The book The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The value of the enslaved, from womb to grave, in the building of a nation by Diana Ramey Berry is an excellent example of historical research concerning the theme of slavery. It presents the facts about the appraisal enslaved people starting with their conception and ending with their bodies post-mortem. The structure of the book The Price for Their Pound of Flesh resembles the trajectory of life; every chapter follows the life-cycle stage of an enslaved person. The slavery image is illustrated by historical materials, appraisal data, the reports from the auctions sales, advertisement, and real stories of slaves, told by themselves.
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Women’s bodies as the catalyst of the 19th century economic development
In the 19th century, there were significant modifications in the international slave trade; consequently, the nature of the internal circulation of people changed. While the African slave market folded up at the beginning of the 19th century, reproductive values began to play an essential role in the slavery expansion, as the labor source was shifted to the biological, natural process allowing the buyers to save money in perspective. Female slaves of childbearing age were of great importance in terms of human resources, since plantation owners no longer needed to buy or look for additional labor sources, since slave children automatically became workers on these plantations or farms. Many of these women were known as breeding wenches (Berry, p. 15). Plantation owners preferred to purchase childbearing women for her potential enslaved children. As a result, the owners ceased to depend on the slave market. The physical characteristics of female slaves, especially their ability to give birth, physical attractiveness, age, became the crucial factor in their inspections, valuations, and sales.
Childhood and Adolescence of Enslaved People
In the first decade of their life, enslaved children were not aware of their social status, often playing with black and white children as well. The perception of being a part of the personal property start opening gradually, especially when they experienced the shock of witnessing a sale or the first time they were sold to other masters. Moreover, a large number of enslaved children did not have the sense of being unfree as they lived with biological parents or relatives. The author tells the story of Frederick Douglass, who said that he was “a spirited, joyous, uproarious, and happy boy” for the first eight years of his life. (p. 36). There are various ways of how children came to understand their enslavement, but the common features are short-term childhood and the moment of realizing the difference between enslaved and white children. While at an early age, it was impossible to distinguish children’s behavior; by the age of ten, an enslaved child could notice a changed attitude of his or her white peers.
Enslaved children got to know their evaluation at every stage of their growth and development. Still, they had little awareness of their values, as appraisals could be provided without their actual presence. The process of selling always made a deep impression on the young state of mind. In most cases, enslaved people remember well the first time when they were presented on the auction. Marlida Pethy of Missouri recalled that buyers offered $600, but her mistress cried so much and did not sell her. (Berry, p. 43) The adolescence period was horrific for most of the enslaved people, accompanying puberty period issues, increasing the external value, sexual harassment, and the separation from their families. When young slaves grew up, they learned to distinguish between the multiple values placed on and within their bodies. Meanwhile, they learned how to differentiate their souls and bodies; consequently, the soul became priceless, being the sign of spiritual freedom.
Post-mortem of Enslaved People
After the death of enslaved or free black people, their families could not bury their bodies properly as the remains of the deceased were the form of sale for anatomical research. Before the legal justification for dissection, there was a concept of extra punishment beyond death, which means the practice of dissecting those convicted of murder, regardless of race. (Berry, p. 99) The most prominent example is the execution of Nat Turner when Virginia medical students asked for bodies for further medical research. Medical education encouraged students to study in practice using actual dissections. “As in the 1840s, the transportation, preservation and storage included specific fees, in this case, $10 per cadaver. It was revealed that medical institutions paid between $5 and $8 per body, with an average of 150 bodies per year” (Berry, p.187). Nat Turner’s skull and skeleton became part of a clandestine market in bodily remains. According to Berry, “the fiscal values of their cadavers became tradable goods that were part of a clandestine traffic in bodies used for anatomical education” (p. 152). The death of enslaved blacks did not end the fact of commodification.
To sum up, the book The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave by Diana Ramey Berry illustrates slavery as a part of the materialistic world. The author emphasizes the expression of soul value, highlighting the source that enslaved people used to feel their worth, which exceeds the limits of their economic value. Despite that the author describes the life of enslaved women, men, and children from a financial perspective, readers can be active and emphasize real people and tragic moments of life. The Price for Their Pound of Flesh is a difficult read. Still, it is necessary to understand the basis of slavery as part of the capitalist world, when even a human being can be considered an item of goods.
Berry, Daina Ramey. 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.
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