55 pages 1 hour read

Daina Ramey Berry

The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation is an academic monograph written by historian of slavery Daina Ramey Berry and published by Beacon Press in 2017. Berry’s first book, Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia, was published in 2007 by University of Illinois Press. In Swing the Sickle Berry examines the relation between gender, skilled enslaved labor, and family and community life in her comparative histories of two Georgia counties. In 2020 she and coauthor Kali Nicole Gross published A Black Women’s History of the United States (Beacon Press). Berry is the Michael Douglass Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts at University of California at Santa Barbara. Her specialty is gender and slavery.

This study guide refers to the 2017 paperback edition of The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.

Content Warning: The source material deals extensively with the system of race-based slavery in the United States, the commodification of enslaved people, execution, sexual assault, rape, and trafficking in human corpses.


The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation examines the institution of race-based slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States, focusing intensely on the commodification of enslaved lives and bodies. The subtitle—"the value of the enslaved, from womb to grave”—does not actually capture the full range of Berry’s examination of this commodification, which extends before conception and beyond (and out of) the grave. The structure of the book explicitly follows the life stages of enslaved people, with the first chapter considering “pre-conception” commodification and the final chapter examining the commodification of the dead in the domestic cadaver trade.

Berry contributes to new studies in the economics of slavery in her focus on the relation between slavery and capitalism in its commodification of Black life and death. Her specialized focus on the commodification of the dead and the cadaver trafficking of the late 18th and 19th centuries brings to light the mutually supporting infrastructures of medical research and slavery. Medicine’s “professionalization” in the 19th century was enabled through its trafficking in the corpses of enslaved people and robbing of graves. The commodification of these corpses—what Berry calls “ghost values”—illuminates the ways that scientific education, and in particular the practice of dissection, exploited the dead and their families and contributed to the harms that enslaved people endured.

Berry attempts not only to focus on the various factors that determined commodification, which changed with each life cycle, but also to foreground the understanding and resistance of enslaved people to their commodification. She seeks to bring forward their “intellectual history” as opposed to the experiential history that historians tend to privilege.

Her source materials include the records kept by enslavers and physicians (and often enslavers who were also physicians), such as ledgers, wills, insurance policies, medical records, and hospital bills as well as other material related to commodification such as broadside advertisements. These provide a view of both appraisal values and market values imposed on enslaved people. At the same time, Berry examines abolitionist accounts of auctions of enslaved people, as well as narratives and prison writing by enslaved people, in an attempt to determine the internal valuation that enslaved people cultivated in resistance to slavery’s external valuation. Berry refers to this internal valuation as “soul value.”

In addition to her work examining the panoramic commodification of enslaved people and their resistant cultivation of soul value, Berry also examines the participation of enslaved and emancipated people in the trafficking of corpses. The question of what Black “resurrectionists”—those who pulled the dead out of their graves—thought about their work, however, remains elusive.

Berry also examines the organized revolts of enslaved people and the expression of their soul values in these revolts, including Nat Turner and John Brown and his fellow resisters John A. Copeland and Shields Green, who were executed for their participation in the 1859 revolt at Harper’s Ferry, and Dangerfield Newby, who was killed in the revolt. In addition to these more well-known revolts, she looks at the resistance of enslaved people known only in the written record by their first names, such as Isaac of South Carolina, who also participated in a revolt.

Another focus is the complicated and shifting commodification of women’s reproductive capacities, which is determined by both historical period and region. Berry’s attention to reproduction and sexual assault does not remain limited to women’s lives, however. She also draws attention to the sexual violence directed at enslaved men and the dearth of source materials, especially first-hand accounts of enslaved men, that speak to the reality of what Berry calls “third-party rape,” or forced sexual relations between enslaved men and enslaved women.

Berry’s focus on late-18th- and 19th-century slavery leads up to the present moment in her discussion of recent findings of the remains of enslaved people used for dissection at medical schools in Georgia and Virginia. Many of these corpses, secured by Black resurrectionists and via cadaver trafficking, are now being forensically examined, and debates continue regarding what a respectful memorialization would entail and the extent to which medical schools should be held accountable for this trafficking.

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