Friday, 5 September 2014

An Objective History of Slavery (or the persistence of liberal racism). Also, a dog running into the sea.

A few months ago, I was bowled over by an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates that enabled me to understand slavery and American history in a new light.  I was surprised at how little interest there was in the post, and wrote a follow up on that basis.  It was met with equal indifference.

I was somewhat worried that I was being hypersensitive, but my fears have been assuaged, somewhat, by a book review in yesterday's Economist, of Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.  It was Coates who drew it to my attention on Twitter, and the review is really quite jaw-droppingly racist.

The Economist apologized and withdrew the review, seemingly on the basis of the last line quoted above, but very little in the entire piece stands up to scrutiny.

That's right: slaves had a vested interest in making slavery sound, you know, worse than it was.  We need to be skeptical about the veracity of their testimony, and need to weigh it against the stories white slaveowners told about how well they looked after their slaves: "Jemima was practically a member of the family etc. etc."¡  One can only assume that we also need to take into account the rosy recollections of what anyone who has seen Quentin Tarantino's "Django" would know were called back then "house niggers": trusted slaves, who lived in the family home and part of whose job it was to ensure that the slaves did not escape¡

The ridiculousness of this assertion was highlighted by the fact that the picture used to illustrate the review was that of Patsey, Lupita Nyong'o's character in Twelve Years a Slave.  Anyone who has either seen the film or read the book will know that it was precisely because Patsey was the most valuable slave, that she suffered the most torture.  The entire critique is premised on the idea that if you treated slaves nicely they would not want their freedom.  For a magazine that supposedly subscribes to a liberal worldview it really is mindboggling.

Re-read, carefully, the concluding paragraph, ignoring the last two sentences.

unexamined factor
may have
could have
Here we have someone writing a book review and picking holes in a very important historical work not on the basis of empirical evidence or research, but on the basis of casual racism and the fact that the idea that white people were to blame for slavery and without it the United States of America could never have come into existence makes the reviewer feel a bit uncomfortable.  The Economist clearly has some tightening to do in its editorial department.  And to answer the question I posed in my follow-up post mentioned above: yes, I think it is very clear that whites really do run scared of black history.

On the plus side, however, it spawned for a couple of hours #economistbookreviews on Twitter.

And if even those haven't lightened your mood, here's a gratuitous video of a dog running into the ocean.

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