HIS HAND CAME DOWN UPON MY CHEEK HARD AND FAST. Stunned, I staggered backward.
“Look at all dis cotton you left behind, gal!” I looked up to see the overseer’s hand nearing my face again. I flinched as he smacked me once more, sending me to my knees. I stared at the ground, seven years’ worth of hard labor in the fields burning under my veil of obedience.
“Next time I find you skippin’ ova cotton like it don’t matta nothin’ in the world to you, you gonna find yo’self beaten, gal, you understand me?”
“Yessuh,” I answered.
“Now get up and pay attention, understand?”
“Yessuh,” I said slowly, lifting my body from the ground.
Doing cotton for Masta was a lot of work. On his plantation in the western part of Tennessee there was the land preparation, the spring planting, the weeding and the plowing, and the harvesting near the end of August. Then, after it was picked, some folks would remove the small green seeds from the cotton in the ginnin’ house. When we weren’t working on the cotton, we tended to a small cornfield Masta also owned.
The year had come back around to the harvesting of the cotton. Picking was tough, especially when the frost would start biting the bolls. I preferred the hoeing or the planting, but for now, it was time to pick.
When I first started fieldwork, I admired the folks who could pull that cotton out of the bolls with a single hand, a single swipe, their eyes set somewhere else. Then they’d take that cotton and easily slip it into their sacks. Not a single branch would break in the process. The breaking of a cotton branch or the destroying of an entire plant in whatever manner was cause for punishment. The overseer would ride by and strike any slave who committed this crime with the whip that hung by his side.
The work didn’t seem so bad during my first days out in the field; that is, until the days started stretching out longer and the work sent aches throughout my body. My young hands would clumsily snap a branch and struggle to pull the picked cotton out of the brown bolls and get it into my sack. At the end of the day, my hands would be bloody and calloused.
Even before the sun rose in the mornings, we were awakened to begin our workdays, sometimes having to line up in rows for a slave count before heading to the fields to pick. Our bodies were so accustomed to this work that sometimes I felt as if we were merely walking flesh, our minds still lost in sleep. The overseers would come by nearly every day to check our progress, warning us with a slap if we were too far behind. There were two of them, and they’d always find an excuse to drop three or four extra bags near our feet to fill up. They’d never forget if we happened to pick more one day than we did the last, and they’d be sure we picked a little more the next. We couldn’t leave until the last bag strapped to our backs was filled with that cotton. Then, at the close of the day, we’d watch, grateful almost, as the sun set, giving us relief from its hot rays. I don’t know why the sun chose to glare at us like it did, hours on end, bringing glistening sweat to our bodies as if we’d done something against it. Only long after sunset would we be granted leave.
On that day, with the overseer’s hand imprint still burning in my flesh, I continued with my work. There was nothing else I could’ve done. I hated the fields that stretched as far as my mind would allow. It took me a long time to figure out how I could daydream, like I did when I was young, and work at the same time. The overseers thought they had snatched that mental freedom. But Aunt Mary, the mother figure that cared for me on that plantation, used to tell me that you could always find the greatest joy and freedom in your mind. Even so, it felt like a slap in the face to stand there, sometimes, staring at the never-ending rows of white cotton. With a quick reminder from a slave hand yanking at my dress, telling me to “bend down an’ pick so I wouldn’t get lashed,” I would return my attention to the row of cotton that surrounded me. With anger spinning in my mind, I would think of how we were engulfed in the white man’s world—nothing but a world of whiteness. If only we could get rid of all that cotton!
Later on, when the sun had set and the moon was high in the sky, I finally trudged home. My legs were heavy; my feet dragged behind me.
I walked past several silent houses in the slave quarters and only picked up my pace when I spotted a woman standing and waiting for me in the doorway of a small cabin. Mary’s posture looked anxious, and I quickly embraced her as I reached the door, my cheek brushing up against her chin.
Mary spent most of her time as a house servant but helped out when needed in the spinning house, making clothing and other materials. I was very small when I first came to the plantation at the age of four, and Mary was the one who took me into her arms without a word. Mary said as soon as she saw me, she knew I was a child of hers, just not blood-related. From then on it went without saying that she would be the mother I had lost and that her son would be the brother who’d been sold—and so, lost to me—when I first came across the seas to this land. Daniel was two years older than I was and was born a year or so after Mary’s first child, which she had lost. He had never been afraid of much, and that worried me a little bit. It didn’t take much so-called wrongdoing around these parts for a defiant slave to end up limp and lifeless.
Mary ran a hand slowly across my short, black hair, which rounded my head and sat two or three inches high on my scalp. Then she pulled back and looked me over, her eyes running past my large, dark ones, past my eyelids batting with fatigue, past my shoulders slouched with a long day’s worth of work, and on down to my dirt-caked feet.
“Look at you—got holes in them pants I just done sewn you, from workin’ hard out there in them fields. And looka here, you growin’ out of ’em already.” She shook her head back and forth, but that gesture and the heaviness lurking behind her voice were negated by the kindness in her eyes.
“Seem you even darker today than you was jus’ yestaday,” Mary said quietly.
“That sun ain’t got no mercy.”
My skin was very dark: When I was younger, the children told me I looked like the nighttime. I preferred to remember images from my homeland, from the black land way across the seas, images of me rolling in the dark soil and rubbing its similar color into my skin. It was something that made me a bit different from others around the plantation. It was clear to Mary, and to many others, my native origins weren’t from close by, and Mary said there weren’t too many folks like me who came straight from their ancestral lands. It had changed she said, from the days of her youth.
It was early in the year 1821. I was young, just about fourteen years old, according to Mary, who had helped me keep track of my age. Like most other slaves, she didn’t know hers. She told me once that when I first came here, it had taken quite a while to break past the resistance I had layered myself with. I wouldn’t talk, I wouldn’t look at anyone straight, and I could never sleep through a full night. Then one day, after a few weeks of the same, Mary found me crouched in the corner of the cabin, holding up four fingers and touching each one with a finger from my other hand. I repeated this over and over again. She figured that wherever I had come from, someone had taught me how to count the years I had been on this earth, and she decided to continue with that cycle. Mary knew children well, and I seemed to be around that age. She had walked over to me, silently, and touched her own fingers as she had seen me do. She then brought one of her fingers to the four I was holding up and then repeated the same. After a while, she had taken my hands in hers and brought my fingers to her lips, kissing each one by one. It was the first time we had bonded, and she kept that moment close to her heart by helping me keep up with my age.
It was nearing the end of September and, if we’d kept track right, I’d be turning fourteen when the first flower bloomed, signifying the beginning of springtime. Mary told me I was growing up slowly; she said I’d be as pretty as they get, and that made me smile a bit.
I wiped away the sweat on Mary’s forehead that glistened in the moonlight, and gazed past her drained face into her eyes. She shook her head back and forth again.
“You sho’ had a bad one last night, Sarah.” I nodded solemnly, remembering Mary waking me that morning, silencing my muffled screams from distorted dreams. She’d wiped away the sweat I was drenched in and dried my streaming tears, which seemed to flow from a place deep inside that connected those broken dreams with a reality I couldn’t remember well at all.
“You rememba it this time?”
I shook my head and sighed. “Only bits’ve it, Mary. Ain’t no dif’rent from befo’.”
“What ’bout them parts that got you cryin’ like that?” Again, I shook my head, but with less assurance. My nightmares didn’t come often, but when they did, I’d wake up, baffled, wondering why I couldn’t remember the images that had flitted so quickly and disjointedly across my mind’s eye. Most of them remained buried in a place inside of me, perhaps for the best. And yet in all the years I had been having those dreams after arriving on the plantation, some of the same images had returned to me again and again: a smiling face, a warm hand, large and staring eyes, the smile wiped away, empty, lifeless, and that word, that name, Bahati. …
“Well, it sho’ didn’t last long this time round. Maybe … maybe you ain’t gonna have ’em anymore.”
“Mary, you say that every time.”
She sighed heavily and shook her head. “I knows I do, but …” She looked down at my hands and ran a soft finger over the dried-up blood.
“Well, anyhow, ’nough of that. I do got somethin’ to say ’bout you workin’ in them fields, tho’. Hate to see you out there durin’ pickin’ season. They should have you carin’ fo’ the livestock, or in the orchard or somethin’. I’ma pick up my nerve and ask Missus if’n you can work in the house like I do—fo’ good.” I smiled warmly as Mary rambled on as she always did. She led me through the doors and placed a bowl of cornmeal on my pallet.
I rinsed off my face, hands, and legs in the cold-water bin on the floor before filling my hungry mouth with the little food that lay before me. To finish off my nightly rituals, I dived thankfully into bed—a small, itchy pallet large enough only for part of my body. My feet and ankles no longer fit.
“You know, Anna, I’m s’prised you wake up in the mornins high-spirited, countin’ on the day bein’ different, an’ come back at night, sleep the minute you hit that pallet, just to wake up the next day with the same high spirits as every mornin’,” Mary said as she gathered the half bucket of water to dump outside and then refill for Daniel.
“Ain’t nothin’ else I can do, Mary. I look fo’ward to the mornin’ breeze, anyway,” I said with a grin, my cheek pressed hard into my pallet. She shook her head, washed out my bowl, and blew out the lamp.
If I had fought to keep my eyes open for another five minutes or so, I would’ve seen Daniel drearily saunter in. Instead, I fell heavily into sleep.
© 2010 Noni Carter
I AWOKE WITH A START. MARY WAS SHAKING ME SO HARD I felt dizzy.
“Sarah, chile, get up! Missus want you workin’ in the house.”
“Doin’ what?” I asked with a wide yawn, wondering why Mary was trying to wake me before my usual morning hour.
“Jus’ normal housework firs’ part’ve the day, an’ back in the fields fo’ the rest,” Daniel explained for her. He was always up earlier than the two of us, carving something out of wood. I lifted myself slowly from under the rags that served as my blanket and gazed at my brother.
“What you makin’ now?” I asked him.
“Ov’rheard somebody say she wanted a box fo’ all the scraps Mama sneak home sometime. Purty lil’ gal wit thick black hair …” He stopped when he saw my wide grin.
“I ain’t that lil’ no mo’, Daniel,” I said as he tossed the small box into my waiting hands. Daniel stood and stretched, shaking off the squeeze I had just given him in thanks. And just as quickly as I woke, he had picked up his tools and was headed out the door, content with his gift giving.
The majority of the week, Daniel was assigned to do carpentry work, which he learned from Uncle Joe, whose time on Earth was almost spent. When Daniel was much younger, even before I came to the plantation, Ole Joe took a genuine interest in him. With Masta’s permission, he trained Daniel to fix objects and create fine wagons and carriages that Masta rode in.
Mary came back in with the washing water and told me about what Missus had planned.
“She got you workin’ with the younguns, cleanin’, an’ doin’ whateva housework she ask you. Gotta get up earlier, too, not as early as me, but its all fo’ the betta.” I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and after eating an ashcake and rinsing my tired limbs, I followed Mary out the door.
There were other tasks besides housework and fieldwork: livestock tending, corn cultivation, and carpentry. Housework had been Mary’s responsibility, the job she had done for most of her life, and she wanted me to join her.
It was unfortunate that Missus marched into the kitchen when she did that first day. My attention had been grabbed by a small landscape painting hanging on the wall. Before she spoke a single word, she drew the stick she seemed to carry with her constantly and hit me heavily across my leg. Then she leaped back and stared with her beady eyes, waiting to see what I would do. It stung, but I stood as still and as tall as possible, dragged my startled eyes to her feet, and washed my face with a blankness Mary had taught me to compose myself with—that face of obedience.
“You the new one?” she snapped at me after seeing I posed no threat.
“Slow as a dog. You clean in here, but don’t stare like that. Nothing in those paintings have anything to do with you. Wash the kitchen floors, and break from the fields during the evening to serve us dinner. The rest of the morning you’ll spend with the two little ones. I can’t be with them every hour.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said hurriedly as she leaned my way with the stick again.
“Well, get to it, then!” I hustled past her to fulfill my task.
After a week or so, Mary came home with a longer dress for me to wear in the house, a “fine gift” from Missus. This dress, two pairs of pants, and two blouses were all the clothes I had. I wondered how many house hands had held it before me. I did many tasks in the house, including sewing many things they couldn’t get to in the spinning house, which meant that I could hide scraps of material to keep for myself for later use. I cleaned where she asked me to and stayed shy of the kitchen when I could, since I didn’t have the skills to prepare the large meals Mary fixed for the family.
Oftentimes, I served the family and their frequent guests. The routine was not hard to learn. The first evening, I carried steaming bowls of corn, baked ham, greens, biscuits, and rice—all served for the normal evening meal. I prepared the table with trembling hands, my stomach blinding me with a sensation of hunger that surged so deep, it must have touched my soul. Following the order that Missus barked out at me to retreat to the corner, I envisioned the bowl of cold food with a small piece of hard, stale bread that was provided for the slaves for a day’s worth of work and sweat. It wasn’t fair—I couldn’t understand it—and I wallowed in this feeling a little too heavily. I missed Missus’s first call for me to clear the table and serve dessert. Not until everyone grew silent did I turn to see all the faces, flushed red with the heat of the room, turned toward me. Quick as lightning, I rushed to the table to do what I was told, hoping to miss the woman’s backhand, which came flying across my face anyway. After the dessert had been set and I stood again in the corner, I felt misery rise suddenly in me, so ruthless that it caused tears to well up in my eyes. But I held them back, gulped down the fire in my throat, and commenced building a hard shell over my feelings.
The servants of the Big House seemed different from those in the fields. In the fields, all were equal, and punishments were given out according to the misdeeds. In the house, however, life seemed a stage of secrets and deceit. Those who felt it necessary vied for Missus’s best attention while trying to stay true to the values of slave row. When a servant won the confidence of Missus, bitterness appeared in the others, and the desire to please grew stronger. I kept my distance from the chaos, as Mary seemed to do with ease.
Along with my other duties, I had the job of watching Missus’s two little children, young Masta Bernard and young Missus Jane. The children were hard to cope with; around them, neither my thoughts nor my feelings seemed to be my own. When playtime rolled around, a younger slave hand named Nancy would join us to rock the newborn, and the two little ones would play the game of guessing what the two of us were feeling. Their ignorance angered me, but I learned quickly that in the Big House, an angry slave was a sold slave. The trick was concealment. Mary quietly taught me how to keep it all inside, behind my eyes, buried, because danger couldn’t find its way that deep. Out in the fields, I had been taught to sing from my soul. Masta and the overseer swore we were as happy as little children. But it wasn’t that way at all.
The two little ones had just started learning to read and write in a school that lasted no more than a few hours of the day. When at home, practicing, they had me act as the student, and they would teach me words and numbers as best they could. They told Missus they learned better like that, and she took to the idea well. Not once did it seem to cross her mind that I could actually use what they were saying and learn like her white children. I was too absentminded in her opinion. But I concentrated hard on those days, listening closely as they spoke and watching carefully as they copied down lessons, not being allowed to copy the words myself. Their game became my fervor and gave me a reason to wake with excitement in the mornings.
“There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet; the word God got three. Spell it!” It was a typical afternoon after the children returned from school. Young Masta Bernard stood over his younger sister and me, pointing his writing tool at us like he had seen the teacher do.
“I know!” young Missus Jane squealed. “G-o-d.”
“Uh-huh. And you”—the writing tool came within an inch of my face—“what letter makes the ‘puh’ sound in apple?” I pursed my lips together and bent my eyebrows inward as if I were thinking really hard. I knew what it was, I knew exactly the letter, for I had practiced the alphabet backward and forward in my mind. But I couldn’t show them how closely I was focusing and how quickly I caught on.
“Well, teacha, I … I don’t rightly know that. …” Before all my words could escape my lips, young Masta Bernard had pulled out a flat piece of wood and smacked me on the knee. The little girl snickered.
“What that fo’, young Masta Bernard?” I asked, a light frown on my puzzled brow.
“’Cause it was easy,” responded the girl with a giggle. “E-s-y!”
That don’t sound right. Must be two e’s together make that eee sound, I suppose, I thought to myself.
“No, Jane!” the little boy scolded with his words, without a thought about striking her with anything. “It’s e-a-s-y.”
Oh! So e and a together make that eee sound too.
That was the routine for a day during the week that would end with their completion of writing assignments. Their harsh words and “punishments” made no difference to me. I had found a type of freedom I doubted many others like me had.
Where I lived, most Masters around didn’t want or allow their slaves to read or write. We were made to believe that darker skin equated with a less intelligent person. I thought about this long and hard during hours in the fields, considering the consequences, and figured the two ideas didn’t match. If we were so much less smart, why was it so bad for us to learn? Perhaps they were afraid slaves would turn out to be as smart as they were. I don’t know how I figured that, but once it was in my mind, like everything else I held strongly to, there was no chasing that idea away. Just because we couldn’t read their books didn’t mean we couldn’t use our minds. Besides, education came in different ways. And imagine—if that knowledge were mixed with book knowledge, we’d be able to fly our way back to Africa!
The consequences of learning to read were severe for slaves. Stories of a slave’s tongue or fingers getting cut off haunted me from time to time. Surely I had a right to learn! I could hide, but was it really worth the risk? I didn’t know. But these lessons served as an advantage to me, and I took that seriously. I would store in my head every word that slipped out of their “innocent” little mouths, to go over in my mind in the fields.
My secret churned in my heart. I was getting educated!
© 2010 Noni Carter