Monday, July 24, 2017

The Price for Their Pound of Flesh by Daina Ramey Berry

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This was another of those books on the New Books Shelf that called to me with its siren song as I walked by. Apparently, I am not the only one to hear its call, as both my older daughters want to read it when I am done. 

The Price for Their Pound of Flesh is an interesting and highly disturbing book. It combines the dry statistics of the economics of slavery with the voices of the enslaved themselves. The book examines the valuations of the enslaved from prebirth (in the form of the value of a fertile female), through the various stages of life, down to the value of corpses and body parts on the market after death.

The author has an interesting story herself. In her note at the beginning, she describes growing up in a California college town as the daughter of two college professors. She also experienced being black in a white world. She too would follow the path of academia, and decided to research and write this book to attempt to communicate the stark difference between the value that our society places on black bodies and the valuation that said human beings place on themselves. I strongly recommend reading the introductory materials for that reason. Her own experiences (like that of many of my non-white friends and colleagues) is of being devalued.

I also want to make a particular note of the way Berry uses language in this book. She makes a deliberate and highly effective choice in how she describes the players in the tragedy of American slavery. You will not see her use “master” or “owner.” And she will not use “slave” except when quoting others. (Particularly in advertisements of slave auctions.)

Instead, she uses words that more accurately reflect the reality of the “peculiar institution” and those participated in it.

Thus, she uses “enslaver” and “enslaved.” Both of these reflect the reality and the inherent worth of all humans. A person is not a “slave,” which implies some sort of status or lower value. It isn’t the person who is a particular way. And likewise, people are not owned. You cannot “own” a fellow human in any real sense.

Rather, all that you can do is use violence (legally sanctioned, but violence nonetheless) to enslave someone. These words thus bring into stark and unforgiving light what slavery really is. Enslavers (those who “own” those they enslave) have and continue to exercise violence against their fellow humans. Every single minute that they profit from this violence, they have intentionally, actively, chosen to do evil to their fellow man. It is analogous to rape. A person is a rapist during every single minute they are raping (and afterward too), and to enslave is a continual rape of another human’s dignity and inherent human worth.

Likewise, a person does not lose their inherent human worth and dignity because he or she has had violence perpetrated against them. That is why “enslaved” works so well. They were not any different in value, but they were the continual victims of violence by the enslavers.

Words matter, and I believe I am going to adopt this usage in the future, because it focuses attention not on status but on the perpetual, intentional evil of what was done.

One more observation that the author makes really struck me. This book is new, so it mentions the Black Lives Matter movement, and its relationship to history. The author notes that the name itself as well as the movement is an attempt to reject the devaluing of their lives and worth. But the author also insists that the historical record is that Black Bodies Matter. During American Slavery, in fact, the value of a black body was pretty easy to determine. After slavery was ended, however, black bodies ceased to be of economic value to whites, and thus, in our current day, they are devalued. I think there is a lot of truth in this. As I previously blogged, I believe that the most significant reason why we have not adopted universal health care like the rest of the civilized world is that we have a huge hangup about valuing non-whites as much as whites. Poverty, whether accurately or not, is racialized in our nation, and the rhetoric around everything from healthcare to education to wages is infected by the fear that we might actually do something to benefit blacks.

This book is extensively researched - just reading the bit at the end of all the primary sources she waded through, the archives of documents from insurance records to plantation records to auction notices spanning 100 years. Links to many of these sources can be found on the author’s website. She uses three categories of valuation: the appraisal value (which was typically listed on the auction notices), sale value, and insurance value.

The book is divided into chapters based on the stages of a person’s life. Thus, the first chapter deals with “Preconception,” the premium of value placed on fertile enslaved women. This is a profoundly uncomfortable chapter to read. Berry quotes extensively from primary sources as she describes how the enslaved were bred and mated and described using the same language as that of animal husbandry. This is contrasted with the way the enslaved themselves described their love, their dreams, and their bodies. I dare you to read this chapter and not walk away shaken. (Unless you are Doug Wilson, of course. Or a sociopath. But I repeat myself.)

The next chapter tells of infancy and childhood. And it too is heart wrenching. Despite the lies of those who would minimize slavery, it was all too common for children and infants to be sold away from their parents, particularly around the age of the first signs of puberty, when the value of an enslaved person started a rapid climb. And parents and children knew they would usually never see each other again. This is the dehumanization of the enslaved that Harriet Beecher Stowe so poignantly portrayed in the book that Abraham Lincoln claimed started the Civil War.

After this comes the chapter on the prime of life. While whites had relatively short lifespans in the 1700s and 1800s, those of slaves were far shorter, for a number of reasons. First, infant and child mortality rates were high, largely because of poor nutrition and lack of medical care. Second, and there is no way to sugar coat this, the enslaved were worked to death on poor food. Their lives were valued for the brutal labor which could be extracted by violence. Interesting in this chapter was the parallel with modern professional sports: the ages of 18 through 35 were the prime years, and values declined sharply after that. Understandable for those who depend on microscopic advantages of strength and coordination in playing a game. But not so much for the value of a human life. I’m already an old man by those standards.

Old age and disability get a chapter too, and the various values placed on older enslaved persons. There is also a significant difference here between the economic values placed by enslavers versus the values the enslaved themselves put on elders.

One chapter that was filled with information that was completely new to me was the one on postmortem values. The era of American slavery coincided with the rise of modern medical knowledge. That knowledge was gained, then as now, through the dissection of cadavers. The problem was, where to get them? Well, around the world, criminals were often fair game, as were the extremely impoverished or those with no known relatives. So almshouses, hospitals and prisons were common sources. These rarely produced sufficient specimens, so grave robbing became a common practice. To a degree, the authorities looked the other way when this was done.

In America, though, there was another source. Enslavers could sell the corpses of the enslaved to medical schools, and they often did. In addition, robbing the graves of the enslaved was rarely punished, and thus less risky than looking for white victims. This chapter has more macabre information about the illicit cadaver trade than I had anticipated. It is both fascinating and horrifying.

Also particularly interesting was the existence of “resurrectionists,” persons who specialized in exhuming corpses. A couple of these were particularly well known, and were enslaved persons who worked for Southern medical schools. Chris Baker gets a number of pages, because his life was well documented. (He continued his job after emancipation, and appears in a number of pictures with (white) medical students.) Just how many bodies were dissected, then buried in mass graves is unknown, but many have been found on site at these schools. There is a move now to give them proper burial.

One of the interesting points raised by the author is one that a minister, T. Doughty Miller addressed in a sermon. How ironic is it that while claiming that blacks were subhuman, their bodies were in demand for learning human anatomy. Well, are they human or not? That’s a particularly uncomfortable question to ask about those you are violently enslaving, isn’t it?

Of course, medical dissection was hardly the only possible end for the enslaved. In the case of famous insurrectionist Nat Turner, after he was hanged, spectators cut off various body parts as souvenirs. It is believed that some of his skin was tanned and used as leather for purses and such like, and other parts put on display. In fact, right before the book was published, his skull was finally found, and confirmed by DNA evidence to be likely his. It will finally, nearly 200 years later, be laid to rest.

The point here isn’t that dissection is wrong, but that black bodies were bought and sold for this purpose, often in defiance of the wishes of either the deceased or their families.

Really, this is the point, more than anything else. Slavery is violence because it strips from human beings their volition and their ability to control their very bodies, that intimate part of themselves. This is why it infuriates me when people like Doug Wilson and other defenders of slavery rise to stand in judgment of that which they will never know. To minimize and dismiss the experiences of others like that is astoundingly arrogant, and devoid of empathy. Not a surprise from Wilson, whose sociopathic tendencies are on full display in more than just his dogged insistence that slavery wasn’t so bad and that the South had the moral high ground.

What is more disappointing to me is to see otherwise decent people insist that they can sit in judgment on police brutality, stand by as non-whites are demonized by right-wing media - and a certain prominent leader - and casually dismiss the experiences of those harmed.

This is why this book is so powerful. It makes an unforgettable juxtaposition of the clinical numbers of enslavement and the words of the enslaved. The financial meets the personal, and one can only shudder at the violence done to humans made in the image of God - and this violence was done in the name of filthy profit.

It also gives us reason to think twice before making profit our only goal in our economic policy. While working for substandard wages is better than slavery, it still is a devaluing of the lives of other human beings. Just as WalMart insured the lives of its workers without their consent (this is mentioned in the book), it is too easy to just dismiss the needs of those below us on the ladder. To conclude that it really isn’t that important that they have access to medical care, that they have sufficient housing and food, that their children have an education. To the enslaved themselves, their souls had intimate value, and we do well to remember that the lives and fortunes of our fellow humans have that value too. When we determine that a few more dollars of profit for ourselves or for (in the case of GOP policy) for those who already have the most are worth less than the lives of others, when we determine that subjective fear on the part of a person with a badge and a gun is worth more than the lives of others, we do violence to them that is a close kin to the enslavement of the past.

This is an outstanding book, and one I recommend everyone read. Along with Remembering Jim Crow, it proves the power of listening to the perspectives of those who have suffered injustice, lest we be too quick to dismiss their lives and cling to our own privilege.


Just for fun, let me give you my own philosophy on dissections and such. My wife is an ICU nurse, so she deals with both organ donation and disposal of remains. (She also has a limited role in pronouncing people dead.) As such, I probably have a gallows humor approach to such things. In any event, I am an organ donor, I have the dot on my driver’s license, and I would be happy to let my body parts be used by someone else when I am done with them.

I also have told my wife that it would be fine with me if science could use me. There is a certain fun in the thought of medical students making Yorick jokes with my skull for generations to come. Alas, it appears that plastic skeletons are cheaper and easier to maintain these days, so not so likely there. I could, I suppose, settle for the cadaver thing.

But ultimately, when they are done with whatever they can use, spread my ashes in my beloved forest.

1 comment:

  1. I'm impressed that your daughters want to read this one.