When Cornell University professor Ed Baptist read The Economist review of his book on slavery, he knew that it would be a big deal. The review dismissed his work as “advocacy” because “all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.”
That characterization of his work, which attracted the most backlash from journalists and academics, was not entirely a surprise to Baptist, he told TPM on Friday. It is something he has heard in history circles before the reaction to his new book, “The Half Has Never Been Told.”
“I thought that was silly,” he said. “But I’ve been talking about this kind of stuff for a while in academic circles and public history circles, and it’s not uncommon for people to protest that I’m not being sensitive enough to the inner lives of enslavers.”
“On one level, I want to respond, ‘No, actually, I think I’m being very sensitive to it and I’m just unfurling these other sides to the story that are often left under the sheets as it were,'” he continued. “The point that other people have made that I think is so effective is that for me to write a book about the exploitation of enslaved people, by definition, is going to show enslaved people as the objects of all kinds of victimizing processes and, on the other hand, enslavers as the agents of those processes.”
The Economist did apologize and withdraw the review, though Baptist said he believed the magazine had only apologized for the last line on “victims” and “villains.” Another bit of the review, which questioned the reliability of ex-slaves in relating experiences under slavery, struck him as “blatantly racist.”
“One thing that really did aggravate me about the review was this suggestion and this sort of implicit argument that ex-slaves had some sort of vested interest and are unreliable reporters on what actually happened,” he said. “That is such an old struggle when you’re talking about the history of slavery, the constant undermining of testimony from survivors.”
“That was not apologized for,” he said, “and that was I thought blatantly racist, blatantly something that you would have heard in the 1850s or something like that.”
Baptist hasn’t heard from anybody from The Economist, he said. The review was flagged to him by a publicist almost as soon as it went up.
The Economist’s review did spark some thoughtful responses from publications like The New Republic and writers like Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, which Baptist said he was glad to see. He also admitted with a laugh that he knew a review like that and the response could only be good for his book sales.
“Maybe this is crass, but I did realize as soon as I read it that this is not actually going to hurt. It has definitely enhanced my Amazon ranking,” he said. But he also said in reading the online comments on the review: “I was seeing new lines of thinking, new interesting commentaries. In that sense, it’s positive.”
Some parts of the review also didn’t just make much sense, Baptist said. The Economist cited the “vested interest” that slaveholders would theoretically have in treating their slaves well so that they would be productive. Baptist noted that they illustrated the review with an image of Lupita Nyong’o, whose character in the Oscar-winning “12 Years A Slave” was “the most valuable slave and the most abused,” he said.
Overall, Baptist seemed to regard the review as a condemnation of The Economist’s worldview.
“It’s kind of a caricature of The Economist, the stodgy upper-class British twits. On one level, I wondered if it was serious,” he said. “There’s this air around it of where we’re going to say all the things that you shouldn’t say and therefore that gives them some sort of intellectual credibility.”
Book cover via Amazon.