I am delighted to present the 2021 Columbia University Press new books in American history. The titles featured here demonstrate the vibrancy of Columbia University Press’s program as we continue a long tradition of publishing top scholarship in the field.
The last year reminded us of the longstanding racial inequities in America, and so I would like to use this booth introduction to highlight a few books that deal with these.
A cornerstone of our American history list is a series called Columbia Studies of the History of U.S. Capitalism, and a focus of this series is a subject known as “racial capitalism.” Racial capitalism explores the ways capital accumulation can leverage racial categories to extract value, especially from nonwhite people.
We are very proud to have just published a volume studying the many manifestations of this: Histories of Racial Capitalism, edited by Destin Jenkins and Justin Leroy. The volume brings together contributors to trace the global contours and history of racial capitalism, from seventeenth-century New England to nineteenth-century India, from the extractive colony of the Philippines and the settler colony of Hawai’i and beyond. “Deft in its engagement with gender, bondage, debt, empire, and indigeneity,” writes Sarah Haley, “this volume is an urgent and brilliantly transformative revelation of racial capitalism’s conceptual possibilities.”
Soon we will publish another book on the theme of racial capitalism, though in this case concerning the informal economies set up by those excluded by the formal economy. In Unfree Markets: The Slaves’ Economy and the Rise of Capitalism in South Carolina, the historian Justene Hill Edwards shows how enslaved people led vibrant economic lives, cultivating produce and raising livestock to trade and sell. Were these pursuits some modicum of freedom in the interstices of slavery, or did they further shackle enslaved people by other means? Hill Edwards argues that these economic activities were eventually co-opted by slaveholders in their drive for profits and they became just one more instance of the exploitative regime that governed their lives.
This idea that Black enterprise in a white economic system can capitulate to that system or be co-opted by it is also the thrust of another forthcoming book, Kevin McGruder’s Philip Payton: The Godfather of Black Harlem. Payton was a Black entrepreneur around the turn of the century, and during the Great Migration of Black Americans to northern cities, he dreamed of creating an integrated neighborhood in Manhattan. But the white residents of Harlem did not want to live in an integrated neighborhood, and while Payton in a sense “opened” the streets, his business model depended on continued racial segregation. He developed a specialty in renting all-Black buildings, rather than the integrated buildings he had once envisioned, and his personal successes ultimately entrenched Manhattan’s racial boundaries. McGruder argues that Payton’s story shows the limits of Black enterprise in a capitalist system deeply implicated in racial inequality.