Book Review: Soul By Soul

Soul By Soul:  Life Inside The Antebellum Slave Market, by Walter Johnson

Admittedly, the slave market is not what contemporary people tend to think of the most when they think of slavery.  It is easy to think of the plantation, and so that is the image that people tend to have.  I suspect I would have liked this author and this book a lot less if the author had been explicit to the reader about the perspective that he brought to bear on the slave market as being an essential place in the negotiation and manipulation of value and communication in the business of the slave trade.  To be sure, slave traders were often viewed as unloved middlemen within the system of antebellum Southern slavery, but like despised middlemen everywhere they served a valuable purpose and this book gives them their due.  Where this book is particularly good is at exploring the way that slaves themselves were able to negotiate meaning as traders attempted to make profits through the usual false representations and buyers sought to uncover the truth, a process in which the slaves had at least some agency even in a dangerous situation where beatings could result either from overly discouraging or encouraging sales.

This book of a bit more than 200 pages is divided into seven chapters.  The author begins with an introduction that discusses the slave as a person with a price, and therefore an ambiguous aspect of both humanity (most of whom do not have explicit prices) and of property (most of which is obviously non-sentient).  After that the author talks about the chattel principle that viewed slave as movable property in the manner of livestock (1) and discussed the business of slave trading and how it was that slave traders sought to profit from buying slaves low and selling them high (2).  The author spends some time examining how the world of white slaveowners, both male and female, was made of slaves and the profits that slaves generated through their labor (3) while also spending some time in how it was that the slave market turned people into products (4).  The author looks at how white slaveowners sought to read bodies and mark race, a process which frequently involved ambiguities (5) and discusses the various acts of sale and how they were negotiated (6) before closing with the book with a discussion of life in the shadow of the slave market (7) as well as an epilogue on the connection between southern history and the slave trade, after which there is a record of abbreviations, notes, acknowledgments, and an index.

The awkwardness of the slave market to contemporary audiences consists in the problem that we have in viewing the slave as simultaneously a person and property in the way that it existed at the time.  It was this simultaneous identity that provided the slaves with agency that other forms of property do not possess.  It was the property status of slave that made the slave market profitable and made the international slave trade a necessary element in preserving the profitability of slavery for states like Kentucky and Virginia and Maryland, but it was the anomalous role of slaves as people with their own wills and interests that allowed them to negotiate at least some aspects of their sale, whether that meant seeking to recruit people to buy them and their spouses to preserve the unity of slave families (always a chancy matter), or whether it meant choosing to look bright and responsive so as to appeal to a likely owner in the same way that an owner went to the market to find a “likely” slave.  In pointing out some of the mysterious and often neglected aspects of slave trading like the problem of lawsuits and of the importance of buying slaves in establishing an identity as a slaveowner and hence an elite member of the Southern aristocracy, the author does good work in putting slavery in a worthwhile context.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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