Women History Month is still here and I avidly read during the weekend the new book The Price for the Their Pound of Flesh by historian Daina Ramey Berry. It is difficult to write about this book, because over its 200 pages and additional 40 pages or more of endnotes, the reader is exposed to a dense narrative supported by a great array of primary and secondary sources exploring the journeys of enslaved men, women, and children from the womb of their mothers to the grave and then to the dissection tables in schools of medicine around the United States. As Ramey Berry states, this is the first book to explore the monetary value of enslaved people throughout all the phases of their lives in the United States. Yet, this is not a book of economic history of slavery commenting boring statistics. Contrasting with previous attempts dating back to four decades ago, this book elucidates the entire process that transformed human beings into valuable property. Ramey Berry’s analysis draws from the examination of appraisal prices and sale prices of men, women, and children starting in the early national era in the eighteenth century through the end of slavery in the nineteenth century. The book is divided into six chapters, and each one covers a period in the life of the enslaved. Using a variety of slave narratives, Ramey Berry puts the voices of bondsmen and bondswomen at the center of the narrative. Even though the entire book is about how enslaved people were commodified, Ramey Berry successfully demonstrates how slaves resisted commodification throughout their entire lives.
The first chapter “Preconception: Women and Future Increase” is perhaps one of the most elucidating ones. It discusses the value of enslaved children before their birth. Here the object are enslaved women. The next five chapters explore “infancy and childhood,” “adolescence, young adulthood, and soul values,” “midlife and older adulthood,” “elderly and superannuated,” and “postmortem: death and ghost values.” Ramey Berry shows how slave merchants prepared the slaves for display and sale, determining their health conditions, and rating them by using a 5-point scale. In this scale “prime or full hands” were rated as 1 or A1 prime, a measure that determined the amount of work an enslaved person could provide. This process of assessing the value of enslaved bodies involved not only slave merchants and slave owners (who are designated by Ramey Berry as “enslavers”) but also physicians who would determine the health conditions of slaves put for sale. These inspections are narrated in detail. Ramey Berry also movingly narrates the constant fear of separation in enslaved families. The author also explores the issue of sexual violence and rape of enslaved women by masters and how enslaved men were used to impregnate enslaved women in a more massive scale.
Slaves continued providing profits to their owners even upon their demise and afterlives. The state reimbursed the owners of enslaved rebels and enslaved who had committed crimes and who were sentenced to death with the same amount they valued in the market. Some slave owners would choose to keep elderly slaves because their market value were low, but as they took insurance policies they could replace elderly men and elderly women upon their deaths. The dead bodies of enslaved men, women, and children were also valued in the market that emerged with the creation of schools of medicine around the United States. Ramey Berry explains that between 1760 and 1876 there were between 4,200 and 8,000 dissections in the United States. However, the only legal candidates for these medical dissections were unclaimed executed criminals and enslaved men and women whose owners consented to provide their bodies to these schools. This “trade” of dead bodies stained and still stains the image of many US universities and colleges including Dartmouth, Harvard University, and University of Virginia. Some slave owners dug up and sold the bodies of deceased slaves.
This book covers an impressive amount of sources throughout a long period of time. As any pioneer book, it will give many ideas to other scholars to develop particular aspects in each chapter into entire new studies. For example, although Ramey Berry emphasizes the differences between men and women of different ages born in the United States and Africa, the reader would like to know more about crucial stages in the lives of enslaved men and women: their embarkation in Africa and disembarkation in the United States. Upon arrival the entire process described by Ramey Berry throughout the book was certainly reproduced when enslaved bodies were examined, treated, and in several cases discarded when they could not be sold. The reader would also like to know more about the moments when enslaved men and women took control of their bodies and the bodies of their offspring by committing suicide and infanticide. Finally, following the discussion on rape of enslaved women and the use of enslaved men for sexual purposes by white mistresses, the reader would like to know if enslaved men were also victims of rape by the slave owners and overseers. But here perhaps the sources may be very limited, and adding these aspects would require two or three more chapters.
I recommend this book to any reader interested in slavery in the United States. It can be adopted in a variety of history undergraduate courses and will certainly encourage lively discussion. Yet, this does not mean that this is an “easy” book. Scholars of slavery and graduate students will find in it rich material and provocative analysis. Ramey Berry explains her sources in detail in the text, in the notes and in a separate section at the end of the book, which is extremely helpful for those of us who are not specialists in slavery in the United States. I also highly recommend this book to students of slavery in other societies in the Americas. I am sure that Brazilian scholars will find in this book a great source of inspiration to produce similar works focusing on Brazil. Unfortunately, I am also sure that the tragic events regarding the use of enslaved dead bodies by schools of medicine and after emancipation the use of cadavers of black men and women were and are still common in Brazil. Then this book contributes to scholarship at several levels: to the economic history of slavery in the United States, to the study of all dimensions of the lives of enslaved women and children, and to the study of commodification of black bodies from the late eighteenth century to the present. The story told in this book did not end. Every week a new abandoned slave cemetery is uncovered. In addition, by clearly providing an assessment of the value of enslaved bodies, Ramey Berry adds an important layer to the debate of financial reparations for slavery.