by Eugene R. Dattel
Since the earliest days of colonial America, the relationship between cotton and the African-American experience has been central to the history of the republic. America's most serious social tragedy, slavery and its legacy, spread only where cotton could be grown. Both before and after the Civil War, blacks were assigned to the cotton fields while a pervasive racial animosity and fear of a black migratory invasion caused white Northerners to contain blacks in the South.
Two themes, one explicit, one implicit, compete in this exploration of the link between the development of American capitalism and the devastation of the African-American community. The price of cotton as the “determinant of America's destiny, influencing and even overcoming individual will and ethical behavior” is the fully explicit one. In treating it, Dattel (The Sun Never Rose), formerly a managing director at Salomon Brothers and Morgan Stanley, offers an economic history of cotton. The book's chronological path absorbs the creation of the Confederacy, the waging of the Civil War, Reconstruction, the rise of the Klan, the development of sharecropping, the displacement of black labor by machine and the falling price of cotton. The secondary and competing theme is Northern complicity in the slave trade, the cotton economy, segregation, racism and the development of the “black underclass in the North and South, with its destructive behavioral characteristics.” The economic slant leads to interesting tables and statistics concerning fluctuations in the price of cotton, but for serious readers, the usefulness of Dattel's work is diminished by his heavy reliance on secondary sources and casual documentation. (Oct.)
Hardcover: 432 pages