The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson
April 1, 1875
Drunken Bride, Texas
I HAVE BEEN to hangings before, but never my own. Still, it should be some comfort to me that except for the noose around my neck, and the drop that will take my life, I know exactly what to expect two days hence. I know there will be a crowd like there always is at a hanging: picnics, baskets lined with checkered cloths, the smell of fried chicken, and the noise of children. There will be, like there always is, a preacher, and a group of white women dressed in black, singing me to their god.
I expect the day of my execution to be a beautiful day. It hasn’t rained lately, but that could change. Some old Indian could show up, do a rain dance, and the whole thing might be postponed. I doubt it though. I’ve never heard of a hanging rained out. It seems to me like the white god smiles on a hanging, just like he smiles on making money.
There will be plenty of opportunity for making money on the day of my death. Merchants selling warmish lemonade by the dipperful from a barrel, food for those who didn’t bring their own, slices of pie and cake for dessert, trinkets to commemorate my demise. And there should be, I hope, at least one industrious young boy out in the crowd, hawking souvenirs, competing with the adults’ business, selling miniature nooses with my name written across them.
I saw those little nooses when I was just a boy in Virginia, at the hanging of a man named One-Eyed Jim. Jim was a slave who killed his overseer in the middle of the night while the man slept. Jim used a shovel head and his bare hands, and rumor had it that he killed the
very man who took his eye out. I was nine, maybe ten, years old the day Jim got hung, and a slave myself, owned then by a man named Roland Surley.
I was brought along that day to help out Surley’s lady friend, Miss Fannie Sims, with the picnic. I was there to carry the basket, spread the quilt, fetch things, and if she got too hot, whisk a big fan back and forth to cool her. I saw the white boys winding their way through the crowd calling out, “Nooses. Get your souvenir nooses right here.” Roland Surley flagged them down and bought a little noose to give to Miss Fannie, but she thought it was maudlin and refused to accept it, so he flipped it to me. “Here, Persy, I reckon it’s yours.” A little noose with the name One-Eyed Jim written in lumpy ink letters across the rope, a memento of that day that I have kept all the rest of my life. It’s dirty and grimy now, and the letters are faded away, but all the same I keep it.
I’m picturing those little nooses at my hanging, and the little white hands that ought to be making them. Maybe two boys working together, debating which of my names to use, then ending the argument by making some of each. I figure on at least a dozen with my slave name, Persimmon Wilson, and another dozen with the translation of my Comanche name, Twist Rope. Kweepoonaduh Tuhmoo.
Persimmon is the name my mama gave me, after the fruit she stole off a tree down in the woods while she was carrying me, and Wilson is the name of the man that last owned me. I don’t want to call that man master here, but for the purpose of making this easier to read than its content might allow, I will. Master Joseph Wilson owned me down in Louisiana, owned me as best he could, and I reckon I was owned as best I could be, till the Federal government and General Butler decided I couldn’t be owned any longer.
There’s folks that’ll be reading this after I’m dead, who’ll be looking for me to say, at the mention of Master Wilson’s name, “God rest his soul.” So here you go: God rest his soul. He died by my hand, although I really shouldn’t take all the credit. In spite of being a hea
then, I do know something about etiquette, and because of that I have to admit I had some help from my friends, the band of Comanche warriors I rode and raided with. Many of them are dead now, or else corralled onto a pitiful plot of land the white folks have not decided they want yet. Me, they saved for hanging.
Which brings me back to those little nooses I hope some boy is peddling. As I said, a dozen with my white name—Persimmon Wilson—and another dozen with the translation of my Comanche name. Twist Rope, the black Indian. That’s what they call me, when they’re not calling me nigger.
There is no shortage of irony in this world—white people calling me the black Indian and Indians calling me the black white man. And the hell of it is, we had five or six white Indians riding with us, men who’d been captured young, raised in the tribe, turned to warriors like every young Comanche boy is.
Irony—now there’s a word I’m not supposed to know, being a nigger and all.
You’ve probably already picked out a few words that trouble you for a black man to be using. Big old words. Thought-heavy words. Dangerous in the wrong head, and mine is the wrong head, isn’t it?
I know too much. All the more reason to put a noose around my neck. Never mind that my last request was paper and ink and to be left alone to write this. Never mind that my jailer Jack laughed at the idea of a nigger writing. It was a novelty to hand me paper and ink and see what I’d leave behind. It might be something to sell, might be worth something later on, or it might be something to burn. It shouldn’t matter to me. If I learned anything at all from living with the Comanche, it is this: words don’t mean a thing unless they’re true. So you do what you will, burn my words if you want to, set them loose into the air. Nothing would make me happier than all of you having to breathe this story, this truth of what I am about to tell you. Nothing can kill truth, not even white men.
Master Wilson did not know he was buying an educated nigger. He’d likely not have bought me had he known. He might wish now, if the dead wish at all, that he hadn’t bought me. But I didn’t kill him because I was educated. I killed him because I had the chance, and I took it, and it’s not as though educated was listed as one of my assets when I got to the slave pens in New Orleans.
“Prime Young Buck. Strong. Seasoned. Lots of years left on him. Just look at those muscles.”
No one asked, “But can he read?”
I could read. And I could write. More than just my name, as you can see. I was taught when I was a boy. Taught by an old spinster white lady I was hired out to. Miss Clemons was her name. She hired a boy named Bessle and me from Master Surley every winter for twelve years. She worked us by daylight: bringing in firewood, hauling up water, mending up fences and digging her garden for spring. No one knew that by night, every night, she gave us lessons, teaching us first to read and write, and then in subsequent years adding on layer after layer of knowledge, until finally, that last year before I was sold, I could speak and write and read as well as or better than most any white man. Out in the field I had to keep up appearances though. I had to pretend I didn’t know anything more than the hoe and the mule, just like I had to keep on saying yassuh and nawsuh.
Slavery still has its supporters. Some might think while reading this, it was the education that ruined me and made me want to bolt. But it wasn’t the education; it was the whip, and a woman named Chloe, and the idea of a life spent taking orders from a man who didn’t deserve to own a mule, much less a human being.
Most all my life I took plenty of orders, from sunup to sundown. I was born to slavery, and just when I was feeling like a man, I was sold from the Surley place, along with every other slave I knew. Liquidating the estate it was called, and it had to be done when Roland Surley died, six years and four children after marrying Miss Fannie.
Worse than just dying was that he died owing money all up and down the county. The sale of his slaves was meant to make up for that. My mama and daddy were sold separately, her to a local man, my daddy to a trader. My sister, Betty, was sold upstate. I got sold to another trader and taken downriver for profit. Bessle, the boy I learned reading and writing with, was sold to the same trader. There were a whole lot of others sold, too, to a whole lot of places, but I won’t go into that here. I haven’t the paper or the time for it.
Bessle and I were walked to Richmond, and transported by ship down the James River, then off to sea to New Orleans. The trip took three weeks. Once a day we were let out of the hold and brought up top for air. When we docked at New Orleans we were loaded off the ship and chained at the ankles. The air smelt of fried fish and was thick and heavy, like something that needed to be spooned instead of breathed.
We were marched through the streets and then locked into a yard surrounded by walls twice my height, and stinking of sweat and human waste. On the other side of the walls we could hear conversations, shouts, and the whistles of steamboats along the river.
For the next week I was fattened and toned for market. I was fed bacon and butter and bread, and five times a day made to run laps around the perimeter of the yard with the other men. Then the day came that I was washed, greased, and walked through a door on one side of the compound to a clean wide room. I was stood up against a wall with other slaves for sale. Women were on one side of the showroom and men on the other, and all of us were arranged by height.
I spent three days in that showroom and each day was the same. White men coming along, taking my fingers in their hands and moving them back and forth, checking for nimbleness. They ran their hands up my legs, along my arms, across my chest and abdomen, looking for tumors, hernias, and wounds, anything that would bring my price down or make them decide not to buy me. They pulled my
lips back and looked at my teeth. I was told to strip that they might check my back for the marks of the lash. I was told to dance a jig that they might see for themselves that I was spry and able.
I was seventeen, eighteen maybe, I don’t know.
The grease the trader had smeared on my skin, and polished in to make me gleam, made me hot. My skin felt closed up, like my whole body was wrapped in tight leather on a sweltering day. All I could do was stand there, let the white men look, and answer their questions.
“What’s your age, boy?”
“Can you drive a buggy?”
“Ever had chicken pox, whooping cough, measles?”
“Where did you live before?”
“You got a wife?”
“Would you like to come home with me, boy?”
We’d been told what to say. Old men were told to say they were younger. There were skills we didn’t have that we were meant to claim. Our health was good, always. Scars and missing fingers were explained away, not as punishment, but as mishaps with machinery. The farther we came from, the less likely we were to run. The same for being unhitched. In answer to that last question, would you like to come home with me, boy, the only reply a slave could give was yassuh.
Yassuh, I answered the gravelly voiced man who had prodded at me for the last hour. It was then I raised my head slightly, and got my first look at Master Wilson, the “innocent” man I would kill ten years later. He was short and round. Two days from now I will be dead, hanged for his murder, and the kidnapping and rape of his “wife.”
You who find this, I know what you will be thinking. You will want to take those words, “innocent” and “wife” out of quotation marks. You will think that I, a nigger, a heathen, a horse thief, a murderer, a kidnapper, a rapist, do not know the meaning of what I have just written, but you will be wrong. I know its meaning. Innocent in quotation marks means that he was not innocent, and I tell you, sir,
that he was not. And wife in quotation marks means that she was not his wife, and I tell you, sir, that she was not. She was his former slave, Chloe, and she is dead now.
I write this for Chloe. It is my urgent task these last few days of my life. I write this that she may be known for who she was, and not for who you think she was. She was not Master Wilson’s wife. She was not white. She was a former house slave, and I loved her, and I love her still.