Review: Soul by Soul

Soul by Soul by Walter Johnson


I had a not great experience with my last history class here at Agnes, but since I could no longer take any more English courses (“OH MY GOD, WE GET IT, YOU LIKE BOOKS”, the requirements seemed to say), history seemed my best bet. And I wanted to give the discipline another go before I left. Thus, “Old South, New South, No South”, a class about the history of the South. (We even have a blog!) My path after college will, ideally, take me outside the South, and I felt such a course would give me a grounding to respond to stupid questions about the South with withering authority. The course so far has spent two weeks on slavery, with our major reading being this book.

Soul by Soul focuses on the New Orleans slave market of the Antebellum American South to unpack American slavery, examining each part of the trading process through the eyes of slaveholders, slave traders, and the slaves themselves. Doing so reveals the various ways that white slaveholders defined themselves as men who owned and managed slaves and the ways slaves subtly and overtly resisted and subverted the slave trade to improve their station. As my professor says, the Antebellum South was a slave society—everything, especially people’s identities, depended on this brutal institution.

In class last week, one of my fellow students said that she had a difficult time reading Soul by Soul—she’d have to read a little until she couldn’t take it, take a break on something much lighter, and then return to the text. She described it as “relentless”, and I think that’s a pretty good way to describe Johnson’s clear, matter-of-fact, and brutally honest prose. Growing up in the South, especially in Atlanta (our police department’s logo is a phoenix rising from the ashes, for Pete’s sake), you learn certain narratives about slavery and the Civil War—you read slave narratives, you watch Gone with the Wind and Glory in your Georgia history class in high school, you visit Civil War reenactment sites and eat hardtack… y’all get the picture. This history is all around you all the time, and it’s easy to compartmentalize the painful past to get on with your life. One of Atlanta’s mayors, William B. Hartsfield, even said the ATL was “a city too busy to hate” in the 1960s, in the thick of the civil rights movement. It’s easy to get complacent, and this is why Soul by Soul is so relentless—to make you understand how warped and inhumane this system, which underpinned the entirety of the South, was.

Early in the book, Johnson defines “the chattel principle”—the tension between seeing a person as a person and seeing a person as property. These categories are ambiguous for everyone—even as slave traders alienate and isolate slaves in the slave pens, they still give them human interest stories to tell potential buyers to frame them in the best way. One slave woman who had two fingers cut off as punishment for running away is explained away with a story about how a doctor removed one sick finger and she thought that some pains could be cured by removing another finger. This story makes the woman seem harmless, docile, and stupid; it takes a story about a person (her runaway attempt) and translates it into something that proves her worth as property. At any given moment, a slave is aware of their soul and their price, which occasionally gives them something to negotiate with—they can always steal themselves or not work. Johnson collects a story of a slave mother saving herself and her children from sale by absconding to the woods and going on a kind of a strike. One of the great strengths of Soul by Soul is all the ways Johnson shows slaves resisting and subverting the system: forced to be complicit in their own sale, their resistance can range from faking illness to full-on rebellion, as in the case of the ship The Creole.

But I think what surprised and fascinated me the most was the ways in which Johnson shows how slavery has seeped into the very consciousness of the slaveholders and slave traders. I’m not merely talking about the warped rationale required to treat an entire race as inherently inferior, but about how their hopes, dreams, and even social interaction had slavery woven into the very fiber of it. Owning slaves meant rising in class; if your wife didn’t have to work in the field alongside you, she could remain indoors and perform increasingly abstract concepts of femininity. Purchasing a slave was full of potential for slaveholders; Johnson details a man dreaming of what an efficient and scientific plantation he will run (which falls apart), as well as a couple dithering on whether or not they should purchase a slave girl or a slave boy. Gender, in particular, is performed upon the body of slaves—white men can either be fatherly or tough to slaves, while white women require slave labor to be proper ladies. And that’s the barest tip of the iceberg. It’s harrowing to see just how ingrained this was, instead of something that you can safely compartmentalize. As Johnson says at one point, “their selves were built of slaves” (115).


Bottom line: Walter Johnson’s utterly relentless Soul by Soul examines the New Orleans slave trade from the perspectives of slaveholders, slave traders, and slaves, in order to show just how ingrained slavery was into the Antebellum South. Chilling and very, very necessary.

I bought this used book off of Amazon.

6 thoughts on “Review: Soul by Soul

  1. It’s hard to imagine what a life based on slavery must have been like. We Brits tend to think of ourselves as “above that” because slavery never existed in Britain, though of course it enabled British possessions overseas to operate profitably – the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, for example – and a number of people who weren’t slave owners themselves grew rich from the trade. Our ancestors were such hypocrites about it!

    In M. M. Kaye’s historical novel ‘Trade Wind’, largely set in Zanzibar in the 1860s, there’s a bit where the American heroine’s mother, who’s a philanthropist and abolitionist (and is herself pregnant at the time) is horrified to hear about a woman to be sold with or without her young children, as suits the purchaser. That really is treating people as things, isn’t it?

  2. Thanks for sharing. I agree that difficult books are certainly worth sharing, as so much in history is unpleasant, but so important.

    As to @Ela, I do believe that African slaves did exist in the British Isles, though of course not anywhere close to the widespread scale that existed in the colonies.

    I recommend Afua Cooper’s “The Hanging of Angelique” for another well researched take on one young slave’s rebellion, this time in Canada. Yes, Canada! There was slavery there as well. I admit I knew nothing of it before the book.

Your Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s