The price for their pound of flesh The value of the enslaved from womb to grave in the building of a nation

Daina Ramey Berry

Book - 2017

"Groundbreaking look at slaves as commodities through every phase of life, from birth to death and beyond, in early America The Price for Their Pound of Flesh is the first book to explore the economic value of enslaved people through every phase of their lives--including from before birth to after death--in the American domestic slave trades. Covering the full "life cycle" (including preconception, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, the senior years, and death), historian... Daina Berry shows the lengths to which slaveholders would go to maximize profits. She draws from over ten years of research to explore how enslaved people responded to being appraised, bartered, and sold. By illuminating their lives, Berry ensures that the individuals she studies are regarded as people, not merely commodities. Analyzing the depth of this monetization of human property will change the way we think about slavery, reparations, capitalism, and nineteenth-century medical education"--

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2nd Floor 306.362/Berry Checked In
Boston : Beacon Press [2017]
Physical Description
xvi, 262 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 213-247) and index.
Main Author
Daina Ramey Berry (author)
  • The Value of Life and Death
  • Preconception, Women, and Future Increase
  • Infancy and Childhood
  • Adolescence, Young Adulthood, and Soul Values
  • Mid-Life and Older Adulthood
  • Elderly and Superannuated
  • Postmortem, Death, and Ghost Values
  • Epilogue: The Afterlives of Slavery.
Review by Choice Review

This brutally realistic account of the commodification of human beings in the US examines how the bodies of the enslaved were appraised and priced at every stage of their lives, from before birth to after death, as many slave bodies became part of the growing 19th-century trade in cadavers. Berry (history, Univ. of Texas) performed years of primary research in plantation records, slave insurance records, and medical college and university records, as well as using well-known data sets, to produce her analysis. She interweaves her extensive data mining with first-person narratives, brilliantly illustrating the faces, feelings, and humanity of her subjects. The book is organized thematically, with chapters looking at each stage of an individual's life and death. This important contribution to the new economic history of US slavery also provides a clear link with the work of historians Eugene Genovese, Stanley Engerman, and Robert Fogel. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries. --Stephanie A. Jacobe, University of Maryland University College

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this "financial recapitulation of black bodies and souls," Berry, associate professor of history and African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin, examines how slaveholders ascribed pecuniary worth to women, men, and children. Slavery took many forms across the antebellum U.S., but all enslaved people experienced their reduction to the status of chattel, bought and sold at their owner's will. Yet surprisingly little scholarship has examined the monetary value of these individuals, whose worth increased from infancy through adolescence, peaking at the height of their productive and reproductive capacities, and declining steadily to the point where the elderly were considered nearly valueless. Upon their deaths, they might regain some financial significance, as the bodies of many were sold to medical schools for purposes of dissection. Crucially, Berry also delves into the annals of slave communities to explore the emotional strategies by which the enslaved resisted their reduction to an "exchangeable commodity," centering their lives on spiritual beliefs that defined the soul, rather than the body, as the true location of their individuality. Berry's groundbreaking work in the historiography of American slavery deserves a wide readership beyond academia. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

Berry (history and African and African di-aspora studies, Univ. of Texas at Austin) gives voice to the economic value of slaves in the United States. Slaves led a dual existence: there was their internal personhood or soul value and their external commodity value. Berry describes the external commodity value of slaves at each stage from before birth to after death. Rigorous research underlies the discussion of market value and projected values of human chattel. Projected values of slaves were used in wills, probate documents, mortgages, and insurance policies to protect owners against loss. The rise of professional medical education opened a need for a steady stream of fresh cadavers and articulated skeletons, and the bodies of slaves held value for use in the illegal cadaver trade. Berry treats her subject in a sensitive and open manner, and Robin Eller narrates in a respectful tone. Verdict Appreciated by scholars of American and African American history. ["Although highly readable and addressing the most heartbreaking and starkly gruesome aspects of slavery, this book doesn't add much new information to the topic": LJ 10/15/16 review of the -Beacon hc.]-Cynthia Jensen, Plano P.L., TX © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

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. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.