The market will not lie or cheat you

Jasper Merian, a protagonist of Calvin Baker’s Dominion, worries over choosing names.

Given his tendency to utter pronouncements like “I would have named my own house Colonus… But I thought by now they surely must have heard of that place. I called it Stonehouses instead, in hopes it might keep them off us awhile,” you might even say he’s superstitious about them.

Jasper has reason to fear the supernatural,though. Freed from slavery, he settles on a stony parcel of land in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina, but has to wrestle a ghost, Ould Lowe, for dominion over it.

For Jasper, naming is an act of freedom, but also, at least in some cases, an act of hopeful prediction. He shares with his older son (Magnus to everyone but Jasper, who named him Ware) this advice from the man who owned the plantation where they both were slaves:

He … looked at me and said, “It is terrible to be loved by God. Most cannot endure it, Jasper. But name all thy houses Colonus and all thy daughters Antigone, and thou shall never know sorrow.”

That nearly brought tears to my eyes, to see how scared he was out there on his place; and that it would always be strange to him even though it was his house. His advice, though, seemed as sound as any I ever had.

Jasper’s preoccupation with names — his sense of their talismanic effect — is one aspect of Dominion I plan to raise at the Branding and Freedom event tomorrow night. (Whitehead’s protagonist is also name-obsessed. In fact, he’s a “nomenclature consultant,” who, at the start of Apex, has undertaken the job of renaming a town.)

But before there was branding in the modern sense of naming, there was branding in the sense of marking a person as a commodity owned. And this is an aspect of Baker’s story, too.

I’ve had trouble deciding which part of Dominion to excerpt here, but I finally landed on this passage, in which a peripheral character — a young man born free — is abducted after a day out goofing off with his friends.

He woke up in the back of the wagon and, it seemed, as far from Berkeley as he had ever been his entire life. He could not tell by looking out of the tarp where they were, or even whether Berkeley was north, south, east, or west of his position. Through the top of the wagon he could see the sky, and it looked to him the same as the one he was used to, but he knew it was not. The only other thing he knew for certain was that it was deep into the nighttime and he was unlikely to make it home that evening.

Nor had he any sense of bearing until the next afternoon, when they stopped for lunch. The man, whose name he had not yet learned, came into the back of the wagon and gave him a tin plate of hominy that had a tiny piece of hog’s fat in it. “It won’t be so bad,” the man said. “You’ll see, one master is just like any other.” Bastian did not say anything in acknowledgment of this statement, and the man picked up a round stick, which was leaned against a barrel in the wagon, and slammed it into the soles of his feet, so that his knees buckled and he nearly lost the plate from his lap. “You answer when I say something to you,” he said.

After he left, the wagon set off again, and, late that night came into a town. As it moved through the streets Bastian felt a great heart’s sickness when he began to recognize where he was. They were in Bertie County, in Knowleston, which is where he and his family had lived before settling in Berkeley.

When they stopped at the other end of the town it was fully night, and his kidnapper left him in the wagon as he went to negotiate terms in the rooming house. When he came back, he led Bastian into a barn with the horses and tied him to a railing, first making sure he had a blanket and straw for a pallet. “Wouldn’t do for you to catch cold,” the man said, before leaving.

About an hour after he was fastened to the rail, a boy of twelve or so came out with a plate of scraps for him to eat. As he refused the plate, Bastian asked the boy whether he knew Goodwin Johnson’s place.

The boy said he did, and that it was about five miles from where they were.

“That’s my uncle. You got to go tell him what happened to me,” Bastian said, recounting his sad adventure.

The boy was terrified when he heard it but promised he would figure out a way to get word out to Goodwin’s place.

Bastian Johnson did not sleep through the night but lay awake in the foul stench of horse sweat and urine, stirring at the first sound as he awaited rescue. The barn door did not open again until morning, and, when it did, it was Harris, his kidnapper, who entered.

“Wake up,” the man barked. “It’ll never do to be a lazy slave.”

Bastian sat up as commanded, and Harris handed him a bar of soap and a pair of trousers. “You clean up and put these on,” he instructed. “I can’t take you to market like this. Make sure you wash the mess from your face too. The market subtracts for every defect.”

When he saw the bewildered look on Bastian’s face, he sat down next to him on an overturned pail. “You and me going to the Exchange here today, and I need you to be at your best. If you act up, though, I will kill you. I would rather make no profit than get cheated out of fair value. Now, what do you suppose you might be worth?”

Bastian stayed silent.

“I told you about ignoring me,” the man warned.

“I don’t know,” Bastian answered. “I ain’t never been for sale and don’t imagine how you can put a price on a person, though I know some people do.”

“On the contrary,” the man answered, directing him toward a pail of water to wash in. “It is not people who do, but the market. People ain’t smart enough. But the market is brilliant, and it can price anything — that horse, you, me, the pail — it makes no difference; the market will tell you exactly what everything is worth and will not lie or cheat you…”


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