In 1852, after much searching through the Black districts of Petersburg, Virginia, the amateur historian Charles Campbell finally located Isaac Granger, a former slave of the late Thomas Jefferson. Though disinterested at first in sharing his memories, Isaac was at last persuaded by the persistent Reverend to tell the full story of his time in Philadelphia as a young man in the early 1790s. It was supposed to have been a simple story: he would apprentice with a Quaker tinsmith and then return to Monticello to produce tinware for sale in such abundance that "Old Master" might pay down his plantation's crippling debts.
But Isaac was impressionable, and more thoughtful than Mr. Jefferson knew. Philadelphia was a big city, home to a thriving African-American community, and Isaac met all manner of characters, both tragic and comic. Isaac got himself into difficulties, contemplated his place in the world, and was challenged to do more than just serve. Conflict was inevitable.
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How it all begun
"Now then, Reverend Campbell!" Isaac began, leaning back in his chair, the cane bottom creaking under his weight, "so you have come to hear about my adventures in the great city of Philadelphia, have you?"
"Yes, and record them for posterity," I added, lifting my pen over the notebook which lay open before me.
"Well," he said with a slow smile, "I can remember as if it were yesterday, though in truth it was now more than sixty years ago, when I set off down Master Jefferson's mountain on old Beulah, my travel satchel tied on behind, one fine September month in the year of seventeen and ninety."
I bent over my notebook, taking down every word, excited to begin recording the narrative I had so long anticipated, and knew would be historic.
"But this is too hasty a beginnin'!" he said.
I looked up at him, baffled, and for a moment my spirit wilted within me, fearing that he had for some reason changed his mind, and would after all not share with me his recollections. Then he turned in his chair, pulled open a small drawer under his workbench, and took out an oiled paper. This he unfolded and lifted up in his thick fingers something which looked like a piece of old leather, dark with age, crinkled, and roughly eight inches square. "Break you off a piece," he said. "Go ahead!"
I put down my pen, reached out, and somewhat tentatively did as he commanded.
At once, my nostrils were filled with the strong, intoxicating, and unmistakable odor of tobacco.
Isaac then broke off a corner, too, and held it up. "This," he said, "is tobacco leaf grown on Master Jefferson's main plantation, under the watchful eye of my own father, who managed the crop that year from planting to harvest. He was the only black man ever to be appointed overseer by Master Jefferson."
"What an honor that must have been for him," I said.
"Oh, it was a hellish honor, Reverend Campbell, hellish! Pinched as he was by the demands of Mr. Jefferson, and the hatred of the field hands, who could not abide the rule of a black man like themselves."
I looked again at the piece of tobacco in my hand, as if its veined surface were somehow inscribed with that anguish.
"Now crumble it up," Isaac said, "and put it on your tongue."
I watched him crumble up his piece, open his lips — noticing as he did so that he was only missing but one tooth — and lay it on his pink tongue. Then he closed his lips and massaged the tobacco around in his mouth. "Come on, now," he said.
But I was loath to, for I was opposed to the use of intoxicants of any kind. Yet I had come a long way to record Isaac's recollections. This small transgression against my principles was a small price to pay, I told myself, and so I crumbled up the piece, seeing as I did so that it stained my fingertips with a color dark as umber. Then, begging God's forgiveness, I opened my lips and dropped those crumbles upon my tongue. Instantly, my whole mouth burned with the taste. It stung, it bit, it seized the very seat of my perceptions with a terrible intensity. Only by sheer force of will was I able to keep my mouth closed and look at Isaac a moment and prove to him irrevocably by my cooperation that I was committed to our enterprise.
"In this pungent plant," he said, looking at me calmly, "is contained much travail of the slave."
Momentarily, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of revulsion for that unfathomable travail, and then I broke from my chair, pushed open the door, and retched in the gutter. I thought my guts would come up. I spat repeatedly and rinsed my mouth with water from the well pump before I at last felt reasonably restored to myself, returned to my seat, and took up my pen. Isaac watched this whole miserable experience I had endured without a word, then calmly spat his wad of tobacco in a small tin and neatly wiped his lips with one finger.
"Now my father," he said, taking a deep breath, "was George Granger. Great George, he was called. Sometimes King George. Not only because he was great of stature, but because he was great in his capacities and responsibilities. He rose from leadman to foreman and then to overseer — the only Negro ever to attain that station under Master Jefferson, as I have said, with the duty to supervise half of all his farms and hands, the raising of crops, especially tobacco, the money crop, from planting to harvesting to shipping in their hogsheads to market. My father's tobacco brought top dollar, for it was clean, fully dried, and of a good color. He was loyal to Master Jefferson, my father was, and worried himself sick to please him. Certain hands hated him, whether he was light with the lash or heavy, for they expected he should go easy on them, even if it meant leaving good leaf to rot in the field. It was on account of him that I did not toil in the tobacco fields, worked to death, dawn to dark, under the active lash of an overseer like Mr. Paige, neither me nor my brothers.
"My mother was Ursula, known as Queen, for her grandmother had been a true queen back in the mother country, and the title of royalty naturally passed down, and she was spoken to as such by the field hands, for it was understood she had powers, both to heal and to harm. She was so beloved of Master Jefferson's wife, Martha, that she had him fetch her back from a man in Goochland County, who'd bought her when Ms. Jefferson's first husband, Batter Skelton, died from an accident. My father was also bought special by Master Jefferson, and brought back to Monticello, for he was married to my mother, but bound slave to a different master than she was. My mother was in charge of the pastry kitchen, a vital position, believe you me, for Master Jefferson he did love his pastries! She had responsibility for the laundry, too, and preservation of the meat, and she was the only person Master Jefferson would trust with the making and bottling of cider. She was wet nurse to Master Jefferson's eldest daughter, Patsy, at the same time she suckled me."
"Excuse me, Isaac," I interjected, "but I am skeptical that your mother suckled both you and Patsy Jefferson. You claimed this likewise in your first narrative, and I calculated out the dates, which simply do not bear the correspondence, as she was born in 1772 and you in 1775."
"Young man," he said, taking from his bench a small-headed hammer, each head rounded, like a half-ball, "were you there, or was I?" Stung by his rebuke, mild though it was, I apologized for my intrusive question, yet making clear that I considered factual accuracy as vital, and a duty to readers and to myself as historian.
In response to my remarks, he briefly smiled. "This here," he said, "is a hollowing hammer." Then he held his hand out flat. "It works like so." He pounded lightly on his hand with the hammer, gradually curling up his fingers into a cup as he did so. "You got to be careful so as not to thin the tin sheet unevenly and weaken it."
I supposed his action with the hammer held some message for me, but what it was I could not ascertain. So I merely nodded, dipped my quill pen, and waited. He put the hammer down, settled more comfortably in his chair, smiled for a moment all to himself, and then continued with his narrative, lapsing into the amiable and unlettered speech of his youth as he did so.CHAPTER 2
This man he goin' to Philadelphia — on Benlah, for goodness' sake
Oh, I was all on fire that mornin' I set off on old Beulah for the great city of Philadelphia to become a tinsmith. I could hardly wait to get there and begin work! I knew I could make Old Master Jefferson proud. Had to. For I was a Granger, and that meant somethin', and I aimed to prove it.
But I was not a Hemings, who of all the bound families was closest to Master Jefferson, Sally most of all, as you may have heard. So I knew full well, as I walked up through the quarter that mornin', with a cloth satchel packed by Mama's own hands slung over my shoulder, that I would be up against it with James Hemings. For he was manservant to Mr. Jefferson at that time and would for that reason also be going to Philadelphia. I hated that I should have to travel with him all that way. Even Mama's warm, buttered corn cakes wrapped in oil paper tucked in my satchel didn't help my mood much. And sure enough, when I came up to the grand east door of the Big House, there sat James high and mighty up on the coachman's seat, the team all harnessed up and ready to go, with Master Jefferson's riding horse, Odin, tied on behind. He was eatin' a jam muffin and sippin' coffee from a mug. He was a handsome man and knew it. "About time you got here, Granger," he said. "We near ready to ride off."
James was just being irksome, as usual, for I saw no sign of Mr. Jefferson, who was likely havin' his regular morning foot bath just then, and after that a proper breakfast, which he lingered over. He was a man of order and habit.
James bobbed his head toward an old cart horse, tied to a post and switchin' her tail. "Take your mount," he said. "You're not riding in the Master's coach, that's sure."
"Beulah?" I said, in consternation. Why, she was the boniest old thing you ever seen, sunken where she ought to be thick, bumpy where she ought to be trim. "Did Master Jefferson assign me to ride that animal?" I needn't have asked, of course.
James inspected his fingers. "She's saddled, ain't she?"
"You sure this animal can make it all the way up to Philadelphia?"
"I would say you had better make damn sure she does, because if she don't, you walk."
"I don't like this arrangement," I said.
James shrugged. "Can't be helped."
For a moment, I thought to bolt back down to our cabin and bring Mama back with me. Now, she would give James what for, be he a Hemings or not. But then the thought of her carryin' on in my defense, and apt to draw the whole breakfast party, napkins still tucked under their chins, out onto the porch, Master Jefferson included, to see what the devil was going on, was altogether too embarrassin' to contemplate. So I said nothin', lest I should give James one more chance to rib, and simply walked on over to old Beulah just as indifferent as could be. I tied on my satchel, took her loose from the post, led her out onto the gravel drive, and climbed on. She went about five paces, then put her head down and kicked up her hind legs. Right off I went, bangin' my left knee, and got up hobblin'. Still to this day that knee bothers me on a cold mornin'.
James poured the dregs of his coffee into the grass. "You're a fine horseman," he said. "Fine."
"I'm glad you enjoyed the show," I said, and got back up on Beulah. Or tried. Got one foot in the stirrup and went to pull myself up, but she did a two-step away, and I had to hop after, on the one foot that was still aground, and so went hopping about and couldn't get that one foot out, nor swing the other up. Worst of all was James up on his high seat, laughin' like a lunatic. I am no horseman.
Finally, he called out: "Click of the tongue, boy, click of the tongue! I have had all the fun I can stand for one morning."
I hated that he called me "boy," but click I did, and sure enough if Beulah didn't stop. I got on. She stood still. Well, that was progress. But she did not move. I snapped the reins. She paid no attention.
"Dig in your heels," said James. "Make it hurt. Persuade that animal that the pain of your heel is worse than the pain of going forward."
I didn't want to hurt poor old Beulah, but I didn't want to look the fool, either, so I done as James said. Beulah began to move, and I hung on tight lest she buck.
"Don't stop now," said James, waving his hand, "keep a-going. We shall be along shortly, after Mr. Jefferson finishes his breakfast."
"Down. Down the mountain, what other way is there? Then toward town."
I was only too happy to get away from James, so down the mountain we went, me and Beulah.
"If you see Mr. Rattiff, tell him we on our way."
Beulah was as rough and awkward a ride as a man could well endure, besides stoppin' every so often to stamp her foot and shake her head until I got her nudged into action again. Yet when we had wound far enough down the road that I could turn around and not see Old Master's house, and the road ahead was empty and all my own, with the sun beginnin' to light the world and the trees in color, my spirits began to rise. I was well and truly pleased to be travellin' away to a far country and the big city.
Then all at once Beulah came to a dead stop, and no heel nor click of the tongue could make her go. She did not share my cheerfulness about a long journey. But this would not do! For wouldn't I look the fool, when James showed up, high on his coachman's seat, driving the matched pair, with Mr. Jefferson looking out to see what had brought their progress to a stop. So I climbed down off Beulah and considered this animal which was to carry me, and now had decided not to. She turned her head and looked at me with her big watery eyes. I reached out my hand to rub along her neck, but she nipped at me.
"Beulah," I said. "You and me got to come to an understandin'. We got a long road ahead, and you got to carry me the whole way, like it or not. Now, I'd rather not ride. I'm better on my feet, yes ma'am, I am, and would stay on 'em and off your back, except that is not how it's supposed to be. If we stay stuck here long, why, Old Master will come along and bump up against us and we both be in trouble. So the sooner you get me to Philadelphia, the sooner I can get off your back, you hear?"
Beulah she switched her tail and shifted her ears and bobbed her head. I reached out a hand again, and this time was able to stroke down along her neck all the way, and she did not try to nip. I kept my hand goin' to her scratched and bony rump, where the hair was all worn off from the traces, and then as my hand moved down over her thin belly, I began to feel the burden of her animal life, which she had borne soundless, until all the spirit was beat out of her, nearly. I supposed she wanted no more than to be put to pasture, where she could lay down in the long grasses and warm sun, and there bob her head a time or two and breathe her last. Instead of that, here she was a-carryin' me, how far she got no idea, only every step of it pain.
I took her whiskered ear in both hands. "Beulah," I whispered. "You old beast. You pitiful, you know that? Pitiful!"
I got out from my sack one of Mama's buttered corn cakes, broke loose a fair portion, laid it in my open hand, and let Beulah gobble it up, to the last crumb, in her slobberin' way. I broke loose another bite, and she gobbled that, too. "Now," I said, "let's you and me get on down the road."
Then I hoisted myself into the saddle and onto her back once again, and but lifted the reins. With no heel nudge at all, forward she went at a decent pace. "Hallelujah," I shouted out. "Oh, hallelujah!"CHAPTER 3
Here come Mr. Rattiff, and I got no pass so must wait, then commence to dream
Beulah and me went on together happy from there, all the way to the bottom of Master Jefferson's Little Mountain, and so I decided to keep right on into town and wait there. Wouldn't James be surprised, I thought with satisfaction. But we no sooner hit the public road, when here came a white man, in a long travellin' coat, atop a big bay gelding, with a box tied on behind his saddle.
"Hold there, nigger," he said.
Oh, I held, believe me, as the man rode his horse up close. Beulah, though a good two hands shorter, was not spooked, and showed her teeth, and the man's horse backed up a step.
"You got your pass this morning, nigger?" said the man.
I dropped my eyes. "Sorry, Marse. I got no pass, this mornin'. Forgot it, silly me."
"Forgot it? Don't you know it's a crime not to have your pass, nigger? Why, I could have you arrested. Who do you belong to?"
"Mr. Thomas Jefferson, he my Master. He sent me to scout the road ahead," I said, which wasn't bendin' the truth too awful much. I gave him a foolish grin. "We on our way to Philadelphia."
"Oh!" he said, pushin' his hat back. "Why didn't you say so, nigger? Save me all this bother arguing with you. I shall be traveling with Mr. Jefferson and his party. Goin' up the mountain just now to meet him for breakfast. Now I'm late, thanks to you."
"Address me as Mr. Rattiff."
"Did you not hear? Address me as Mr. Rattiff."
"Rattiff. Mr. Rattiff, in the French manner."
"Mr. Rattiff in the French manner," I said, all in one go. That got his goat, as intended.
"No, no, goddamn it. Just Mr. Rattiff."
Excerpted from "A Partial Sun"
Copyright © 2019 Lawrence Reid Bechtel.
Excerpted by permission of Boutique of Quality Books Publishing Company.
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