- The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grace, in the Building of a Nation by Daina Ramey Berry
Among the countless horrors and injustices of slavery, surely one of the most abject for the soul of enslaved people was the knowledge of their bodies' monetary values. This information followed them for their entire lives under bondage, the price moving up and down in tandem with age, health, and appearance. It dictated their daily demands, the formation of their relationships, and the cohesion of their families. As Daina Ramey Berry vividly demonstrates in her gripping new book, however, valuations were not limited to life itself. For enslaved individuals, their price tags preceded birth and remained attached even after death. Through these pricings, Americans waged a brutal battle, in both real and spiritual ways, over the body of the enslaved.
Across six chapters, Berry chronicles the lifecycle of enslaved African Americans in the early republic and antebellum years, through the transformations of their supposed worth. These stages are pre-birth, infancy, and childhood (ages zero to ten); puberty and young adulthood (eleven to twenty-two); middle age (twenty-three to thirty-nine); old age (forty and older); and post-death. She identifies four separate categories of human value within these ranges: the self-determined measures enslaved people made, enslavers' idiosyncratic appraisals, actual prices paid at the market, and the "ghost" fees fetched for cadavers. Assessing the first category of value is a challenge, but Berry pores over autobiographies, personal testimonies, and escape narratives to estimate how enslaved Americans resisted the economic labels imposed on them. The other three categories are much more straightforward to evaluate, but Berry's work is nevertheless rigorous and impressive. Using a database of tens of thousands of estate appraisals, insurance policies, and plantation records, she provides detailed accounting of how the numerical worth of enslaved people's bodies changed over their lives.
Berry's findings give a precise sense of how the slave market worked for those in the business of purchasing humans as well as for those who had to endure its ravages. Even as conceptual beings, African Americans influenced the trade. Pregnant women, and those identified as potential breeders (both female and male), commanded high prices, for the workers they would eventually create. Enslavers' excitement dissipated upon the children's birth, however: in both appraisals and sales, infants—along with the very old—commanded some of the lowest prices, owing to their lack of productive power. The value of young adults skyrocketed as anticipated and realized labor extraction enticed eager buyers. Yet the highest sales went to those in middle age, thought to be in prime working condition. In each of these life stages, boys and men commanded higher prices than girls and women, and pseudoscientific ratings systems affixed a wide range of values within [End Page 194] every group. Throughout each stage, Berry brings out voices of those who were sold, and the trauma that the market brought to them and their families. There are harrowing depictions here that lay bare the most despicable elements of the peculiar institution. In perhaps the book's best and most chilling chapter, Berry uncovers the illegal practice of selling African American cadavers (both enslaved and free) to medical students and colleges for experimentation. Not only did this further enrich enslavers even after the deaths of their workers, but it robbed communities of sacred burial spaces and contributed to the vicious propagation of scientific racism. Altogether, Berry effectively argues that African American bodies have always been the subject of scrutiny and assessment, while the humans inhabiting them have largely been ignored.
The timing of such a book could not be better, and undergraduates and the general public alike will find in it a superb synthesis of recent work on the most damning aspects of antebellum slavery that reach into the present day. Indeed, it is bound...