Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Two Untold Stories

Untold Story by Edward Baptist

The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist

The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery And The Making Of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist, is the book we read for my Baker’s Dozen Book Group, which met tonight. Somehow I got confused. I thought we were reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Turns out The Alchemist is for the Mount Holyoke Book Group next week!

Despite my late start, I was able to read a good part of Baptist’s ‘untold story.’ I listened on my phone at the gym and in the car, and read the Kindle version on my iPad. I found his writing and his ideas compelling.

In the introduction he explains the source of the title. In the 1930’s one way the WPA put people back to work was by hiring writers and students, “to interview older Americans.”

Claude Anderson, an African-American master’s student from Hampton University, interviewed Lorenzo Ivy,  born in slavery in 1850. Ivy had studied at Hampton Institute, taught generations of African-American children, and built his own house in Danville, Virginia where Anderson met him.

Anderson had questions suggested by the WPA. The questions reflected, Baptist said, “a sanitized version of the past into which Lorenzo had been born.” That was what white society expected and wanted. An example: “Did slaves mind being called ‘nigger’?”

Finally Anderson asked a somewhat deeper question: “Did Ivy know if any slaves had been sold here?”

Author Edward Baptist

Author Edward Baptist

Lorenzo said, “They sold slaves here and everywhere. I’ve seen droves of Negroes brought in here on foot going South to be sold. . . They walk ’em here to the railroad and shipped ’em south like cattle.” He poured forth more detail about what he’d seen and how many people were affected.

“Truly, son, the half has never been told,” Lorenzo said.

Reviews of Baptist’s Untold Story

I read two excellent reviews of The Half Has Never Been Told.

Eric Foner in the NY Times Review of Books, said, “Where Baptist breaks new ground is in his emphasis on the centrality of the interstate trade in slaves . . . and his treatment of the role of extreme violence in the workings of the slave system.”

Indeed, he did describe the movement of many slaves to Louisiana and further west, as land was stolen from the native Americans and sold to white Americans for growing cotton.

“Almost one million slaves, Baptist estimates, were transported to the cotton fields from the Upper South in the decades before the Civil War.”

The Huffington Post reviewer Braden Goyette calls the book, “a gripping read.” He recommends reading it. But for those who can’t, he offered Baptist’s five main points.

The two I found most striking in his summary are

  • The stories we learned about slavery in social studies, which are perpetuated in American white culture, are false. Enslaved people were torn from their families. They were tortured.
  • America’s wealth was built on enslaved labor. This is true of northern and southern wealth. Cotton was the engine that drove the creation of capitalism.

Our Own Comments

Our conversation tonight was engaging as usual.

Fay said the book made her angry at the ignorance our country has shown about slavery. Sonja said the term PTSD – in this case post traumatic slave disorder – is something we have never recognized. But it is real, continuing, and should be acknowledged.

Elizabeth knew Eric Foner, the NY Times reviewer, when she was a grad student. She went to NY City last week to hear him speak at Columbia!

Biafran Untold Story

Flag of Biafra - The Rising Sun

Flag of Biafra – The Rising Sun

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’d seen a Call for Papers, or CfP, for the annual Igbo Conference in London. I presented a paper in April 2015 when the conference focused on Igbo Women.

Since 2017 is the 50th anniversary of Biafra’s creation, the conference is called “Legacies of Biafra: Reflections on the Nigeria-Biafra war 50 years on.”

I looked through the list of suggested topics and didn’t see one that seemed to have my name on it! Then I mentioned the conference and topic to my husband. He said, “You know, people have said that I was among the top ten most important people in Biafra. But my story has never been told!”

In the list of topics I found, “The War and its Key Actors.” I have my topic.

As we drove back from Philadelphia after Thanksgiving, he reminded me of the major facts.

Here’s a preview for you of what I’ll say in the abstract I need to submit.

“Biafra was built on the hard work of many individuals. Some were war heroes, some were political leaders, and some were providers of aid. The technical people who worked behind the scenes did not make news and have not appeared in accounts of the conflict.

“Clement Onyemelukwe was Chief Electrical Engineer of the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, ECN, in 1967. We lived in the capital Lagos where we’d been married.

In May that year he was called by Eastern Region officials to say he was needed to head the Fuel and Energy Commission. Though secession wasn’t directly mentioned, it was clear that this was part of preparation for an independent country.

“Coal Corporation had been without a general manager for months. Clem would take on management of the corporation as part of his new job. The entire electricity system in the East would be under him.

“When the war started, we were in Enugu and he was handling these two organizations. Soon he was asked to head the civilian Airports Board, with the Air Force general reporting to him. When a Biafran victory seemed likely he was also placed in charge of reconstruction.”

Do you think there’s enough of an untold story? I do.

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.

8 Comments

  1. Definitely time for my amazing father (Engr. C.C. Onyemelukwe) to be recognized for his contributions!!!!!! Absolutely there is enough of an untold story here!

  2. Sorry I missed the book club meeting. The book left me enraged, despairing and extremely depressed – ended up sobbing in my car because I know that any of the slaves Baptist mentioned could be and metaphorically is one of my ancestors. . It’s like a horror story that I can’t put down and I’m understanding even better (as if I really needed this knowledge) why this country still despises and will continue to discount us.

    • We really missed you last night. Thank you for sharing your reaction to the book. I am saddened by your despair. It is indeed like a horror story. Will we ever be able to make it right? I can’t stop hoping and trying.

  3. What a nice pairing of untold stories, Catherine. Your conference presentation sounds exciting!