Horrible stories well told: reviewing “Complicity: How the North promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery”

Three journalists, Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank, were shaken by what they found as they did research for a special edition of Northeast, the Sunday magazine of the Hartford Courant. Their mid-2000's project exposed the newspaper's and Connecticut's participation in slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. After saying, “but wait, weren't we the good guys in the Civil War?” and grappling with their new understanding, the three expanded their focus to write the book Complicity: How the North promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery. Between the ivory trade, the business of kidnapping blacks from the North to sell into slavery, the rum industry, and the textile industry, all of which are described in the book, Northerners were not just complicit in the system of slavery. They participated.

In some ways, I think Complicity would be a better book if it weren't written in the face of the national myth that the North was against slavery without complications. The introduction in particular feels a little sensational and “gotcha,” as if the authors expect readers' minds to be blown by the new information, and that style doesn't hold up well if the reader already knows some of it. The mere fact that Northern traders and industrialists profited handsomely off of slavery is shocking in the sense that it's appalling, but only a surprise to some. In addition, the chapters are poorly linked together, without much to describe how the New Haven carriage makers, Philadelphia taxonomists, and New York slave smugglers fit into the same larger economy. The effect is that each chapter stands alone, but together they form a litany of the different ways the rich and powerful in the North were some of the worst offenders in perpetuating the cruelty of chattel slavery. The exhausting effect on the reader could not, and should not, have been avoided in writing about this subject. However, because Complicity does not have much pulling the chapters into a cohesive whole, you could read three chapters profiling different industries, or thirteen, and get a similar effect.

Of course, this book was indeed written in the face of the national myth that the North was not complicit in slavery, with the intention to wake readers up. The extent to which Northern fortunes were made on the backs of slaves – including those newly kidnapped from Africa in the 1860s, decades after the US outlawed the international slave trade – is not just shocking but genuinely surprising to most people. If we ever reach a time in our society when the impacts of Northern industries are a part of the story of slavery as it's commonly understood, a book like Complicity might be written somewhat differently, making more of a scholarly argument even though it's for a general audience. As it is, the book focuses on making just one statement: this really happened.

Despite my wondering what the book would be like if readers already understood “how the North promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery,” I learned a lot from the book, and enjoyed it to the extent that you can enjoy reading a history of exploitation. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in American history. The profiles it gives of various industries involved in the slave economy are highly informative. I sometimes think that journalists make the best history writers in terms of storytelling. Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns which I reviewed on the blog, is an example, as well as modern classics like Barbara Tuchman. In Complicity, Farrow, Lang, and Frank join this tradition, with horrible stories well told. Recalling the Philip Graham quote that journalism is “a first rough draft of history,” the authors mused in the book's conclusion that they were “doing what reporters rarely have a chance to do: present a second draft of history.” The legacy of slavery has been retold and reshaped countless times in American history, so often with the aim of dismissing the extent of the harm or shifting the blame. As a historian and a citizen, I deeply believe that each successive draft of how we understand our past ought to be a more accurate one. It's clear that Farrow, Lang, and Frank share this goal, and have done useful work toward it.