The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation

Volume 51 (2017)

Reviewed Work(s)

The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. By Daina Ramey Berry (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017). Pp. 262. Cloth $27.95.

 

In her compact yet provocative The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, Daina Ramey Berry (Associate Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin) delivers a comprehensive encapsulation of American slaveholders’ efforts to commodify the lives and bodies of their bondsmen and -women. In doing so, Berry reveals the ways in which the enslaved contested this commodification by creating alternative methods for measuring and conveying individuals’ innate worth. Drawing on a dataset of nearly 65,000 antebellum valuations (appraisals, bills of sale, auction reports, insurance records, and more) of enslaved individuals throughout the South, Berry traces masters’ obsessive efforts to monetize their chattel. By calculating expected future returns from the unborn and prepubescent alongside enslaved women’s reproductive capacities, profits yielded by men and women in the fields, and the depreciation of the superannuated, enslavers constantly defined the worth of their human chattel. Masters even exploited enslaved bodies after death, demanding compensation for those untimely killed and occasionally selling their remains. Despite the intensity of commodification, however, the enslaved never lost sight of what Berry terms “soul values”—individual and communal estimates of inborn self-worth (xiii). Contrasting hard financial data with slave narratives, W.P.A. interviews, and other enslaved voices, Berry demonstrates the utter refusal of enslaved men and women to be defined as anything other than invaluable souls despite their masters’ best efforts to the contrary.

Masters began commodifying the enslaved even before they entered the world; evidence of young women’s fertility whetted buyers’ appetites for their future offspring, which in turn increased their market values. Enslaved children were valued at low levels, reflecting their modest productive capacities. Slave narratives, however, demonstrate that even such limited assignations (as well as exposure to events like slave auctions) alerted enslaved children to differences between them and their masters—and to the risks inherent therein. Sexual maturity intensified this process considerably. For young women particularly, puberty meant exploitation as both a breeder and a laborer. As their monetary worth climbed, however, adolescents simultaneously experienced elevated soul value, whether through religious experience, innate worth cultivated with the family, or validation of skills. Contradictions between these values, meanwhile, produced in varying degrees both despair and resistance.

Adulthood brought the enslaved to the apex of their abilities but also initiated a slow decline in value (beginning for women around age twenty-six, and in men’s early thirties) as their productive years ticked away. As older slaves’ monetary values declined, however, their soul values soared, thanks to their contributions to the slave community. Berry argues that because the elderly no longer had “to compete against the price tag on their bodies,” they could assert and express their soul values more freely and securely than at any other stage of life (132). Because scholars have scrutinized the value of the enslaved as adult laborers more thoroughly than that of any other demographic, Berry chooses instead to emphasize tensions between their impending mortality and their commodification. She underscores the “ghost values” assigned to the enslaved after death; masters might demand compensation for slaves who died in accidents, or who were executed by the state. They might also wring a few more dollars from the enslaved through the sale of their mortal remains. She develops this concept through postmortem histories of Nat Turner and the African-American participants in John Brown’s raid: men who violently asserted their soul values, but had their bodies desecrated, despoiled, experimented upon, and traded. Their experiences exemplified masters’ parallel efforts to wring monetary and spiritual value from the enslaved. These efforts went to the brink of the grave and beyond with enslaved bodies sold via the domestic cadaver trade to medical schools for dissection despite the soul values African-American communities placed on them. From conception to decomposition, then, the enslaved body knew no peace so long as it could be monetized.

Berry’s harrowing account of the lives and afterlives of the enslaved demonstrates indisputably the profound effects of commodification, sale, and alienation upon their experiences. While the choice to explore enslaved valuations by life stage occasionally produces repetition, she more than compensates for this with skillful narration and sharp analysis. Berry should be commended for bridging the remove at which economic analyses often hold slavery by allowing the enslaved to present their own counterarguments to nearly every assertion of their chattel status. Her concepts of “soul values” and “ghost values” also give helpful new terminology to scholars of slavery. The idea of “soul values,” for example, is a useful intervention into ongoing debates over slaves’ agency, resistance, and dehumanization. It accepts the utter commodification to which slaveholders subjected African-Americans and the power dynamics that enabled this, underscores enslaved opposition within these limits, and shows that slaves could not and would not be reduced to a dollar value. This concept thus demonstrates slaves’ independence of thought and spirit while sidestepping potentially nettlesome debates over the constraints placed upon them. In this concise, potent, and eminently readable volume, Berry has thus given a gift to scholars of slavery, capitalism, and American history; to their students (for whom this book is admirably suited); and to those seeking to understand the values assigned to black lives, past and present.

Robert Colby

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

 

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