UT Professor’s New Book Explores the Economic Value of Slaves In American History

UT history professor Daina Ramey Berry has dedicated her professional life to filling in the gaps of American history. Growing up in an African-American family just outside of Sacramento, California, she was quick to notice that her ancestors’ history was often absent from her schoolbooks. But she didn’t have to look far for an education on her roots: Her mother was an academic and activist who had participated in the

1963 March on Washington and her father was an engineering professor who became the second African-American to join UC Davis’ faculty. Since becoming a historian herself, Berry has taken matters into her own hands, writing dozens of articles and two books on gender and slavery in the 19th century.

Her latest book, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, explores the economic value of slaves during their lives and after death as they were sold to be studied in American medical schools. This comes at the end of a journey that led Berry to archives across the country to study the different ways slaves were valued at auction, in medical records, and in insurance policies. The book is the recipient of the 2018 Hamilton Book Award—UT’s highest literary honor. Berry spoke with the Alcalde about her book and her upcoming projects.

The Price for Their Pound of Flesh took you 10 years to complete. Why?

There were two big challenges. The first was finding the needle in a haystack of information buried in medical records and institutions across the U.S. I had to follow deed books, minutes at faculty meetings, lecture notes, and handbooks at medical schools to find answers. The other challenge was more emotional. There were some times that I would read things that were so disturbing, I couldn’t even write about it. But I couldn’t leave anything out. I had to give myself breaks to write a clean history without sadness or anger.

What kept you motivated?

Trying to understand how enslaved people made sense of being eternal commodities. I realized they did recognize the value of their souls. They acknowledged a separation between their physical bodies and who they were spiritually and intellectually. They knew that their souls couldn’t be touched or traded.

What are readers shocked to learn about the history of slaves in America?

People are often just shocked at the level of commodification of black bodies—the fact that infants were separated from their parents and auctioned when they were a few days or months old, or how the bodies of enslaved people were used to advance the field of medicine even after they were dead. Many of my students say they find it ironic that the very people who were being dehumanized were the same people contributing to this era of medical discovery and education.

In your research, how did you find slaves were valued?

I wanted to understand the value of slaves in society. During this time, black lives was so devalued because they weren’t seen as people. They were being poked and prodded and appraised to be sold at different stages of their lives. There are four main ways that I identified slaves being valued. There was the appraisal value of what the estates or plantations thought they were worth that year. There was the market value, or the sale price at auction. There was their soul value—the infinite value of the slaves’ spirits that no one could commodify. And there was their ghost value, or the value of their body once they died.

What makes you passionate about teaching history?

I took my first African-American studies course in college. I didn’t like the professor who taught it, so I wrote him a very respectful letter and would have conversations about the lessons. Those talks helped me realize that history is about interpretation. Depending on your personal experiences and training, two people might read the same document totally differently. I realized if I wanted my children to learn their history, I needed to help write it.

There’s debate over the difference between remembering and honoring historical figures. How do slaves fit into that conversation?

Enslaved people have done so many things for this country, but there are so many names we don’t know. I think we need to start by recognizing these people and understanding what they’ve contributed to the building of our nation. To honor people who have committed treason, but not the people who were actively participating in the growth of our country, it’s hypocritical.

What upcoming projects are you working on right now?

I’m co-authoring a [non-fiction] book with Kali Gross called A Black Women’s History of the United States. We’re trying to write it from the perspectives of unknown figures. We’re hoping that the stories we’re telling in this book are stories of women you’ve never heard of who played a role in our country’s history.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 
 
 

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