The following is adapted from my book Face Value, which is supposedly coming out in May from the University of Chicago Press.
In 1788, an anonymous satirist proposed using the body parts of black people as money, since their bodies were already for sale. To save trouble in “counting or calculating the value of this new black flesh coin,” the author wrote, “I beg leave to furnish the dealers in it with the following table, which I hope, will be current hereafter in the state of Maryland”:
|1. A middle aged healthy negro man or woman,||300|
|2. A negro man or woman above 55 years of age,||100|
|3. All negro boys and girls between 12 and 18 years of age,||100|
|4. All negro children between 6 and 12 years of age,||80|
|As change will be necessary in this species of money, the following mode may be adopted to obtain it.|
|A negro’s head,||20|
|A right arm,||16|
|A left arm,||12|
|A hand and foot,||4|
|A thumb and great toe,||1|
|A finger and toe of the common size,||2 3-ds of a dollar.|
|A little finger and toe,||1 3-d of a dollar.|
“Should this species of coin be adopted,” the Swiftian author went on, “instead of saying a man is worth ten thousand pounds, it will be common to say, he is worth ten thousand dried hands or feet, or forty thousand dried thumbs or great toes.” The satirist signed himself “an enemy to the society for the abolition of slavery.”1
“Species of coin” is an interesting phrase: it’s the Africans “species,” their imagined racial difference, that allows them to act as “specie,” as the bottom line of economic value. Like money, slaves are imagined as having both a fixed value and as endlessly negotiable.
For example, there’s a moment in nearly every slave narrative when the slave gets a chance to buy his or her freedom. Sometimes the slave rejects the idea, because buying oneself legitimates slavery’s premises. Sometimes they feel they have no choice.
The moment raises a problem: if the slave can earn the value of his or her redemption, then the slave must have a value beyond that price. Bringing the master cash for one’s redemption only advertises one’s continuing value as a slave.
But if the slave can earn more than his or her purchase price, then the slave has no fixed value, which undermines the central premise of racial slavery, the point the grisly satire above makes: the black person’s presumed natural, fixed state of inferiority and lesser value. At that moment the slave is in fact “worth more than he or she is worth,” and in fact the moment of self-purchase implies that this would always be the case: what if the master doubled the redemption price, and the slave met it?2
In 1766, Olaudah Equiano took the forty pounds he had earned on the side and humbly asked his master, Robert King, if he could redeem himself. The request “confounded” King. He asked, “where did you get the money? Have you got forty pounds sterling?” When Equiano said yes, “my master replied, I got money much faster than he did; and said he would not have made me the promise he did if he had thought I should have got money so soon.”
Equiano had a friend with him, who pointed out that “[Olaudah] has earned you more than an hundred a-year, and he will still save you money, as he will not leave you—Come, Robert, take the money.” King relents, to Equiano’s joy.
In this account the promise of wage labor trumps the value of slave-owning; King will get the pounds sterling now and a promise of continued profits in the future.
As a slave Equiano had a more or less fixed value, a price, and that price depended on and from his body—its strength and health but also fundamentally, on its blackness, its “race.” But he also had the potential to earn more than his price, a market potential limited only by his own energy and ambition, and in this light his race is irrelevant: indeed, his master sees clearly that Equiano is worth more—“gets money faster”—than King himself. Caught between boundless potential and fixed, essential value, between speculation and the bottom line, Equiano literally embodies both. In this sense he is like money itself. This resemblance helps explain why Americans resorted to racial slavery.
Why slavery? The economic inefficiency of slave labor was common knowledge before the American Revolution. They had other forms of unfree labor to choose from—mostly indentured servitude and apprenticeship. Up to the moment of the American Revolution, ads for runaway indentured servants filled the Pennsylvania Gazette. Why resort to slavery? We do quite well today without it.
And why racial slavery? Colonial Americans were more than happy to treat indentured servants as disposable inferiors: drawing on traditions of class and rank. Why did they need the elaborate and creaky intellectual apparatus of race? “Race” was and is a hard idea to maintain. Common sense, in the form of people of mixed race, and in the form of slaves capable, like Equiano, of doing virtually any kind of work, kept pointing out the failures of racism’s most basic premises; its boundaries constantly collapsed. Why bother with racial slavery if the whole point is just extracting labor from people?
Historians have a lot of good answers. 3 I’d add that Americans embraced racial slavery because racial slavery recapitulated the assumptions and tensions underlying free market exchange itself.
The slave had a generative, speculative potential to make wealth, like money loaned on credit, like paper bills circulating on faith, but also a fixed character that could never be negotiated away or altered, like the value embodied in “specie,” gold bars. Slaves literally embodied the contradictory desires at the heart of capitalism; they were like money.
“Blackness” served as a non-negotiable difference, the thing that marked Africans as enslavable; it marked them as different, and different in a way set by nature. But slavery also put the enslaved at the forefront of commercial negotiation—as objects for sale, as producers of value, and as targets of sexual opportunity and genetic exchange: as collateral for loans, mortgages and issues of paper money. Racial slavery was a product of capitalism, but not just of capitalism’s desire for profit or its need for a tractable labor force. Racial slavery helped ease the transition from mercantilism, with its essentialized notions of wealth, to modern capitalism, with its more subjective, virtualized sense of wealth and value. Racial slavery re-presented the dilemmas and attractions of exchange itself, and particularly it re-presented the problem and potential of money.
It’s still, the case today: arguments about money, and inflation, are never simply “economic” arguments. They are always also, in the U.S., about race.
- The grisly piece originally appeared in American Museum, July 1788. It is reprinted in Richard E. Amacher, “A New Franklin Satire?” in Early American Literature 7, no. 2, Fall 1972 104 ↩
- Of course the master must balance the utility of cash in hand against potential future value; the same considerations that would apply with, for example, houses or stocks or cows. Except cows do not come with cash in hand asking to buy themselves; nor are they keenly aware of the ironies of their situation. ↩
- Slavery had existed for centuries—better to ask “why not slavery?” Slavery could make the master and his nation a great deal of money. Slavery reinforced a rank-ordered view of the world. Slavery was possibly cheaper than indenture in the long term; racially based, hereditary slavery allowed for increases in wealth in the same way raising cattle did. And as a bonus, racial slavery allowed the ruling class to divide the working class. ↩