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And after they killed him, they had sunk him in that river, tying a cotton gin fan around his neck. I know that Emmett Till was just four years older than my own father, and that like my father, his mother had also fled north. And she tells me about another baptism of sorts that occurred there. It was a long time ago when they were kids, and her brother and her cousin were walking through the white side of town. So a car approaches behind them, and a group of white boys began to chase. And my aunt described how her brother and her cousin just ran and ran and eventually jumped into those muddy rivers in order to escape, and how they came home dripping wet, their chests heaving.

And it reminded me of all the other stories I had heard about how when enslaved people tried to run away, they would sometimes jump into the river in hopes that they could hide their scent from the dogs that were chasing them. And then she tells me about the time another brother had to come home, his chest heaving. He came to warn the family that his cousin had stood up to a white plantation owner, and everyone understood what that meant. You could not stand up to white plantation owners in the South if you were black and live to tell that story.

So her own father had to grab his Winchester and another rifle, and they guarded him through that night in a well-practiced vigil to ensure that he would be safe until they could whisk him away to the North. All these years when I had been trying to get Aunt Charlotte to talk about what it was like in Mississippi, and now here we are, with the mosquitoes swarming our legs.

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And it felt like the ghosts of Greenwood started to come near. And the stories were in the land and in the water, in the Tallahatchie that flowed to the Yazoo, and the Yazoo that flowed to the Mississippi, and the Mississippi, whose muddy waters created the delta that this vast land was named after. And that river created soils that were so rich that they led to the expansion of cotton unlike anything that the world had seen. And it also helped to fuel the modern American economy. This river, the Mississippi River, brought so much life and so much death. It created the fertile land that made cotton king and lavish riches on the white people who owned almost all of it.

But it also led to the pain and suffering for the black people who had to work almost all of it.

This is cotton, the living plant. Beauty and utility bred into the living fiber by nature herself, by nature working with her incomparable tools, the sun and the air, the soil, the rains, and the wonder of growth.

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Matt Desmond, how did we in the United States first start to come to grow cotton? In this country, it dates back to the earliest years of the colonies.

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And everyone understood the potential of cotton. It was the commodity the world wanted. It was like oil, in a way, in our modern day. But cotton was not king at this time. It took about 10 hours for one enslaved worker just to pick the seeds out of 1 pound of cotton. And so everyone knew that if you could harness cotton, you could make a killing. But then something changed. And that something was the invention of the cotton gin. And the gin that we credit to Eli Whitney broke the bottleneck, and suddenly you were able to clean as much cotton as you can grow. And so the cotton market explodes in America.

But there is a problem. Cotton needed land. You could only grow cotton on the same patch of land for about three years before that soil was depleted. So where do we get the land? Well, the United States government itself took it from Native American peoples. It dispatched its military in Alabama, and Georgia, and Florida, and it acquires land and then it sells that land back on the cheap to white settlers.

And suddenly, the United States had millions of acres that could be cultivated for cotton. And this is when we start seeing slavery take off, because once you have the land, the thing you need next is the labor. In , we had just shy of about , enslaved workers on these shores. By , that number is three million enslaved workers in America, and cotton is driving most of that growth.

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You know, we all learn about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin at fourth or fifth grade as kind of a clever invention. Now old times there will soon be forgotten for it did the work of men. Enslavers wanted to get the most out of their workers, and they did.

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And what took hold in America was a new kind of economic system, one that was relentlessly focused on increasing cotton productivity. You know, many of our depictions of the cotton plantation are bucolic and small. You know, you might see a handful of enslaved workers in the fields, and an overseer on a horse, and then the owner in a big house.

It was incredibly complex. The slave plantations that developed in the Mississippi Valley were huge. They resembled something much more closely to our modern multinational corporations than we often think. There was complex hierarchies with mid-level managers and workers who reported to other workers who reported to other workers. There were sophisticated data-tracking techniques that were developed, so we knew how much labor and money went into producing each bale of cotton. Complicated workforce supervision techniques were developed for making sure people met their quotas by the end of the day.

Professional manuals and credentials were developed so enslavers could trade information about what to feed their enslaved workforce, how to house them, even how to speak to them. But behind all the sophistication, behind all this capitalistic rationality, was violence. And these beatings are horrendous to read about.

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  8. Enslaved workers passed out often from pain. They wake up vomiting. The girls were not taught to cook, sew, or to take care of the house.

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    All of this was left to the slaves. The slaves, of course, had little personal interest in the life of the plantation, and their ignorance prevented them from learning how to do things in the most improved and thorough manner. As a result of the system, fences were out of repair, gates were hanging half off the hinges, doors creaked, window-panes were out, plastering had fallen but was not replaced, weeds grew in the yard. As a rule, there was food for whites and blacks, but inside the house, and on the dining-room table, there was wanting that delicacy and refinement of touch and finish which can make a home the most convenient, comfortable, and attractive place in the world.

    Withal there was a waste of food and other materials which was sad. When freedom came, the slaves were almost as well fitted to begin life anew as the master, except in the matter of book-learning and ownership of property.

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    The slave owner and his sons had mastered no special industry. They unconsciously had imbibed the feeling that manual labour was not the proper thing for them. On the other hand, the slaves, in many cases, had mastered some handicraft, and none were ashamed, and few unwilling, to labour.