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What is the Value of a Human Life?

History professor Daina Ramey Berry’s new book is the first to explore the economic value of enslaved people through every phase of their lives – including from before birth to after death.

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“I’m not a scholar of slavery. I’m a scholar of the enslaved,” said Daina Ramey Berry, a professor of history and African and African diaspora studies at The University of Texas at Austin. For the past decade, she has combed through archives of auctions and the slave trade records – connecting the bills with the voices of those being sold.

In 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,” she tackles a difficult subject and attempts to answer two main questions: “What is a human life worth?” and “How do you define a person’s value?”

Berry’s book is the first to explore the economic value of enslaved people through every phase of their lives – including from before birth to after death – in the American domestic slave trades.

“Slaves’ bodies were almost like a form a legal tender,” Berry said. “They were gifted, loaned, insured, sold and rented just like we sell and trade cars.” 

“I write about the institution of slavery, but I’m really interested in how the people experience it,” Berry said. At the heart of that is her concept of “Soul Value,” the part of being human that no one can commodify. “It is expressed in a number of ways like running away or manipulating their own sale on the auction block. These acts reject the idea of treating them like a commodity and makes the person who is in the audience view them like a person.”

 

For more information on Berry’s book and other work, visit her website.