Soul by Soul
Soul By Soul
Soul by Soul: Life inside in the Antebellum Slave Market by Walter Johnson tries to trace the human past events of the slave trade in the United States. Johnson designed this as a complement to and a measured criticism of the economic and the demographic view of the slave trade. The book focuses on the 19th Century of the New Orleans and slave market in that place. On top of other workings of slavery, the slave markets lowered the dignity of human beings to that of commodities such that humans had prices. Particularly this book mostly based its interest on the stories of slave showrooms that held over 100 slaves and how appraisals, back-rooms dealings, accountings and other activities were taking place.
Johnson attributes slave trade to the mercantilism in which people were imported and stocked in the metropolitan centers where they were to add profits before their sales. The profits benefited the state-sponsored companies and the individual slave dealers. Johnson placed the enslaved African-Americans as his center of analysis; he moved his focus on slave market from the aggregate of numerical measures to the alarming daily commerce in people. Soul by Soul tends to indict the antebellum south using a different approach. It meticulously dismantles the slaveholders’ planet. Johnson (1999) shows that the market was the foundation of the frightening life the planters, as the slaves kept imagining whom could be bought by the slave traders. At the same time, the slave traders were thinking of whom to buy.
What differentiates Johnson’s Soul by Soul from other documentations on slavery probably the history of the antebellum South is that in Soul by Soul there is a use of innovative court records. Johnson asserts the importance of viewing the moment of sale by both the slaves and the slaveholders. The book talks much about the plight of the slaves but then much of the insight here is the story of about two hundred slave transactions that were disputed, and the case was presented before the Louisiana Supreme Court. Under redhibition laws whereby the slave buyers who were not satisfied with the people they bought could easily sue the sellers of such people. The Louisiana laws forced the slave traders to warranty their sales so that in case the buyers feel unsatisfied with those whom they bought; they can have another way out.
Johnson makes good use of documents such as Slavery, the Civil Law, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana by Judith K. Schafer for presenting more information on the legal history of slavery to describe the physical spaces and the transactions of the slave trade. He presents the image of slave auctions whereby the slaves were clothed to reflect the desires of the buyers. Such acts were rampant in the slaves markets.
Traders put the enslaved African Americans to thorough inspections in the genteel showrooms after they are removed from the pens. Also, it was in the showrooms where the sellers and the buyers used to display their knowledge concerning the slave bodies, for example, they used to read the slaves for the signs of punishments, diseases, their character traits including their physical abilities ranging from their hands, faces, breast and the limbs as well as their own honor, mastery and manhood.
Public transcript of the disputed slave trade makes Johnson come up with what can be termed as “hidden transcript” of James Scott that was talking about the market transactions of human bodies. Johnson used most documents including slaveholders’ writings to explain how sales were meaningful to the participated in the slavery; he presents the desires of the slaveholders, the traders’ ambitions and fears of the slaves. He describes the bitter ironies of the market where the African-Americans were discriminated right from their bodies and they were forced to perform their worth to become commodities of trade. The slaves were faced with tough choices e.g. they were forced to confirm the dealer’s inflated account of their own abilities, failure to which they could be subjected to brutal beating. Nonetheless, Johnson (1999) argues that because the slaves’ deals relied upon what the bodies of the slaves presented and their mind that they were to shape at their point of sale. The slaves could accept selectively or deny their buyers depending on how they studied the buyer. They could subject themselves to a lot of harms or run away if some conditions to get them sold were not met; some wanted to be sold together with their family members. Most of the slaves wanted to be sold to masters who were residing within cities and not those who were having sugarcane plantations.
At the slaves’ own risks, some of them could fake illnesses and develop some undesirable traits that could make their masters return them to markets. The probability of getting sold is what scared the slaves. Johnson, (1999) explains that the slaveholders an abnormal affinity for money than the individual slaves. It thus, outdoes the lingering romanticism that is still evident in the Old South. It questions the existence of Southern Paternalism where both the slave and the master were to benefit mutually.
The focus of Johnson, (1999) is the domestic slave trade that was taking place in the New Orleans and how commoditization of individuals was done. It is mostly concerned with the slave pen where the blacks were used as the commodities of sale. The prices of a slave were dependent on their performance and their reasoning. The ideology of Paternalism that claims that the whites could help the helpless blacks is not evident as the history of the slave markets that is the history of the antebellum south where the slavery was only about buying and selling of the slaves. The book can be useful to anyone trying to understand the history of the Southern whites and how they carried out slavery and the slave trade.
Walter, Johnson. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.
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