Historian Edward Baptist's book The Half Has Never Been Told has received a great deal of deserved praise for its masterful demonstration of how slavery and capitalism were intertwined in America, and how the institution of white on black slave labor and violence were the driving engines behind the growth of the country's global economic empire.
However, the clarity of his writing and ability to use the "voices" of the enslaved to present a rigorous argument about the relationship between white supremacy, black chattel slavery, and America's economic growth expose the White lies of American exceptionalism and innocence--lies that too many white folks still cling to in the present.
One would also be remiss if they did not highlight how Dr. Baptist's position as a historian at an Ivy league institution gives his work on the political economy of slavery a level of visibility and credibility that other researchers--many of them black, independent scholars, or at other types of academic institutions--are not afforded. This does not lessen the importance or veracity of The Half Has Never Been Told. It is a plain statement of fact, one with which Baptist would likely agree.
His interview at Salon.com is a quick read. It is a teaser and in no way a substitute for The Half Has Never Been Told.
At the conclusion of the interview, Baptist offers up a beautiful and direct observation about the relationship between whiteness, white supremacy, and America's original sin of black chattel slavery.
As a historian, do you feel that slavery is an original sin that the United States will never be able to overcome? Or is there some seed of hope in what you’re writing?
Let’s think about original sin. Original sin is something that, theologically, we can never escape, because we’re not angels, right? We can’t stop being human beings and start being angels. But we can stop being white. By that I mean, not that we can change our pigmentation, but that we can stop consciously and unconsciously demanding the privileges of whiteness, and we can act in affirmative ways to undermine the privileges of whiteness. And that’s the way that the country will get past it, by abandoning white supremacy as a constitutive way in which our politics and our economics and our culture were ordered.
This is not something that’s going to happen tomorrow; it’s not going to happen, obviously, because we elected Barack Obama, or something like that. It’s a far, far deeper set of transformations. That’s how we can move to the point where we can see that the country has redeemed itself in some ways from this legacy.
Black and brown folks possess an almost preternatural understanding of whiteness and the dynamics of white racial identity because those are required skills for successfully negotiating life in a society structured around the maintenance and furthering of white supremacy. However, our truth-telling is usually ignored by most white folks because the bubble of Whiteness, by definition, is almost wholly immune to interventions made by those outside of it.
Ultimately, as I told Janice Graham on Our Common Grounds, I am of the belief that white Americans need to clean up their own house of white privilege and white supremacy from within. It is white people who need to do some truth-telling to their white brothers and sisters about the social evils of white supremacy and white privilege if those forces are ever to be fully purged from American life, culture, and society.
While black and brown people may suffer from and under white racism and white supremacy, it is White America that possesses the philosophical and moral problem that is white racism.
In thinking about the existential conundrum that is the color line's relationship to black Americans, the brilliant W.E.B. Du Bois asked, "how does it feel to be a problem?"
White folks are rarely asked, "what does it feel like to be The problem?"
Baptist's closing observations in his interview at Salon about American slavery and whiteness are a good start from which to formulate an answer to that question. Noel Ignatiev's incisive claim that "treason to Whiteness is loyalty to humanity" is more than a slogan. Rather, it is a life mantra.
Perhaps Baptist's soft, yet piercing like a dagger comments should be a footnote or auxiliary guide to helping white folks come to terms with their relationship to how the past lives in the present in an American society that is still structured around maintaining white supremacy.
What issues of public or private concern would you like share? Any interesting reading suggestions or other discoveries?