Book: The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 2014
Summary: The most succinct summary is the subtitle: “Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.” If you were taught the myth, as I was, that slavery in the United States would have ended naturally because it was an outdated system that wouldn’t survive our modernizing economy, this book will correct your view of history. Tortured, enslaved people were the engine of the modernizing economy in the industrial age.
Thoughts: That myth is so fully infused into my brain that it took the whole book with its many stories, facts, and statistics to rewire my understanding. And, I suspect that I’ll need a refresher now and then so that the old patterns don’t re-emerge.
This was the Black History Month selection for the Community of Understanding and Hope Book Group, a book club focused on books about race in America. I wrote about this group most recently in these two posts:
- Celebrating our 10th anniversary, with the book Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
- Selecting our 2018-19 books
The Half Has Never Been Told is heavy and hefty, even for our group. We’re used to talking about difficult topics, but this one was especially challenging.
I noticed a dynamic that we’re going to want to pay some attention to. Books that are very explicit about the exact nature of oppression help those of us who are white to understand the damage that is done and recognize the need for reconciliation and reparation. The same books, though, can be re-traumatizing for our black members. Black folks want white folks to get it, but we’ll want to be careful that we’re not doing further damage in the process of that education.
Appeal: In spite of all that, The Half Has Never Been Told is very readable. Our book group appreciated the use of the body as a metaphor throughout the book, allowing for both a chronological and thematic telling of the history. The “Tongues” chapter, for instance, talks about music, among other things. The “Seed” chapter weaves together rapes of enslaved women, risks in financial markets, and murders among Southern white men unable to bear perceived insult. The Half Has Never Been Told is for every one who wants a more complete version of American history than we were taught in school, even at the college level.
Have you read this book? What did you think?