Her name is Keziah, if I go with the more standardized spelling. In the records, she’s “Kessiah” and “Kiziah” and “Cessiah” and another 20 variations that come with limited literacy. Her name is all I really have of her, and even that isn’t spelled the same way twice.

Her name means “polished, refined” in Hebrew and comes from the type of tree – Cassia – from which cinnamon is drawn. She is both that which is finished, smoothed off, and that which is raw, pieces of the unrefined world. Trained and also natural. An inherent contradiction.

Slave Cook

Last night, I wrote:

You carried this name from dairy to kitchen when your arms were elbow-deep in biscuit dough. You carried it to the garden below the big house where you picked peppers and tomatoes for a summer salad. You carried it to the table of the man who could not even spell your name the same way twice. You carried it to your bed where you curled against the side of your full-flung husband and where you rested to the breaths of the seven bodies that issued from you.

You held your name in the corner of your mind, a treasure, a gift from someone, a treasure laid on you by a woman, for only a woman can know what it is to be both polish and cinnamon – smoothness and grit. Someone gave you this name, she whispered it to you as you slept. She sang it when you rocked, and it became your breath. The very essence of yourself.

Her name is what I have. The only solid piece of her that has carried through history. Somehow, though, it tells me more than I could have imagined. More than my imagination can even carry. She is Keziah, of refinement and cinnamon.

My Other Posts on the Enslaved People about Whom I’m Writing
All I Know of Slave Nurse Lucy Nicholas

Writing the Face of Primus Randall

For some powerful quotes and photographs of slave life in the southern U.S., visit “Cultural Landscape of the Plantation” from George Washington University.