Book Review: The Price for Their Pound of Flesh by Daina Ramey Berry

30152578Review by Sarah E. Parker

Historically, black bodies in the United States have represented two competing values: one ascribed to the internal self and the other to the external body. (ix)

In The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Beacon Press, 2017), Daina Ramey Berry (Associate Professor of History, UT-Austin), offers an account of the various ways that enslaved people were valued, even before they were born and after they died. Berry is an established historian of slavery who has published numerous books and articles focusing on gender and slave value, and she continues that work in this book.  The Price for Their Pound of Flesh considers three kinds of valuation: “soul, appraisal, and market” (7). It is not by chance that Berry lists soul value first here, for the book’s clear mission is to demand recognition of the value that enslaved people placed on their own souls. Indeed, one of the things that makes this book so absorbing is the relentless and sickening shock that comes from reading about an economic system that placed a monetary value on human life combined with the constant reminder that we are reading about people. And yet, enslaved peoples’ accounts of their own experiences are notoriously difficult to find in the archives. Many historians have discussed the ways that archival records fail to represent disenfranchised voices, and Berry continues the important work of recovering the traces of those effaced experiences. As she points out, scholarship on the economics of slavery has focused on the value of male enslaved field hands, and so has tended to overlook the early years and the afterlife of slave value as well as the experiences of women, children, and the elderly. Her focus on women’s value is especially compelling, and her discussion of the history of medical education in American universities, specifically their use of enslaved bodies for anatomical instruction, makes this book a must-read for medical historians.

The Price for Their Pound of Flesh is structured so that each chapter follows the life of an enslaved person, from “womb to grave” as the title indicates. Using archival material from property appraisals, auction sales, advertisements about slaves, and life insurance that slave owners purchased on their slaves, Berry considers the many different ways that slaves were assessed and valued over the course of their lives and beyond. Berry’s discussion of the postmortem values of enslaved bodies will be especially interesting for Dosis readers because Berry connects the history of medicine so clearly to social (in)justice. Berry labels the post-mortem value of enslaved bodies ghost value, and she describes the history of an illicit cadaver trade that played a foundational role in the beginnings of medical education in this country. For example, she follows the fates of Nat Turner and other slaves who participated in the Nat Turner rebellion and were punished beyond death by dismemberment and dissection. Though historians rarely discuss the fact, “When Nat Turner and his followers went to the gallows, Virginia medical students were nearby to claim the bodies for their research” (99). Turner’s body was dissected, and parts of his body “were commodified and traded” as part of an appalling trade in “souvenirs” (101, 128).

Refreshingly for a work of historical scholarship, Ramey Berry does not shy away from talking about the importance of spirituality and the sense that having an immortal soul could supersede an oppressive system’s attempt to commodify human life. She calls the spiritual value that enslaved people placed on their own lives soul value and gives voice to the bonds of love and family that connected the enslaved. Berry argues that slaves also expressed soul value when they ran away or subverted the system in other ways (such as crop destruction, learning to read and write, etc.). One of the things that makes The Price for Their Pound of Flesh such an engaging read is that Berry weaves these stories of resistance throughout the book, for example in the story of a certain Celia, a fourteen-year-old girl who murdered her owner and serial rapist (80-81). In finding stories like Celia’s, Berry recuperates the traces of soul value that can be difficult to find in the plantation ledgers and auction reports that serve as the typical source material for historians and economists who study slavery.

Anyone interested in United States history, the history of medical education, and the history of slavery should read this book. Furthermore, the commodification of black lives is certainly not relegated to the past. Berry calls attention to the connection between placing a value on black bodies, the devaluation of black souls and more contemporary, twenty- and twenty-first century events , such as the way Henrietta Lacks’ cells were used for genetic research while she and her family had little access to medical care, and the urgent demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. Thanks to Berry’s vivid writing, quotes from abolitionist poetry, and first person accounts drawn from slave narratives and oral histories, this book is more accessible than the typical scholarly monograph, and non-specialists will also find her vivid writing and important subject matter well worth reading.

Sarah E. Parker is an Associate Professor of English at Jacksonville University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s