Wednesday, April 3, 2013

55: Walter Johnson's Soul by Soul

In Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, Walter Johnson details the large slave market in antebellum New Orleans from 1830-1860 in an exploration of the cultural implications of turning human beings into property.  In doing so, he illustrates how slave markets, and particularly the point of sale, spatialized and embodied dynamics of race, economics, and power.  He argues that these markets were central to the construction of Southern culture because they highlight the central contradiction of antebellum slavery.

To reconstruct the internal dynamics of the slave market, Johnson studies a wide range of sources, including slaveholders' letters, acts of sale, records of the Louisiana Supreme Court, letters, diaries, business records, and narratives of escaped slaves, all in pursuit of the "experience" of slavery, the market, and the sale.  The result is a book structured around the point of sale and the asymmetrical relationships among the three parties involved: the slave, the slave holder, and the trader.  All three approached this point using various forms of resistance, manipulation, and negotiation, and all are situated in the pens, offices, and selling blocks of the market.

The crucial thing here is that Johnson clearly portrays the agency and potential for resistance of all three parties, including the slaves, and he reconstructs the worlds of all three, including the spaces - pens, boardinghouses, and plantations - in which they live and encounter one another.  Like the new social historians of slavery and labor, Johnson is very much interested in the world as it was lived and perceived by each group; building on their work, he also explores the shifting power relationships and negotiations among them.  He concludes that transforming people into property had broad cultural implications for all three groups: planters' perceived superiority lies in their ability to judge and get a good price on the bodies of slaves; slaves balanced the knowledge that they could be sold at any moment with a desire to build community, even in the pens; traders come to see the slaves as the commodities that hold their community together, rather than as people.

And no one liked the space of the market itself (save maybe the traders, who apparently merrily ate their lunches together there) - to the planters, it smacked of grubby commercialism, and to the slaves, it smelled of fear and filth.  Although focusing on New Orleans does force Johnson to exclude other markets, it does allow him to drill down into a particular time and place.  And the guilt, distaste, fear and brute indifference of that place are harrowing.  It's no wonder that it was destroyed soon after the Civil War - but I do think it's important to resurrect it here.

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