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The President's Daughter
By Barbara Chase-Riboud
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1994 Barbara Chase-Riboud
All rights reserved.
God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved and certain others to be damned: and no crimes of the former can damn them, nor virtue of the latter save them.
The day I ran away from Monticello as a white girl, I left my mother standing in a tobacco field filled with moths and white blossoms, a good way beyond the peach orchard and the mansion. My one thought was that her only daughter was leaving her forever, and all she did was stand there facing east, leaning into the wind as I had seen her do so many times, as I imagined explorers did, her skirts whipping around her, staring toward the Chesapeake Bay as if she could actually see the ships, in this year of 1822, quitting the harbor, leaving port.
My mother was famous in Albemarle County, and had been ever since I was born. People as far away as Richmond knew her as my father's concubine, mistress of his wardrobe, mother of his children. I was one of those children and my father, a celebrated and powerful man, had hidden us away here for twenty years because of a scandal they called "the troubles with Callender." I was never told any more about it then, except that it made my mother the most famous bondswoman in America and put me in double jeopardy. For despite my green eyes and red hair and white skin, I was black. And despite my rich and brilliant father, I was a bastard.
As I approached, my mother remained as quiet and immobile as a monument. I walked around her as if she were one. She was the most silent woman I had ever known. Only her famous yellow eyes spoke and they spokevolumes. Her eyes had always given her face the illusion of transparency, as if one were gazing into a lighthouse beam. Those eyes were gold leaf in an ivory mask, windows onto mysterious fires that consumed everything and returned nothing to the surface. She was caring and kind to us children, but she surrounded herself in a shell of secrecy and disappointment that we were never able to penetrate, try as we might. We loved her, adored her, but we often wondered if she loved us.
"Laisse-moi." My mother spoke in the French she had taught me and which we used between ourselves all our lives.
"Maman, the carriage is waiting."
"I know. Laisse-moi, please leave me."
"Au revoir, Maman."
My mother remained staring toward the bay.
"Je t'écrirai, Maman ..."
"Oui. Ecris-moi, ma fille."
"Tu viens, Maman?"
My mother looked at me as if I were mad. The yellow light of her eyes struck me like a blow.
"Non, je ne viens pas. I'm not coming," my mother said.
Last night, my mother had closed my trunks readied for Philadelphia, filled with my "strolling" trousseau.
"Promise me," she said, "that if you ever reveal your true identity to your future family, never tell your own children. Choose a female of your second generation, a granddaughter. Grandchildren are easier to talk to than your own children, and any secret is safer with your own sex."
"Why is that, Maman?"
"Women carry their secrets in their wombs," she said, "hidden and nourished by their vital fluids and blood, while men," she continued, "carry their secrets like they carry their genitals, attached by a thin morsel of mortal flesh unable to resist either a caress or a good kick."
I'm not sure what passing for white meant to me in those days, except fleeing slavery and leaving home. In reality I was doing it for other people. For Maman. For Grandma. For Papa. I had no yearning for freedom because I had no specific definition of it. I hadn't even known I was a slave until I found out I couldn't do what I wanted to. And freedom was a vague and indiscriminate thing: neither animal nor mineral, neither real nor phantom. It wasn't solid like a field or a tree or a snap of cotton. I only knew what I'd seen and what my grandmother had said: "Get that freedom ..." It became a possibility, or rather an enticing and kind of limitless labyrinth of possibilities, all of which I intended to explore, precisely to see what would happen. This was the prize, and I had had my eye on it ever since my grandmother had told me that once I had it, I would no longer be invisible. Once I set foot in Philadelphia, I had all my moves figured out down to a tee — the steps of a complicated dance in which I was the principal dancer and the ballet master all in one.
That morning I had already said good-bye to my youngest brother, Eston.
"You might have waited, Harriet. Mama hasn't gotten over Beverly's leaving yet."
"Wait for what, Eston? Today, tomorrow, yesterday, what difference does it make where and when I go since I'm going? I won't stay here one day longer than I have to. Besides, Mama is never going to get over Beverly's leaving ... he didn't even tell her ..."
"Didn't tell Master, neither. Father expected him to stay."
"He did stay, Eston — two years beyond his twenty-first birthday! What more did Father expect? That he wait around to be sold by his own kin like Fennel's baby? Was that what he was supposed to wait around for? Another slave father howling down Mulberry Row with a hatchet ready to kill the white man who just sold his child?"
"I think he thought Bev would stay with him ... to the end."
"And what exactly would that have gotten him? More freedom? An inheritance? A citation for bravery? Beverly should have left the day he turned twenty-one. Even before, like Thomas did."
"Well, it wouldn't have been for very long, Harriet. Our father's an old man — a real old man."
"Fiddle-dee-dee, Eston. Father is as strong as a mule — still looking out for him, aren't you?"
"I still ride out behind him — keeping my distance, of course," Eston said defensively. "Just making sure he doesn't get thrown by Old Eagle on those wild rides he takes every morning."
"Oh, Eston. Why?"
But I knew the answer. Eston loved the father who despised him, with a wrenching, desperate love that knew no bounds and no humiliation. He was, in this sense, like me.
"I would never forgive myself if I let something happen to him — he's strong, but he's stubborn and old and Mama still loves him so...."
I contemplated Eston tenderly. Of all my father's sons, Eston most resembled him physically, although of all his children I was his replica. Eston had my father's aquamarine eyes and wavy red hair. His voice, too, was high-pitched and had a feminine sweetness about it. He was as short on words as our brother Madison was long, and he had a slight stutter when upset. At fourteen, he was almost six feet, with huge hands and wide Virginian shoulders. And he still expected some kind of love, some kind of recognition, some kind of reward he was never going to get from Father — just like Madison, who had raced down to the southern boundary and beat his head against the white birch fence until blood came because he couldn't understand why our father didn't love him.
"Maybe I can find Beverly," I whispered, changing the subject.
"Aw, Harriet. Beverly's gone. He's gone clean to Papa's Louisiana Territories — as a white man. You know he always dreamed of going with Meriwether Lewis on his expedition. And he's always had land fever. He craves land. He lusts after it, and out in Louisiana is the only place he's going to get any — buy it, grab it, steal it from the Indians. And it's rough out there. There's no place for a woman unless you want to be one of those mail-order brides...." He laughed, but I didn't think it was funny.
"I know," continued Eston. "You're going to be married in a church, with music, and flowers, a preacher, and witnesses, in a white dress and you're still going to be a virgin and you're going to choose your husband ... and he's going to be your darling — the love of your life.
"That's what I want for you, too, Harriet," he persisted. "And honey, you'll get it. You're so surefired set on whatever you want, you'll get everything out of life — once you're free."
He looked at me tenderly for a long, long time, his soft youthful eyes holding mine in a kind of covenant. He loved me and I loved him.
"I can't believe I'll never see you again."
"Never is a long time," I replied.
"Up the river or down, Harriet, it still means I'll lose you forever. You're a maroon — a fugitive slave."
"Until I get to Philadelphia. Then I'll be a nice white girl."
"With a price on your head."
"Better a bounty price than an auction price."
"Father would never sell you."
"Madison doesn't think so."
"Don't listen to Madison."
"I don't intend to. I'm going north."
"Well," I said romantically, "maybe abroad — Paris, London, Florence."
"Well, Paris anyway. I've promised myself that."
"I'll work. I'll marry. I'll manage."
"It seems that black people starve up north."
"Not if they catch you."
"They won't catch me, Eston. I'm too smart."
"What if Master sends slave catchers after you?"
"He won't. He promised Mama long ago."
"Well, that's one promise he kept at least."
"Only because of my color."
"Don't count on it, Harriet. If Martha Wayles inherited Mama, then Martha Randolph can inherit you," said Eston. "They can hunt you right to your grave. They can send slave catchers after you in Philadelphia as soon as Father takes his last breath. It's been done. This slavery stuff is for good."
"I'd shoot the first slave catcher who tried to take me back to Monticello. And I'd kill the kin that ordered it as well."
"Someday we'll meet again, Sister," Eston said quietly as he hugged me for the last time. "I promise ... maybe white and maybe not," he added, "but certainly free."
The night before, I had stood in the amber light that filtered out through the tall windows from the glowing chandeliers of the ballroom at Montpelier, a neighboring plantation belonging to James Madison. I stood amongst the assembly of maids, valets, outriders, lackeys, and mammies; every shape, age, and color of slavehood. In less than twenty-four hours, I would be twenty-one years old and free to follow my brothers Beverly and Thomas into white oblivion. My father had sworn and decreed this long ago in Paris, according to my mother, and we had all played the game. In my mind's eye was always the knowledge of my special position. I was a slave about to be free, a girl about to become a woman, an individual about to be given a future. All for my birthday.
I hummed to myself as the music of the slave orchestra wafted out over the damp frosted lawn hedged with jasmine, banks of roses, and flowering magnolias. The circle of light flickered as laughing, dancing couples drifted by like Chinese-lantern shadows. The slave orchestra broke into a sprightly quadrille to the melody of "The Ballad of Gabriel Prosser," the slave rebel. The crowd outside began to snicker as the whites continued to dance on. Wasn't it typical of white people to dance to a tune they didn't know the words to? They swung and looped, turned and skipped, grouped and regrouped, forming circles that broke the light like moving lace.
Suddenly, someone caught me from behind and swung me around and we too began to dance in the yellow circle of light. The servants outside continued to dance as long as the ball lasted, far into the night, laughing and flirting, cooler outside than those sweating within. We would outlast them and then drive them home, undress them if they were drunk, wash them if they had puked, pick up their clothes where they had dropped them, and put them to bed. The words of Gabriel's song wafted out beyond the silhouettes in motion.
And then they called for a victory dance,
And the crowd, they all danced merrily.
The best dancer amongst them all
Was Gabriel Prosser who was just set free.
I was the best dancer, I thought. I was the ballet master. And I was soon to be free. I was going to choose my husband. I was going to be married in a church. And I was going to the altar a virgin.
The cunning caress of cold steel touched my thigh. Since the age of sixteen, I had carried a razor-sharp stiletto deep in my petticoat pocket. It had belonged to my uncle James. Mama had given it to me for protection. No one would ever chase me up a tree again.
My dark reverie was broken by my brother's condescending voice.
"You strolling, Harriet?"
Madison, my seventeen-year-old brother, sauntered up, his tall rangy body looming out of the darkness. I could hear the suppressed anger in his voice, the rage, see his anguished expression in the candlelight. People sensed his suppressed violence, and it bothered people, black and white.
"Yes, Madison. I am leaving tomorrow." I tried to face Madison's anger calmly.
"You going to pass for white?"
"Yes, Mad, I am going to pass."
"Father knows you strolling?"
"Yes. He's arranged everything. He's sent for Adrian Petit to come and fetch me."
"You got any money?"
"Papa gave me fifty dollars."
"You know how much you worth on the slave block, Harriet?"
"Oh, Madison, don't."
"You're worth a pile of money, sweetheart! You don't know it, but you're a fancy. Fancy that! My sister is a fancy!"
"I tell you, Father could get five thousand dollars for you in New Orleans! Five thousand dollars from some white gentleman ... at one of those quadroon balls."
He grabbed my wrist with his strong brown hand. "I hear tell that the test of acceptance at those balls is that your veins should show blue under the skin of your wrists. Just like yours, Harriet."
"Is that what you want for me, Mad?" I spit out the words, flashing my eyes into his.
He let go.
My flesh burned where he had held it, and the pain radiated up my arm. There were tears standing in his gray eyes.
"Oh, Madison, don't cry; I love you. Do you think it's easy to leave you? If I don't take this chance, what other chance will I ever have?"
"You'll have no family, Harriet, no kin. It's the end of Mama. It's oblivion, Harriet; it's death."
"It's not death! Not mine or hers. Don't put Mama on me, Mad. Anyway, I'll always be a part of her, of you. I am you, I am your sister, I'm your flesh and blood, and I'll always be, no matter what happens. That can't change. No matter how far away I go, I'll never forget you."
"Yes, you will."
"Madison, don't be so hard. You know what a slave woman can expect. Your turn to stroll will come; perhaps then you'll understand better. Wait until then."
"Never. I'll never pass. It's worse than being sold. Selling yourself for whiteness."
"It's Papa's doing, not mine."
"You should love your color."
"I would love my color if I knew what color I was. Perhaps when you turn twenty-one, Madison, you can have your freedom without stealing it!"
"Five thousand dollars you're worth to some white man ..."
"Whose fault is it that I am a slave, Madison? Whose fault?"
"A five-thousand-dollar fancy!" he mocked.
I stared at my bare wrists with their fragile crisscrossing veins so vulnerable, so slim that Madison had reached out and encircled them with one hand. In them coursed the warring bloods that mutually polluted each other. Whose fault is it? Whose fault?
I stood leaning weakly against the trunk of an oak tree. I felt the rough bark against my face and shoulders. One false move, I thought, and I could peel the skin right off my forehead. With one false move, I could skin this whiteness right off myself, and bleed ... The old haunting fear came back just as the music, which had stopped, began again.
There had been a white carpenter at Monticello named Sykes who had tipped his hat to me one day in the presence of my cousin Ellen Randolph. I was on my way from the mansion to the weavers' cabins, and Ellen was standing on the south veranda. I was fifteen. Ellen was almost twenty.
"How come you tipping your hat to a nigger, Mr. Sykes?" she had said, laughing. Sykes had stopped in his tracks.
"A nigger, Miss Ellen? I thought she was your sister!"
"That'll be the day!" replied Ellen as she flounced by him, flinging day over her shoulder.
I was trying desperately to slip by the astonished man, but he caught me by the arm.
"How come you didn't say nothing, gal? I've been doffing my hat to you for months!" Without answering, I tried to squeeze by.
"Answer me or you'll get a taste of your mistress's switch, by God."
"There's nothing to answer," I said, my eyes pleading with Ellen, who was snickering behind her hand.
Excerpted from The President's Daughter by Barbara Chase-Riboud. Copyright © 1994 Barbara Chase-Riboud. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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