Saturday, January 31, 2015

‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ Comment Six

sable-venus THE HALF HAS NEVER BEEN TOLD. The saga of this remarkable book continues. Chapter 7 is entitled ‘Seed’, again with multiple meanings. It starts with cotton seed itself and the constant quest for better varieties and new and better land to grow it, another way of showing slavery’s expansionist nature.

But we learn a new word, new at least to us, ‘potterized.’ It comes from Robert Potter, a young Southern white low on the social scale who owned no slaves, but was determined to climb the political ladder by running for office. The slave owners and the elites rigged the game against him, and he called one of them out for a duel. He was dismissed as too lowly for a duel, so, enraged, he assaulted and beat the man, cracking his skull. Put on trial, he made an unusual defense, that his attack was justified because he was treated like a Negro, and hence his assault was justified to defend his ‘manhood,’ another sense of ‘seed.’ One was a ‘man’ precisely because he couldn’t be treated or dismissed as a slave.

While he did a short term in prison, he returned to fight more battles, and his example spread to spur the ambitions of other whites low in status. They were becoming ‘potterized’ en masse. Andrew Jackson was savvy enough to tap into this mass resentment demanding ‘white equality.’ He based his campaigns on it and rode the wave to the White House, promoting universal suffrage for white males while, at the same time, stripping the ballot from free Blacks in states like New York. Combined with his Indian Removal Act, stealing native lands for cotton, the Jackson years represented the consolidation of a multiclass ‘white united front’ in electoral politics and white supremacy as the standard nationwide. Now a marco feature, it grew from the seed of ‘potterizing’ on the micro level.

‘Seed’ also is used in the sexual sense. While enslavers almost always raped their female slaves, it was now showing up in the marketplace. Some slave women were deemed ‘fancy,’ meaning sexually desirable, and were stripped naked on the block. One ad was put out for the ‘Sable Venus.’ There were even slave buyers ‘balls’, where slave purchasers could peruse a dance floor of Black women scantily clad in night clothes to make their picks and bids.

The chapter also introduces us to an old practice that sounds new. Enslavers often mortgaged their slaves to get cash to buy more. One institution in New Orleans, the Consolidated Association of the Planters of Louisiana, CAPL, would make the mortgages, securitize them, and sell them. To minimize risk, they had the legislature back up the paper, guaranteeing the taxpayers would insure it. These securities were then sold and resold as $500 bonds, roughly the average price of a slave at the time. Hence someone in the North or anywhere could hold the equivalent of the ownership of one slave per bond, and collect interest on it. Thus you could profit from slavery indirectly, and at a distance. Did a ‘bubble’ in these securities arise and burst? It certainly did, in the 1837 crash. But that’s a longer story. More to come.

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‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ Comment Five


WE CONTINUE our read through ‘THE HALF HAS NEVER BEEN TOLD,’ the illuminating story of slavery and capitalism. ‘Breath’ is the title of chapter six, and again has a double meaning. It begins as awakening, as in the growing consciousness of how the enslaved in developing their common language, came to understand themselves. One word, ‘Stole,’ came to sum it up, as in ‘we were stole from Africa,’ or ‘my Daddy was stole down to Georgia by the traders,’ or ‘I was stole from the auction block by a new master.’

The slaves had great clarity on the core theft that formed capitalism’s primitive accumulation. It was stolen, labor from black skins, land to put it to work from red skins, then the repeated stealing as both slaves and the product of their unpaid labor cycled over and over.

It posed a conflict in the thinking of the rest of the country, especially as it was swept by a new period of religious awakening, or ‘breath’ as the rise of spirit, as the spirit of the times. First was the religion of Nat Turner, who practiced an Old Testament-inspired sense of justice and wreaking vengeance by slaying one’s oppressors. The shock waves saw the rise of abolitionism first among the Quakers. Benjamin Lundy of Ohio started publishing ‘The Emancipator,’ moving it to Baltimore, where he was helped by a young assistant, William Lloyd Garrison. At the other extreme, the slave master first denied religion to Blacks, claiming ‘they had no souls.’ When that ploy quickly failed, they developed their own version of ‘Christianity’ that enforced slavery on every point, even as they made it a crime to teach slaves to read, lest they read the Bible for themselves. The vast waves of new Methodists and Baptists in the North were somewhere in between, trying to distance themselves from it all.

Meanwhile slavery surged onward, ever more cruel and more efficient. One small example. In the Southeast, at first slaves were sold on ‘exceptional days,’ such as the beginning of a new year, or at market fairs held at crossroads. But now, especially in the ‘Southwest,’ meaning Mississippi, they were sold every day and everywhere, as the sources of great wealth. More to come.

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‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ Comment Four


MORE ON SLAVERY AND CAPITALISM, continuing our journey through ‘The Half Has Never Been Told.’ Chapter 5 is titled ‘Tongues.’ And it begins with the fact of slave songs and their meaning. Often the enslaved on US soil couldn’t speak the same language—some spoke a French Creole from Haiti, others an English from the Chesapeake, still other the Gullah language of the Georgia coast, or other African tongues. The author here stresses the role of the work song in developing a common tongue, the African American dialect of English. But more than a common language, he shows the emergence of a common culture, one of resistance and the need to survive, to endure, under terrible odds.

The wider political context is the need for various ‘compromises,’ bringing new states into the Union in pairs--one slave, one free—to maintain a balance of power. The chief theoretician of slavery was John C. Calhoun, and one opponent at the top was John Quncy Adams. After one conversation with Calhoun in 1820, where the latter threatened civil war, Adams kept his mouth shut, but wrote the following in his diary:

“If the dissolution of the union should result from the slave question, it is obvious as anything…that it must be shortly afterward followed by the universal emancipation of the slaves.” For “slavery is the great and foul stain upon the North American Union… The Union might then be reorganized on the fundamental principle of emancipation. The object is vast in its compass, awful in its prospects, sublime and beautiful in its issue. A life devoted to it would be nobly spent or sacrificed.”

Adams clearly saw through a window into the future, and it serves to show the clarity both sides saw on the importance of the stakes.

The author returns to the activities of the slaves themselves, describing Saturday night corn husking competitions as entertainment, and circle dances after one or another had won, and the new music that arose. As opposed to the music of those not enslaved, which was conservative, trying to keep to the patterns of old Europe, the emerging slave cultural was dynamic and modern. Among free Blacks, it traveled to urban centers like New York City, where it was performed, even copied by ’whites’ in ‘Blackface,’ in poor and gross imitations of the real thing. The ‘tongues’ were giving the world a new music, a gift that keeps on giving, even to this day. More to come.

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‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ Comment Three


IF EVERY AFRICAN AMERICAN, OR EVEN EVERY WORKER, READ THIS BOOK, CAPITALISM WOULD BE SHAKEN TO THE CORE. Continuing my progress through ‘The Half has Never Been Told,’ I’m taken by new revelations exposing ever new layers of lies and distortion we’ve been taught about our history and our economy—and I’m one who is somewhat literate in both. Just consider that most everything you think you know about slavery is a lie. You won’t be far off.

Chapters three and four take the name ‘Hands,’ Right Hands for 3, Left Hands for 4. The author uses these metaphors to make deep points with double meanings.

Think of ‘right hand’ as a seat of power, as in ‘the right hand of God.’ Then think of hands writing bills of sale or letters of credit, or even ‘writs of hand,’ a kind of commercial paper. All these were used in moving living human flesh along the classic cycle of capitalism, M-C-M’, money to capital to greater money. The author dramatically situates this activity in Maspero’s Coffee House and Slave Market in New Orleans, and shows how it came to rival New York and London as a center of growing capitalism rooted in ‘slave labor camps,’ a term he often uses over the softer ‘plantation.’ While they are on Maspero’s auction block, the qualities of a slave might be embellished—a good blacksmith, a good carpenter, but when the bills of sale are written, the are just so many ‘hands’ for the field.

The ‘Left Hand’ of chapter four is more revealing, since most humans, including slaves, are right handed. This chapter exposes many lies, first and foremost that slavery was unproductive compared to free labor. In fact, it was very productive, and wage labor that picked cotton could never match slave labor. Why? Because slave labor was driven by torture. A slave in the Deep South region had a poundage of cotton to pick every day. They were whipped with flesh-tearing bullwhips when they didn’t meet it. (The crack of the whip is the origin of the term, ‘cracker’, by the way.) If a slave met the number, it was then raised higher. So slaves had to force themselves to pick faster, using both hands independently, as in playing the piano, so their left hand became as dexterous as their right, and both became so fast they moved in a blur. It was called the ‘push system.’ Some overseers, tiring of swinging the lash, even invented ‘whipping machines’ they could pedal with less effort and to torture more slaves at the end of every day. This process was used on over one million human beings over many decades, producing enormous profits, making Southern enslavers among the richest people in the world, and driving the growth of the industrial revolution everywhere. Slavery resides in the very inner soul of capitalism. More to come.

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    '’The Half Has Never Been Told’ Comment One


    STARTING OUR JOURNEY THOUGH AN IMPORTANT BOOK. The first chapter of ‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ is titled ‘Feet’ and covers the period between 1783 and 1810. The reason soon becomes clear. In macro terms, the trade and movement of slaves is shifting from slaves brought from Africa to the selling and transport of ‘surplus’ slaves raised on breeder farms in Virgina and the Carolinas. They were transported South and West largely on foot, in slave ‘coffels,’ groups of slaves anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred, with the men bound together in heavy chains, with women bound in ropes walking behind. A few ‘white’ slave drivers rode on horses, making frequent use of the lash and swallows of whiskey to keep the line moving and less aware of pain. ‘Coffel,’ by the way, is a term added by slaves themselves, borrowing from the Arabic for a caravan including slaves.

    The key point Edward Baptist wants to make in this chapter is that even in this period, groups of the upper classes were making money from slavery, even if they never owned a single slave. Myriad land speculation schemes prevailed, with the prices rising as the land was made profitable by and for slave labor, and the commercial paper for these sales became bonds, traded and sold in New York and New England, with immense profits going into the family coffers of many of the Founding Fathers and their friends. The slave economy and the commercial economy were linked like breathing in and breathing out.

    Two side stories. Not all whites liked slavery, As the ‘coffels’ came into Western PA near what is now Pittsburgh, a ‘white’ group called ‘The Negro Club’ would lure flatboats laden with slaves to the shore with a promise of rum. They would them attack the overseers and free the Blacks to take off into the woods.

    The other tells about Abraham Lincoln, the president’s grandfather, killed by a Native American, who was in turn shot by the president’s uncle. The son Thomas tried to keep the farm going in Kentucky, but kept being cheated by enslavers and their land agents. He then took his wife and young son, Abraham, away from Kentucky and north of the Ohio. The two incidents surely had a conflicted impact of the thinking of young Abe. More to come…

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    ‘The Half Has Never Been Told’’ Comment Two


      DOUBLE MEANINGS. Chapter two of ‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ is titled ‘Heads’ It has a double meaning. The first is ‘heads’ as in heads of cattle, and the last-ditch efforts to import as many ‘heads’ of the enslaved as possible before the provision on the US Constitution banning the overseas trade in slaves took effect. (It wasn’t always observed.)

      The second meaning emerges at the end of the chapter, and refers to the beheading of slaves who had revolted in what is now Louisiana, and putting those severed heads on pikes staked along the roadways and slave plantations as warnings to others with a mind to rebel.

      In between is a story of the geopolitics of slavery in a time of Napoleon and the war of 1812. One part you probably never considered before is the motive force behind the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the US. Spain, Britain, France and the US all contended for it, but what finally cinched the deal was the impact of the slave revolution in what is now Haiti. Former slaves in power weakened the will of the European powers, and it became a hot potato. Jefferson bought it for a song, with the idea that much of it would make room for the internal expansion of slavery to the Southwest. We all learned about the ‘Northwest Ordinance’ that forbade the expansion of slavery into the ‘Northwest Territories, from Ohio to Minnesota. But there was also a ‘Southwest Ordinance,’ the same in every way, but without any ban on slavery.

      Haiti had an impact of the enslaved as well. (One point to like about this book is the frequent use of the active voice. Slave owners are called ‘enslavers’ and slaves, the ‘enslaved.’ This is not dry, dusty history.) The chapter tells the remarkable story of the ‘German Coast Uprising’ led by Charles Deslondes. He was brought to the ‘Orleans Territory’ by his master, along with thousands of others fleeing the Haitian Revolution. He brought the ideas of revolt with him, and led several hundred slaves in a revolt against plantations along the Mississippi. The second meaning of ‘heads’ comes from the suppression of this revolt.

      Another you’ll learn about is the ‘Red Stick War’ and how the suppression of Native Americans was directed linked to the securing of this territory for the enslavers. It was a war against the Muscogee, inspired by Tecumseh, but won by Andrew Jackson, who then turned his forces to New Orleans, finally driving out the Brits. The way was then clear for the vast expansion of the economic force that fueled the growth of capitalism here and around the world. More to come.

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