Book Review: The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, Daina Ramey Berry (2017)January 25th, 2017 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato
A difficult yet necessary read.
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence related to slavery, including racism and rape.)
This book is written in a historical moment that historians have not yet named—a moment when black persons are disproportionately being killed and their deaths recorded. We witness the destruction of their lives via cell phones and dash and body cameras. The current voyeuristic gaze contains a level of brutality grounded in slavery. I call this moment the historic spectacle of black death: a chronicling of racial violence, a foreshadowing of medical exploitation, a rehearsing of ritualized lynching that took place in the postslavery era. African Americans and their allies respond by rejecting the devaluation of their bodies with the phrase #BlackLivesMatter. This book, however, argues that the historical record is clear: #BlackBodiesMatter.
Dear wife, they cannot sell the rose
Of love, that in my bosom glows.
Remember, as your tears may start,
They cannot sell th’ immortal part!
(A poem carved by an enslaved black man named Mingo, on the beam of his cell, as he awaited trial and execution.)
Whether it’s some rando on a plantation tour, or a nationally syndicated talk show host, it always boggles my mind when people insist that some slaves were treated well: “like members of the family.” I guess this means they weren’t flogged on the daily, forced to live in unheated shacks, or forcibly bred? Idk, given that women and children were largely considered the property of their husbands and fathers; the first case of child abuse wasn’t prosecuted in the United States until 1874; and marital rape wasn’t a thing in all 50 states until 1993, forgive me if I don’t find this argument terribly compelling. But I digress.
I may have received the same sanitized, whitewashed public high school education as everyone else – but it doesn’t take an especially critical thinker to realize that, at the end of the day, slaves were property. In the eyes of the law, they were more somethings than someones: more like a television set or CD player (or, to use more contemporary examples, a banjo or a milk pan) than a human being. Some enslavers may have been less cruel than others, sure, but that doesn’t negate the power differential one bit. To borrow an example from this text, kindly patriarch Dr. Carson may have provided medical care for his slaves, and worried about their well-being after his death, but if he had had a bad day, there was nothing preventing him from taking his frustrations out on one of them. As his property, it was well within his right to punch, whip, stab, shoot, starve, dismember, rape, or molest them. And therein lays the problem: when you dehumanize and objectify others, especially but not only by relegating them to the status of property, it excuses any and every abuse imaginable. Slaves exist at their captors’ mercy.
This also ignores the economics of slavery: slaves were a costly investment. At their prime – adolescence, young adulthood, and adulthood – healthy slaves were typically valued at $15,000 or more in today’s dollars. Only the very wealthy could afford to keep families intact, and more often than not, economic interests trumped basic human compassion. Husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, cousins, friends: bonds were ruthlessly and routinely severed, even by the most (comparatively) benevolent of enslavers, and sometimes even in death. #YesAllMasters.
In The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, Daina Ramey Berry explores the commodification of black bodies from the womb to the grave, with an emphasis on the views of the enslaved themselves (when possible). She examines four values: in addition to the expected appraised and market values (i.e. sale price), she considers the soul value of slaves – that is, their sense of self-worth, or the respect afforded them by their friends, family, and extended community – as well as their ghost value, or what their dead bodies – or pieces of them – might be worth to others. The discussion is structured by life cycle, with separate chapters devoted to “preconception” (i.e., wombs and fetuses), infancy and childhood (0-10 years), adolescence and young adulthood (11-22), adulthood (23-39), the elderly/superannuated (40+), and postmortem (dead bodies and body parts).
An associate professor of history and African and African diaspora studies, and the George W. Littlefield Fellow in American History, at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Berry challenges us to consider the economics of slavery – the cold hard numbers – through the eyes of the enslaved, who were all too aware of the value imposed on them. Unsurprisingly, enslaved blacks were worth more than free blacks, men were valued more highly them women (despite the latter’s ability to birth new slaves at little/no cost to her enslaver), and those in the prime of their lives – adolescents, young adults, and adults – were valued more than children (in investment yet to come to fruition) and the elderly (an investment whose time had already passed).
Yet the details paint a much more complicated picture than you’d expect. For example, fertile women were valued more highly in the South, where large plantations necessitated a large work force. In contrast, Northern slave owners – who only had need of a few house slaves – saw “breeding wenches” as a liability. Appraised and market values, then, fluctuated over time and were closely tied to geography. A slave’s skills, health, and obedience (as judged by the number of scars borne on his or her body) also influenced his or her value.
The exploitation of black bodies continued even in death. In her chapter on “ghost values,” Dr. Berry explores the underground cadaver trade. Medical schools needed fresh bodies for dissection, but most states outlawed the practice unless done on the cadavers of criminals executed by the state (some of which were slaves). Despite the dearth of bodies, “between 1760 and 1876, medical students likely participated in anywhere from an estimated 4,200 to 8,000 dissections.” Many of them were stolen, exhumed from fresh graves and trafficked up and down the Eastern seaboard, tracing some of the same routes used to traffic live human bodies. While some of the unlucky subjects were poor whites and free blacks, others belonged to slaves buried in public cemeteries, or those sold by their owners. Even in death, enslaved families did not have any say over what happened to the bodies of their loved ones.
While The Price for Their Pound of Flesh has an obvious academic bent, it’s still accessible and engaging. I appreciate how Dr. Berry centers the testimony of slaves, allowing them to speak to us from beyond the grave wherever possible. Her case studies – of Nat Turner and the fallout of his rebellion; the John Brown raid at Harpers Ferry; Joice Heth, an enslaved woman displayed by P.T. Barnum as George Washington’s former, 161-year-old nurse; and Grandison Harris and Chris Baker, enslaved men who labored as “resurrectionists,” digging up the corpses of poor whites, free blacks, and other slaves for use in medical schools – are especially interesting and compelling.
On the downside, there is a fair amount of repetition, which bogs the discussion down at times. For example, the idea of ghost values often bleeds into earlier chapters; the mutilation and commodification of Nat Turner’s corpse is covered in depth in Chapter 4, Midlife and Older Adulthood, which is a little distracting. There are also a few threads I wish Dr. Berry had followed up on; for instance, she notes that castration was sometimes employed as a punishment in lieu of execution, so the state could avoid paying reparations to the slave’s owner. Yet such an option didn’t exist for women: “We know from the Southampton rebellion that women were beaten and raped; one woman named Lucy was hanged. But what does the historical record reveal about gendered rates of compensation?” But we never learn the answer.
Likewise, the section on ghost values primarily focuses on grave robbing, with little mention of how slave owners might have personally capitalized on a slave’s corpse. Did enslavers tip off grave robbers to a fresh body and look the other way when the grave was robbed for a price? Or did they sell bodies and parts openly, without any pretense? What did the law have to say about the disposal of enslaved people’s corpses?
The Price for Their Pound of Flesh is a difficult read, but one that deftly dispenses with the myth that slavery is anything but an abhorrent institution that dehumanizes and objectifies those trapped within it. In other words, a very necessary read, even today. Especially today.
Table of Contents
Author’s Note xi
List of Images xv
INTRODUCTION – The Value of Life and Death 1
CHAPTER 1 – Preconception: Women and Future Increase 10
CHAPTER 2 – Infancy and Childhood 33
CHAPTER 3 – Adolescence, Young Adulthood, and Soul Values 58
CHAPTER 4 – Midlife and Older Adulthood 91
CHAPTER 5 – Elderly and Superannuated 129
CHAPTER 6 – Postmortem: Death and Ghost Values 148
EPILOGUE – The Afterlives of Slavery 194
Appendix A: A Timeline of Slavery, Medical History, and Black Bodies 202
Note on Sources: A History of People and Corpses 205
About the Author 213
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Yes. Dr. Daina Ramey Berry explores the valuation of black bodies, from womb to grave, during slavery, with an emphasis on the testimony of slaves themselves.
Animal-friendly elements: Mostly no, though I found this passage of particular interest:
Sellers prepared the enslaved for display, determined the condition of their health, and sometimes rated them on a five-point scale of 0 to 1 in increments of 0.25. Prime or full hands had a rating of 1 or A1 Prime, which represented a projection of the amount of work a person could perform in a given day. Prime “hands,” typically between the ages of fifteen and thirty, were the strongest laborers on farms and plantations. Age was not the only factor in providing this rating. Other enslaved people had their rates set at three-fourth hand, one-half hand, or, for those unable to work or contribute to the plantation economy, zero.
This rating system resembles US Department of Agriculture (USDA) meat grades, in which beef undergoes a “composite evaluation” to determine quality. For example, USDA Prime, the highest-quality meat, is typically younger, has better muscle quality, and is “firm, fine-textured, bright, cherry-red colored [and] lean.” But as an animal matures, these characteristics are less refined and the “muscle color become[s] darker and muscle texture becomes coarser”; thus, the animal is downgraded to “Select” and “Choice.” When agriculturists grade meat, they often do not know the age of the animal, so “the physiological age” takes precedence over the “chronological age”; they can determine the former through “bone characteristics, ossification of cartilage, color, and texture” of the meat. The link between meat grading and enslaved people might seem absurd, but the language used by today’s USDA to rate meat uncomfortably mirrors the categories for rating enslaved bodies in the nineteenth century.
Abraham Lincoln established the USDA in 1860 when the meatpacking industry developed in conjunction with the growth of the railroad industry. In sale advertisements in nineteenth-century newspapers, these terms are peppered throughout the pages.