"Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market" by Walter Johnson

A historian plunges deep into the ugly business of buying and selling slaves.

Published February 24, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Compared with their European counterparts and their colleagues in literary studies, American historians are grinders, and they're not usually showoffs. They tend to focus on the slow accumulation of documentary evidence rather than on madcap flights of speculation. So it's surprising that Walter Johnson, an assistant professor of history at New York University, has written "Soul by Soul," an account of life in the New Orleans slave market in the years before the Civil War that leaps from disengaged historical judgment to social and psychological conjecture about the lives of slaves and slaveholders alike.

At the center of Johnson's book is the slave pen, a sort of jail modified for the peculiar needs of the trade and located in downtown New Orleans, surrounded by walls as high as 20 feet. Outside the pen, slaves were publicly displayed, dressed in blue suits and calico dresses in the hopes of attracting buyers. Within its confines, slavery was privately negotiated -- and, according to Johnson, not merely in financial terms. Johnson's central argument is that slavery was as much a socially and psychologically constructed institution as one that relied on overt physical bondage. "In the slave pens," writes Johnson, "the yet-unmade history of antebellum slavery could be daily viewed in the freeze-frame view of a single transaction on its leading edge -- a trader, a buyer, and slave making a bargain that would change the life of each." Chains, in a manner of speaking, were always in the process of being imagined and reimagined, manacles broken and reattached in a three-way chattel dance among seller, master and slave.

What's more, Johnson says, for Southern man circa 1840, slavery was much more than a way to get cotton harvested; it was a ticket to a better life, the antebellum South's version of the NASDAQ. "Jefferson McKinney," Johnson writes of one buyer, "had bought a slave in the hope of effecting the capitalist transformation of himself. McKinney's was a fantasy of economic independence and bourgeois self-control." From the slave pen flowed all those latter-day contradictions of Southern manhood -- domestic virtue alternating with trips to the slave quarters to rape "fancy" black females; families bonded over homemade hooch; white boys playing Negro music -- that we know well from William Faulkner, not to mention "The Dukes of Hazzard" and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

For the most part, this is an interesting and compelling argument, though it rests on the essentially unprovable notion that a social-climbing soap opera was being staged in the minds of white Southerners and their slaves. Of course, all Johnson has as evidence are documents -- personal narratives, legal dockets, letters and posters advertising slaves -- all of which are forced into the service of a pre-Freudian mass psychoanalysis.

Occasionally, Johnson goes over the top in turning slavery into an abstraction. In buying slaves who needed to be broken, he writes, "slaveholders boasted that their own mastery would inhabit their slaves' every action. Their slaves would be extensions of themselves, the actions of the enslaved indistinguishable from the will of the enslavers. Slave breaking was a technology of the soul." Slave breaking may have been a technology, but as much as it became one of the soul, it remained one of broken bodies, of an empirical difference between slaver and slave. Johnson avoids confronting the very concrete reality of slave suffering in favor of some rather fevered analogies. ("If necromancy was the slave market's magic, race was its technology.")

Where Johnson succeeds, ironically, is not in his desire to detail the daily dramas of the slave business but in the grander project of using the New Orleans slave market, its contents and its customers as a way to understand a culture that no longer exists. That culture produced a durable mythology of Southernness -- admirably genteel but intolerantly patriarchal -- and its racist heritage continues to tyrannize the post-Civil War South. For proof, one need only gaze at the Confederate battle flag fluttering atop the Capitol in Columbia, S.C.

By Matthew DeBord

Matthew DeBord is a contributing editor at Feed.

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