For a current-events blog, The Weekly Sift focuses an unusual amount of its attention on the past. That’s because I believe American history is often mistold and misunderstood, leaving most Americans with a false image of who we are and where our current problems come from.
This is especially true with regard to race, slavery, and the Civil War. Three of the Sift’s most popular posts retell the post-Civil-War history of America: “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“, “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System“, and “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“. This week I push back into the pre-Civil-War period with a review of Edward Baptist’s recent book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.
In the usual high-school U.S. history class, slavery is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin: something for the characters to compete over that has no real significance otherwise. (The Maltese Falcon, for example). From the Constitutional Convention to the Civil War, white politicians come up with all kinds of plots to increase or diminish slavery, but what the slaves actually do is only discussed in sidebars, if at all. So, for example, “Dred Scott” is a story about the Supreme Court, not about Dred Scott. Even abolitionism is mainly the story of William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe, with African Americans making only cameo appearances.
Baptist turns all that upside-down, and tells the Washington-to-Lincoln history of America as the story of slaves and their enslavers: How the work of slaves built the wealth of America, and how the battle to control those slaves and that wealth structured America. Telling the story that way, it turns out, connects all kinds of episodes that seem like a random list of stuff-that-happened in the usual telling.
I figure to have that post out by nine. The weekly summary (let’s say around 11) will talk about the Republican senators’ letter to Iran; the resignations, protests, and shootings that resulted from the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson; the racist-frat flap at University of Oklahoma; and a few other things, including the death of Terry Pratchett.