Books

book review

In ‘The Price for Their Pound of Flesh,’ black bodies matter

Getty Images

For a long time American historians have been steadily dismantling the moonlight-and-magnolias plantation myth of the Old South, which portrayed slavery as a paternalistic institution. Daina Ramey Berry’s revelatory new book, “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh,’’ reinforces this trend in the history of slavery. It not only emphasizes the horrific nature of the so-called peculiar institution but also its central place in the growth of early capitalism in the western world.

Unlike some recent books on slavery and capitalism, however, Berry pays systematic attention to the ways in which the enslaved sought to counteract the ruthless economic exploitation of their bodies and labor. Focusing closely on how slaves were valued from conception to their death and beyond, she gets to the dark heart of southern slavery, the commodification of human beings.

According to Berry, the enslaved were assigned a “monetary value” even before birth and their bodies continued to yield profits for slaveholders after their demise. She traces the fluctuating value of slaves throughout their lives, based on “sex, age, skill, health, beauty, temperament, and reproductive ability.’’

Advertisement

Each chapter is devoted to distinct phases in a slave’s life cycle, as adolescents, young adults, in middle and old age, and begins with their average appraised values and sale prices. One can trace the trajectory of a slave’s worth rising until adulthood and dropping in old age. But the qualitative evidence is even more devastating. Berry reveals how slaves were often valued and rated in the manner that the USDA develops meat grades, with “choice” slaves rated by their appearance and ability to labor as “prime hands” and half or quarter hands.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The author of a previous book on gender and slavery in antebellum Georgia, Berry details, for instance, how enslaved women were categorized as “breeders,” prized for their reproductive abilities; skilled laborers; or as “fancies,” who were “recognized for their beauty’’ and “sometimes exploited for sex.’’

The data that Berry culls from the records of the Southern Mutual Life Insurance Co. on slave policies and patterns of valuation of the labor force in the Crane Brake Plantation in Mississippi reinforces her arguments. State governments and courts, which awarded compensation to slaveholders for their dead or damaged slaves, participated in this process of commodification.

Berry’s discussion of the value of slaves is not restricted to the slaveholders’ gaze. Instead she deploys a “reverse gaze” looking also at how the enslaved developed “soul values,” or a sense of their own intrinsic human worth, that challenged and contradicted the “exchange values” assigned to them by their enslavers. For instance elderly superannuated slaves saw their exchange values drop even as their soul values in the eyes of slaves increased.

Here her use of evidence is telling and most imaginative. Berry not only evokes slave testimony but also that of abolitionists, who witnessed and reported on the horrors of slavery. Unlike generations of historians of slavery who dismissed abolitionist writings as neo-abolitionist history, Berry successfully mines the literature to recover the experience and worldviews of the enslaved.

Advertisement

Perhaps the most innovative part of the book is Berry’s discussion of the “ghost values” of slaves and the “domestic cadaver trade.” Even after death, slaveholders’ sought to capitalize on their investments in the bodies of the enslaved, selling them to the nation’s leading universities for use in medical training and study. Grave robbers, professors, and students sought easy access to the bodies of the poor and especially the enslaved. They collaborated in this unseemly business with a few black men, whose stories make for interesting vignettes in the book.

Like Craig Steven Wilder’s “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,’’ Berry reveals the sorry history of scientific racism and medical experimentation on black bodies in American academia. To this story she adds the skinning and collection of the body parts of famous slave rebels such as Nat Turner and the disrespect and lack of burial rights accorded to John Brown’s African-American comrades. A macabre postscript reveals the apparent discovery of Turner’s skull. Berry’s book is sure to take its place as one of the foremost histories of American slavery that will instruct students of the subject and a lay audience alike.

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

Beacon, 262 pp., illustrated, $27.95

Manisha Sinha is the Draper chair in American history at the University of Connecticut and author of “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.’’