History Department
History Department

Daina Ramey Berry's "Price for Their Pound of Flesh" wins Best Book Prize from the Society of Historians of Early American Republic (SHEAR)

Fri, August 3, 2018
Daina Ramey Berry's
Dr. Daina Ramey Berry

Congratulations to Professor Daina Ramey Berry on winning the prestigious Best Book Prize from the Society of Historians of Early American Republic (SHEAR) for her book The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to the Grave, in the Building of the Nation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017).  This annual prize recognizes “an original monograph that makes a significant contribution to the historiography of the early American republic.” The SHEAR selection committee’s complete citation in praise of this ‘revelatory new book” can be found below.

Dr. Berry was recently interviewed by "On Point" about the history and significance of the Juneteenth holiday. Listen to the interview at: http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2018/06/19/celebrating-juneteenth-the-history-behind-the-holiday. She also contributed to the CWR Network's virtual town hall on “Race In America: Where Do We Go From Here.”  Read about Prof. Berry's lastest news and publications at drdainarameyberry.com, and for up-to-date insights, follow her on Twitter @DainaRameyBerry.

The Price for Their Pound of Flesh is also a finalist for the 2018 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, awarded annually by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, for the most outstanding non-fiction book in English on the subject of slavery, resistance, and/or abolition. The winner will be announced following the Douglass Prize Review Committee meeting in the fall, and the award will be presented at a celebration in New York City on February 28, 2019.

Citation for Dr. Daina Ramey Berry's The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to the Grave, in the Building of the Nation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017)

Daina Ramey Berry’s revelatory new book, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, is sure to take its place as one of the foremost histories of American slavery. While it joins the growing number of books on the history of slavery and capitalism, Berry pays equal and systematic attention to not just the ways in which bondage assigned monetary values to the enslaved but also to the ways in which the enslaved sought to counteract the ruthless economic exploitation of their bodies. The book combines a systemic approach to the economic history of slavery with an intimate discussion of the enslaved and their worldview. As such, it sets a new standard in the historiography of slavery.

Focusing closely on how slaves were valued from conception to their death and beyond, Berry gets to the dark heart of southern slavery, the commodification of human beings. Berry shows that the enslaved were commodified even before birth and their bodies continued to yield profits for slaveholders after their demise. She traces the fluctuating value of slaves throughout their lives, based on “sex, age, skill, health, beauty, temperament, and reproductive ability.’’ In a startlingly original argument, Berry reveals how slaves were often valued and rated in a manner that the USDA would later develop for meat grades, with “choice” slaves rated by their appearance and ability to labor as “prime hands” and half or quarter hands.

drb-shearBerry’s research is impeccable. It lays bare the political economy of slavery at both the micro and macro levels. The data that she culls from the records of the Southern Mutual Life Insurance Co. on slave policies and patterns of valuation of the labor force in the Cane Brake Plantation in Mississippi amply reinforces her arguments. State governments and courts, which awarded compensation to slaveholders for their dead or damaged slaves, she shows were also complicit in this process of commodification. Berry’s discussion of the value of slaves is not restricted to the slaveholders’ gaze. Instead she deploys a “reverse gaze” looking also at how the enslaved developed “soul values,” or a sense of their own intrinsic human worth, that challenged and contradicted the “exchange values” assigned to them by their enslavers. Her interpretation here is most telling and imaginative and she successfully mines slave testimony and abolitionist literature to recover the experience and perspectives of the enslaved.

Left: Professor Berry is awarded the Best Book Prize from the Society of Historians of Early American Republic (SHEAR), July 21, 2018.

Perhaps the most innovative part of the book is Berry’s discussion of the “ghost values” of slaves and the “domestic cadaver trade.” Even after death, slaveholders’ sought to capitalize on their investments in the bodies of the enslaved, selling them to the nation’s leading universities for use in medical training and study. We are happy to name The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, which teems with original insights and arguments, the recipient of this year’s SHEAR’s Best Book Prize.

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