Michael Wenye Li / Sun Photography Editor

Professors discuss a shift in Cornell's approach to capitalism in McGraw Hall.

November 15, 2018

Cornell Professors Contribute to the Growing Narrative on Slavery and Capitalism

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On a snowy Thursday afternoon, four Cornell professors gathered in McGraw Hall to discuss the history of capitalism, where each professor crafted their own idea on the history of capitalism, based on past experiences and current research.

The roundtable discussion, “From Slavery to Trade, From Segrenomics to the Gig Economy: Approaches to the History of Capitalism at Cornell” was hosted by the American Studies Fall Colloquium series.

Prof. Edward Baptist, history, focuses his research on the history of enslavement of African Americans in the south. His recent book, The Half Has Never Been Told, examines how the expansion of slavery helped fuel the evolution of the modern United States.

In discussing his approach to the history of capitalism, Baptist explained that history often exists in the form of a Venn diagram, in which the end result comes about from many intersecting factors.

“A lot of the public discussion has focused primarily on three circles that often overlap,” Baptist said. “You have cultural histories of capitalism, histories of finance and then you have histories of slavery.”

Following Baptist, Sandra Elaine Greene, Stephen ’59 and Madeline ’60 Anbinder Professor of African History, discussed her research on the gender and ethnic relations in West Africa, as well as the role of religion, warfare and slavery in the 18th and 19th century.

Her book, Slave Owners of West Africa: Decision Making in the Age of Abolition, created the first published biographies of three prominent slave owners.

Greene explained that, through living and working for decades in rural communities within West Africa, she was able to examine both the history of slavery within these communities, as well as evidence of the continued existence of modern slavery — which still exists worldwide.

“The difficulty of working in African history is the lack of written sources, specifically produced by many African communities because they recorded their histories more orally than with written documentation,” Greene said. “Instead of relying solely on archival materials produced by outsiders, I did a lot of oral interviewing and spent a lot of time in rural areas.”

Louis Hyman, historian and professor of work and business at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, recently published Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary, which examines the origins and effects of the gig economy.

Hyman explained that one of the many challenges of teaching the history of capitalism is our tendency to derive a static notion of what it really is, rather than viewing it as a system in constant flux.

“For me, the history of capitalism is a funny contradiction,” Hyman said. “Capitalism begins with capital. How does investment arise as a historical phenomenon?”

Hyman explained that early capitalism was entirely dependent on the extraction of people, land and natural resources.

He stated that on the opposite side of extraction there is productivity and, with hope, we could move from a system deriving profit from extraction toward something that is based on growth in and of itself.

Prof. Noliwe Rooks, Africana studies and feminist, gender and sexuality studies and director of American Studies at Cornell, explores how race and gender are shaped by civic culture, social history and the political life in the United States.

Her most recent book, Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education, posits the concept of “segrenomics” by analyzing the financing of segregated education on America.

Rooks most recent research analyzes the ways that public education, in the United States in particular, consistently under-educates people who are in communities segregated by race and/or socioeconomic status.

“The term that I came up with to help guide my thinking about that is segrenomics. It is a term that is just really a mash-up of segregation and economics that talks about business practices that don’t work” Rooks said. “We are constantly talking about wanting to end segregation, but we don’t talk about how people profit from it in ways that made very wealthy elites have no benefit in dismantling it.”