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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