“Global Whitemanism”: The capitalist economy and dark dreams of the slaveholding South

Michael Bernath in Harvard Magazine:

BlackThis is a dark book about a dark subject. Walter Johnson burst onto the historical scene with the 1999 publication of his influential Soul by Soul, which positioned the slave market as the central institution of the antebellum South, shaping not only the southern economy, but also white self-conceptions and black lives. With chilling efficiency, the book unpacked the practical and psychological difficulties in commodifying what should not be commodified. Johnson sought to reduce slavery to its basic equation—“a person with a price”—and to show how this omnipresent calculation permeated and undergirded every aspect of southern life. In River of Dark Dreams, Johnson deals with some of the same themes, but the Winthrop professor of history and professor of African and African American studies expands them outward in every direction. The new book, too, is rooted in an equation, or rather a conversion—“lashes into labor into bales into dollars into pounds sterling”—one that governed the lives of planters and slaves, shaped the land, development, and society of the Cotton Kingdom, and drove a global economy extending to banks in London and mills in Lancashire. The book is not simply the history of a region (the antebellum Mississippi Valley) or a work of political economy (what Johnson terms “slave racial capitalism”), though it is certainly both of these things. In a larger sense, it is the history of a mentality out of which would emerge a vision of global empire premised upon the commodification of cotton and the human beings forced to tend it.

…Throughout, Johnson seeks to stress the human and environmental resistance that always conditioned white ambitions, and to remind us that on the ground, “The Cotton Kingdom was built out of sun, water, and soil; animal energy, human labor, and mother wit; grain, flesh, and cotton; pain, hunger, and fatigue; blood, milk, semen, and shit.”

More here. (Note: One post throughout February will be dedicated to Black History Month.)