Record StraightDaina Ramey BerryTitle: Assistant Professor of History,
Department of History,
Michigan State University
Education: Ph.D., U.S. History, University of California, Los Angeles; M.A., Afro-American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles; B.A., History, University of California, Los Angeles
Age: 34On a 19th-century auction block, an enslaved Black man and woman negotiate prices with potential buyers. “Look at me,” the man says. “I’m worth $1,200 — me and Molly.” “Buy us both,” the woman says, “we’re a first-rate bargain.”
Dr. Daina Ramey Berry explains that contrary to conventional arguments that suggest enslaved people were participants in their own commodification, those on the auction block negotiated to keep their families intact. “Potential buyers, traders, sellers and the slaves themselves discussed price and value,” Berry says, “but the slaves are trying to maintain their family connections.” This research, funded with a Ford Foundation Fellowship at Duke University, is part of Berry’s second book project, Appraised, Bartered and Sold: Assessing the Value of Human Chattel in Antebellum America.
Berry’s primary goal as a scholar is to personalize the stories of the enslaved, particularly those of women, and to expand on economic studies of slavery. She is equal to the task because she was an economics major during her first three years of undergraduate study. The decision to become an historian was based on her dissatisfaction with an instructor in an African American history class.
“The language this particular scholar used when quoting slaveholders didn’t settle well with me,” Berry says. “There were a lot of generalizations that I had questions about; it was hard for me to believe that all slaveholders felt a certain way. I thought the only way I could make a difference was to become an historian and write my own books.”
Those books are now works in progress. Berry has published widely on topics including women, gender and slavery, the subject of her dissertation and forthcoming first book, Swing the Sickle for the Harvest Is Ripe. Her research also encompasses family and community among the enslaved, sisterhood, love and marriage, and disease and death.
Berry is the recipient of several fellowships and awards and has worked as a consultant for organizations including the National Endowment of the Arts. In conjunction with another Michigan State faculty member, Berry also developed a study abroad course on music, culture and history at the University of the West Indies, Mona, in Kingston, Jamaica.
Receiving her first faculty appointment at age 28 at Arizona State University, Berry’s youth has been “a constant battle.” “That was difficult because people always assume I’m a student. Age and racial discrimination have been two big obstacles for me,” Berry says.
In graduate school, Berry, the only Black scholar in her field, often found her colleagues’ perceptions about people of color a significant challenge, but she says becoming a historian was her best decision. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says. “I know I was brought here to be a historian.”
She credits her academic success to a supportive spouse, her parents and her mentors. Berry’s parents are both professors — her mother is a retired dean of the business school at California State University-Sacramento, and her father, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of California-Davis, is now an associate dean.
“I didn’t want to be a professor because my parents were,” Berry says. “I think all my life I was called to teach, but I ran from it. I stopped fighting it when I took that undergraduate history class.”
In addition to her family, Berry says the support of her mentors was essential. Dr. Brenda Stevenson, chair of the department of history at UCLA and Berry’s former dissertation director, is one such mentor.
Stevenson notes that Berry’s work on slave women breaks with conventional paradigms that simply compare the experiences of enslaved females to enslaved males and considers instead the differences between the women themselves and thus provides a different norm.
“Daina is a unique scholar. She is a very smart, very moral person who is kind and generous,” Stevenson says. “She is one of the few people in the world that I know who has it all.” — By Crystal L. Keels
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