What was the assigned value, the price tag, placed on the bodies of the enslaved?
In this sharp, affecting study, Berry (History and African and African Diaspora Studies/Univ. of Texas; Swing the Sickle for the Harvest Is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia, 2007, etc.) reminds us of the cold calculus at the intersection of slavery and capitalism. Assessed at each stage of their lives, in the womb and even after death, the sale price of the enslaved depended upon a number of variables: the needs, desires, and location of the buyer and the particular skills, perceived attractiveness, and sex of the bought. Beginning each of her chapters with an auction and an inventory of the economic imperatives at work, the author movingly vivifies this brutal commodification of the men, women, and children in bondage with the horrid details attending their sale: the male bodies “greased up and groomed for the auction block,” the forced breeding that accounted for many family separations, the incomprehension of children sold away, the five-point scale (Berry compares it to U.S. Department of Agriculture meat grades) used to rate the health and utility of the enslaved, and the role of “breeding wenches” in populating the workforce. In addition, the author explores the flourishing cadaver trade, in which black bodies still had a post-mortem value; remarks on the emerging field of gynecology, built on research conducted on enslaved women’s bodies; and touches on the matters of insurance, coroners’ inquiries, and autopsies, all part of the grim calculation. Most movingly, Berry discusses what she calls “soul value,” the deeply personal, spiritual value the enslaved assigned to themselves. From this place came the strength that inspired Ponto to boldly correct his auctioneer, Isaac to cheat the hangman by jumping from the gallows to meet death on his own terms, Madeline to drown herself rather than suffer repeated rape, and Celia to club her rapist to death.
A well-researched, effectively presented piece of scholarship that forthrightly confronts slavery’s brute essence.