Professor Wai Chee Dimock
10 May 2017
A Palette: Final Performative Project
Description of Final Project:
In the first four chapters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe introduces twenty-four characters. She describes the skin tone of just eight of them: Uncle Tom, Eliza Harris, Harry Harris, George Harris, Aunt Chloe, Mose, Pete, and Polly. For my final project, I’ve assigned created skin color sample squares made of leather for each those characters (much like a carpet sample squares that are given for free in home improvement stores). Each of the sample squares has a barcode etched on its back. When scanned by an barcode scanner in a store or in an app on a smart phone, a physical description and history of each character will appear in addition to an estimate of their market price in 1852, the date Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, as well as my best estimate of their inflation-corrected value in 2017.
I chose to combine the skin color sample squares with the online directory because the sample squares offered an experience for a viewer that the directory could not create alone. The sample squares require participation from a viewer; the action of searching through skin colors implicates the viewer in a way the directory doesn’t. Many people are familiar with the process of selecting a color of wood for their floors or wallpapers for their house. I wanted to draw upon that previous shared experience with a new one, that of selecting a slave, to make the viewer feel like they are participating in what a slave market would look like. The online directory accesses the information immediately available in a twenty-first century slave market. The layout is visually pleasing, as you can see, because I wanted my final project to be searching for a consumer instead of a viewer.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an emotionally manipulative novel. Stowe constantly uses motherhood and femininity and the loss of those relationships and qualities to ignite empathy in her white audience. Even a Northerner in then 1800’s would feel implicated in slavery because Stowe describes a system of slavery wherein citizens are either complicit, like the relatively benevolent Mr. Shelby and Augustine St. Clare or against it. This is driven by Stowe’s narration style; she often leaves the narration in order to address the reader directly. I wanted my final project to invoke that similar style. The removed and mundane act of purchasing a good combined and the online directory addresses the viewer directly by forcing them to interact tactilely and digitally.
Providing an estimate cost for the characters was the most difficult part of the project. Stowe does not mention the monetary value of the salves as she describes them, except on one occasion: the Southern slave trader Haley mentions that Eliza Harris would be worth over a thousand dollars on the market. “‘You might make your fortune on that ar gal in Orleans, any day. I’ve seen over a thousand, in my day, paid down for gals not a bit handsomer.’” (6)
When Haley was estimating Eliza Harris’s worth on the market, he was considering her ability to work as well as her potential ability to please a master, sexually or otherwise. This additional market value is tied to her beauty. Stowe suggests that light skin color is correlated with beauty in a slave. “… that peculiar air of refinement, that softens of voice and manner, which seems in many cases to be a particular gift to the quadroon and mulatto women. These natural graces in the quadroon are often united with beauty of the most dazzling kind, and in almost every case with a personal appearance prepossessing and agreeable.” (12)
Haley also mentions that beauty, strong belief in God, and physical strength adds to a slave’s value on the market. These are all very vague points of reference as a monetary addition or subtraction is not specified with each trait. I approached the process of estimating worth by attaching values to the traits that are mentioned more than five times (in the context of valuation) in first four chapters of the book: beauty (and skin color), piousness, intelligence, loyalty, and physical strength. To add or subtract value to the worth of a slave, I had to have a reference point for how much a young beautiful quadroon in Kentucky would cost as compared to a darker, older man in Louisiana.
There are many variables that must be considered when creating an average value for a demographic of slave, including economic climate. Between 1804 and 1862, one hundred and thirty five thousand slaves were sold just on the New Orleans Slave Market (Kotlikoff), so I assumed that owning a slave was an “investment”; many slaveowners believed that it was worth the initial cost. I did not course-correcting the estimate with time.
Demand for all slaves is a derived demand because the value in a slave is what they can produce; the value of the slave is directly attached to the value of the product that the slave produces. (That product would be physical labor like picking cotton or doing the housework or cooking.) The amount or quality of product created changes with the demographic of a slave. Sex, health, age, location, economic stability, the price of the output, and chances of reproduction are all variables that go into the price of a single slave. Again, I do not have the mathematical skill to factor all of these variables into an estimate, so I must limit myself to adding or subtracting value based on an average price.
The average price of young, adult males increased with strength, endurance, and youth. Young adult women’s price were valued on their endurance, youth, and ability to have children. Older and weaker slaves have low or “negative” prices because maintaining them (feeding, providing shelter, etc.) could cost more than the value of the product they were producing. Young children are also valued similarly (Williamson and Cain)
(Source: Historical Statistics, Table Bb212, Average Price of a Slave Over Time (price-adjusted for in 2011)
In 1850, the average market value for a healthy, male slave between the ages of 18 – 35 in Kentucky was $400. Converting that value into dollars in 2011 would yield about $82,000. Williamson and Cain). I found estimates for a healthy, female slave ranging from $157 to $950 from a similar time period (Carter and Gartner). Women’s prices seem to be more affected by variables than men’s prices are. The traits mentioned previously attached with a vague and non-binding value are as follows: beauty (+150 in women, +50 in men), piousness (+70 in men and women), intelligence (+50 in men), loyalty (+100), and physical strength (+100 in men, +40 in women).
This, in addition to Haley’s valuation, led me to price Eliza Harris at about $1300 in 1850, which would convert to about $266,500 in the twentieth century. Uncle Tom would be priced at $550, or about $112,750 today. Harry Harris, despite his youth, seems to be worth more than an average five year old child because of his temper and beauty, so I’ve estimated him at about $41,000 (assuming the average price of a young boy is $200 in 1850). George Harris, because of his beauty and intelligence would have received a high price, but his longing for independence would decrease it significantly, I believe. I estimated him to be about $350 or $71,750. I estimated Aunt Chloe’s price at about $390, or $79,950. Mose, Pete, and Polly are all very young and seemingly without Harry’s beauty. I’ve valued them Mose and Pete at $70, or $14,350 each. Polly is a baby, so I’ve priced her at $4,100.
Other considered final projects:
In the course of this school year, I’ve considered two other final projects, both centered around Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The first would have been three portraits of three characters’ hands. The second would have been a response to Professor Dimock’s remarks on my first idea.
The first was meant to explore the relationship Stowe creates between morality and femininity. Stowe frequently uses motherhood as a bridge between the slaves she portrays and her white audience; the fierce protection and love of motherhood is universal for Stowe and inextricably connected to Christian values, which is why her female characters are so often opponents of slavery and not as capable of violent and bitter acts as her male characters are. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, matriarchs rule over the domestic sphere so they are able to live their lives honestly and morally. Stowe’s men are not afforded the same freedom because the public sphere they operate in values money more than faith-based action. Striving to gain economic advantage is portrayed to be the reason why slavery exists.
I was interested in the potential of this project because I wanted to understand the way Stowe creates vulnerability and femininity in her male characters. Uncle Tom was most interesting to me; in the novel, he’s described as being night black, broad-chested, and powerfully built, characteristics that could be seen as violent and scary for her white audience. Uncle Tom is one of the few male characters that exhibit the feminine quality of living a life guided by the Christian God. He could be a threatening figure, but instead, he is gentle, submissive, pious, and self-sacrificing — all characteristics shared by the mothers in the novel.
I was most taken by how Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s reaction to the news that he is to be sold. “Here he turned to the rough trundle bed full of little woolly heads, and broke fairly down. He leaned over the back of the chair, and covered his face with his large hands. Sobs, heavy, hoarse and loud, shook the chair, and great tears fell through his fingers on the floor…” (90). Stowe often lingers on the hands of her characters. She describes the hands of characters often. On the first page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she describes the hands of slave trader Haley as “large and course… bedecked with rings” (1). Hands also represent what a person is capable of. I wanted to paint Uncle Tom’s hands to emphasize the femininity in his character and the gentleness of his touch. To even out this exploration of hands, I was planning on painting the hands of Simon Legree and Augustine St. Clare because their characters, in addition to that of Uncle Tom’s, represented a sort of gradient of femininity; Legree is most lacking and the most violent and St. Clare has some of its values but is ultimately unable to yield to them in the face of economic advantage. A finished portrait of Legree’s hands and some sketches, along with the paint and string art I presented during the AMST presentation can be found in my work blog.
But the portraits are very stationary. I wanted to create something with a potential for other people to add onto it — the online directory allows for that because it can be used as a convenient resource for others. And the portraits would completely ignore the role of women in the novel; in creating this piece, I would only be searching for signs of the feminine in the men, ignoring women’s important role in Stowe’s work.
The values I’ve given to the characters very close to arbitrary. I just don’t know enough math for these estimates to not be colored by my own biases. I believe that Stowe believed that the plight of light-skinned men and women would be more persuasive and compelling to her white audience, so I’ve valued the light-skinned men and women more.
Looking to the future, I want to slowly catalogue my way through the book, creating a comprehensive color palette of every African American person in the book. I limited myself to the first four chapters — the chapters that established the status quo — because I did not trust my abilities to provide ballpark estimates for so many characters. I also want to post the leather samples online with the directory on a website. It would remove some of the experience I wanted the viewer to have, but the number of people who would be able to access and maybe use this project would increase significantly.
Carter, Susan B., Scott S. Gartner, Michael R. Haines, Alan L. Olmstead, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright.Historical Statistics of the United States: Earliest times to the Present. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.
Kotlikoff. “New Orleans Slave Sample, 1804-1862.” New Orleans Slave Sample, 1804-1862 [Instructional Materials]. N.p., 1979. Web. 10 May 2017.
Mancall, Peter, Joshua Rosenbloom, and Thomas Weiss. “Slave Prices and the Economy of the Lower South.” The Cliometric Society. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2017.
Officer, Lawrence, and Samuel Williamson. “Measures of Worth.” MeasuringWorth, 2008. Web. 10 May 2017.
Soltow, Lee. Men and Wealth in the United States, 1850-1870. New Haven: Yale UP, 1975. Print.
Williamson, Samuel, and Louis Cain. “Measuring Slavery in 2011 Dollars.” Measuring Worth. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2017.