EDWARD BAPTIST: Knowing who you are, where you come from, why things happen, I can't imagine anything more relevant. Not knowing history is like not understanding gravity. If you understand history, you are much better equipped to understand the world you live in and the world you're going to live in. You're much better equipped to deal with other human beings.
But what historians don't always do is communicate that effectively to the public. Professional historians often are much more interested in talking to each other, convincing each other, than they are in talking to the broader public. And I think we need to balance that. We need to try to do both.
The history of slavery is about how power has been allocated in our society. And this is our biggest internal problem, I think-- a history of profound racial inequality that starts with slavery. So going back to the root and talking about the history of slavery as a history that's still affecting us today, I think that's an important topic.
I wrote a book called The Half Has Never Been Told-- Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. And the book basically argued that we need to understand the way that slavery extracted wealth from enslaved people and the way that enslaved people resisted that process, if we really want to understand the development of American history. The book was reviewed in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, LA Times.
But when a review or from the magazine The Economist read it, they took it very differently. They argued that we can interpret the words of formerly enslaved people and learn anything from that about how economics actually worked. Readers reacted. In particular, they reacted on the internet. Many thought that the review suggested slavery really wasn't that bad, and they mocked the review with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of tweets that just ridiculed The Economist so thoroughly that the magazine pulled the review within 24 hours, which I'm not sure they've ever pulled a review before.
The controversy led a lot of people to read the book. They were talking about the book. They wanted me on radio shadows and some TV appearances as well. The book also came out in a moment where a lot of other things were happening. We had a growing conversation about police killings of African-American citizens. And people saw that as related to this longer history of racial inequality.
The reason there's a controversy is because these are issues that matter. They're crucial to American history, American identity. Coming from Cornell, which is an institution people respect and also has a lot of media resources and communications resource, this enabled me to respond effectively to the discussion about the book. Then all these other requests started to pour in. I appeared on PBS, MSNBC.
SPEAKER 2: People are talking about a powerful new book the could change the way many of us see America. In The Half That's Never Been Told, Cornell University History Professor Edward Baptist writes that slavery--
EDWARD BAPTIST: The New York Times did a story on the growing interest in the history of slavery, which featured my book as one of the centerpieces of the discussion. Related to the book, I wrote for The Guardian, CNN.com, LA Times. I also wrote a piece for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. One of the points I try to make is that history of slavery really isn't over. It's still affecting us today. We're still not done processing it.
Cornell is lucky in that we have a lot of strengths. And I think a lot of that comes from our land grant heritage and the sense that goes all the way back to the founding that we're a university not just for ourselves, but for the entire state of New York, the entire United States, and really the entire world. Why else do I have the privilege of teaching at an institution like Cornell, teaching Cornell students, using Cornell resources, if I'm not also trying to do something that's relevant to the broader public and hopefully helping the United States of America to understand itself just a little bit better?
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"Going back to the root and discussing slavery as something that is still affecting us today … I think that’s an important topic," says Edward Baptist, professor of history and author. Learn how Baptist’s book, "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism," impacted the national conversation on slavery and race relations.