Soul by Soul


I didn’t exactly intend on doing a book review, recommendation or whatever you wanna call it. But as I sat to contemplate what to write about today I thought back to this book and thought it would be a great recommendation for a nice historical read. After all, it is getting colder out and we all know what that means: winter time is reading time. 🙂


“Soul by Soul takes us inside the New Orleans slave market—the largest in the nation, where 100,000 men, women and children were packaged, priced, and sold. Walter Johnson transforms the statistics of this chilling trade into the human drama of traders, buyers, and slaves, negotiating slaves that would alter the life of each. He reveals not only the brutal economics of trading but the vast surprising interdependence among the actors involved, as well as the centrality of this “peculiar institution” in the lives of slaves and slaveholders alike.”

Let’s stop here.


What intrigued me about this book and what makes it, not necessarily better, but unique in lots of ways to other slavery books, is  its 360 approach to the subject of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. What do I mean 360 approach? I don’t think any of us would have such a complete understanding of chattel slavery on that face to face level like our ancestors, but I do think there are ways to understand it better. Many scholars, and lovers of Black History, limit themselves merely to that of slave narratives and African American Anthologies, though eye-opening, does not provide all of the details of  the organization of this system. Many of us watch Roots and Amistad and thus conclude a valid understanding of this institution. I think taking the time to see this world through the eyes of a slave trader may in fact give some new and exciting insights into the system itself. If you are so “Pan African” that you cannot read literature that was written by a European, your perspective will always be limited. If you think the “white man” is the devil (foolishness), then your perspective will always be limited. Balance, as I speak about often, is key even in research.

So, getting back (*stepping off of soap box*), that’s what I like about this book. It’s not just about the history of this system through the eyes of the slave, but also through the eyes of the slave trader. When you understand it from that perspective it becomes a lot clearer as to what the slave represented. Not being of African American descent, the author takes on a business perspective when speaking about the trade in Louisiana. So instead of only focusing on the slaves experiences as a slave, the author actually takes us into the life of the trader. For it is he, the slave trader, who provides an overwhelming source of facts that justifies just how non-human the descendants of the ancient Israelites (Blacks) in fact were because you get to see how much of a business this was. His point of view, his mentality, his thought process as he went about his day to day business gives great insight into the market. I may caution you, when I use the term “non-human”, I do not mean people who were considered animals, I mean people who were considered less than animals, products: a bag of flour, a can of beans, a washing machine for example, is more equivalent to what the slaves were considered to be than an animal. For a slave slept on the floor, while the slave masters dog slept in his bed.

1 “And Yah shall bring you back to Egypt in ships, by a way of which I said to you, ‘You are never to see it again.’ And there you shall be sold to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one to buy.”- Deut. 28:68


Since its inception, from the carrying of its cargo of Human’s, to its process of buy and sell, Blacks were less than human, and even given as gifts and pets to white children. Whenever a slave ship sailed into an American port, its arrival was announced by an advertisement in the local newspaper like a new product. Professional slave dealers would then come down to the docks to select their fresh batch of field hands and house nigga’s, who they would then sell to the slave masters on the street and on auction blocks. From birth, both slave masters and slaves themselves, came to view the slaves bodies as property, “their growth tacked against their value; outside the market as well as inside it, they were taught to see themselves as commodities.” Often slave owners would refuse an offer from other slave owners with the hope that in time their investment would increase, and an $800 slave would soon be worth $1,000. Big feet for example may indicate to a slave owner that his slave may be strong and stout one day, while his “skin and bones” appearance may bring down a hopeful price. “Through care and discipline, slaves’ bodies were physically incorporated with their owners’ standards of measure”. If a slave approached the auction block with two fingers cut off, both of which in a desperate attempt to escape chains, choosing rather to go about with eight fingers than to become a slave, the true manner of her disablement would have to be concealed for the time being. Her attempted escape would have to transform itself into one in which a doctor cut off one of her fingers due to illness and she, in an attempt to comply with the doctor’s orders, cut off the other one. In such case the slave is seen as so stupid and imitative that she would mutilate herself because it’s what the doctor did. For the auctioneer, this increased his chances of selling this slave. (This also shows how sometimes the slaves had the upper hand. At the same time, they could purposely lower their own prices and stop themselves from being sold to a particular master just by presenting themselves as disembodied or disobedient).

Andrew Joseph Russell (American, 1830-1902) Slave Pen, Alexandria, Virginia, 1863 Albumen silver print from glass negative

Because slavery itself was not some minute part of American society, there is no American business, whether small or great, that did not benefit from the institution of chattel slavery. After all, all slaves were the fabric that held the economic system together. But even at this point, in 2014, when this is a common fact, it’s still amazing how deeply this country’s economic system reflects upon the system of slavery. When I go to the mall and I stare dreamily into the windows of a cute outfit or browse by to catch a window peek at some fly shoes, my mind does not hearken back to slavery. However, even window shopping has its origin in this institution. It was during a time where slaves were not always sold on auction blocks and street corners, but they were also sold inside of what traders called Slave Pens. Traders would transport them to the designated slave pen, dress them up in the finest suits, grease them down so that they appear as clean cut as possible, and position them by the windows of the pens so that buyers could window shop. Slaves were, then, the first Mannequin.


Slaves were also used as collateral in credit transactions, and considered better than land, for these can be easily transported and traded for ready cash, similar to an Ace Cash Express, Currency Exchange, or Payday Loan. The business of the slave trade was constructed on the idea that “the bodies of human people had a measurable monetary value, whether they were actually sold or not”. Enslaved people meant so much to the economy of the United States that within the institution itself was the breaking of laws they themselves created to keep order. If we delve into the mind of a slave trader for just a moment, who builds his enterprise on the idea that Blacks can be bought and sold, within his company he has to also deal with men who cheat his very system by stealing slaves or selling dead ones. A slave trader who never traded before and has an illiterate understanding of the business may find himself being sold a dead slave and cheated out of his money. What slavery meant to the owner and the family of the owner is as simple as imagining a little white girl about the age of 8 during this time, staring out the window into a dim and rainy sky, she daydreams, “if only I had a slave who could stand out there, open his mouth and catch all the raindrops.” And if she’s lucky, her 9th birthday may grant her a special gift, called Toby.

Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market

Available on now for as low as $7.75, search it and check it out.

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I write to restore Black Historical Truth for the freedom of all people. Visit me online at and @yecheilyah on IG and Twitter.

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