Institute of Historical Studies
Institute of Historical Studies

New Book by Historian Daina Ramey Berry Analyzes the Commodification of the Slave Body

Fri, February 10, 2017
New Book by Historian Daina Ramey Berry Analyzes the Commodification of the Slave Body
Prof. Berry and "The Price for Their Pound of Flesh" (Beacon Press, 2017)

By Henry Wiencek, Ph.D Candidate of History, University of Texas at Austin.

IHS congratulates Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, associate professor of history, African & African Diaspora Studies and a former IHS fellow (2012-13) on the publication of her new book, 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). The groundbreaking work renders a comprehensive and unsettling account of how slaveholders transformed the enslaved body into a financial commodity.
Over the course of ten years, Dr. Berry scoured cemetery records, slave-trading documents and life insurance policies. In the process, she uncovered how slave traders assigned economic values to biological markers and physical attributes: age, gender and reproductive capacities all factored in the marketplace as slave-owners bartered and sold human beings as merchandise. Enslaved bodies even retained a perverse “ghost value” after death, as owners illicitly sold their slaves’ corpses to medical schools as cadavers.
However, Dr. Berry’s work underscores that enslaved people never fully accepted their position as mere economic commodities. Incorporating first-hand accounts of the slaves themselves, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh reminds readers that these were men, women and children who struggled constantly to preserve their sense of humanity.
Dr. Berry has already been featured across a variety of public venues and media outlets. These include an interview on NPR’s “The Takeaway”; a recent panel at the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies; and a discussion and book signing at Book People that you can view now on C-Span’s Book TV. This past October, Dr. Berry also contributed a powerful op-ed to the New York Times on the strange afterlife of Nat Turner’s skull and how relics of deceased black bodies have become relics or trophies. Most recently, she was interviewed by Boston Globe on her groundbreaking work.
Tomorrow, Dr. Berry and esteemed Harvard historian Dr. Walter Johnson will participate in a panel at the Bullock Texas State History Museum (1800 Congress Ave. Austin, TX 78701) to celebrate the opening of Purchased Lives: The American Slave Trade from 1808 to 1865, an exhibition from The Historic New Orleans Collection which examines the lives of individuals caught up in the domestic slave trade. The following day (Saturday, February 11th), Dr. Berry will appear at a free teaching development workshop at the Bullock Texas State History Museum featuring materials from the Purchased Lives exhibition.

Not Even Past spotlights The Price for Their Pound of Flesh this month, with an original essay by Dr. Berry, and a list of suggestions for further reading on the economies and medical histories of enslaved people in the United States.

Stay current on all of Dr. Berry's upcoming engagements on her website, and follow her on Twitter, @lbofflesh.

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