Well, folks, Bethany and I got to go hear Sven Beckert talk at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN last week. He's the author of THE EMPIRE OF COTTON, a global history of capitalism and of that soft stuff often called the fabric of our lives.
The air in the Blount Auditorium that night was thick. Descendants of cotton farmers, cotton moguls, and laborers filled the standing room only hall. We came a half hour early and were thus cozily seated in the middle, so I can only report what I was able to perceive from somewhere relatively closer to the front than most people's perspectives. But I will tell you, as soon as the Q and A got hot in there, the facilitator clamped down the dialogue. This wasn't before Sven had a chance to tell it like it is:
Capitalism was founded--like it or not, necessarily or by coincidence--on slave labor. And today continues to rely on what's called "cheap" labor.
We got to have him sign our hardback copies of this sizable tome, and share our enthusiasm for this subject, and in particular our excitement at seeing this subject solicit some active heat in an otherwise intellectual and tamped-down arena, that of a private college auditorium in well-to-do central Memphis-town.
Thank you, Sven. Thanks for not hamming it up with the farmers and twisting history for them. Also thanks for not making a big deal about it either--it's history, as you say. But on the other hand, we have to acknowledge, it sure as heck isn't over and done with. Not here, it's not.
Memphis was at the center of this world-changing force called global capitalism, and the pawns of that system were its laborers and life's blood, laborers brought here by force from West Africa. Sven compared Memphis in the 19th century to Saudi Arabia today. It's something to think about. The Cotton Exchange on good old Front Street was the largest and most important such exchange in the WORLD.
Why is is so dang hard to talk about this? Two good old boys stood up and tried genteel tactics to steer the conversation to a more favorable light on the use of enslaved labor as a necessary component of capitalism's rise. One savvy guy mentioned Marx. That went over well.
We have our hands full, as dance makers working here in the post-colonial and yet still very much capitalistic south. But methinks more than anything the hotspots around this conversation need some love and awareness, not punitive gazes, so I'm glad those good old boys couldn't see my face when they were jabbering.
When we went up to him afterwards and told him we were making a full-length dance looking at Cotton's history and the embodied labor that shaped it, his face glowed. "A dance?" I dare say he was thrilled and curious. We' promised to keep in touch.