described themselves as being “stolen” from Africa and separated from families when they were sold to other plantations.
The remainder of Baptist’s book covers the history of slavery and the fight for its expansion up until the Civil War. Much of this history is a rehashing of what you may have learned in a high school U.S. History class just in more detail. Personally, I think the book could have been much shorter and would have been more effective if it had ended after Chapter 6.
Overall, I commend the 12 year effort it took to research and write this book. Readers who are not familiar with the economic history slavery should definitely check it out.