Wednesday, January 24, 2007

What Are We Worth?

Doing research for a new project Keith and I are working on. Reading a lot of interesting books on slavery. I'll say more about that when the time comes, but in the meantime, I'm sitting with what I'm finding out as I'm making my work. In the stacks, I stumbled upon a book I wasn’t looking for; it’s called We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century and it was edited by Dorothy Sterling. I opened to a random page and what I read hit me hard. A mother and daughter who had been separated due to slavery for twenty years had reconnected and started writing to one another. The daughter was free and was hoping to buy freedom for her mother and brother. The mother, Elizabeth Ramsey, writes to her daughter:

I said in my letter to you that Col. Horton would let you have me for 1000 dol. or a woman that could fill my place. I think you could get one cheaper where you are than to pay him the money. . . . I think that 1000 dollars is too much for me. You must writ very kind to Col Horton and try to Get me for less money. I think you can change his Price by writing Kindly to him.

What hit me was learning what comes along with the knowledge that one is property. I had never thought about the fact that my ancestors must have been knowledgeable about things like how much a person goes for in Texas, versus Ohio. Or how much they were each worth, individually, in a dollar amount, such that a dollar amount such as $1000 could be exorbitant. (Did they often assess one another that way, thinking of dollar amounts when they noticed each other's physical qualities?) Or the way suggesting that another person come be a slave in one's place could be discussed as a matter of fact if one were writing one's free daughter and hoping to meet one's own grandchildren. It was the matter of fact way that she thought through what it would take. Of course, of course, but it opened up a whole world of sorrow for me to read that letter. How are we still dealing with this kind of knowledge today? What is the after-image?

For the record, the daughter was able to buy her mother for $900.


Blogger audiologo said...

Once again, you devastate me, Dr. Obadike... It's like a watermark on a postcard isn't it? You can still see the image, look past the discoloration and gritty puckered markings--the expression of the person is still the same isn't it? The smile, or the serious bearing? It's just a false overlay that can be stripped with the advent of freedom,yes? And yet, that aftermark can't just disappear over time, worn away by the kindness or humanity one assumes or receives with certain civil rights gains. Aren't we still dealing with the question of our disposability? (How to Kill A Gorilla, indeed: and where is Cynthia McKinney?) Our consumption and consumerism? Both being consumed, as well as consuming for solace, and as a way to claim tangible existence and visibility. I was reading Daphne Brook's article "It's Not Right But It's OK" (SOULS, 2003) in which she deals with Terry McMillan's consumerist politic impact on popular black women's R&B during the 90s. The complexities of identity and historical legacy were all disposable in the face of immediate gains and expressions of success. OK, kind of off the mark regarding your questions here, but that's where my brain went, after much thought on hymn-lining and "surge" singing, and of course, silences.

12:14 AM, January 25, 2007  
Anonymous tmof said...

definitely devastating. What's remarkable is that the mother seems concerned with making certain that her daughter gets a good deal, that she is not "overcharged" in the purchase of her mother. the mother takes care of the daughter as she can. the mother understands both her purchase price and the "rules" of exchange. she instructs her daughter in the values of the "performance" of kindness. of course, such abstractions have exchange rates. wow.
you will be missed on the 21st mendi.

2:14 PM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Sharazad said...

I had a similar experience about 10 years ago. An aunt who was the family genealogist sent me a packet of information including a xerox of a probate inventory from an 1848 will that referenced my great-great-great grandmother and her oldest son: "Woman Eliza and child ... $1200." They were on the page as the $200 mule and the $5 pots and pans. It was a moment of quiet devastation for me--my most visceral encounter with what it meant for a human to be property.

PS, in another column on the page, it was noted that she sold at auction for $1400--to the man who later became my great-great-great grandfather.

4:29 PM, February 22, 2007  

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