My new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, is the story of two bodies. The first body was the new kind of slavery that emerged in the young United States right after it achieved its independence from the British Empire. Although at the end of the American Revolution, slavery looked — to some observers — as if it would disappear along with the new states’ colonial institutions, it did not. Instead enslavers like Revolutionary War hero Wade Hampton of South Carolina transformed the institution. Once those innovators learned how to produce cotton with slave labor, cotton fiber became the most important commodity of the Industrial Revolution. As world demand for cotton grew after 1790, enslavers began to move enslaved African Americans south and west by the thousands. The victims of these forced migrations were people like Charles Ball, a young Maryland man sold to a slave trader in 1805. The trader, who Ball eventually learned was named M’Giffin, chained Ball to 51 other people and then marched them all 400 miles to South Carolina.
That’s where M’Giffin sold Charles Ball to Wade Hampton. Divided by 400 miles of marching from his wife and children, Ball had also not seen his mother since her sale to a slave trader 20 years earlier. Now, Wade Hampton and his overseers would try to separate him from his very own self. Using work-management techniques as ingenious as anything modern experts could imagine, except that these were backed up with brutal whippings and other kinds of torture, they forced Ball to reveal exactly how much work he could do if he went full speed from daybreak to dusk. Then, the next day — and the next day — and the next day, and so on — they pushed him to work even faster, always with the threat of a bloody, horrifically painful, skin-shredding cowhide whipping hanging over his head.
Over the next few decades, what happened to Charles Ball would happen again and again. By the time enslavers finished seizing millions of acres in the Mississippi Valley from the Indians and buying millions more from European empires like France, cheap cotton made ever-more efficiently by enslaved African Americans was becoming the key raw material of an unprecedented transformation that we remember as the Industrial Revolution. Eventually, this massive economic change would raise millions and then billions of human beings’ standards of living, moving them out of rural subsistence agriculture and into factory-focused work. While this change has challenging implications for the future of every species that lives on this planet, there is no question that the modernization of human societies has brought great benefits to many humans. But for Charles Ball, whose ever-more-efficient cotton labor was one of the foundations of this vast pyramid of transformation, it brought nothing but pain. And he was not alone. By 1860, enslavers like Hampton moved over one million enslaved people, controlled over 80 percent of the world cotton market, and helped make possible a revolutionary factory system that changed forever how human economies worked.
As a writer and historian who was trying to get a handle on this massive unfree human movement, I was inspired by the novelist Ralph Ellison. He described American history as a “vast drama being played out on the body of a ‘negro’ giant.” Ellison’s metaphor seemed to describe the experiences of people like Charles Ball. Tied up like Gulliver, the body made up of all the enslaved bodies that were being bought and marched and exploited in the sources I was reading — plantation ledgers, slave traders’ journals, newspapers full of slave sale ads and runaway ads were, I came to see, a giant metaphorical body. This one was stretched across the new states and territories, and across the decades of rapid American expansion. And everything that enslavers like Hampton tried to do was an attempt to turn enslaved African Americans’ bodies against their own interest. So they measured Charles Ball’s cotton picking rate and demanded more until he had to race left hand against right hand in a nonstop rush to survive the working day with an unstriped back.
As I wrote, I saw that you could dramatize the image of the economic and other relationships which enslavers were creating as the parts of a body. Feet for the slave trade that marched people south and west, away from everything they’d known, everyone that gave them strength and love. Right hand and left hand for the way that enslaved African Americans’ creative abilities at work were extracted from and turned against them. Seed for the way entrepreneurs figured out how to tap world credit markets for the financing that allowed them to buy ever-growing armies of enslaved migrants forced from Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas to the new states. And backs for the way that by the 1830s, the system — the great big interlinked and growing body of innovations and relationships — was building the wealth of Wade Hampton on the backs of enslaved people. Whites in the cotton states were, on average, far wealthier than those in the rest of the United States, and the health of all Western countries’ economies depended to no small extent on the price of cotton.
But what about the second body? This one is the body of African America itself, a culture and an identity formed in reaction to the creation of the body exploited by the corporate relationships instituted by enslavers and financiers and politicians and factory owners and consumers? Western culture has acquired, over the last 200 years, a couple of metaphorical ways to think about people whose bodies are controlled and forced to work against their own control and interests. One is the zombie. This word entered U.S. culture on a large scale when U.S. Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, and has gone on to become a staple of horror film and literature. But the concept, in Haiti at any rate, was really a commentary on the history of slavery. Supposedly, some Haitian Vodûn practitioners can use spells and potions to kill a person, and then raise them up as a will-less body that moves and acts but isn’t really alive anymore. This zombie story is really a myth about slavery: a system in which powerful white “wizards” created rituals of “social death,” as the anthropologist Orlando Patterson described the ways slaves were separated from their people and their own control over their own bodies. Likewise, we can see how forced migrants to the cotton frontier like Charles Ball, though they were already enslaved when they were bought by slave traders, were pushed through rituals of social death like separation from family and sale. And we can see how they could feel that in the cotton fields, they might be moving, but they were no longer truly alive.
U.S. pop-culture zombies, unlike their Haitian cousins, look like a replay of the slave-revolt horror stories that gripped 19th-century white America with anxiety from time to time. In those, “faithful servants” suddenly turned into murderous irrational rapists, just like American zombies are familiar people turned into mindless undead attackers. Maybe it is no accident that the zombie trope in U.S. popular culture took off in the mid-1960s, as images of “Black Power” and “urban riots” occupied white America’s television screens. But in the 19th century, the zombie body that African America was in danger of becoming as cotton slavery expanded was more like the classical Haitian formulation. By the time Charles Ball — separated from the family and the hope for freedom and the pride in his own labor that had made even a life in Maryland slavery worthwhile — was toiling down one cotton row after another all day long, becoming the equivalent of a zombie was a real possibility. And not just for him, but for all African Americans in general. As the power of enslavers grew, so too did their ability to render not just individuals but a whole Gulliver-body of African America dead in spiritAs the power of enslavers grew, so too did their ability to render not just individuals but a whole Gulliver-body of African America dead in spirit, its components dead to one another, enslaved forever in a body that served their captors.
Yet there’s a different metaphor that describes what the second body, the one that responded to enslavers’ exploitation, actually did. That is the prisoner of war. When we see on video clips of a shot-down pilot or a kidnapped journalist forced to mouth the ideological slogans of his or her captors, we don’t necessarily think that the POW believes those words. Indeed, we hear about prisoners of all nations, in all situations, who develop their own society, their own codes of communication, their own modes of resisting even when they cannot act. This creation and curation of alternative realities — acts of caring and respect for each other, hopes, hidden societies, systems of values that relentlessly oppose those of their captors — keeps POWs from becoming zombies. And slavery, especially the intensified, entrepreneurial, constantly changing kind that developed in the 19th century U.S., was, as the author Ta-Nehesi Coates puts it, a constant state of war.
Enslaved African Americans, dropped into a deeper, growing system of slavery after the American Revolution, behaved more like POWs than zombies. Though their collective body — and individual bodies — were stretched on the rack of brutal new systems of labor control, slave trading, and financialization, more of them refused to succumb to despair, far more than the number who simply gave up. In some slave societies, people gave up. In some slave societies, enslaved people did everything they could to escape their collective identity. But in this one, people like Charles Ball chose to identify with each other. From disparate elements, they built a common language and a common set of cultural practices. They chose to identify with and care for each other. Part of this came from the fact that instead of assimilating the ideas and justifications of their oppressors, they created an account of history that named the very process that enslavers tried to use to divide them and exploit them, the forced migration to the high-profit entrepreneurial cotton frontier, as the evil that they faced together and which made them one. If one body was the system of functions that extracted value from all enslaved people’s bodies by subjecting them to a continual process of creations and destructions, the other body was that of African Americans as a people, as a group that discovered their own sense of identity in the crucible of intensified exploitation and horrific violence.
The bodies whose story this book tells aren’t actual bodies — although there are lots of bodies in the book, and many of them endure some pretty horrific treatment. Instead, there are two metaphorical bodies at the spine of The Half Has Never Been Told: two bodies that grow and twine and fight each other, almost like Siamese twins trapped in the same womb. And that’s the story that develops over the course of the book’s 420 pages. It’s a long book, until you think about what it is actually doing, which is re-centering the history of the United States between the Revolution and the Civil War around this one historical process in two bodies. By the end of the book, each of these bodies has played a central role in shaping politics and society and economics and culture in the United States. Their struggle brought on the Civil War. It brought about emancipation. And in 2014, it is still not always clear which body is going to be the winner.
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Edward E. Baptist is associate professor of history at Cornell University. He earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of Creating an Old South, which won the 2003 Rembert Patrick Best Book in Florida History Award from the Florida Historical Society, and the co-editor of New Studies in the History of American Slavery. His new book is The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.