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“A long thread of tragedy is woven through the story of the puffy white substance that clothes us all.”
That’s the closing line of the New York Times’ book review of historian Sven Beckert’s new book Empire of Cotton. I heard Beckert talk about his book here in Memphis last week, and he emphasized that, historically speaking, discussing cotton in the city of Memphis is comparable now to discussing oil in Saudi Arabia. For over a century, Memphis was the epicenter of the cotton industry, an industry which had global connections to the mills in New England and Great Britain and the slave trade in Africa. Beckert traces the emergence of cotton over the course of centuries, into its present day impacts in India and China, and connects the trajectory of cotton with the overall trajectory of capitalism. This may seem straightforward enough, but tying those trajectories more tightly together means that the institution of slavery gets drawn into sharper focus as a key ingredient in the rise of capitalism. It’s this alignment that is especially unsettling for a culture like ours that so earnestly wants to believe capitalism is the best hope for overcoming inequality.
The unease over the historical legacy of slavery and its prevalent lingering effects seems especially present here in Memphis, and the Q&A period after Beckert’s talk was no exception. I listened as a fresh-faced, bow-tie clad white college student asked Beckert whether he thought capitalism in our country grew because of, or in spite of, the institution of slavery. I wondered what was at stake for this young man in the distinction, and why it was that he prefaced his question with the assertion that “pretty much through all of human history the ultimate motivation for selling goods has been the desire to accumulate personal wealth.” I hope he gets to test that assumption and consider some exceptions to it during his remaining college years. Another person asked a question whose subtext seemed to inquire, “how guilty are you saying we should feel?” and Beckert quickly stated something to the effect of, “Look, no one today is responsible for this history and no one is suffering for it.” “Memphis is still suffering,” muttered the woman behind me. I don’t think Beckert fully meant what he said, but it was probably a kneejerk reaction to the discomfort he sensed, the discomfort with any suggestion of culpability. I had heard this discomfort even before the lecture, when the distinguished looking elderly man sitting next to me pointed to his copy of the book and spontaneously explained to me, “you see, it was the British driving this, their demand for cotton.” Many other attendees had greeted my seatmate with some variation of “oh you for one know something about cotton!” and I wondered if his family had owned plantations, if his own career had been in cotton, if he wrestled with where he fit in all of this.
I struggle with the way that we white people so often react to these discussions as though the most important issue at stake is absolving ourselves our guilt and making sure all blame for causation remains in the past. The bigger issue seems to be, why aren’t we all taking responsibility for addressing the persistent legacy of slavery?
Beckert notes that his book offers a different way of tracing history. Rather than looking at one era or event, or the history of one particular nation, it instead follows the story of a commodity: cotton.
It’s important, though, to also name the way people became commodities in the service of the market. Enslaved Africans were bought and sold. Perhaps a basic step forward, not only for responding to racial inequality here in our nation but to the inequalities that pervade the cotton labor market today, is to consider the staggering toll that results when we commodify human life in the service of a better bottom line. That impulse to commodify was rampant in the slave trade, but it’s just as present today; for instance, in the for-profit prison industry, and in the insatiable hunger for cheaper goods that outpaces our concern for just labor. I wonder whose hands processed the cotton that went into the the tank top and shorts I’m wearing right now, and I’m struck by how little I stop to think about the human toll that must be taken in order for me to spend only $5.99 at Target. I do suspect, though, that our reckoning with the past and our response to the present have everything to do with whether we are willing to take a hard look at the price that has really been paid.