What are We Worth?

What have you [black people] produced, what consumed? What is your real value in the world’s economy? What do you give to the world over and above what you have cost? What would be missed had you never lived? What are you worth? (pp. 228 -229)

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“What are We Worth?” A chapter in Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South. Sometimes food for thought is more filling in larger quantities, so here we go!

“What are we [black people] worth? not in Georgia nor in Massachusetts; not to our brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts, every one of whom would unhesitatingly declare us worth a great gold-lump; nor to the exasperated neighbor over the way who would be just as ready, perhaps, to write us down a most unmitigated nuisance. But what do we represent to the world? What is our market value. Are we a positive and additive quantity or a negative factor in the world’s elements. What have we cost and what do we come to?” (pp. 232 – 233)

“Again I must preface an apology for anything unpalatable in our menu. I promised, you remember, to leave out the sentiment– you may stir it in afterwards, mixing thoroughly according to taste. We must discuss facts, candidly and bluntly, without rhetoric or cant if we would have a clear light on our problem. (p. 234)

“In estimating the value of our material, therefore, it is plain that we must look into the deeds of our estates and ferret out their history. The task is an individual one, as likewise its application. Certainly the original timber as it came from the African forests was good enough. No race of heathen are more noted for honesty and chastity than are the tribes of Africa. For one of their women to violate the laws of purity is a crime punishable with death; and so strictly honest are they, it is said, that they are wont to leave their commodities at the place of exchange and go about their business. The buyer coming up takes what he wishes to purchase and leaves its equivalent in barter or money. A returned missionary tells the story that certain European traders, when at a loss as to the safe keeping of their wares, were told by a native chief, “Oh just lay them down there. They are perfectly safe, there are no Christians here.“” (pp. 237 – 238)

But to know our faults is one step toward correcting them, and there are, I trust, no flaws in this first element of value, material, which may not be planed and scraped and sand-papered out by diligent and strenuous effort. One thing is certain, the flaws that are simply ingrained in the timber are not our responsibility. A man is to be praised primarily not for having inherited fine tools and faultless materials but for making the most of the stuff he has, and doing his best in spite of disadvantages and poor material. The individual is responsible, not for what he has not, but for what he has; and the vital part for us after all depends on the use we make of our material. Many a passable article has by diligent workmanship been made even from inferior material. (p. 240)

Cooper then goes on to give some very good statistics and ask some hard, “unsentimental” questions about the worth of blacks relative to whites in the 19th century, post-slavery world in which she lived. What about the statistics of mortality rates for blacks under the age of eighteen, which can be easily attributed to the unsanitary conditions in which they lived? Can we blame the insurance companies, as a matter of economics, for charging higher premiums to blacks when their higher death rates make them more expensive to insure? The solution Cooper offers to this particular problem is for the wealthy blacks to invest in poor neighbourhoods. To set up places to rent and fix the sanitation so that the mortality rates are lower. What about education? How many teachers, lawyers, professionals are coming out of the black community? And how many are being forced into formal education when they would be much better at a trade?

Much more is said in this chapter, and since the book is available on-line I encourage anyone who is interested to read the entire thing. A lot is to be learned from thinkers who wrote during this time in history when the concern for the freedom and liberation for blacks was palpable. I digress. The key question that I think she is asking boils down to this: “What is required, in hard facts and hard numbers, for one to be perceived as possessing value in a given society?” The easy answer to this would be to point to the racism that devalues the subject in the eyes of the beholder, and maintain that we are all – as human beings and simply by virtue of being human – equally valuable. But I think it is a lot more complicated than this when we reach the realm of politics. Marcus Garvey said it best:

A race without authority and power, is a race without respect.


T. M. G.

Works Cited

Cooper, Anna Julia. A Voice From the SouthXenia: The Aldine Printing House, 1892. Electronic Version.

Image Credit: http://caribphil.org/the-anna-julia-cooper-award.html