“Soul by Soul”

Walter Johnson, an assistant professor of history at New York University and the author of “Soul by Soul,” reveals in his book, an account of life in the New Orleans slave market in the years before the Civil War. The story weaves around the lives of slaves and slaveholders. Walter Johnson’s “Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market” traces the human history of the slave trade in the United States. 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. “Soul by Soul” begins with the claim that, “we must now consider the roads, rivers, and showrooms where broad trends and abstract totalities thickened into human shape”.

The slave pen acted as a source of the southern manhood contradictions. 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. Johnson in his book creates a paradigm shift in focusing on the slave market from just numbers to day to day commerce. He places the enslaved African Americans at the center of analysis. “Soul by Soul” reflects the antebellum South on its own terms, meticulously dismantling the slaveholders’ world.

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For the most part, this is an interesting and compelling argument, though it rests on the essentially un-provable 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. This is what distinguishes Soul by Soul from other recent works on the experience of slavery. It is based upon the innovative use of court records. Johnson begins by asserting the importance of seeing the moment of sale through the eyes of the people who were sold and not just through the eyes of slaveowners and traders. On exploring roughly two hundred disputed slave transactions that were brought before the Louisiana Supreme Court, under so-called “redhibition” laws, slave buyers dissatisfied with the people they had bought could sue the seller. Louisiana law forced slave traders to warranty these sales in cases where the buyer was deceived or misled regarding a slave’s physical health or “character.” 1According to Johnson, the market served as the foundation of the planters’ fantastic and frightening worldview in which they “imagined who they could be by thinking about whom they could buy”. 2

Johnson uses these documents and others to describe the physical spaces and transactions of the slave trade. Far from the image of the “slave auctions” that figured so prominently in abolitionist accounts, the slave markets cloaked their transactions in civility as they clothed slaves to reflect buyers’ desire. Traders displayed enslaved African Americans for inspection in genteel showrooms, set apart from the slave pens in which they were imprisoned. In these showrooms sellers and buyers displayed their “knowledge” of slave bodies, reading them for signs of punishment and disease, extrapolating character traits and physical abilities from their faces, hands, limbs, and breasts, and all the while defining through these acts their own honor, manhood and mastery. Johnson describes what the sales meant to the parties concerned, whether it was the traders’ ambitions, the slaveholders’ desires, or the slaves’ fears. Johnson’s evocative language describes the bitter ironies of a market in which African Americans were “alienated . . . from their own bodies” and forced “to perform their own commodification” (pp. 163-164) lead to a beating. Nevertheless, “Soul by Soul” argues that slaves had the ability to shape the moment of sale because all slave deals relied upon the slaves’ own presentation of their bodies and minds. They could selectively confirm or deny claims based on their own reading of the potential buyer. They could declare their intentions to run away or harm themselves if certain conditions were not met, such as being sold with family members. On the margin slaves could hope for a beneficent master living within the city and struggle to avoid a cruel master who owned a sugar plantation. Again, during times of danger, to save their own lives, slaves could continue this struggle past the point of sale in an effort — through faking illness or developing “bad” traits — to induce their masters to use the red-hibition laws to return them to the markets. There are times in the narrative where this seems to be at best a pyrrhic victory. Yet in one of the most significant passages Johnson concludes: “Placed on a scale between slavery and freedom or judged according to a theory that accepts revolution as the only meaningful goal of resistance, these slave-shaped sales do not look like much: as many skeptics have put it, ‘after all, they were still enslaved.’ But placed between subordination and resistance on the scale of daily life, these differences between possible sales had the salience of survival itself” (p. 187).

The possibility of being sold is what set chattel slavery apart from other forms of coerced labor. “Soul by Soul” demonstrates that slaveholders had a far greater affinity for cash than for any individual slave. In so doing it demolishes the lingering romanticism that still pervades much of the literature on the Old South. In particular, “Soul by Soul” questions whether there ever was a Southern paternalism that, in Eugene Genovese’s words, “implicitly recognized the slaves’ humanity” or established a truly “mutual” set of obligations between master and slave.3 According to Johnson, violence against slaves, often irrational and unpredictable, was the “essence of that grim mutuality,” not a “violation” of it (p. 206). When slaves were beaten, it was for violating the master’s vision of his or her own world, which was constructed, both literally and figuratively, by the slaves themselves. 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.”)

Johnson carefully crafts his narrative to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of his evidence. For example, Johnson wisely reads the court records as contingent evidence, which is to say, he does not take the accounts contained therein as literal truth. Court depositions and testimony do reflect the realm of the possible. People presented arguments that were plausible; if they were not true in the specifics, they were always framed in a way that made them possibly so. Similarly, he acknowledges that the slave narratives were always survivors’ stories. Most slaves died in bondage. Is Soul by Soul really, as Johnson claims, “the story of the making of the antebellum South” (p. 18)? Yes, in large measure it is. Johnson’s narrative does possess a self-admitted timelessness, which makes it difficult to see whether time and place matter. It may be that this story is unique to Louisiana in the late antebellum period, but this would hardly lessen the volume’s significance. New Orleans was a critical site in the slave trade, and Louisiana slaveholders epitomized much of the southern gentry. By focusing on the moment of sale, and analyzing what it meant to both slaveowner and slave, Soul by Soul establishes itself as perhaps the most innovative work on slavery published in the last twenty-five years. 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.