The slave and the dollar.

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 leg, 8
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?

Images of ante­bel­lum ban­knotes from Richard Doty, Pic­tures from a Dis­tant Coun­try ch. 3

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.



  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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