Year of Cotton launches Sept. 24

The University of South Carolina will launch a yearlong series devoted to exploring cotton  from culture and history to business  Thursday (Sept. 24) with Bancroft Prize Winner and Harvard University scholar Sven Beckert.  

Beckert, Harvard’s Laird Bell Professor of History, will open the lecture series at 6 p.m. in the Booker T. Washington Auditorium. The series, presented by the university’s Institute for Southern Studies, is free and open to the public.  

His presentation will draw from his recently released book, “Empire of Cotton: The Global Origins of Modern Capitalism,” and delve into the history of capitalism and cotton while focusing on American slavery, the Civil War and the expansion of the South. He will look at the role that the American South has played in the global growth and economic impact of the cotton industry. 

“To understand the history of American — and also global — capitalism, cotton needs to be placed at the center of one’s analysis,” Beckert says. “It was in cottons that the industrial revolution originated, it was cotton that established the place of the United States in the global economy, and it is the story of cotton that illuminates the origins of modern capitalism, including the role of slavery within it.” 

Robert Brinkmeyer, director of the Institute for Southern Studies, says he chose cotton as the inaugural theme for the series because of its rich and complicated history. 

“We all love the threads of cotton that make our clothes comfortable, but there’s another way to think of the work done by cotton’s threads:  as a complicated web stitching together the rich and diverse culture of the American South,” Brinkmeyer says. 

Published in 2014, “Empire of Cotton” earned Beckert the 2015 Bancroft Prize, the 2015 Philip Taft Prize for Best Book in Labor History and a 2015 Pulitzer Prize nomination. 

As a scholar, Beckert studies how capitalism’s global order has shaped the social, economic and political history of the United States and its regions. He is co-editor of Princeton University Press’ book series “America in the World.” 

The “Year of Cotton” series will feature monthly talks by guest speakers and university scholars representing disciplines that range from history, photography and literature to film, sociology and economics. Each talk will explore how cotton has shaped and continues to shape the lives of Southerners and the history of Southern culture. Plans call for the series to be an annual offering, with each year centered on a  different topic central to Southern culture. 

Beckert’s talk is sponsored in part by the history department and History Center in the university’s College of Arts and Sciences. For more information about the Sept. 24 opening lecture or the series, call 803-777-2340 or visit the Institute for Southern Studies website.

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