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5 Things About Slavery You Probably Didn’t Learn In Social Studies: A Short Guide To ‘The Half Has Never Been Told’

Edward Baptist’s new book, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery And The Making Of American Capitalism”, drew a lot of attention last month after the Economist said it was too hard on slave owners.

What you might not have taken away from the ensuing media storm is that “The Half Has Never Been Told” is quite a gripping read. Baptist weaves deftly between analysis of economic data and narrative prose to paint a picture of American slavery that is pretty different from what you may have learned in high school Social Studies class.

The whole thing is well worth reading in full. Baptist positions his book in opposition to textbooks that present slavery like a distant aberration of American history, cramming 250 years into a few chapters in a way “that cuts the beating heart out of the story.” To counter that image of history, Baptist devotes much of the book to depicting the lived experience of enslavement in a way that’s vivid and immediate.

But for those of you who are strapped for time, or who want a peek into the book before committing to the full 420 pages, here are five of his key arguments:

1) Slavery was a key driver of the formation of American wealth.

Baptist argues that our narrative of slavery generally goes something like this: it was a terrible thing, but it was an anomoly, a sort of feudal throwback within capitalism whose demise would inevitably come with the rise of wage labor. In fact, he argues, it was at the heart of the development of American capitalism.

 

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