On Human Commoditization: a Model Based Upon African-American Slavery

ABSTRACT - The transformation of a human being into the property of another person is termed commoditization. Our intention is to construct a model of human commoditization derived from a historic instance of this processBthe enslavement of Africans in North America, which lasted from 1619 until 1865, encompassed 17 contiguous states and involved some 10,000,000 Africans and African-Americans. We develop a dynamic, multistage model of entry into, maintenance of and resistance to commoditization.


Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Ronald P. Hill (1999) ,"On Human Commoditization: a Model Based Upon African-American Slavery", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 394-398.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 394-398


Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University

Ronald P. Hill, University of Portland


The transformation of a human being into the property of another person is termed commoditization. Our intention is to construct a model of human commoditization derived from a historic instance of this processBthe enslavement of Africans in North America, which lasted from 1619 until 1865, encompassed 17 contiguous states and involved some 10,000,000 Africans and African-Americans. We develop a dynamic, multistage model of entry into, maintenance of and resistance to commoditization.

The transformation of a human being into the property of another person may be termed commoditization (Kopytoff 1986). Our intention is to construct a model of human commoditization derived from a historic instance of this processBthe enslavement of Africans in North America, which lasted from 1619 until 1865, encompassed 17 contiguous states (a land area stretching from Massachusetts to Florida and extending from Texas to South Carolina) and involved some 10,000,000 Africans and African-Americans (Lester 168; Parish 1989).

Put most simply, commoditization is the transformation of a human beingBnormally considered to be an autonomous, self-directed agentBinto a unit under the control of another human being. The commoditized person is used to achieve the commoditizer’s objectives and is stripped of free-will, and selfhood. The commoditized person’s body, skills, abilities, labor and even reproductive capacity are no longer under his/her own control, but rather are owned or possessed by the commoditizer.

Human commoditization has enormous ethical and moral implications for the study of consumer behavior, especially historic consumer behavior. [Humans were commoditized as slaves during the Greek and Roman Empires, by North American Indian tribes, in pre-Colonial Africa and large portions of the Ottoman Empire, and as serfs in Czarist Russia and England during the twelfth through the eighteeneth centuries (see Patterson 1982).] Further, although slavery no longer exists in the United States, slave-like phenomena currently are found in many other countries. [For example, forced child labor is commonly found in Central and South America (Lee-Wright 1990; Meyers 1991), forced prostitution is often reported in Thailand, and women are still legally maintained as chattel property in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen and several other countries (see Fernand-Laurent, 1985).] Additionally, midway through the present century, millions of persons were commoditized during the Third Reich and applied to forced-labor projects (see e.g., Goldhagen 1996). Thus, both recent and ancient history, as well as present-day experience, suggest that the commoditization of one human being by another is not an uncommon experience.

As we shall document, commoditization has extreme psychological and sociological consequences for both the person being commoditized, i.e., the object-of-use, and the person who is acting as the commoditizer, i.e., the user. In such cases, normal interpersonal bonds and relationships are abrogated and acts which would normally be perceived as morally repugnant become possible and widely practiced. Although our primary focus will be upon the phenomenological experience of the person being commoditized, where documentation permits we will also explore the psychic effects of commoditization upon the user.

How do people come to be regarded as another person’s property? How are human beings transformed into marketable commodities? What effect does this transformation have on their feelings of self-worth and personal identity? The present inquiry explores these issues within a processual framework based upon the theory of commoditization advanced by Kopytoff (1986). Kopytoff, an anthropologist with expertise in the history and practice of slavery, develops an account of the commoditization process that may be applied to persons, as well as inanimate objects, i.e., products. As he notes, these two types of entityBpersons and productsBusually constitute bipolar oppositions within Western cultural tradition:

"In contemporary Western thought , we take it more or less for granted that... physical objects and the rights to them... represent the natural universe of commodities. At the opposite pole we place people, who represent the natural universe of individualization and singularization (Kopytoff 1986, p. 64)." However, as he notes, " in innumerable societies throughout history, people have been transformed into and treated as marketable commodities, via the institution of slavery (Kopytoff 1986, p. 65)."

Although Kopytoff’s thesis emphasizes the notion that commoditization is a process of becoming a commodity (1986), p.73), he does not ever put forward the steps of that process nor their psychological and social impact on the individual being commoditized. Nor does he elaborate on the mechanisms for maintaining the commodity status of that individual, or the techniques and resources the commoditized individual may use to resist his/her imposed status. In the present inquiry we examine commoditization-as-process through the use of first-person accounts of those who have experienced this transformation. As we will document, a primary way in which commoditization is effected and resisted is through acts of consumer behavior. Many aspects of selfhood begin, end and are regained through specific acts of personal choice concerning consumption.


Stage One: Pre-Commoditization

Persons enter the process in pre-commodity status; that is, they are assumed at the outset to enjoy all the rights and privileges of selfhood, as that notion is presently understood. Much of the modern conception of selfhood revolves around the exercise of personal choice (see e.g., Sartre 1956). In their roles as consumers, persons exercise a multitude of choices on a daily and lifelong basis. These choices range from the profound (e.g. for whom to vote, what church to attend, whether or not to become pregnant) to the mundane (e.g., what to eat, what to wear, what motion picture to watch). Yet taken together, such consumption choices often serve to define our existence and the record of these choices across time traces our mark on the world and it on us.

For non-commoditized persons, many consumption choices are undertaken in an almost routinized, casual manner (Hawkins and Hoch 1992; Miniard, Sirdeshmukh and Innis 1992). Yet as we shall show, for commoditized persons what once were trivial consumption decisions can take on life/death dimensions and the absence of meaningful choice can wreak havoc on the maintenance of selfhood and identity.

Stage Two: Initiation into Commoditization

In stage two of the model, persons are initiated into commodity status via a series of de-personalizing transitions. They are shorn by their captors of all personal possessions, social ties and familial bonds. A new, externally imposed identity is assigned to the individual, indicating that he/she is no longer a distinct person, but rather a member of a series of nondifferentiated units, one interchangeable with another. As Kopytoff (1986, p. 69) observes, such exchangeability between units is one hallmark of commoditization.

Stage Three: Externally-imposed Maintenance of Commoditization Versus Resistance to Commoditization

Because persons socialized into the Western worldview are taught to value selfhood and personal distinctiveness (Kopytoff 1986), transformation into commoditized status is experienced as unpleasant and unnatural. Typically, attempts will be made by those being commoditized to rebel against it, while at the same time those desiring to press commoditization on others will use force to maintain it. Stage 3 represents the ongoing struggle between these two oppositional forces. Those enforcing commoditization will do so by restricting all meaningful consumer behavior choice, the exercise of which is a vital avenue toward regaining selfhood. Conversely, those persons being commoditized will struggle against their status by attempting to reassert selfhood and personal identity through making meaningful consumption choices.


Africans as the Other

Kopytoff (1986) proposes that commoditization of humans is able to occur when one group comes to define other group(s) as different than and inferior to itself. During the 1600’s and continuing through the mid-1800’s, white Europeans regarded black Africans as culturally and racially inferior and, therefore, appropriate for commoditization. The most conclusive and clear statement of this view in the later slavery period was embodied in the opinion of Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case, rendered in 1857:

They [Negroes] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order... and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respct; and the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it.

(quoted in Wilbert E. Morre,

American Negro Slavery and Abolition.

[New York: Third World Press 1971], p. 91)

Enslaved Africans underwent a ritualized series of steps during which they were transformed from independent human beings into commodities appropriate to be "bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise..."

Data Availability

Fortunately, despite the early historic occurrence of African-American slavery, ample first-person material is available. Feldstein (1971) reports that there are presently known to exist approximately six thousand African slave narratives in which the slave’s view of his/her commoditization is presented. Some are in book form (see e.g., Ball 1854; Brown 1849; Olmstead 1856; Pennington 1849) while others are in church and court records and in abolitionist publications such as The Liberator and the Liberty Bell. Many unpublished works are archived in the Schomberg Collection of Negro Literature and History in Harlem, while others are at the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. Feldstein (1971) reviewed these documents , as well as narratives transcribed by the members of the Federal Writers’ Project of the W.P.A., a Depression-era literary effort conducted with ex-slaves (1940). He concluded that "a strong case can be made for the validity of the information... [because] much of the material is repetitive; so many tell of the same conditions, the same indignities. This parallel thinking...leads me to conclude that...these narratives spoke for the silent millions (1971, p.14)." A similar effort was undertaken by Lester (1968) who read the original documents prepared by the American Anti-Slavery Society from interviews with escaped slaves and incorporated, as well, material from the 6,000 manuscript pages compiled during the Federal Writers Project (see Federal Writers Project 1949).

Even more recently, black historian John Blassingame has produced two comprehensive books on the slavery experience. The Slave Community, first published in 1972 and revised and enlarged in 1979, is considered by many to be the definitive work on African-American slavery from the slaves’ perspective. A companion volume published in 1977, Slave Testimony, includes 111 letters written by slaves between 1736 and 1864, 8 speeches, 129 interviews conducted by journalists, scholars and government officials between 1827 and 1938, and 13 autobiographies appearing in periodicals and rare books between 1828 and 1878. These collections of documents served as our primary data source in applying the commoditization model to the African-American slave experience.


Africans were first brought as slaves to the American colonies in the early 1600’s. As Lester (1968) reports, these Africans were obtained through a trading alliance between European and American slave traders and African tribal chiefs. The chiefs would make war on one another for the purpose of capturing as many persons as possible. These captives would be exchanged for various goods, e.g., tobacco, guns, ammunition and rum. Between the sixteenth and mid-nineteenth century, approximately 10,000,000 Africans were brought to the Americas [This includes South America and the Caribbean Islands.] as slaves. Captured Africans, including men, women, and children, were taken on forced marches to the Western coast of the continent, during which many died or became emaciated. Upon arriving at the coast, they were examined to determine their fitness for physical labor. Those chosen were purchased and then branded (Blassingame 1979).

The human cargo was loaded aboard the slave ship for the three week to three month journey to America. Men were usually kept shackled together below deck and let out twice daily for meals and exercise. Women and children spent much of their time on deck. The hygienic conditions, especially below deck, were horrific, and disease and malnutrition were rampant (Feldstein 1971; Lester 1968). Blassingame (1979) reports that on average 16% of every slave cargo was lost. During this Middle-Passage portion of their journey, several Africans would commit suicide, rather than accept their commoditized status [At Sea Island, Georgia, in one instance, an entire shipload of slaves purposefully walked into the ocean and drowned themselves.] (Feldstein 1971; Lester 1968). One slave writes of this journey:

We had nothing to eat but yams, which were thrown amongst us at randomBand of these we had scarcely enough to support life. More than one-third of us died on the passage and when we arrived at Charleston (South Carolina), I was not able to stand. It was more than a week after I left the ship before I could straighten my limbs. I was bought by a trader with several others, brought up to the county and sold to my present master. I have been here five years." (Blassingame 1979)

The Slave Marketplace

African slaves were placed for sale at public auctions. These sales occurred primarily at port cities, such as Savannah, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; and New Orleans, Louisiana during the early years of the slave trade. However, after the importation of slaves was banned in 1807, inland markets sprang up as well (Owens 1976). By the 1860’s, persons were being sold as slaves whose original African forebears had come to North America in the early 1600’s, representing two and a half centuries of a commoditized lineage.

In order to enhance their marketability, slaves being auctioned were fed, washed, shaved, and combed. Gray hairs were plucked out or, if too numerous, were dyed. Grease would be smeared on their cheeks and lips to enhance their appearance (Feldstein 1971). Slaves were then separated into age and gender groupings; families were separated at this time, and any who resisted were flogged into submission (Blassingame 1979).

One-by-one the slaves would be put upon the auction block. Prospective buyers would question the slave about his/her work abilities. The slave often would be asked to walk or exercise in order to discern his/her physical condition; teeth, eyes and ears would be examined to determine health. Female slaves who appeared to be "good breeders" were particularly sought after (Feldstein 1971, p.98).

Daily Slave Life

The life of an African-American slave was largely spent as a commoditized entity. From childhood onward, slaves labored not for their own goals or gain, but at the command and for the profit of their owner. Lester (1968, p. 28) evokes the existential sense of this status quite effectively:

To be a slave. To be owned by another person... as a house or table is owned. To live as a piece of property that could be soldBa child sold from its mother, a wife from her husband. To be considered not human, but a "thing" that plowed the fields, cut the wood, cooked the food, nursed another’s child; a "thing" whose sole function was determined by the one who owned you.

Slaves were the possessions of a specific person; this had several implications for their status as commodities. First, their identities became tied to that of their ownerBeach slave was assigned the last name of his/her owner, say, Carter, Northrup or Hayes (Lester 1968, p. 77). While among themselves, slaves would assign personal first names, often of an African origin, they would frequently be called by a different first name by the master (Blassingame 1979). Despite this, a sense of self-identity was pesent among many slaves, although it could be disrupted if the slave were sold. The sold slave would automatically be assigned a new surname and perhaps even a new first name by the next owner (Lester 1968).

The Work Routine

African-American slaves usually were purchased to provide manual labor in agricultural settings. Of the 384,884 slaveowners in 1860, the majority owned 20 or fewer slaves. Yet the majority of slaves lived in communities of 100 or more slaves on large plantations in the Southeastern United States (Lester 1968, p. 60). Thus most slaves were concentrated among a few large-scale planters. Large work gangs would be called out to their labors by the overseer at sunrise and would remain in the fields, tending tobacco, rice, sugar or cotton, until late at night. The excerpt from slave Solomon Northrup (1854, pp. 167, 170-180) quoted in Lester (1968, pp. 70-72) is typical of the descriptions available of the workday:

An hour before daylight the horn is blown. Then the slaves arouse, prepare their breakfast, fill a gourd with water, in another, deposit their dinner of cold bacon and corn cake, and hurry to the field again. It is an offense invariably followed by a flogging to be found at the quarters after daybreak. Then the fears and labors of another day begin and until its close there is no such thing as rest. With the exception of ten or fifteen minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see, and when the moon is full, they often-times labor till the middle of the night. They do not dare to stop even at dinner time, nor return to the quarters, however late it be, until the order to halt is given by the driver.

The day’s work over in the field, the baskets are toted to the ginhouse where the cotton is weighed. No matter how fatigued and weary he may be, a slave never approaches the ginhouse with his basket of cotton but with fear. If it falls short in weight, he knows that he must suffer. And if he has exceeded it by ten or twenty pounds, in all probability his master will measure the next day’s task accordingly...

Each one must then attend to his respective chores. One feeds the mules, another the swine, another cuts the wood, and so forth. Finally, at a late hour, they reach the quarters, sleepy and overcome with the long day’s toil. Then a fire must be kindled in the cabin, the corn ground in the small hand-mill, and supper and dinner for the next day in the field prepared.... By this time it is usually midnight.

While most slaves worked as field hands, there were two classes of slaves who enjoyed special status as possessions. Skilled laborers such as carpenters, blacksmiths, mechanics and brick masons had special abilities which set them apart from the common laborer. They were often shown deference on the plantation and occasionally even hired out to other masters and permitted to keep a portion of their pay (see Owens 1976, p. 138, 181; Feldstein 1971, p. 102). The second, privileged class of slaves were those who served as domestic workers in the master’s house (Blassingame 1979, p. 251). Often they were dressed and fed better than the field hands, "because the master and his family... want their servants to look well" in case visitors arrived (Feldstein 1971, p. 164).

Living Conditions

Josiah Henson (1858, 17-18) provides a portrait of typical living conditions in the slave quarters (quoted in Lester 1968, pp. 64-65):

We lodged in log huts on the bare ground. Wooden floors were an unknown luxury. In a single room were huddled, like cattle, ten or a dozen persons, men, women, and children... Our beds were collections of straw and old rags, thrown down in the corners and boxed in with boards, a single blanket the only covering... The wind whstled and the rain and snow blew in through the cracks, and the damp earth soaked in the moisture till the floor was miry as a pigsty. Such were our houses.

In ordinary times we had two regular meals in a day: breakfast at twelve o’clock, after laboring from daylight, and supper when the work of the remainder of the day was over. In harvest season we had three. Our dress was of tow cloth; for the children nothing but a shirt; for the older ones a pair of pantaloons or a gown. Besides these, in the winter a round jacket or overcoat, a wool hat once in two or three years for the males, and a pair of coarse shoes once a year.

Similar accounts are provided in Owens (1976, pp. 136-137), Blassingame (1979, pp. 254-256) and Feldstein (1971, pp. 42-45).

Some Comments on the Characteristics of Commoditizers

One of the striking aspects of human commoditization is that those enforcing the conditions of commoditization on others do so in ways that are not fully economically rational. That is, typically persons being commoditized are maintained in somewhat physically weakened states; they are not provided with sufficient quantities of food, adequate shelter or appropriate clothing to perform at their optimum physical level. Goldhagen (1996) very insightfully proposes that this is done by the commoditizer for psychological reasons, which ultimately come to dominate the economic aspects of comoditization. That is, in order to create sufficient social and psychic distance between the self and the person being commoditized, the commoditizer must treat the slave as a subhuman, as an entity not worthy of human food, housing and clothing. Providing fully for the commoditized person’s basic survival needs would result in making him/her too much like the commoditizer and become psychologically intolerable. It is only by viewing commoditized persons as less-than-human and treating them as such, that commoditizers can justify their own actions.


The slaveowner used four means of coercion to enforce commoditization: whipping, the threat of selling the slave or his/her family, patrols, and the violent suppression of open dissent.

Whipping. Slaves of all ages and genders were whipped for offenses ranging from standing up while hoeing cotton to stealing chickens; many carried scars for life from repeated floggings (see Lester 1968; Blassingame 1979, pp. 260-262).

The Threat of Sale. One of the most potent means the slaveowner possessed of maintaining control was to threaten to sell a slave or members of his/her family. Because most slaves had strong emotional bonds with others residing in the slave quarters, the fear of losing these emotional attachments and being sold to a possibly more brutal master was a major deterrent to dissent (Owens 1976).

Patrols. Because the plantations on which most slaves worked covered large land areas, it was impossible for the master to visually keep track of all the slaves. To prevent slaves from #wandering off’ at night, slave owners hired gangs of poor whites to act as patrols. Any slave who was caught off premises without permission by the patrollers could be viciously beaten (see Feldstein 1971, pp. 1140117).

Violent Suppression of Dissent. In the few instances when groups of slaves escaped en masse and attacked whites as, for example, in the Vesey and Nat Turner rebellions, the rebellions were put down with great violence.


Despite their commoditized status, manyAfrican-Americans attempted to resist their bondage.

Self-Destruction. Slaves had specific economic value to their owners; thus, slaveowners had a direct monetary stake in their individual welfare (Blassingame 1976, p. 271). Slaves were aware of this and used this knowledge as a lever of resistance. Slaves whipped too brutally or threatened with sale would often threaten suicide, in response. This same reasoning extended to the slave’s children. Some mothers, who feared and dreaded what a life of commoditization would mean for their children, killed them instead; infanticide was not an uncommon occurrence (Bauer and Bauer 1942). Other slaves, in an effort to prevent themselves from being sold away from family and friends, would mutilate themselves to reduce their value as property.

Escape. Ultimately, a slave could "steal himself" and become a fugitive. Although many fugitive slaves were recaptured and punished, others succeeded in fleeing to the Northern United States and Canada (Owen 1976). Some remained in dense woods or swamps nearby their former workplaces, where they established #maroon’ communities (Parish 1989, p. 72). The largest of these was the settlement of an estimated 1,200 former black slaves among the Seminole branch of the Creek Indian Nation in Florida throughout the 1800’s (Blassingame 1979, p. 211).

Family Life. African-American slaves also had access to family life as a means of resistance. Generally, slaveowners permitted slave marriages and certainly encouraged the resulting pregnancies. Being able to form and exist within a family structure gave many slaves a strong antidote to their commoditized existence (Blassingame 1979, pp. 190-191). However, familial bonds also provided the slave owner with a significant means of control. Coercive threats to beat or to sell family members could often obtain compliance to the master’s commands more effectively than physical intimidation. And, in fact, slave families were often disrupted by the sale of one or more members (Blassingame 1979, Feldstein 1971; Lester 1968; Owen 1976).

Food Acquisition. Another form of resistance available to slaves was the acquisition of African foodstuffs and wild game. Black slaves were permittedBand in some cases even encouragedBto maintain personal gardens outside their cabins and additionally to supplement their diets with the hunting of wild game, e.g., opossums, rabbits, and raccoons, and fishing (see Blassingame 1979, p. 179; Feldstein 1971, pp. 44-45). In keeping with their African heritage, and also serving as a source of cultural resistance, slaves grew produce such as peanuts, gourds, squash, yams and black-eyed peas (Sanford 1994; Singleton 1985) with which they could prepare African meals.

Hedonic/Aesthetic Consumption. By all accounts, one of the primary means through which African-Americans resisted their enslavement was by engaging in various types of hedonic and aesthetic consumer behavior (see e.g., Lester 1968). As Blassingame (1979, pp. 39, 127) and Feldstein (1971, p. 84) report, many of the slaves’ musical instruments and dance movements were of African origin and, thus not only provided hedonic pleasure, but also served as a means of cultural resistance to commoditization.

Religion and Spiritual Consumption African-American slaves also engaged in spiritual consumption to resist their commoditization. Many combined the liberatory aspects of Christian ideology with African practices of santeria and conjuring to construct a religious sense of selfhood (Blassingame 1979). Prayer meetings which the slaves would conduct were held at night in the woods. Termed #hush harbors’, these communal gatherings provided contact with the spirit world away from the master’s gaze (see Owens 1976, p. 156).

Voodoo (Santeria) was also practiced in the slave quarters. Certain slaves, often those of African origin, acted as conjurers (Owens 1976, pp. 15-160; Blassingame 1979, pp. 41, 109). Though the magic spells of the conjurer were rarely effective against the white owner, they did promote a strong senseof kindredness and African heritage among the slaves.

Intellectual Consumption Although it was punishable by flogging or even death, many slaves taught themselves to read and write (Feldstein 1971, pp. 62-63). Slaves also adapted their African heritage to their new, commoditized circumstances by constructing elaborate series of folktales in which a trickster figure outsmarted a more powerful foe. Undoubtedly, the most well-known of these narratives featured Brer Rabbit, who, through cleverness, was able to escape many frightening situations (Blassingame 1979, p. 24).

Sabotage. By all accounts, African-American slaves were consistently and resolutely engaged in various forms of sabotage against their masters. Among the most common acts were the destruction of tools and implements, purposeful damage to crops, theft of food and livestock, arson, and working at an abnormally slow pace (see e.g., Bauer and Bauer 1942; Owens 1976; Feldstein 1971). Sabotage is perhaps the most significant form of resistance available to the commoditized person, as it permits him/her to destroy the product of commoditization.


This paper has constructed a model of human commoditization based upon African-American slavery. Using existing compendiums of slave documents, we have explored the process by which commoditizatin is created, enforced and resisted. Commoditization in all its many forms is an immoral and destructive form of consumer behavior, yet rarely have researchers delved into its murky waters. Indeed, it is only since Roger’s Fellow’s Address (1987) that consumer researchers have been challenged to examine the liberatory aspects of their roles as social scientists. Since that call, others have issued similar challenges to the field to consider the moral and ethical consequences of the phenomena which lie within our domain of inquiry (see e.g., Fuat and Venkatesh 1995; Murray and Ozanne 191; Hirschman 1993).

Our present purpose has been to direct attention to those instances in which some persons choose to consume the lives of others through the phenomenon of commoditization. The model of human commoditization and resistance we have developed is grounded in one empirical instance of this phenomenon. It doubtless could be strengthened by application to other historic and contemporary instances of commoditization. A deeper consideration of what separates persons from products and the uses to which both may be put would seem to be a worthy application of consumer research.


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Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University
Ronald P. Hill, University of Portland


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26 | 1999

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