V Books: Prof. Daina Berry’s New Book Discusses The Monetary Value Of Slaves

Professor Daina Ramey Berry, Associate Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, has churned out some breathtaking research on slavery with her new book, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Beacon Press).

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Prof. Berry, who has authored four books on the history of slavery, centers The Price for Their Pound of Flesh on the fluctuating prices of slaves. Here, she looks at life insurance policies, slave trading records as well as examines ways in which slaves purposely decreased their value.

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VIBE spoke with Prof. Berry about The Price for their Pound of Flesh. During our brief interview, the author of Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (University of Illinois Press) and Slavery and Freedom in Savannah (University of Georgia Press), among other publications, shed light on her research interests, slave auctions, monetary value of slaves, and much more.

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VIBE: What is the purpose of The Price for Their Flesh?
Daina Berry: The purpose of this book is to trace how enslaved people were treated as commodities from before they were born until after they died. It looks at the monetary values placed on their bodies but also shows what they thought, felt and knew about themselves as human beings and tradable goods. Enslaved people speak back to those who sold them in a way that few scholars have imagined. Their voices and testimonies are sprinkled through every chapter.

Can you briefly explain what slaves were most valuable? And why?
From a financial perspective, prime hands between the ages of 18-30 years old were the most valuable. Those with particular skills such as blacksmiths, seamstresses, nurses, cooks, drivers and artisans held the highest monetary values. But I also write about the way in which enslaved people valued themselves and this was much different than the monetary values placed on their bodies.

What were some of the ways that slaves purposely decreased their value?
Enslaved people often disrupted sales and tried to decrease their monetary values by damaging their bodies, pretending to be ignorant, acting like they did not understand how to use farm equipment and in extreme cases women interfered with their reproductive capabilities. Why did they do these things? Because they rejected their treatment as goods and wanted respect for their personhood. They had strong feeling about various enslavers and did all they could to prevent the sale of their bodies.

It was interesting to read how Nehemiah Adams, visitor from Boston, was curious about the mother of a slave girl that was on the auction block (Berry, 34). Did northerners who witnessed slave auctions for the first time have any effects on slavery?
Absolutely. Many northerners who visited the south came as anti-slavery activists collecting information to support the abolition of slavery. Describing the atrocities of sales at auctions was one of the most powerful forms of evidence to support their cause. Many like Adams were disturbed by what they saw.

You also spoke on the internal and external value of slaves. Can you build on that?
The external values of enslaved people included annual appraisals, market prices and ghost values. Appraisals represented a projected value of a particular person over the course of their lifetime. These were determined in annual inventories of estates and serve as the majority of the values of which we have evidence. Market sale prices represent another external value; one that enslaved people commanded in public and private sales. It was typically the highest value attributed to their bodies and the price people were willing to pay for them.

Ghost values, a new external value that I propose in my book, represented the value of their dead bodies. Yes, some of their bodies were priced at death, then their cadavers were sold to medical schools and used on dissection tables in anatomy classes at Americas’ leading medical institutions.

Soul values, which I share in this book, represent the most important and only internal value offered. The internal self-worth of their souls was infinitive and could not be sold in a market setting. Enslaved people had their own set of values that differed from the external values placed upon their bodies.

What about when a slave died? How was the value of  a dead slave determined?
Ghost values appear in court records, medical school account books, diaries and the letters of those involved in what I call the domestic cadaver trade. They were determined by medical examiners, coroners, enslavers and the court.

How were elderly slaves treated by enslavers being that the elderly could not produce children nor put out much labor?
Some elderly people were discarded and left to fend for themselves; others were given cabins on plantations and allowed to remain in the communities they served when they were financially valuable. I found that elderly enslaved people often had the highest soul values even when their market values were zero.

What inspired you to tackle this area of research?
I wanted to write a book that provided context to the monetary values placed on enslaved people’s bodies. I also wanted to make sure that readers understood how the enslaved coped with a system that treated them as property. Rather than objectifying the enslaved, I wanted to know what they thought, felt and understood about themselves as they were being traded in the market. In this process I discovered that they had a whole lot to say and we needed to hear from them.

Sharing enslaved people’s stories and the strength of their souls was important for me as an African American who grew up with an awkward amount of shame around this difficult history. When I decided to become a historian, I knew that I would study the history of slavery. Even though this book took ten years to complete, and I visited more than 20 archives, in the end I hope readers will be moved by the strength of enslaved people as I am.

What other areas of research would you like to see explored on slavery?
There are so many areas of slavery scholarship that warrant further attention and from my perspective we have much more to learn about the enslaved. We need to know more about people who were differently abled, about enslaved people and sexuality, about enslaved people and sexual abuse, about enslaved people with particular skills and more about how enslaved people interacted with Native Americans. I also hope to see scholarship tracing the intricate nature of the domestic cadaver trade throughout the United States.

The Price for their Pound of Flesh is available on Amazon.com.