Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Setting the Record Straight

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Setting the Record Straight

Article excerpt

Daina Ramey Berry

Title: Assistant Professor of History, Department of History, Michigan State University

Education: Ph.D., U.S. History, University of California, Los Angeles; M.A., Afro-American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles; B.A., History, University of California, Los Angeles

Age: 34

On a 19th-century auction block, an enslaved Black man and woman negotiate prices with potential buyers. "Look at me," the man says. "I'm worth $1,200 me and Molly." "Buy us both," the woman says, "we're a first-rate bargain."

Dr. Daina Ramey Berry explains that contrary to conventional arguments that suggest enslaved people were participants in their own commodification, those on the auction block negotiated to keep their families intact. "Potential buyers, traders, sellers and the slaves themselves discussed price and value," Berry says, "but the slaves are trying to maintain their family connections." This research, funded with a Ford Foundation Fellowship at Duke University, is part of Berry's second book project, Appraised, Bartered and Sold: Assessing the Value of Human Chattel in Antebellum America.

Berry's primary goal as a scholar is to personalize the stories of the enslaved, particularly those of women, and to expand on economic studies of slavery. She is equal to the task because she was an economics major during her first three years of undergraduate study. The decision to become an historian was based on her dissatisfaction with an instructor in an African American histoiy class.

"The language this particular scholar used when quoting slaveholders didn't settle well with me," Berry says. "There were a lot of generalizations that I had questions about; it was hard for me to believe that all slaveholders felt a certain way. I thought the only way I could make a difference was to become an historian and write my own books."

Those books are now works in progress. Berry has published widely on topics including women, gender and slavery, the subject of her dissertation and forthcoming first book, Swing the Sickle for the Harvest Is Ripe. Her research also encompasses family and community among the enslaved, sisterhood, love and marriage, and disease and death. …

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