Monday, October 26, 2015

Breeding Money

My accumulation of unwatched Melissa Harris Perry shows is a bit like the unread tabs in my browser. I can’t bear the idea of deleting the tabs or the shows because there might be something in there that’s irreplaceable.

But the MHP shows are two hours long and there are two of them each weekend, so they build up, despite my best intentions.

One good reason to wait a few weeks to watch, though, is that it’s often possible to fast-forward parts that are time-dated… for instance, today I watched an episode from October 11 that had skippable parts about Joe Biden and the then-upcoming Democratic presidential debate.

But there are also segments that are worth watching no matter when I watch: MHP’s comments on whether Barack Obama should be called to account for how “his community” has done during his presidency, or the panel discussion about the upcoming release of 6,000 federal prisoners.

The part of the October 11 episode that I especially valued was a segment about a book called The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry.

It sounds like this book is full of facts I never knew, especially that only (“only”) 400,000 peoples were stolen from African and shipped to the British colonies and/or U.S. Yet there were 4 million enslaved African-Americans by 1860.

The reason? Forced breeding by the slave owners.

A baby born to an enslaved woman had an immediate value of $75 to $100 in 19th century dollars: not at all a trivial amount. There was no market for babies, per se, but that additional value on the labor camp’s (usually called plantations, in the romanticized way we were all taught as history) balance sheet meant the owner could borrow against it.

Enslaved people were currency in the American South.

And even the end of the slave trade and new shipments of stolen people, which happened in the early 19th century, wasn’t the unalloyed good I thought it was: It was actually protectionism, keeping out cheaper imports that competed with the “home-grown” wealth of Virginia labor camp owners.

For some reason, the video of this segment of the show is not online, so here’s a transcript:
MHP: The idea that the slave trade brought millions of Africans to the United States is in fact false. The true number was closer to 389,000. So how then did the country’s population of enslaved people come to reach 4 million by the dawn of the Civil War?

Breeding. Systematic, forced breeding used to destroy black families and to increase the capital of the ruling slave-holder class. It’s a part of the American story that often falls by the wayside.

But a new book places it at the very center of our nation’s history. Joining me now is Ned Sublette, coauthor of the book The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry. Thank you for being here.

This text created a circumstance for one of my producers who was reading through to just write across it, “Nothing is clean. Everything is slavery.” Right? Just that sense of the centrality of the economic aspect of slavery to the contemporary America system.

Sublette: That’s right. Slavery is at the center of American history, it’s not a sidebar. But people often talk about slavery as though it were only labor. And slaves were not just workers, they were merchandise, they were collateral, they were credit, they were money.

MHP: That idea of human beings being money, being actual currency — talk about what that looks like because you talk about it in depth in the text.

Sublette: An economist would tell you there are three classes that you have to satisfy to be money. A means of exchange; retains its value over time; and a unit of account. Slaves were often used to settle a debt when there was no gold or silver around. So they were a means of exchange. They weren’t the most common money, but you could always sell a slave if you had to. Retains its value over time: That’s why slave-owners had to have the children.

MHP: So this purpose around breeding, and so the Jeffersonian piece of it. You write,
Jefferson framed ending importation of persons — so ending the slave trade — as a humanitarian act, and many historians have treated it that way. But it was not. Ending the African slave trade was protectionism on behalf of Virginia. It kept out the cheaper African imports so as to keep the price of domestically raised people high.

MHP: It is an appalling sentence… but it’s also so critical to see that.

Sublette: That’s right. Jefferson, who wrote at the age of 77, “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more productive than the best man of the farm." What she produces is an addition to the capital, whereas his labors disappear in mere consumption.

MHP: How much do we fail to think about its gendered nature and the very specific experiences of horror that enslaved women experienced?

Sublette: This is where race meets gender meets the logic of capitalism. Enslaved women were expected to be pregnant constantly. As early as possible, as long as possible. Until their bodies gave out from child-bearing. And it was expected that the children could be sold. An enslaved child was worth 75 or a 100 dollars at birth, depending on the place and time. That didn’t mean that a baby was going to be sold, there was no market for babies, but it meant the slave-owner was worth more on paper. And could borrow that much more. Which was to say, new money was created.

So the growth from 389,000 Africans to four million enslaved African-Americans in 1860 was itself an economic expansion.

MHP: The book is enormous, it’s literally hefty, but that is a physical manifestation of how hefty and weighty this issue is. Thank you.
The MHP Show is the only place where I see anything like this on television. It's a failing of our media that this is so.

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