'Soul By Soul': voices of the voiceless

February 13, 2000|By Gregory Kane | By Gregory Kane,Sun Staff

"Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market," by Walter Johnson. Harvard University Press. 283 pages. $26.

Walter Johnson, a New York University assistant history professor, has gone where no historian has gone before: inside the slave markets of the antebellum South.

Using the slave market in New Orleans as his focal point, Johnson gives readers a view of a slave sale from three perspectives: the slaveholder, the slave trader and the slaves themselves. He used as sources slave narratives, letters of slaveholders and court records of some 200 disputed slave sales.

The picture Johnson paints is unremittingly grim. Some women -- and a girl as young as 13 -- were sold for sexual purposes. Black children were brutalized to make them more amenable to slavery. Families were rendered asunder.

Statistics tell only part of the story. According to Johnson, of the well over 600,000 interstate sales made before the Civil War, "twenty-five percent involved the destruction of a first marriage and fifty percent destroyed a nuclear family -- many of these separating children under the age of thirteen from their parents. Nearly all of them involved the dissolution of a previously existing community."

Slave traders and slaveholders both used the threat of snatching slaves from their families and selling them "down South" to the brutal labor regimen of Louisiana --where those in bondage were often worked to death -- as a means of control. But the threat of being "sold South" also inspired occasional resistance. Some slaves successfully sought help from the slaveholders' relatives in seeking to have a sale averted. Others ran off, making themselves unsellable even if they were recaptured.

One group of 153 slaves in St. Augustine, Fla., was sold to a man in Louisiana. When a man sent to take the slaves to Louisiana arrived, he learned that 40 had run away. Later, 80 more joined them.

"It is an act of revolt on the part of the Negroes," the man wrote, "and I fear we have not seen the worst of it." Another planter had slaves either run off or die with such frequency that he had to sell his farm.

One of the most compelling tales of resistance is that of Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in New York City when he was "lured with lies to Washington, drugged, threatened with death, and put on a boat for New Orleans, where he was sold in the yard of slave dealer Theophilus Freeman."

Northrup was sold to a man named John Tibeats, who tried to beat him one day. Northrup grabbed the whip from Tibeats and lashed him instead (shades of Frederick Douglass and the slave breaker Ed Covey). Northrup avoided hanging because he was mortgaged to another slaveholder. He wasn't Tibeats' sole property at the time of the confrontation.

Northrup was one of the few literate blacks who could describe what life was like in the slave pens. But Johnson, through his book, has spoken for the unknown thousands who couldn't speak for themselves. With prose that only in spots sounds pedagogical, Johnson has given a voice to those voiceless slaves whose descendants owe it to their ancestors to read this book

Gregory Kane, a columnist for The Sun, was half of a reporting team that in June 1996 bought two slaves in Africa, freed them and then wrote a series of articles demonstrating that slavery is still practiced.

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