The Worth of Black Men, From Slavery to Ferguson
By Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
The paper, stained in spots, has yellowed, its black ink faded to a dull brown, but the horizontal lines printed on the page are still a fine blue. Some scribe took great care preparing this page, first dragging a piece of graphite along a straight edge to make two pairs of twin columns. Sometimes the pencil marks skip, disconnecting from the line before joining the page again. Once ordered, the table received its data: numbers rendered by hand but with a machinelike uniformity.
One column is titled “Ages — Years Old”; the other, “Valuation.” The first begins in infancy at age 1 and continues to 60, the age of infirmity for an enslaved person after a lifetime of work. In the second column, corresponding prices ascend steadily, beginning with the youngest slave, valued at $100, and climbing by increments of $25 or $50. The chart peaks at age 20 and $900. From there it descends, by the same increments, until ending with the 60-year-old slave worth only $50. This is the “Scale of Valuation of Slaves,” from the papers of Tyre Glen — a prosperous North Carolina slave trader and tobacco planter who was, paradoxically, also an abolitionist and antisecessionist.
The economist Robert Evans Jr. noted in 1962 that “the slave market performed for the antebellum South some of the functions now performed by the New York Stock Exchange, i.e., it served in the eyes of the public as a sensitive reflector of current and future business prospects.” Calculating the profitability of slaves as compared with other investments circa 1850, Evans estimated that the purchase of 1,000 20-year-old male slaves — held for 20 or 30 years and accounting for standard rates of depreciation and death — was greater than investments such as the “three- to six-month bankable paper money market in Boston,” or stock in the Northern and Southern railroads.
The lingo of the slave trade only emphasizes the importance of these black bodies to the market. In 1860, a Virginia trader valued 20-year-old slaves as “extra men” and “extra women,” worth $1,500-$1,600 and $1,325-$1,400, respectively. A second tier of high-value souls were known as “No. 1 men,” worth $1,400-$1,500, and “No. 1 women,” worth $1,275-$1,325. After depreciation by age, abuse and overwork, they were demoted to what Evans termed “once-prime.” The equation by which Evans arrived at a rate of return on slave investments indicates P as the price of slaves, k as the number of years the investor holds the slaves, H as the yearly rent for male slaves age 20 to 50, N as the number of male slaves alive at midyear and r as the internal rate of interest.
No mathematical equation exists to produce the economic model that ends with 18-year-old Michael Brown, shot multiple times with his hands in the air, his lifeless body left in the street for four hours. The numbers will inevitably be run, however, to determine the cumulative cost of damages owed to owners of property looted or destroyed in the riots engulfing Ferguson, Mo., after Brown’s death, thus fulfilling a ritual cycle enacted repeatedly over the last 100 years: injustice, outrage, appeals to peace, reprimands against violence and looting and then insurance claims.
But a path can be traced from slavery to the killing of Michael Brown. The sociologist Loïc Wacquant asserts that racialized slavery was only the first in a series of “peculiar institutions” (as went the 19th-century euphemism gilding the nation’s founding contradiction) to enforce caste and class in the United States. The most recent is the “hyperghetto” and “hyperincarceration” that presides today, wherein there’s little hope of mobility and uniformly dire possibilities. Instead of being at the center of the national economy — as were 20-year-olds in slave traders’ value scale — those who are young and black have become a distortion of the “extra man”: They are now surplus labor, discarded in advance as uneducable, unredeemable criminals or potential criminals.
#BlackLivesMatter, the hashtag slogan that emerged amid the outcry against Brown’s killing and other similar deaths, has predecessors in previous eras. The abolitionist’s plea went “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” (this was amended by Sojourner Truth to “Aren’t I a Woman?” in her challenge to early gender-equality advocates who denied the participation of black women). In the era of Jim Crow terrorism, the N.A.A.C.P. regularly suspended a flag from the window of its New York headquarters declaring, “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.” The pointed and similarly plain slogan “I AM A MAN” was emblazoned on the posters of Memphis sanitation workers on strike in 1968 during what would be the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final campaign. (At an auction of African-American ephemera, I once saw an original of that poster, which had been altered by its owner. I AM A MAN, the poster stated. “NOT-A-BITCH,” was the scrawled annotation.)
But who is addressed by these claims — left as the impression of a wax seal or unfurled on a flag; carried as placards on bodies or appended to 140-character shards of thought? All address a great unnamed They: the system, the state or, more hopefully, the people and the democracy. (In 1900, the anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells-Barnett, in her preface to “Mob Rule in New Orleans” exhorted, “We do not believe that the American people who have encouraged such scenes by their indifference will read unmoved these accounts of brutality, injustice and oppression.”) We are speaking to one another, ourselves against the possibility of our own forgetfulness; we are addressing future histories. The artist Dread Scott recently plastered a series of fake “wanted” posters around Harlem challenging, among other things, the civil rights violations of New York’s much-criticized stop-and-frisk police tactic. Featuring generic police sketches of the young black and Latino men disproportionately targeted by the practice, the posters offered another take on the value of these lives, stating “the suspect is wanted by his family, friends, and neighbors.”
Today the chorus of voices declaring #BlackLivesMatter also speaks to the militarized police forces gathered to contain revolt, mourning and rage. They speak to the courts who will later hear arguments of defense: The gun was used by accident instead of a Taser (as in the killing of Oscar Grant III in Oakland, Calif.); the victim was in possession of weaponized concrete (as in the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.); the possibly imperiled young woman at the front door in the dead of night was a menace in need of immediate extermination (as in the case of Renisha McBride in Dearborn Heights, Mich.). Two trials were required to bring justice for Jordan Davis, murdered in Jacksonville, Fla., because his “thug music” was too loud. For John Crawford III, killed in the pet-food aisle of a Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart, there will be no hearing, for a grand jury has decided not to indict the officers responsible. In very many other similar instances, the vigilante or “justified” or “officer-involved” homicides do not receive media attention. According to a report issued by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, at least one black person is the victim of “extrajudicial killing” every 28 hours in the United States.
How do we make sense of all these killings? By the logic of Tyre Glen’s chart, then the deaths of all these extra men and extra women, and once-prime men and once-prime women are entirely sensible. The scholar Sabine Broeck suggests we understand slavery not as “safely entombed … deplorable events in the past,” but as enslavism — “the legacies of which are ongoing.” The bloody inversion of a bloody history arrives at these black lives dispatched with ease. The last few years have seen scores of memorials, re-enactments, monuments and editorials coinciding with the sesquicentennial of various events of the Civil War. But it is these deaths — the killings in Ferguson and Beavercreek and beyond — that commemorate the unfinished, perhaps unending, struggle to assert black humanity in a country built on its denial.
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is the author of “Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America.”