John Hill was about to be sold on the auction block on New Year’s Day in Richmond, Virginia, in 1853 when he broke free from his captors and escaped, making his way to Canada nine months later. Once free to speak his mind, Hill wrote letters back to William Still, the conductor of the Underground Railroad through Philadelphia, that raged against his enslavers: “If my master had allowed me to have an education I would make them American Slave-holders feel me, Yeas I would make them tremble when I spoke” (William Still, The Underground Rail Road , 193). In The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, Daina Ramey Berry gives Hill’s inner strength and sense of self-worth a name: “soul value” (6). Has any historian coined a better figure of speech for the indomitable spirit of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas? It sure beats “agency.” Soul value is the pride that slaves took in their work, the love they had for their families, the creativity of their food and music and clothing, their religious devotion, and the ingenuity and determination of their resistance to bondage. Their sense of self-worth did not come from the auction block and was not extinguished there. Berry juxtaposes soul value with various kinds of economic valuation that slaves were subjected to. She distinguishes between market value (what people were sold for) and appraisal value (what they were assessed for by owners, tax collectors, bankers, and insurers) (7). The Price for Their Pound of Flesh comes armed with big data to meet economic historians on their own ground, tracing the notorious “bell curve” of slaves’ price value from infancy to old age, in which the price value of men and women diverged around adolescence (132). Berry challenges not so much the conventional wisdom as the conventional representation of that wisdom in the form of a line graph. Much of the quantitative data that Berry uses is drawn from familiar sources, including the venerable Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman dataset of slave prices derived from probate records. She augments this data with additional information drawn from a diverse set of sources, including several inventories of slave values found in planters’ records, which provide a more granular analysis of specific communities, as well as a cache of four thousand policies written by Southern Mutual Insurance and the Southern Mutual Life Insurance Company. Interested scholars may download the Berry Slave Value Database through the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [ICPSR]. The names alone are an invaluable resource. The Price for Their Pound of Flesh does not make a fetish of numbers. Berry is less interested in how enslaved people were valued by those who held them in bondage than in how they valued themselves. Though Berry uses Fogel and Engerman’s data, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh has more in common with the recent cultural and social history of slavery than with their cliometric method. Whereas Fogel and Engerman were wary of antislavery perspectives, Berry relies heavily on antislavery and abolitionist testimony to write an “intellectual history of enslaved people’s thoughts, expressions, feelings, and reactions to their own commodification” (2). In a word, African Americans regarded their own lives as priceless. They had soul value, “infinite and incalculable,” she writes (209). Berry is not content to study how slaves were valued in life. She also looks into their afterlives, the “traffic of dead bodies” (to borrow from the title of Michael Sappol’s 2002 book, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America, about grave robbing in nineteenth-century America). The Price for Their Pound of Flesh brings to light the gruesome history of the desecration and dissection of black bodies after death, especially by professors of anatomy in American colleges and medical schools. This postmortem value, or “ghost value,” was a final insult to black people, perpetrated in the pursuit of knowledge by and for white people (7). One of the many extraordinary stories that Berry recounts is of the fate of the bodies of John A. Copeland, Shields Green, and Dangerfield Newby, three of John Brown’s black lieutenants. Copeland and Green were captured and executed after their failed raid on Harpers Ferry. Their corpses were dug up and fought over by medical students. Newby was shot and killed in the raid. His lifeless body was clubbed, dismembered, and left in the open to be eaten by hogs. That was not the end of their ghost value, though. Copeland and Green are commemorated by a little-known monument to the “colored citizens of Oberlin” who gave their lives to the struggle against slavery (235 n. 99). Their souls go marching on. The monument to Copeland and Green is a reminder that we have much more to learn about enslaved people’s own efforts to bury and honor their dead, especially in light of a growing campaign to identify and preserve neglected, abandoned, and lost slave gravesites and cemeteries across America, including in the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans project. Some of these might be in your own school’s backyard. A recent controversy at the University of Georgia over the reburial of human remains that had been unearthed in the construction of a new campus building shows that the ghost values of slavery still haunt our hallowed halls (Marc Parry, “Buried History,” Chronicle of Higher Education 63, no. 39 [June 23, 2017]). © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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