History, hashtags, and the truth about slavery



When we sat down last week to read The Economist’s dismaying—and subsequently retracted—review of Edward E. Baptist’s new history of American slavery, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, we experienced a strong sense of déjà vu.

The anonymous Economist reviewer objected to Baptist’s portrayal of slavery as a brutal system of “calibrated pain” that provided the foundation for the rise of American capitalism, concluding, “Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.”

Hadn’t we read this before?

Pretty much.

While researching the memory of slavery in Charleston, S.C., we ran across an anonymous review of a book by an ex-slave named William A. Sinclair that appeared in the city’s News and Courier in 1905. Like Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, Sinclair’s The Aftermath of Slavery offered a scathing portrait of the “gruesome and unholy institution of human slavery.”

Yet the Charleston reviewer rejected both Sinclair’s negative appraisal of slavery and his positive take on Reconstruction. “In attempting to establish his thesis Dr. Sinclair sticks at nothing. No proposition is too baldly absurd for his advocacy,” wrote the critic. While this “one-sided and over-strained book … may impress a few cranks and doctrinaires, we do not believe that the mass of the American people are ready to accept either its assertions or its conclusions.”

When it comes to the memory of America’s original sin, some things, it seems, never change. Criticism of white slaveholders and the world they created, we are told, was and is inherently biased.

But the furious uproar sparked by The Economist’s review suggests that 2014 is, in fact, a far cry from 1905. It is even a far cry from 1977, when neither Ronald Reagan nor his wife, Nancy, faced a public backlash for condemning the television miniseries Roots as biased against whites, in his case, or racially “inflammatory,” in hers.

This time around, more than a few “cranks” rose up, provoking a swift mea culpa.

It is impossible to imagine such a response a century ago. As the News and Courier reviewer understood, most Americans then were not ready to accept Sinclair’s unvarnished portrayal of slavery or his call for racial equality. Instead, the public (North and South) preferred moonlight-and-magnolias stories in which happy slaves dutifully served indulgent masters. In that Old South fantasyland, constructed by writers and historians such as Thomas Nelson Page and Ulrich B. Phillips, the enslaved were rarely beaten or sold. The vast majority of planters devoted themselves to civilizing their inferior charges. In the 1930s that comforting vision of the peculiar institution became enshrined in the national imagination in the novel and film Gone With the Wind.

Over the past half-century, academic historians have thoroughly demolished the benign interpretation of slavery. These days Phillips’s work serves primarily as a cautionary tale of how racial prejudice can undermine historical inquiry. And while it is difficult to judge how far the new scholarship on slavery has penetrated the popular consciousness, there are promising signs. Steve McQueen’s 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, focused a bright spotlight on the sadism of slavery. Meanwhile, southern tourism meccas such as Charleston have taken steps to confront the more troubling sides of slavery at museums and plantations.

Little wonder, then, that The Economist’s review of Edward Baptist’s book immediately lit up the Twittersphere. Dozens of people—some in the academy, many not—channeled their outrage in a series of tongue-in-cheek tweets. Adopting the reviewer’s magnanimous spirit, they proposed a host of people and events, both real and fictitious, that also “deserve” a more evenhanded treatment:

“The author does not consider how burning witches at the stake allowed people to learn valuable fire-starting skills,” remarked @AUOptimist.

@rahbrine wondered, “Why does Nabokov paint such a grim portrait of Humbert Humbert when by his own account he bought Lolita lots of candy?”

“At no point does the Diary of Anne Frank mention the daily tribulations of ordinary hardworking Wehrmacht,” concluded @oceanclub.

Within a day of publication, The Economist had formally retracted the book review and issued an apology. “Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil,” the editors admitted. “We regret having published this and apologise for having done so.”

In the end, the episode has left us feeling upbeat. True, a cyber-kerfuffle will do little to redress the legacies of slavery that still plague the United States. It is also disheartening that, in the 21st century, a reputable magazine could publish a piece whose take on slavery is as outdated as a byline-free book review. And, as Greg Grandin points out in The Nation, this was not the first such incident. In January, The Economist printed a review of Grandin’s recent book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, whose author employed remarkably similar language.

On balance, however, the events of the past week have been good news—and not just for Baptist’s book sales. For one, they highlight the fact that we no longer live in a world where it is acceptable to expound upon on the “positive” sides of slavery. Today, black bondspeople, not their white masters, get the historical benefit of the doubt—and rightly so.

The controversy has also inspired a steady stream of essays and articles, including two thoughtful responses by Baptist himself, that have appeared in mainstream media outlets, pushing scholarly conversations about slavery out into the open, beyond academic journals and conferences.

Finally, The Economist’s review and the reaction to it reveal how social media can be harnessed to shape historical understanding for the better. Let’s hope that the success of this Twitter campaign will inspire more people—including academics, who are routinely criticized for secluding themselves in ivory towers—to begin using social media to set the historical record straight. Most Americans are not going to run out and buy Baptist’s 528-page tome, but they will regularly check their Twitter feeds.

Author Bios: Ethan J. Kytle, author of Romantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War Era (Cambridge University Press, 2014), and Blain Roberts, author of Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), are writing a book on the memory of slavery in Charleston, S.C. They are associate professors of history at California State University at Fresno.