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Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (1999)

af Walter Johnson

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371450,525 (4.19)1
Soul by Soul tells the story of slavery in antebellum America by moving away from the cotton plantations and into the slave market itself, the heart of the domestic slave trade. Taking us inside the New Orleans slave market, the largest in the nation, where 100,000 men, women, and children were packaged, priced, and sold, Walter Johnson transforms the statistics of this chilling trade into the human drama of traders, buyers, and slaves, negotiating sales that would alter the life of each. What emerges is not only the brutal economics of trading but the vast and surprising interdependencies among the actors involved. Using recently discovered court records, slaveholders' letters, nineteenth-century narratives of former slaves, and the financial documentation of the trade itself, Johnson reveals the tenuous shifts of power that occurred in the market's slave coffles and showrooms. Traders packaged their slaves by "feeding them up," dressing them well, and oiling their bodies, but they ultimately relied on the slaves to play their part as valuable commodities. Slave buyers stripped the slaves and questioned their pasts, seeking more honest answers than they could get from the traders. In turn, these examinations provided information that the slaves could utilize, sometimes even shaping a sale to their own advantage. Johnson depicts the subtle interrelation of capitalism, paternalism, class consciousness, racism, and resistance in the slave market, to help us understand the centrality of the "peculiar institution" in the lives of slaves and slaveholders alike. His pioneering history is in no small measure the story of antebellum slavery.… (mere)

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This book was fun--well, as fun as a book about enslavement can be. Johnson does a great job of highlighting the ways that the three stakeholders in the slave market engage in that market. Histories of capitalism etc. aren't super my thing, but if they are yours you'll probably love this book--Johnson's writing style is really great and accessible, and his use of sources is interesting. ( )
  aijmiller | Oct 13, 2017 |
Walter Johnson’s Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market broadly focuses on the history of slavery, but Johnson uses that to explore how the geographic and cultural space of the slave market, specifically those in New Orleans, shaped ideas of wealth, race, gender, and social status for all members of Southern society regardless of gender, race, or condition of bondage.
Johnson seeks to answer how the transformative process of slavery, in which people became objects, affects all members of Southern society and transformed that society itself.
Johnson argues that the slave pens in New Orleans offer insight into all aspects of Southern slavery. Johnson writes, “In the slave pens, the yet-unmade history of antebellum slavery could be daily viewed in the freeze framed detail of a single transaction on its leading edge – a trader, a buyer, and a slave making a bargain that would change the lives of each.” Johnson explores these transactions from the point of view of each. According to Johnson, “The abstract value that underwrote the southern economy could only be made material in human shape – frail, sentient, and resistant.” Fully aware of these contradictions, slaveholders based their social relationships on slavery and tied their honor to the choices the made in the marketplace. Johnson writes, “By buying a slave, [J.B.] Alexander had bought himself a public stake in the world of white men: he was a man who was worthy of notice.” Even the measurement of time was tied to the slave market, with sales and purchases depending on the agricultural needs of plantation owners. A man could assert his patriarchal benevolence toward his family by purchasing a slave to aid their family. Writes Johnson, “By publicly framing their purchases in terms of the needs of their white dependents, these men reframed the leisure of their wives as evidence of their own virtue – their wives would not have to wash or wait or nurse, they would see to that.” In this way, Southern honor was tied to a man’s fortunes and skill as a slaveholder. Johnson writes, “‘Affairs of honor’ were more likely to be played out in the slave market than on the dueling ground.” Finally, Johnson demonstrates that slaves could take advantage of the buyers’ and traders’ expectations to maintain families, exercise a modicum of choice in their owners, and even escape. The system of buying on trial “gave slaves an opportunity to examine their buyers and choose whether to match or subvert their evident expectations.” The slave market represented the nexus of all these interchanges.
Johnson primarily builds upon the work of Frederic Bancroft and Michael Tadman. He also draws upon Eugene Genovese and James McPherson.
Johnson uses four types of sources. He relies on the narratives of escaped slaves first and foremost. Additionally, Johnson uses the docket records of disputed slave sales, slaveholders’ own letters, and various records of sales from notarized acts to record books and advertisements. Johnson contextualizes slave narratives with “sources produced by slaveholders and visitors to the South.” Further, Johnson assumes the docket records “contain only lies,” though he suggests these lies must have fit an understood pattern for them to seem plausible in court. ( )
  DarthDeverell | Dec 20, 2016 |
Being an examination of the American slave trade through the prism of the New Orleans slave market, from the viewpoint of the slaves, the dealers, the buyers, and, less often, the sellers. There is a real need for this book despite the many volumes devoted to the slave trade over the decades. The rather amorphous topic doesn't lend itself to a high degree of organization, and the author piles anecdote upon anecdote upon anecdote to make his points; many of these are interesting, some are not. The author was good enough to set out his methods and the criteria he uses to determine a reliable historical source, however, in my case this detracted from the book, as his definition of a reliable source is pretty much the opposite of mine. ( )
  Big_Bang_Gorilla | May 18, 2012 |
In his book, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, Walter Johnson considers the Slave Markets in Nineteenth-century New Orleans. At this time in American history New Orleans was a hub for an overabundance of goods being sold, traded, exported and imported. There at the mouth of the Mississippi one could find warehouses full of cotton, boats full of sugarcane, bushels of tobacco and one of the most valuable commodities of the time – slaves. Johnson takes an in depth look at the sale of slaves in New Orleans; how they were presented by the buyers, what role they might have played in their own sale, and how these sales affected these caged individuals.
Johnson’s work, while extensive in its account of the slave pens and sale of slaves in New Orleans, does not approach the experience of the slaves once they were purchased. Johnson does not go into detail about the lives of slaves working plantations, or working in their master’s houses or the plethora of other burdens these people were forced to bear. He primarily discusses (and with great detail) the immediate experience of the slaves in the slave pens, and how the auction houses’ and slave traders’ business functioned in New Orleans.
One must go to primary sources like Solomon Northup’s, Twelve Years a Slave to read about first hand slave experience and southern plantation life. While Northup does write about experiences in slave pens, he devotes much more time to experiences he had as a plantation worker; explaining what types of food the slaves were given to eat, what the slave quarters were like to live in, and what the slaves talked about and dreamt about. This is not to say the Johnson’s work is not useful or even interesting. Yet, it should be noted that Johnson’s use of sources is seemingly very selective, not only in the sources that he chose to use but also in the information he extracted from those very selective sources.
Johnson uses slave narratives as his main source in an attempt to understand, the experiences of the persons that were being sold as well as how the sale of slaves functioned in New Orleans. Johnson writes, “I have tried to understand a slave sale from the contingent perspective of each of its participants”, that is to say the seller and the product (9). Johnson admits that he understands some of the problems that arise when using slave narratives. He recognizes the influence northern abolitionist ideas and mentalities had on the authors of these narratives. He also freely admits the “winners” wrote these narratives. Many individuals did not survive their enslavement either because they died of disease, accident, murder, old age or suicide. Others who did survive to gain their freedom did not have the opportunity to write about their experiences during enslavement, for whatever reason. Therefore, Johnson’s sources are from an elite group of individuals who were given the opportunity to tell their story, hardly a legitimate sample of the millions of slave experiences.
Johnson does attempt to balance out his sources by “reading the narratives in tandem with sources produced by slaveholders and visitors to the South” (11). He admits to searching the narratives for “traces of the experience of slavery antecedent to the ideology of antislavery” (11). In addition Johnson, “read the narratives for symbolic truths that stretch beyond the facticity of specific events” (11). Johnson works diligently to gain as much objective information as he can through this type of checks and balance system he has developed through the comparison of primary documents.
Through the use of slave narratives as his primary source, Johnson has selected a small section of source material and used an even smaller portion of those sources to produce his work. Johnson’s work is focused on specific events in a specific location during a specific time, should his research not also be as specific? Through his selection of sources and his further discretion of what to use from these sources, Johnson has emphasized the strengths of his sources. Johnson does seem to have successfully used slave narratives as the main source of this work, yet he could have used a bit more transparency as to what type of information these narrative usually consist of, instead of addressing only the information pertinent to his cause. This type of “sniping” seems to decontextualize the information from the narrative as a whole, allowing for appropriation of information by the author in support of his or her own interests. This is not to say that Johnson, specifically, is guilty of this, but it does draw attention to the way academics us sources and demands that the reader reflect critically on how authors are using the sources they are using and why they are using those sources specifically. ( )
1 stem Reed_Books | Sep 28, 2011 |
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Full title (1999): Soul by soul : life inside the antebellum slave market.
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Soul by Soul tells the story of slavery in antebellum America by moving away from the cotton plantations and into the slave market itself, the heart of the domestic slave trade. Taking us inside the New Orleans slave market, the largest in the nation, where 100,000 men, women, and children were packaged, priced, and sold, Walter Johnson transforms the statistics of this chilling trade into the human drama of traders, buyers, and slaves, negotiating sales that would alter the life of each. What emerges is not only the brutal economics of trading but the vast and surprising interdependencies among the actors involved. Using recently discovered court records, slaveholders' letters, nineteenth-century narratives of former slaves, and the financial documentation of the trade itself, Johnson reveals the tenuous shifts of power that occurred in the market's slave coffles and showrooms. Traders packaged their slaves by "feeding them up," dressing them well, and oiling their bodies, but they ultimately relied on the slaves to play their part as valuable commodities. Slave buyers stripped the slaves and questioned their pasts, seeking more honest answers than they could get from the traders. In turn, these examinations provided information that the slaves could utilize, sometimes even shaping a sale to their own advantage. Johnson depicts the subtle interrelation of capitalism, paternalism, class consciousness, racism, and resistance in the slave market, to help us understand the centrality of the "peculiar institution" in the lives of slaves and slaveholders alike. His pioneering history is in no small measure the story of antebellum slavery.

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