Wiley Hall, 3rd is a former columnist with the Baltimore Evening Sun.
‘The Price for Their Pound of Flesh” is a poignant, at times startling, look at how individuals were able to maintain their dignity and sense of self-worth under slavery. With remarkable detail, Daina Ramey Berry explores the exact amounts paid for slaves and how those prices were determined. But she isn’t content to catalogue mere market values. She also takes great pains to document the value enslaved people placed on their own personhood, what she calls their “soul values.” She does this by letting us hear the enslaved speak about their feelings, and when those records aren’t available, she quotes observers.
It is the voices of the enslaved that lift “Pound of Flesh” beyond just an African American story to a profoundly human one.
Berry, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, shows how the commodification of the enslaved began before birth, as plantation owners assessed the pros and cons of purchasing pregnant women. Small children gradually grew into awareness of the monetary implications of their existence when parents were sold away. Young adults saw their market values increase in direct proportion to the maturation of their bodies. The elderly (a category that began at about age 40) became important repositories of wisdom and stability so that their soul value increased as their market value decreased.
Berry tells of an African American father engaged in a bidding war for his 16-year-old son. Running out of money and about to give up in despair, he is helped by three bystanders who give him enough to make the winning bid, enabling him to purchase his son for $360 and a shilling.
In another tale, an enslaved man named Ponto stood on an auction block in Richmond and undercut every claim made by the auctioneer. When the auctioneer told potential buyers that Ponto was 32 years old, Ponto corrected him and put his age closer to 40. When the auctioneer described the man on the block as a “first-rate plantation hand, strong and able-bodied,” the man on the block interrupted again and said, “Gentlemen, I is not able-bodied; for, in the first place, I is troubled with sickness; and in the next place, I has got a wen on my right shoulder, as big as an Irish potatoe!”
Er, no sale.
These stories fly in the face of our traditional portrait of slavery, which tends to depict the enslaved as witless and powerless.
“The Price for Their Pound of Flesh” forces us to acknowledge the degree to which African Americans clung to their sense of selfhood, physically, mentally and spiritually. To some people today, it may not matter much that a young black woman was sold on average for about $236 (nearly $7,000 in today’s dollars) or that a young man sold for about $258 (more than $7,500). But it matters a lot — a whole lot — to be reminded of, in Berry’s words, “the infinite value of African American souls.” And through them the soul value of us all.
By Daina Ramey Berry
Beacon Press. 262 pp. $27.95