By now you have certainly all read, or at least become aware of, The Economist’s rather scathing review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. If not, I’ll just point out that the unsigned piece ends with an unfavorable, “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.” (Sept 6-12, p. 86-87)
I have not read Baptist’s book, though I plan to – perhaps because of the review…so I suppose he has The Economist to thank for that. But because I have yet to read the study, I do not feel like I can reasonably comment on either the book or the review. I have noticed the veritable shit storm across most social media platforms attacking The Economist for running a questionable (read: problematic that leans toward racism) review. The Economist has since removed the piece from its web component and issued a retraction – what reads as an apology for insensitivity.
But still…there is a word that keeps coming up in the attacks on the review that I find troubling…or at least slippery: victim. If slaves were not victims, suggest many incensed readers, what were they? I think it would be foolish to imply that black people were not victims of a reprehensible system. In the most obvious sense, they certainly were. But is the reductionist victimization position doing the history of slavery a disservice? Is it indeed demeaning the slaves themselves?
I would suggest this: to reduce a living breathing human being to the status of victim robs that individual of the very humanity that slavery failed to destroy. It’s been a long time since we understood slavery as social death – but the notion appears to have been oddly resurrected in the many missives launched against The Economist.
Let me remind you – I say this without having read the book. So before you come at me, remember – I am just looking at a word. One word that keeps coming up…repeatedly. And I am wondering if another word choice might better suit those enslaved.