A Q&A with Daina Berry
The first book of its kind, historian Daina Ramey Berry’s The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation takes a profoundly humane look at one of America’s most inhumane institutions. Berry explores the economic value of enslaved people through every phase of their lives in the American domestic slave trade. At the same time, she provides a rare window into the enslaved peoples’ experiences and thoughts, giving them a voice so the reader can bear witness to their stories. In this Q&A, Berry tells our blog editor Christian Coleman about the book’s inception, the ten years she spent doing research for it, and the lessons we can learn from it in age of #BlackLivesMatter.
Christian Coleman: Where does your interest in the concept of value come from? What inspired you to investigate the ways Black life has been valued and devalued in the founding of our nation?
Daina Berry: Since the early twentieth century, when trained historians and economists wrote about the institution of slavery, many included the monetary values of “prime male field hands” in their work. They argued that these individuals were the most valued and quantifiable members of the plantation community, and that by tracking their prices one could analyze the profitability of the institution. I was always struck that few scholars provided historical context for these prices and that women, children, and the elderly were rarely included. I also knew that enslaved people had very different conceptions of their value. Even though they understood the monetary value placed on their bodies, they had a set of strongly held internal values that helped them survive the harsh realities of enslavement. I wrote this book to tease out the ways enslaved people were commodified and how they responded to it.
CC: You spent a decade doing research for this book. What was it like for you to spend that much time concentrated on this chapter of our history? When Octavia Butler was interviewed about her novel Kindred, she often spoke about how intense and depressing the research material of American slavery was.
DB: Researching and writing about slavery is extremely difficult. For the last two years of the writing process, I put myself in modified isolation (“a writing cave” as my family and friends referred to it). I did this in part because I was trying to stay in a position of authenticity with respect to the subject, but also because frankly, there were many days where I did not feel like interacting with anyone. Contemporary conversation seemed trivial compared to the deep emotional experiences the enslaved faced. Some days, I felt depressed and suffered insomnia, but now that the book is released, I feel a sense of relief. Even though I am sad for many of the people in the book, I am equally encouraged by them and their resilient spirits.
CC: Did you come across any information or findings in your research that took you by surprise?
DB: Yes, two findings in particular caught me by surprise. First, that even during childbearing years, women’s average values were lower than men’s. Early in my research process, I had records from about eight plantations in Georgia where women of childbearing age had values that rose above their male counterparts; I wanted to know if this was a local, regional, state or national pattern. Quickly I discovered that these plantations were outliers. With the exception of multi-racial enslaved women referred to as “fancy girls,” women as a whole had lower values than men. I am still surprised by this, because the institution of slavery thrived after the closing of the transatlantic slave trade only because of women’s capacity to bear children and populate the plantation workforce.
The second finding that nearly floored me was when I realized that the dead were commodified. At death, some enslaved people were appraised—particularly those executed for crimes by state governments—and their enslavers received compensation. However, I had not considered that a highly organized, fully functioning clandestine trade in human remains occurred in tandem to the development of anatomical education. And I was shocked to learn that some formerly enslaved people were victims of this trade. I knew from my previous scholarship on gender that women’s unborn children were appraised and that potential mothers were evaluated based on their capacity to bear healthy young children, but I had not considered the value of enslaved people after death until now.
CC: The text includes photographs, newspaper clippings, engravings, and slave price listings. How do these supplementary materials enhance our understanding of the time period?
DB: Ephemera such as images and other primary documents provide additional evidence of the historic moment under consideration. Such records offer concrete material highlighting patterns discussed in the book. For example, it is one thing for me to say that private aspects of women’s health were a part of everyday conversation at slave markets; it’s another to see an advertisement or broadside that discussed the irregularity of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Likewise, seeing an obituary where one of the “accomplishments” included the skinning of an enslaved man speaks volumes about the social climate of nineteenth-century America. Images allow us to bear witness to this history and they are often more telling than words.
CC: In the introduction, you call The Price for Their Pound of Flesh a “coming-of-age story, a narrative of the valuation of black bodies.” Tell us a little about what you mean by this. Coming-of-age implies psychological development and reaching a stage of maturity. It seems as though the subject that’s coming of age is not only the slavery industry’s regard of Black bodies as a commodity, but also the sense of self-worth of enslaved Africans and their ancestors.
DB: I saw this as a story of evolving conceptions of one’s self as they matured. My goal was to show how enslaved people developed an understanding of themselves as tradable goods alongside a sense of their personhood. I wanted to walk the reader through this process using enslaved people’s voices to tell their side of the story. My goal was not to write about them but with them in mind through their testimonies. Enslaved people were not props on a stage; for me they were the lead actors and actresses of this drama.
To me, one cannot look at the slave industry’s regard of Black bodies without also looking at the ways in which enslaved people developed their own sense of themselves. Not all enslaved people valued themselves. Some maintained a sense of melancholy and were depressed. But what about those who rejected their degradation and loved their souls, fought hard for freedom, and lived to tell it? My goal was to offer an interpretation that included soul-loving enslaved people. They need a more prominent place in history books so that we can look beyond victimization at the dynamic nature of the institution.
CC: Speaking of the narrative of the valuation of Black bodies, your book brings to mind other contemporary works on the topic: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me; Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad; Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation; and the rebooted “Roots” miniseries. How do you see these works contributing to the coming-of-age narrative? How do you see them dialoguing with your book.
DB: I believe we are in the midst of a cultural movement much like the Harlem Renaissance where Black thought found in theater, film, plays, music, poetry, novels, and other forms of written expression is burgeoning. One can enter African American history and culture through fiction, a set of letters to their son, a Hollywood film, or a television docudrama. These works and many others such as Ava DuVernay’s Thirteenth and “Queen Sugar” are offering different American stories highlighting the complexities of our nation and the diversity of the African American experience.
I hope my book provides some context for understanding the history of African Americans during one of the most difficult and horrific episodes of the past. Here, readers will also see that the foundations of economic disparity in this country began with enslavement.
CC: The Price for Their Pound of Flesh’s release coincides with the dawn of a new civil rights movement and the 140th anniversary of the end of Reconstruction. What lessons can we learn from this historiography in the context of seeing Black persons being disproportionately killed and their deaths recorded?
DB: The first lesson is that there is an historical antecedent for what is happening now. As we see Black people being killed on the news and we are forced to watch this looped footage, one only has to look in nineteenth-century plantation journals, court testimony, newspapers, and slave narratives to understand that this type of violence occurred daily. Similar to the outcomes of these cases today, acts of violence against African American slaves were hardly punishable by law. Of course, there were exceptions and cases when members of slaveholding society were held responsible for acts of cruelty, but in many cases enslavers could do whatever they wanted with their human property.
Once we understand that the hangings during slavery became lynchings after freedom, and are homicide or ‘suicide’ today, then and only then will we recognize the unfortunate truth that this is not a new phenomenon. I believe the disproportionate killings of African Americans stem from the devaluation of their lives. A former enslaved man said it best: they were worth more when they were enslaved. When slavery ended, their lives were no longer valued. After 244 years of degradation, more years than African Americans have currently experienced freedom in this country, it makes sense that we are still working through righting past wrongs. Respect and decent treatment does not come overnight. Every decade past emancipation, Blacks struggled for justice and equal rights. We are still living in the aftermath of slavery. It’s the stain on our flag and the sin of our country. Once we recognize this, face it, study it, and acknowledge the impact it has on all Americans, then we will be in a position to determine how we can move forward.
About Daina Berry
Daina Berry is an associate professor of history and African and African diaspora studies, and the Oliver H. Radkey Regents Fellow in History, at the University of Texas at Austin. An award-winning historian, she is also a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. She lives in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter at @DainaRameyBerry and visit her website.