Honing in on a single good or product, historians can transcend the internal polities of nation-states. By tracing movement and exchange, Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton does just this – drawing connections across national borders and illustrating the ebbs and flows of global commerce. Footnotes in the book's introduction cite Eric Williams’ 1944 Capitalism and Slavery as “vibrant literature” and C. L. R. James’ 1938 The Black Jacobins as one of many examples of how global history does not constitute a new wave of scholarship.** Indeed, Williams’ “Laissez Faire, Sugar and Slavery” (written over sixty years before Beckert’s work) engages the same global scope, rise and demise of imperial domination and production schemes – “To the capitalists the distinction between free-grown and slave-grown produce was humbug. Britain depended for her very existence on the slave-grown cotton of the United States … British capitalism had fostered West Indian slavery and destroyed West Indian slavery – all in the interests of British capitalism. But it continued to thrive on Brazilian, Cuban and American slavery” (71, 85). Williams acerbically confronted the mythos built up by Western historiography from within, much like C. L. R. James.
Beckert’s analysis in Empire of Cotton relies on violence as an analytic. “Colonialism, the embrace of slavery, the expropriation of lands – war capitalism, in short – had enabled the rise of industrial capitalism … [which relied] on a combination of capital and state power – creating markets and mobilizing capital and labor in novel ways” (173). Violence – and, by association, war capitalism – was portable (93). For centuries, people toiled as slaves, feudal dependents, or self-sufficient agents. But exchanging labor power for wages versus required a large-scale mobilization and restructuring of human labor (179). The coercive domination of bodies and geography by imperial powers led to industrial capitalism. Through this “highly aggressive, outwardly oriented capitalism … Europeans came to dominate the centuries-old worlds of cotton, merge them … and invent the global economy we take for granted today” (xvi).
How do narratives centered around white atrocity and accountability have the potential to negate indigenous agency? In “Storming the Teocalli—Again," William Truettner asks, "If we exchange righteous Spaniards conquering cruel Aztecs for cruel Spaniards murdering innocent Aztecs for profit, are we really better of?" (71). Interpreters must stop engaging moral dualities. The culpability of perpetrators is not predicated on the “innocence” of the victims. Atrocity exists within itself and shouldn’t have to be "proven." Basing our historical moral judgements/condemnations on the sanctification of the victims just makes locating the complex immoralities of colonization more difficult. How can we infuse these nuances into our narratives without equivocating?
Edward T. Linenthal identifies how victimhood is woven into narratives meant to bolster national identity and/or condemn a foreign other in “Anatomy of a Controversy." An early panel script for what would become the Smithsonian's controversial 1995 Enola Gay exhibit described how "The slaughter of tens of thousands of Chinese in Nanking in 1937 shocked the world. Atrocities by Japanese troops included brutal mistreatment of civilians ... and biological experiments on human victims" (29). While such proclamations are true, we must emphasize who is conveying these facts. If this text appeared in a Japanese exhibit, curated by Japanese museum workers, the tone might be read as remorseful and self-critical. Given this text was likely penned by a white American curator, it reads more as a condemnation intended to promote American righteousness. How is victimhood (of a third party or of the self) objectifying? Think of how Americans frequently trot out the Nanjing massacre as an example of Japanese atrocity. Meanwhile, for Chinese people (my family included), it is the painful, central narrative of World War II.
"Doctors know no more about this flu than 14th century Florentine doctors had known about the Black Death."
– Dr. Victor Vaughan, President of the American Medical Association
This quote from John Barry's The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (page 403) got me thinking about how intellectual histories – those of knowledge, the transference of ideas and methods – can be interwoven with medical histories – chronologies of disease and environment, and the social and political institutions that scramble to command them. How does our knowledge progress through time, and how does that knowledge (and its limitations) impact disease outbreaks? How do we avoid engaging linear, "progressive" narratives of scientific/medical histories?
Barry cites a single day when 759 people perished from the flu in Philadelphia – compared to an average 485 deaths from all other illnesses, accidents, suicides, and murders per week (329). His juxtaposition of different statistics certainly serves to contextualize the circumstances of the epidemic. However, I question the relative feasibility/accuracy of picking and choosing numbers to encapsulate such dark histories. Where is the pathos? When/how can statistics get overblown for the sake of melodrama and the objectification of tragedy? If an exhibit were to feature a "wall of numbers" to convey the variety of experiences and issues at play, would we not bore our audience?
My story about navigating white gay male academia was featured on the Transnational Queer Underground today! Please read and share. I'd like to turn this uncomfortable anecdote into an entertaining, yet meaningful reminder of the issues people of color encounter in our work.
Click the link or image above!