Daina Ramey Berry and Ray Winbush led a panel on the complex history of slavery in the United States at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse on Saturday, Feb. 25th. The discussion revolved around providing reparations for slavery, which involves making amends for the abuses that black slaves faced in the past.
Berry and Winbush both read excerpts from their recent books, explored their respective ideas and fielded questions from the audience.
Berry is an associate professor of history and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her book, “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation,” explores how slaves were often bought and sold like commodities throughout their lives.
In order to set-up the proper historical backdrop for the discussion, the event began with Berry reading from her book.
“The book is structured around trying to understand when enslaved people realized or gained some type of understanding that they were [being] treated as human commodities.” she said.
Berry shared slave narratives where people explored their positions in society and the effect of being treated as commodities.
“I wanted to write this book with as many stories, and as many testimonies, and as many narratives as I could possibly put in here, so that the reader could hear how the enslaved person felt at every single stage of their lives, and how they understood this commodification,” Berry said. “One of the things that I found is that they fought back with this idea of what I call their ‘soul value.’”
Berry defined her concept of “soul value” as the inherent value of a person that cannot be quantified. She explained that her goal in writing this book was to understand the lives of slaves through their thoughts and feelings. Berry feels that the unique personhood of individual slaves has been missing in historical literature.
“I kept wondering — how did they survive the kind of dehumanization that they experienced, and the devaluation as human beings? And I found there has to be something they hold on to, and I came up with this idea of the soul value, and I started seeing it at every stage of their lives,” Berry said. “So I wanted to really write about that as well, because I think that is the survival mechanism that is often missing when we talk about slavery.”
Berry’s book is the culmination of ten years of research. She was able to create a database of the monetary exchanges and different values placed on enslaved people, and for that reason, believes her work is of particular interest to scholars studying reparations. Her data will soon be available publicly online.
“I knew reparations activists would be interested in my work because I did detailed records on values of enslaved bodies.” Berry said.
Winbush is the director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University and also was editor of the book “Should America Pay?: Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations.” The book contains essays that argue both for the pros and cons of providing reparations.
Winbush shared his case for why the United States should pay reparations to the descendants of slaves. He also emphasized the importance of discussing the history of the United States in order to be more informed about the present. He explained that reparations are not readily discussed in political discourse because it shows the uglier side of American history.
“The United States doesn’t readily give up its history unless it’s something that is self serving. We’ll say, ‘remember the Alamo,’ but we won’t say that the Alamo occurred because the Mexicans did not want slavery in Texas,” Winbush said.
While taking questions from the audience, Winbush explained that the logistical difficulty of paying reparations is part of why it has not happened yet. However, he cited that this is hypocritical given that there are many other examples of reparations being paid by the U.S. to other groups.
“The fact is that America has paid reparations to a lot of groups; not only Japanese Americans, but also several indigenous groups. Reparations really are as American as apple pie,” Winbush said. “The issue is that the institution of slavery was so enormous. The United States says how can we pay for this long-lasting war that we’ve affected toward black people in this country.”
Winbush concluded that no matter how long ago slavery occurred, or how logistically difficult the process of paying reparations would be, it would be a just act by the government. He also emphasized that reparations would be more directly impactful than other measures taken to alleviate the lingering effects of slavery in the United States.
“The reason [reparations] is being pushed is because there is no statute of limitations against crimes against humanity, and enslavement was a crime against humanity,” he said.
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