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.


Book Review: So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

35099718by Danielle Nielsen

In So You Want to Talk About Race (Seal Press, 2018), writer Ijeoma Oluo approaches the difficult discussions about race that Americans, especially, are engaging in right now. Styled as a self-help book, Oluo aims to her white audience and others who might be hesitant to address race become better equipped to participate in these discussions.

In the first five chapters of So You Want to Talk, Oluo defines the terms necessary to both engage in ,and understand, discussions of race and racism in America. Oluo explains concepts like racism and intersectionality and provides techniques for how to approach conversations about race. For instance, Oluo explains that if her white readers want to participate in discussions about race, they should make sure their intention is clear, perform their own research, and refuse to tone-police people of color. These introductory chapters set the stage for the remainder of the book, which cover more specific topics such as police brutality, affirmative action, model minorities, and microaggressions. Oluo organizes most chapters, especially in the second part of the book, around the same structure: an anecdote, historical context, assumptions about the topic, and ways to combat those assumptions. For instance, if readers want to know about the school-to-prison pipeline, it is their obligation to research that topic on their own before engaging with the subject in conversation. The topics are wide-ranging and appropriate for a book entitled So You Want to Talk About Race, and they cover many of the most prominent talking points of race in contemporary America.

While reading the book, two things consistently gnawed at me: the dependence on anecdotes and the lack of intersectionality. Nearly all of the chapters start with anecdotes. Many of these anecdotes are from Oluo’s own experiences or the experience of people that she knows. For instance, at the beginning of a chapter on the school-to-prison pipeline, Oluo opens with the story of a five-year-old boy who was accused of assaulting his kindergarten teacher and the repercussions of that accusation. For this reader, more statistics would be helpful, and I know they’re available. The research on the school-to-prison pipeline, the use of suspension and expulsion as a tool used disproportionately against children of color, and research on implicit bias in teachers is all out there and convincing. If the book is intended to help her reader stalk about race, it is helpful to have a combination of anecdotes – to encourage empathy and deploy pathos – and statistics – to get at the heart of one’s more logical or logos-driven brain. At times, Oluo does use statistics to support these anecdotes, and these statistics are particularly helpful in the chapter about police brutality and in the discussion of affirmative action, where she discusses wage disparities on both gendered and racial levels. I do acknowledge, though, that Oluo may also be asking us as readers – as she explicitly does in the opening chapters – to go and do our own research. She does not, however, provide examples of research beyond the few sources in her bibliographic notes. And I must acknowledge that it is not her job to do it for me.

My second concern is the lack of intersectional analysis in the text. The affirmative action chapter, understandably, is one of the places where Oluo most clearly discusses intersectionality and the importance of ensuring people from all marginalized groups, women, LGBT people, and people with disabilities, in addition to  racial minorities, are acknowledged. I recognize that, in a book called Let’s Talk about Race, the focus of the text will be race. Oluo’s reliance on, often personal, anecdotes also moves the text towards a discussion of being black in America. Race in America is a complex and certainly intersectional concern, and all of Oluo’s recommendations can further the discussions for all groups mentioned above. Beyond research, Oluo recommends political action –  such as protests and visiting city council meetings – and action on social media to educate others about race. These same actions can also take into account the concerns of other marginalized groups.

All in all, Oluo’s Let’s Talk about Race encourages readers to think about how to engage conversations about race in the current political atmosphere with poise and dignity. It acknowledges that these discussions will never be easy, but that they should happen. The biggest strengths of Oluo’s work are the diversity of topics that she covers, the assumptions that she debunks, and the insistence that participants in these discussions take ownership of their own education about racial issues. This book is set to help anyone who wants to be a well-informed ally.

Danielle Nielsen is Associate Professor of English at Murray State University where she teaches courses in composition and rhetoric, professional and technical writing, and British literature.

Book Review: Sexism Ed by Kelly J. Baker

38205248Review by Hannah Lowe

Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Academia (Raven Books, 2018) begins with a very clear statement of purpose. “I started writing about sexism in higher education to figure out what the hell happened to me,” writes Kelly J. Baker (xvii). Baker, who holds a PhD in American religious history, spent years in academia as an adjunct professor and lecturer before leaving to work as a freelance writer. Sexism Ed is Baker’s fourth book, a collection of pieces written for Chronicle Vitae and Women in Higher Education. In thirty-seven essays, Baker relives the dead ends she faced in her career. She writes eloquently about systemic inequality, misogyny in American culture, and her personal encounters with scholastic sexism.

Part one of Sexism Ed, titled “Academic Sexism,” draws on a number of sources relating to gender in higher education, including studies conducted by other academics, social media campaigns, and Baker’s own experience. In each essay, Baker approaches the topic at hand like a professor in class. She presents questions — such as “Is there a gender gap in academic publishing?” and “Why is academia so inhospitable to mothers?” — and guides the reader through explanation to a conclusion (9, 14). The statistics are damning, but Baker is careful not to leave her reader disheartened. For the most part, each essay ends with a concrete way to effect change.

Part two, “Academic Labors and Their Discontents,” delves into the thorny issue of academic labor. Baker addresses concerning trends including the corporatization of universities, the growing contingency of the academic workforce, and the perils of poor work-life balance. From this section, contingency emerges an equal villain to sexism and racism. In the chapter “The Perils of ‘Do What You Love,’” Baker sits down for a conversational Q & A with Miya Tokumitsu, Ph.D., author of Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success & Happiness. They discuss toxic work culture and agree that solidarity is the key to fixing the problem — a common conclusion in the essays of part two.

Sexism Ed concludes with a series of personal narratives broadly discussing sexism in America. Part three, titled “Sexism, Up Close and Personal,” opens with an extraordinary account of Baker’s struggle with sound and silence titled “Listen to the Sound of My Voice.” Another standout is “Being Visible”: in this 3,000-word piece, Baker uses the story of an August 2017 interview she gave about white supremacy to discuss the current political climate, abuse of women online, and public performance of self.

At its best, Sexism Ed intertwines personal narrative and concrete research. Even when Baker is optimistic, there is profound sadness in reading her essays; it’s clear that Baker herself is one of the many women wronged by systemic inequality in academia. She says it best on page fourteen: “Here’s my life, reduced to an unfortunate statistic.” However, Baker gives her reader hope with calls to action and dialogue with other academic women. She references and relates to the work of bell hooks, Rebecca Solnit, and Miya Tokumitsu, among others. In the essay “Teaching As Liberation,” Baker envisions an ideal classroom through bell hooks’ concept of engaged pedagogy. Her description of the classroom as a liberated space of “shared vulnerability, mutual respect, and collegial efforts to learn” gives the reader hope that it is possible to make academia more inclusive (131).

Though Baker recognizes her own privilege early in the book — “Academia remains a very white space,” she writes, as a white woman — there are some issues which she does not address in full (xx). Baker handily exposes the structural racism within academia, but does little to address ableism and says nothing at all about anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination. Likewise, she begins to discuss classism writ large in higher education, but ends the conversation with “Academia will only exist for those who can afford it” without further elucidation (137).

Despite its specific topic, Sexism Ed has universal appeal. Baker’s use of industry-specific terms — “MOOCs” and “total-institution model” among others — indicates an intended audience of academics, but her conversational, witty prose appeals equally to undergraduates and those outside the ivory tower. Her breakdown of scholastic sexism equips the reader with the language necessary to participate in the conversation Baker has started. In simple, concrete ways, Baker encourages her readers — regardless of gender and level of education — to join her in the fight against sexism.

Hannah Lowe is an undergraduate at the College of William & Mary. She studies history and media, with a particular interest in the intersection of pop culture and American history.