Episode 54: Make the Ritual Last Forever

“America’s modernization was about entrepreneurs, creativity, invention, markets, movement, and change,” writes historian Edward Baptist, pointing to how the standard version history of the United States erases slavery in the triumphal story of American development: “Slavery was not about any of these things – not about slave trading, or moving people away from everyone they knew in order to make them grow cotton. Therefore, modern America and slavery had nothing to do with each other.” Baptist here describes a type of historical narcissism that sees the human cost of enslavement, genocide, warfare as separate from the central story, as so much collateral damage in the triumphal story of progress. [image: cover of U.S. History textbook]

Our History

Violence  has been central to the national and imperial projects of the modern age. State-sponsored violence has often targeted peoples deemed as subaltern and subordinate, especially dispossessed peoples, native peoples, enslaved peoples, and colonized peoples. Not that you would necessarily get that from the national and imperial history narratives that modern states cultivate, narratives that bewilder and obscure the true costs of such violence in deference to claims of progress. Even when inflicted tragedies are acknowledged, and sins confessed, a certain historical narcissism may redirect the focus away from the true human costs to the supposedly magnanimous quality of the confession, or frame it all as just so much unfortunate but unavoidable collateral damage along the road to progress. Like the directions on a shampoo bottle, there follows an endless ritual of atrocity, memory, forgetting, and repeat.

Click to hear Episode 54 Make the Ritual Last Forever

Sources Referenced and Items of Interest

Sean Wilentz, “The Paradox of the American Revolution” The New York Review of Books (January 13, 2022)

Edward Baptist, “The Half Has Never Been Told,” YouTube (Sept. 13, 2014)

Jamelle Bouie, “We Still Can’t See American Slavery for What It Was,” New York Times (January 28, 2022)

Slavery as idyll, portrait of Washington at Mount Vernon, by Junius Brutus Stearns (1851)

“Understanding something of what it felt to suffer, and what it cost to endure that suffering, is crucial to understanding the course of U.S. history”

Edward Baptist

%d bloggers like this: