The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History by Anne C. Bailey focuses in a very illuminating fashion on a huge slave auction held on a plantation on an offshore island in Georgia. It took two days, March 2nd and 3rd in 1859 to auction the 456 persons held as slaves on the Butler Plantation, including not just men, women and children (who were put to work in the fields at around six years old) but thirty babies. The owner of the plantation Pierce Butler lived in Philadelphia in grand style on the earnings of the plantation, the labor of the slaves. He was a gambler and a stock market speculator and got himself in serious financial problems. He decided to sell the bulk of the slaves on his plantation to raise funds. Most of the slaves had lived on the plantation all their lives.
Bailey lets us see the terrible trauma and degradation of being treated like livestock, examined, prodded and commented upon by the auctioneer. One of the greatest fears was being sold away from your families, never to see them again. Married couples were kept together but non-married couples, siblings, parents and grandparents had no such protection. Young women were judged as breeding stock and sly comments were made about "the lucky master" who bought them. The main business of the plantation was growing rice, a very labor intensive enterprise. Cotton was a sideline. Of course there were house hold slaves also. At the auction a slave would be briefly described by their Occupation and condition.
The owner of the plantation married, in Philadelphia, a former Shakespearean actress who was opposed to the institution of slavery. Bailey shows us how this divide in thinking wrecked the marriage, just as it was to nearly destroy the country in a few years.
Bailey covers a lot of ground in her work, from marriage customs, African heritage, music and religion. I learned something about my own heritage in her discussion of food. Long ago, pushing sixty years ago, my grandmother would serve on New Year's Day a mixture of rice and black eyed peas she called "hoppin John". It was explained that this was thought to bring good luck in the coming year. I did not until I read Bailey's wonderful book realize that this was a dish derived from African food traditions, that the black eyed pea much beloved by my ancestors (since my grandmother passed long ago no one has the time or will to shell the peas) and the rice we ate every day came from seeds brought from Africa. Bailey tells us the slaves were fed rice as the thinking was they would be more docile if they had familiar food.
Bailey goes into details about the lives of the once auctioned and now free slaves after the civil war, she lets us see how hard the formerly enslaved worked to reunite with loved ones and keep their families strong. She extends her story up to the current day where the consequences of slavery are still strongly impacting American society.
I really have just one change or addition I would have appreciated in this book. When we are told a prime rice worker was sold for $1200.00 we don't have a frame of reference for what that amount of money represented in 1859. Just a brief presentation of the costs of items in society would have helped me a lot.
In reading Bailey's book I learned a lot about Southern USA history. This is an academic work, meticulously documented, but fully accessible to general readers. I totally endorse it to all interested in slavery, African American history, or the old south. You cannot begin to understand American history without understanding the role the slave trade played in the country.
ANNE C. BAILEY
is a writer, historian, and professor of History and Africana Studies at SUNY Binghamton (State University of New York). In her works of non- fiction, she combines elements of travel, adventure, history, and an understanding of contemporary issues with an accessible style. She is a US citizen who grew up in Jamaica, WI and in Brooklyn, New York.
Bailey is committed to a concept of “living history” in which events of the past are connected to current and contemporary issues. She is also concerned with the reconciliation of communities after age old conflicts like slavery, war and genocide. Her non-fiction book, African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame (Beacon Press) and her current work, The Weeping Time: History, Memory and the largest slave auction in the United States, (forthcoming Cambridge University Press, fall 2017) reflect that commitment. From annecbailey.net