Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz kindly read our words as we could not get to the West Coast within a few hours of the Symphony Space live performance with music event of The American Slave Coast . . .
. . . . Dear Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz:
Thank you so much for lending your voice on behalf of our work as we happily accept an American Book Award. Your endorsement means a great deal to us.
Please thank Justin Desmangles on our behalf, and of course, the Before Columbus Foundation. We salute the Foundation on the longevity of the American Books Award, whose roster of recipients over the years takes on a historical perspective all its own, and in whose magnificent playlist we are now thrilled to reside.
Perhaps because of the stimulating name Before Columbus, and because The American Slave Coast is squarely in the genre of American history, it took a while for it to sink in for us that this wasn’t a history award but a literary award. Which is particularly gratifying, because we have long read history as literature, and vice versa. Creating historical narratives is inevitably a literary act, and it’s a never-ending task, because people interrogate history differently over time: different moments have different urgent questions, different reference points, different techniques, different sources, different taboos.
Our publisher, Chicago Review Press, published all three of Ned Sublette’s books prior to The American Slave Coast; all four were edited by Yuval Taylor, creating for us a long-term continuity of editor, publisher, and writer that is rare in present-day publishing. This solid editorial support has allowed us to create large historical structures, which goes against the grain of a publishing industry focused on short books and narrow topics. Our book is 265,000 words or so, and weighs 3 pounds in hardback. At first we were apologetic for its length and heft, but in New Orleans a woman said to us, “It takes a book that big to tell our story.”
Quote [from The American Slave Coast's text]:
The American Slave Coast is a history of the United States that takes into account something that everyone in slavery days understood: the workings of the slave-breeding industry, which was a unique creation of Anglo-American entrepreneurship, and which was central to American politics as long as it existed. All of American history looks different once the slave-breeding industry is taken into account, and indeed key events like the annexation of Texas and California are inexplicable without reference to it.
The book became a project in 2010, when Ned was named the Patrick Henry Writing Fellow at the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, and thanks also to our agent, Sarah Lazin. The argument is a little complicated, but here’s how we tried to explain it in the introduction, quote:
This is a history of the slave-breeding industry, which we define as the complex of businesses and individuals in the United States who profited from the enslavement of African American children at birth. At the heart of our account is the intricate connection between the legal fact of people as property—the “chattel principle”—and national expansion. Our narrative doubles, then, as a history of the making of the United States as seen from the point of view of the domestic slave trade.
It also traces the history of money in America. In the Southern United States, the “peculiar institution” of slavery was inextricably associated with its own peculiar economy, interconnected with that of the North.
One of the two principal products of the antebellum slave economy was staple crops, which provided the cash flow—primarily cotton, which was the United States’ major export. The other was enslaved people, who counted as capital and functioned as the stable wealth of the South. African American bodies and childbearing potential collateralized massive amounts of credit, the use of which made slaveowners the wealthiest people in the country. When the Southern states seceded to form the Confederacy they partitioned off, and declared independence for, their economic system in which people were money. . . .
The conflict between North and South is a fundamental trope of American history, but in our narrative, the major conflict is intra-Southern: the commercial antagonism between Virginia, the great
slave breeder, and South Carolina, the great slave importer, for control of the market that supplied slave labor to an expanding slavery nation. The dramatic power struggle between the two was central to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and to secession in 1861.
[End Slave Coast quote.]
. . . . For us, writing a book doesn’t end with publication, it merely enters a new phase. In the year since publication, we’ve been on the road when we can be, taking it as many places as possible, and hearing what connections people are making to this history in this age of police brutality, open-carry militias, and mass incarceration. We’ve learned so much about our own book by going around the country during the last year, reading, talking, and listening. We had a tremendous experience last month in Columbus, Indiana, where we spoke to 150 high school students. In doing this, we’ve had the privilege of hearing a cross-section of what people are talking about.
It’s been an uphill struggle trying to get the narrative out there: with a few much-appreciated exceptions, mainstream media haven’t been in a hurry to talk about the slave-breeding industry, but we’ve had wonderful experiences with regional black media, especially AM radio, and independent left media.
Unfortunately, we haven’t been to the West Coast yet, but we hope to remedy that in 2017. We’re at home today, just emerging from our Friday night performance at New York City’s Symphony Space of The American Slave Coast Live, a 2-hour reading of the book with multiple voices and a live score by Donald Harrison and musicians. For two hours, a theater full of people listened and responded to historical discourse. It was cathartic, and we hope to present it in other cities.
At the top of the show’s flyer, we proudly set a banner: AMERICAN BOOK AWARD WINNER. So many people have congratulated us on this award. Our publisher is very happy. We send a profound thank-you to the Before Columbus Foundation, and we feel dumb for not being there to celebrate with you.