Last week, I finished reading Edward Baptist's book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (NY: Basic Books, 2014), a masterful work of history situating American slavery within the context of a global capitalistic economic system from which many people beyond slaveholders in the American South benefited — though the ties of many people outside the American South to the economic system of slavery that enriched them have seldom been acknowledged. Today, as I listen to Keith Scott's wife Rakeyia pleading with police to spare her husband's wife in the video she took on her phone of his fatal encounter with Charlotte police, the first thing that flashes through my mind was the countless number of mothers and wives that pled in anguish on auction blocks not to have their families torn asunder.
Baptist writes frankly of the system of slavery as a system deliberately employing torture, a system that was deliberately constructed to be torture in order to wring as much work as possible from human beings reduced to the level of "hands" within the grand machine of capitalism:
Torture walked right behind them [i.e., behind slaves working in the fields]. But neither their contemporaries then nor historians have used "torture" to describe the violence applied by enslavers. Some historians have called lashings "discipline," the term offered by slavery's lawgivers and the laws they wrote, which pretended that masters who whipped were calmly administering "punishment" to "correct" lazy subordinates' reluctance to work . . . Perhaps one unspoken reason why many have been so reluctant to apply the term "torture" to slavery is that even though they denied slavery's economic dynamism, they knew that slavery on the cotton frontier made a lot of product. No one was willing, in other words, to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture (p. 139).
And then he notes:
The whipping-machine that enslavers built in the southwestern slave labor camps enabled them to reshape the world along the lines of their own fanciful calculations of people into hands, hands into bales, bales into money, money into hands again (p. 142).
And he reminds us that there were no checks within the system of slave ownership against any and all levels of violence a slaveholder wished to employ in "disciplining" slaves. This is quite precisely what slavery is about — absolute dominance of one human being over another, enshrined in law. This is what made slavery so heinous, so undeniably a system designed to torture some human beings to put money into the pockets of other human beings:
Slavery permitted unchecked dominance and promised unlimited fulfillment of unrestrained desire (p. 234).
It is long since beyond time in the United States that we stop placing any human beings in the position in which Rakeyia Scott has just been placed — having to beg and plead for the life of a family member about to be shot by law authorities who increasingly seem to imagine that their power over their "subjects" should be unlimited, and who are backed up in this assumption by a significant number of white Americans. (I am deliberately not linking to sites that have uploaded Rakeyia Scott's video. I just can't.)
The graphic is Charles Wilbert White's "Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep," from the collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. As I noted in a posting about this work earlier this year, White's drawing seeks to capture the dignity (and pain) of African-American women left as survivors when family members are lynched. In 1955, the year before White produced this piece, 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi, and a not-guilty verdict for his killers was quickly railroaded through the court system.