Today is a break from my typical brooding. Instead, I’ll invite you to survey and possibly enjoy the things that inspired much of my brooding this year.
We all basically agree that slavery is a shameful and nasty blight on our nation’s story. Horrible. Cruel. Abusive. Embarrassing to the American legacy. But the high school textbooks, and the national conscience, all seem to go no further than that. It was awful, and it took a terrible war to end it, but thank goodness that America still rose to greatness in spite of slavery’s dark stain.
But the author asks:
What if America grew to economic and geographic greatness not in spite of slavery, but absolutely and critically because of it?
In other words, is it possible that the meteoric rise of our nation was built directly atop the scarred backs of enslaved African-Americans?
Baptist, a 19th-century historian, spends his entire volume arguing that hell yes that is exactly what happened.
Southern slaves built the American economic machine by producing truly massive profits from the world’s most important commodity, cotton. In turn, that burgeoning cotton market gave birth to the 19th century’s industrial revolution as a whole. Those markets, and that revolution, created the entire modern economy as we know it.
This “Half” to which the title refers is frankly the entire shadow side of our rise as a nation — the half of the story that nobody wants to hear; the half told about the disenfranchised, the abused, the enchained, the coerced; and the half told about the exuberant, callous, entrepreneurial forces that repeatedly through decades compelled them, degraded them, exploited them, and dismembered them. All the way from Declaration to Proclamation, with echoes stretching forward all the way to the present.
And Baptist says that IF it is true that the American economic empire was built upon the backs of the enslaved, then it is an unrelenting and tragic joke that most of the immense wealth they generated is still today being withheld from their progeny.
The Half Has Never Been Told was thick, but profound. It was at times too academic, perhaps too detailed. But to his credit, Baptist set out to make a definitive history of this little-told half of the American story, and I say he succeeded. Thus his thoroughness was warranted.
While not always riveting, Baptist does a nice job alternating between (A) the gravitas of personal stories of the enslaved, and (B) the more analytical and broad pictures of politics and macro-economics that walked forward through time intimately bound up with slavery’s expansion.
Thus at times it was moving, but more than anything, always enlightening. I wish a less-dense version of this work could be made available for high school US history classes everywhere. Certainly worth the time investment to get through it.
My verdict: A-
Authors have written plenty of books on “the human story” to lesser or greater applause … but Sapiens is exceptional due to its scope, depth, and sheer distance from the subject (which is us, by the way). Harari studies homo sapiens the way that we study chimpanzees, dolphins, or distant star systems. He is an unfamiliar, an outsider — a detached and extremely curious investigator.
And he makes some pretty profound observations, and asks some damn good questions, through the course of his investigation. Here are some of those:
- Did we domesticate wheat, dogs, and cattle? Or did they in fact co-opt our efforts, and domesticate us? He suggests both could very well be true.
- Has human history actually improved the average level of happiness or satisfaction for individual humans? Moreover, is there any reason to think that history will “favor” civilizations that improve the lives of their individual citizens? He suggests “probably not” to both.
- Are the most powerful structures in the world actually just figments of the cooperative human imagination? Money, authority, corporations, and so on — yes, it seems largely these things are collective illusions, under which we voluntarily spellbind ourselves.
That’s just a scratch at the surface. Harari makes a thrilling go of telling the whole story of our species, in more-or-less linear form. He works forward from our surprisingly fraternal evolutionary prehistory, and progresses to tantalizing speculations about our future and perhaps our end, be it through self-destruction or self-transcendence.
As I went through this in audiobook form, I ended up dropping bookmarks and points of interest at a rate of several times per chapter, because it was so damn enthralling. Frankly I enjoyed this book so much that I quite seriously wish everyone I know would read it. It was deeply thought-provoking. This is one that I’m glad I actually own, because I will read it again for sure.
My verdict: A+