Warfield Faculty Research Highlights
Black Studies Featured Faculty - Dr. Daina Ramey Berry
Dr. Daina Ramey Berry is an Associate Professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies here at UT-Austin. Berry’s interests include nineteenth century American history, Comparative Slavery and Southern history, with a particular focus on the role of gender, labor, family and economy among the enslaved populations of the Americas. The department of History was fortunate to hire Dr. Berry as a tenured professor soon after the publication of her first book Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia, published by the University of Illinois Press in 2007. Dr. Berry is working on her second book, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: the Value of Human Chattel, which is an economic and social history of slave prices in the United States. Dr. Berry has earned a number of distinguished awards and fellowships, most notably the American Council of Learned Societies Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship at the National Humanities Center in 2007-2008.
Dr. Frank Guridy, director of the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, interviewed Professor Berry about her research and teaching on the history of slavery.
FG: I would like to ask you about the factors that led you to become a historian. A career as a professional historian is not typical professional choice. So, why did you do it?
DB: I actually fought it for a long time because my parents were both professors and I did not want to do what they were doing. But it came naturally since we had a lot of teachers in our family.
I had an experience as an undergraduate at UCLA that I talked about in the preface of my book, Swing the Sickle. I was taking an African American history class from a visiting scholar and was offended daily by this particular scholar’s use of the n word in practically every lecture and in all of the examples of slaves and quotes that were given. I was very disturbed by that, and frustrated. I didn’t like the class, got a D on the mid-term and was put on “academic detention” – and then had to meet with this scholar every single Wednesday. But, during those conversations I learned about my love for history and I knew then that if I wanted to change the way that my children, or future children, or other people were learning about African American history that I would have to become a historian myself.
FG: What was your vision before this?
DB: MBA – which I wasn’t really passionate about; I was an economics major a year from graduation. But I always had been interested in history, and very connected to elder relatives of mine. I always wanted to talk to them about what it was like during the Depression, and about different time periods. So I changed my major, and in my last year at UCLA Professor Brenda Stevenson came from Yale.
FG: …who at one time taught here, at UT-Austin.
DB: Yes. I took a senior seminar class with her and she made us write historiographical essays, which at that time I had never done. She made us re-write them and re-write them and to this day I think that was the best thing she could have done for that class and for me as a future scholar. Because of that, historiography comes easily and naturally to me because I was trained on it very early on. I decided that I wanted to stay at UCLA and work with Dr. Stevenson so I applied for the Master’s program in African American studies. I spent some time doing work on slavery in Georgia and comparing that to slavery in Jamaica - and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with it because I wanted to do work on women, and had an economic background and was interested in slave economy.
FG: The frame of your second book…
DB: Exactly, though most people don’t know my background as an economics major – but in my work it comes together and makes sense.
FG: You have written one book on slavery and you are working on another one on the same subject. Slavery is a core part of what became African American history and studies. But a number of our colleagues in our generation of Black historians do not study slavery. A lot of us work on the twentieth century, the civil rights movement, Black Power, post-emancipation studies. Why study slavery and where do you see slavery studies moving?
DB: I grew up in a predominantly white area where I was called the n word very young. In grade school I was the only African American in class, so anytime African American history was mentioned the students would stare at me and ask me questions. They didn’t talk about slavery but they assumed that I went through what Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, or Martin Luther King had experienced! Although we grew up in an isolated community in a small college town in Davis, California, we were really connected to the Black community in Oakland and San Francisco. There were elders there from whom I learned a lot about Black history, about the twentieth century, Black Power movement and the Black Panthers…
FG: You were going to learn about the South, too.
DB: Yes. I wanted to find something positive about slavery because for so long I was ashamed when they talked about it, and what I found was the strength of African Americans, and the survival of Blacks historically. That was something that pulled me through life, in general, through challenges and obstacles that I’ve had. And so, I thought: this is something that I want to study because not many people study it. I developed a hunger for it; I asked my parents tons of questions and they would tell me what they could. So, I had the foundation early on because I had conversations about slavery with my family. When I was about ten we moved to Georgia for a year. On the farm I felt like I was at home. They couldn’t get me out of the cotton fields, running up and down the rows, wanting to know about farm life, farm culture, and agriculture. I knew a lot about rice production as a child [there are rice fields near Davis and Sacramento, CA,] and then became interested in slave labor. We have this knowledge of enslaved families - what they did and how they were traded - but how do we understand families knowing that they worked twelve to eighteen hours a day? I wanted to merge questions of the social and the economic.
FG: So, you have this family connection, you’re in formation during the ‘90s when scholarship on slave communities and slave families develops. Then Swing the Sickle happens. What shaped your decision to work on that particular project?
DB: A bad experience in Jamaica…I got kicked off a plantation tour in Jamaica because I was very frustrated! They would not talk about slavery and then I got into an argument with the guide about why they don’t teach slavery.
FG: That is astonishing!
DB: I tried to talk with him about all the uplifting things about African American history that you can find in slavery – the strength of the family, the culture, Black survival…
Then I went to the archives to do research – and they would not let me in. At that time I didn’t think it was worth fighting; Dr. Stevenson and I talked and she suggested I do a comparative study of island cultures in the state of Georgia. But it originally was going to be a comparative study of St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia, and Jamaica, an island in the Caribbean.
FG: So you settled on Georgia; what was surprising in what you ultimately found out about slave communities and labor in the counties of Wilkes and Glynn?
DB: I think we were just on the verge of understanding that women had larger numbers in the agriculture setting than we had realized. We knew that men had “skilled” positions, but I argue that we can expand our definition of skill to encompass how people do things better than others. I knew of work being done on South Carolina that found the majority of the workers in the fields had been women. At UCLA I worked with Judith Carney, who had written Black Rice, and talked to her about what I’d found about women in the fields: that when I looked at plantation lists, estate records and state inventories I saw that the majority of the field workers were women. And so, that was something I was very interested in, and when I was writing the book I wanted to make sure I was making a gender balanced study. So I explored the kinds of skilled positions men had, where they were, what kind of work they were doing, and then married the two.
FG: When I think of skill I think of the opening of the book…the quilting story. Tell us about how you discovered that document – to me that hits on exactly what you’re describing here – skilled labor, men cross-gendered, doing something that you don’t think slave men were doing.
DB: That was an awesome find – because I’d written my introduction fifty-two times – and I counted each draft! I knew I didn’t have the right opening story but was searching and almost gave up. I wanted something primary and I wanted something real. I had different quotes from enslaved people that I was using that didn’t quite pull it together. Finally I began reading, started going back through all the old books that were written by people that lived in Georgia and travelers that went through Georgia. I stumbled on the quilting story in Emily Burke’s Reminiscences of Georgia, about a woman’s experiences in Georgia. I dropped the book and I thought: This is it - and it was perfect for what I think I needed to do to open up the discussion.
FG: I definitely think so – I think that it’s a jewel. That is why we do this kind of work – when you find something that surprises you and yet it’s revelatory…
DB: The story talks about how the men weren’t very good or very skilled at the quilting work – but they were doing it. And I’ve talked about the quilting parties and working socials - those working environments that were used to socialize. And that, in my view, is how we developed the slave families that we’ve come to know and study. I was trying to understand the connections between those two.
FG: Tell us about how you moved from Swing the Sickle to your new manuscript.
Slavery studies and slave trade studies in many ways is a number crunching, depersonalizing, reduction of enslaved people to numbers. When I heard your job talk I thought it was really interesting stuff and was impressed by the fact that you were taking on that project. How did this project emerge, and what are the interventions you want to make?
DB: In Swing the Sickle I looked at how slaves were priced and how they were valued but the editors suggested I drop that chapter—so I did. That chapter became my second book. One of the things that I wanted to do and one of the contributions that I hope to make is to marry discussion of the demographics, all the statistical conversations that we’re having, all of the numbers games, with the social understanding of these human beings. A lot of the economic studies of slavery have created formulas to figure out how slaves were priced - but I don’t want to just talk about a person in terms of a formula. That x or that y is a man who has a name and possibly a family - in addition to having been sold on the auction block. I want the readers of my work to not divorce the economics from the social. As a social and labor historian with economics in my background I felt that I could find a way to merge those two areas and allow those that are thinking about economic aspects of slavery to not forget that these are people that we are talking about.
FG: Given what you just said I imagine that you are learning about value. Pushing beyond numbers, what are we learning about how the slaves valued themselves?
DB: I’m learning that the valuation, the commodification of enslaved people began before they were born and it continued even after they were deceased. But, I’m inserting that the enslaved also had thoughts, feelings, and opinions about their own commodification. Sometimes they felt value-less after slavery was over because few wanted to hire them, or pay them for their labor. Some slaves were highly valued and were fought over in the auction. And some could care less about their value because they did not want to be able to be sold on the auction block – they wanted that part of their lives to be over, they prayed for that and looked forward to it.
So in this particular manuscript I tried to weave in the enslaved voice. I want their opinions of commodification to be central to the trader records and price inventories that I’m using. If I find their voices or evidence of slaves and what they felt- it’s there as far up front and center as possible - because they are participating in this dialogue. Walter Johnson argues in Soul by Soul that slaves negotiated and manipulated their buying and selling.
FG: Last year you co-convened the conference on slavery studies with the Department of History’s Institute for Historical Studies and the Warfield Center. The conference brought together people who are doing cutting edge work on slavery to focus on gender and sexuality. What is the impact of that conference on the evolution of the field; where is the field going?
DB: I think that sexuality is the piece that’s missing. I’m not saying that scholars have not written about it, but it’s a difficult subject that hasn’t been interrogated in slavery scholarship the way we’ve examined labor, community, and family. My interest in slavery and sexuality grew out of a conversation I had as a graduate student with Brenda Stevenson – she talked about “gender conventions and ideals” in an essay published in More Than Chattel. It’s been common for enslaved women and men to be characterized as promiscuous. I was disturbed by the notion of slaves being accused of being polygamous and I’ve always been curious about how we could work through this. I began to think about it in terms of breeding where a slave is being forced to have sex with somebody multiple times – that’s not polygamy. I’ve been grappling with issues of slave sexuality, which to me is very broadly defined. How can we begin to attend to sexual expression, sexual preference, and also the deviant behaviors such as forced breeding and rape? I think the conference enabled us to open up the dialogue and start the conversation. We’re now working on the forthcoming volume of essays from the conference. Leslie Harris and I are co-editing it together.
FG: As I think about this kind of work, I think about how it challenges us to re-think or grapple with how we think about resistance, how we think about accommodation, how we think about community formation.
DB: Exactly. When I look at an enslaved cabin I think: how many families are in there, what are their age groups, what are the sleeping arrangements? There are so many different questions that come to mind – questions of intimacy. Where would someone go to express intimacy, where did slaves have their intimate relations? We’re not trying to get into their bedrooms but I’m saying how necessary it is to understand that this was a very complicated position to be in, to be enslaved, and to have somebody else control so much of one’s life. But there was a space the enslaved carved for themselves, that I think sometimes gets lost when we talk about victimization. Yet there are inferences and there are ways we can try to understand that, despite how the scholarship on family histories often gets away from it.
FG: The level of discussion suggests the importance of the work. My sense, and I think we all know this, is that when we are talking about the past we’re also talking about the present – so we’re talking about victimization, we’re talking about families, we’re talking about contemporary conditions that pertain to African Americans today. As a historian still working on slavery how do you see your role and contribution to Black diaspora studies?
DB: What we have learned about the slave experience has grown exponentially. Students are always very curious about making connections between things that happened in slavery and what’s happening today; there is a desire to connect conditions experienced under of slavery to what they see around them that is dysfunctional, that’s not working. My response is: Well, I don’t know…there are a lot of things that happened in between so I don’t think we can make that jump!
I want slavery to have its own place in American history – and I want people to understand that so many students are still thinking that only house slaves were light-skinned, that only field slaves were dark-skinned – ideas that have already been dispelled. I teach the gamut of the slavery experience, in which Black slave owners figure as well, so that students then see the diversity of slavery and begin to think about it differently. So, my contribution to Black studies is to say that we can understand a lot from the study of slavery, and that there is much we can learn in that history. For example, we know the enslaved engaged in underground trading, we know they were able to get free through underground networks. How did Blacks function? How did they maintain a clandestine network? From the perspective of Black studies, there is a lot that we can learn about mobilization, about the community, about how Blacks came together, survived, lived and thrived beyond slavery.
Transcribed by Ninoska M'bewe Escobar