Mar
07

Xala

From Sembene Ousmane's 1974 novel Xala, translated in 1976 to English:


  • "The colonialist is stronger, more powerful than ever before, hidden inside us, here in this very place." (p. 84)

  • "All your past wealth - for you have nothing left - was acquired by cheating. You and your colleagues build on the misfortunes of honest, ordinary people. To give yourselves clean consciences, you found charities, or you give alms at street corners to people reduced to poverty. And when we get too numerous, you call the police..." (p. 100)

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May
25

A History Not Told: American Slavery & Capitalism

What is the half of the story we've not been told about slavery? Baptist explains that "America's first generation of professional historians were justifying the exclusions of Jim Crow and disenfranchisement by telling a story about the nation's past of slavery and civil war that seemed to confirm, for many white Americans, that white supremacy was just and necessary. Above all, the historians of a reunified white nation insisted that slavery was a premodern institution that was not committed to profit-seeking" (p. xviii). Historians "of Woodrow Wilson's generation imprinted the stamp of academic research on the idea that slavery was separate from the great economic and social transformations" (p. xix). The half not told, is how integral slavery was the rise of American power, and how it was driven by capitalism. However, the "idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth." (p. xxiii-xxiv). The "the expansion of slavery in both geography and intensity was what made American capitalism" (p. 421).

This is the argument made by Edward E. Baptist in "The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism" (2014). The book is just well researched and extremely well written. The author uses narrative to bring to life statistics and uses the art of storytelling to convey this history in meaningful and powerful ways. A book this well researched, and this length (522 pages), is impossible to justly summarize in a short post. I am hopeful this peak into the book will inspire readers to pick it up. A highly recommended read.

Baptist draws on a wealth of historical records in telling the story of how slavery and financial capitalism became the "driving force in an emerging national economic system that benefited elites and other up and down the Atlantic coast as well as throughout the backcountry" (p. 33). It is a story about how an economic system push for the expansion of slavery, and how a much broader population benefited from that – be they financiers far distanced from plantations or those engaged in the international trade of cotton. It is a story that challenges us to think about how injustice is not just by the one with the whip, but those who enable that system, benefit from it, and support its continuation. It also connects acts of oppression to the driving force of capitalist expansion – as indigenous peoples' lands were confiscated by the government, , including those for which they held title, "in order to launch expanded cotton-and-slavery-induced booms" (p. 227). Investors and bankers played an enabling role from afar; "People who have money want to lend it if they can make still more money doing so, especially if they can feel certain about repayment. Lending to the South's cotton economy was an investment not just in the world's most widely traded commodity, but also in a set of producers who had shown a consistent ability to increase their productivity and revenue" (p. 245). He writes:

  • "For seventy years, southern and northern economic and political elites – and many average white citizens – had cooperated to extract profit and power from the forced movement and exploitation of enslaved people's bodies and minds. Always, the proslavery forces had made the rest of the United States choose between profitable expansion of the slave country or economic slowdown. Between slavery and disunion. Between supporting a party turned into a colonized host for viral proslavery dogma, or defeat in national elections. Between bills for expanding slavery into Kansas, or passing up the opportunity to build a transcontinental railroad" (p. 385).

As a story about slavery, this book is also about the brutalities – how torture was used as a factor of production. "For many southwestern whites, shipping was a gateway form of violence that led to bizarrely creative levels of sadism. In the sources that document the expansion of cotton production, you can find at one point or another almost every product sold in New Orleans stores converted into an instrument of torture: carpenters' tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaws, hoe handles, irons for branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs. Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in 'stress positions,' burning, even waterboarding. And descriptions of runaways posted by enslavers were festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds." (p. 141). Even in moments of hope, such as the emergence of anti-slavery actions, the reality was less than hopeful. Baptist shows that freeing slaves and advocating for the abolishment of slavery was not "because of a belief in black equality" but to strengthen the political might of northern elites in response to the political bullying of southern politicians.

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Dec
06

The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957)

Published in 1957, this book is authored by a Tunisian living under French colonial rule. Albert Memmi's wrote as European colonization was falling. It provides broader insight into oppressor-oppressed relationships:

On the system:

  • "Racism appears then, not as an incidental detail, but as a consubstantial part of colonialism. It is the highest expression of the colonial system and one of the most significant features of the colonialist. Not only does it establish a fundamental discrimination between colonizer and colonized, a sine qua non of colonial life, but it also lays the foundation for the immutability of this life." (74)
  • "Nothing could better justify the colonizer's privileged position than his industry, and nothing could better justify the colonized destitution than his indolence. The mythical portrait of the colonized therefore includes an unbelievable laziness, and that of the colonizer, a virtuous taste for action." (79)

On the oppressor / colonizer:

  • "He finds himself on one side of the scale, the other side of which bears the colonized man. If his living standards are high, it is because those of the colonized are low; if he can benefit from plentiful and undemanding labor and servants, it is because the colonized can be exploited at will and are not protected by the laws of the colony; if he can easily obtain administrative positions, it is because the are reserved for him and the colonized are excluded from them; the more freely he breathes, the more the colonized are choked." (8)
  • "If every colonial immediately assumes the role of colonizer, every colonizer does not necessarily become a colonialist. However, the facts of colonial life are not simply ideas, but are the general effect of actual conditions. To refuse means either withdrawing physically from those conditions or remaining to fight and change them." (19)

On the oppressed / colonized:

  • "The representatives of the authorities, cadres, policemen, etc., recruited from the colonized, from a category of the colonized which attempts to escape from its political and social condition. But in so doing, by choosing to place themselves in the colonizer's service to protect his interests exclusively, they end up by adopting his ideology, even with regard to their own values and their own lives." (16)
  • "As long as he tolerates colonization, the only possible alternatives for the colonized are assimilation or petrifaction. Assimilation being refused [to] him, as we shall see, nothing is left for him but to live isolated from his age. He is driven back by colonization and, to a certain extent, lives with that situation. Planning and building his future are forbidden. He must therefore limit himself to the present, and even that present is cut off and abstract." (102)
  • "What is left then for the colonized to do? Being unable to change his condition in harmony and communion with the colonizer, he tries to become free despite him … he will revolt. Far from being surprised at the revolts of colonized peoples, we should be, on the contrary, surprised that they are not more frequent and more violent." (127)

On privilege and power:

  • "Will he agree to be a privileged man, and to underscore the distress of the colonized? Will he be a usurper and affirm the oppression and injustice to the true inhabitant of the colony? Will he accept being a colonizer under the growing habit of privilege and illegitimacy, under the constant gaze of the usurped? Will he adjust to this position and his inevitable self-censure?" (18)
  • "We have seen that colonization materially kills the colonized. It must be added that it kills him spiritually. Colonization distorts relationships, destroys or petrifies institutions, and corrupts men, both colonizers and colonized. To live, the colonized needs to do away with colonization. To become a man, he must do away with the colonized being that he has become. If the European must annihilate the colonizer within himself, the colonized must rise above his colonized being." (151)

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