You wake in the morning just before the sun comes up. You’ve trained yourself to do this, to steal these quiet few minutes just for yourself. Next to you, your wife lies sound asleep, her hair spiraled out like an aura around her head. Nearby, your children rest with arms and legs flung wide; they haven’t yet learned to curl into themselves even when they sleep.
With the gentlest of fingers, you open the shutters and stand, letting the air up the hill brush the dust of sleep from your cheeks. You breath deep. Once, twice, three times.
But then, you must start moving. Your wife stirs, trained to wake as the sun peeks over the river. Your children rise, too, shoving their feet into the pair of shoes they keep next to their cornhusks beds. Everyone must eat and be down at the barn in just a few minutes, the children, too. Today, they are expected to play with the master’s visiting nieces and nephews.
Your wife makes a mush of last night’s cornbread and warms it quickly over the embers in the fireplace, the embers that burned all night even though it is almost 80 degrees outside. Each of you eats with your fingers from the same pot – not enough spoons to go around and not enough time to wash them if there were.
And you simply cannot leave the spoons dirty with the flies so abundant in the pasture just outside the door.
The six of you shove on the one set of clothes you own and wander, the children still bleary with sleep, down the hill. You, however, you are wide awake because you must be. You need to keep watch for what you cannot predict – an unexpected carriage that you might need to greet, a whim from the overseer with a lash, a wagon arriving with a slave trader. You cannot do much to protect your family, but you can see the horrors coming at least.
When you reach the barn, you see your friends and family – your sisters and brothers, your aunts, your uncles – gathered round. A few people whisper, but mostly everyone is silent. It’s best that way.
The overseer arrives, and the master has come with him this morning. They ride amongst the group on their horses, staring down at you as if you are being inspected. No, you ARE being inspected. For lice and sores and any sign of injury, not because you will be treated for these things but because those things may mean you need different jobs or you may need to be sold. The old people stand up straight, and you know that the arthritis in their backs – the stiffness that has formed from years bent over tobacco – makes them want to scream with pain. You see your friend who caught his hand in the reins of a plow tuck his hand quickly into a pocket. It’s best to always seem fine and healthy.
Within minutes, you are sent off to work. Your job is to tend the horses, so you march to the barn and greet the animals who give you nothing but affection. Meanwhile, your wife has been sent to the fields to harvest wheat, a scythe in her hand. Your oldest son – a mere 14 – goes with her; his job will be to pick up the stalks and gather them into sheeves. Your youngest 3 – ages 9, 7, and 4 – walk back up to the big house, stopping quickly to wash their faces in the horse trough. You are glad you always keep clean water there.
The day continues until sundown – 12 hours later. Then, you meet your wife and children on the small path that winds back up to the slave quarter. Other families labor up the hill before and behind you, all of you almost too tired to walk home. Your wife somehow musters energy to stoke the fire and put rice on to cook. She throws in a few dried beans, and you and your children sit and share stories of the day – the things younger master said, the way the old mare bucked when the young stallion came close. It feels almost right in those moments.
But then, just as you lift the first bite of food to your mouth, someone pounds on the door and walks in. The overseer. A carriage has arrived and you and your oldest boy are needed.
You do not even try to put the spoon to your lips or look at your wife. You simply stand and see your son do the same from the corner of your eye, and you follow the overseer out and over to the big house. You return to your home after midnight and know that tomorrow, you will do it all again.
Your only days off are Sundays, and while you would like to go see your sister on the neighboring plantation where she now lives with her husband, you are not sure the master will give you a pass, and even if he would, you are not sure that your legs have the strength to carry you the 6 miles there and then the 6 miles back only a few hours later.
In a few years, you will watch your young daughter sold to a man you can see will hate her and use her. You will stand silent but tearful as she screams your name from the back of his wagon. You will watch your oldest son have his toes chopped off because he tried to run away, and you will witness his heart grow raspy and cold after. You will see your wife die of some thing in her lungs after the master has waited too long to call the doctor.
When you are old, you will stand at that open window and take those few breaths of fresh air, the only freedom you have know for over 70 years. And you will have no promise that life will ever bring you more than just those few moments of rest.
I wrote this piece as I tried to slip into what it must have meant to be an enslaved person. I cannot fathom what it must have been like to live with almost no choice for how you spend your time, no expectation of rest or privacy, no means by which to care for your family as you wish to care for them – that care given almost entire to a man who sees them as property.
I’ve had several people say to me things like “slavery wasn’t really that bad. They had houses and food provided in exchange for their labor. Their houses don’t look too awful. They got to be with their families.” And the rage and sadness I feel when I hear those things often overwhelms my ability to respond.
So today, here, I am responding.
Imagine you have to live where you work, in a single room your boss provides, with all of your family – 6, 9, 10 people. Imagine your boss can come and get you to do something at any time of the day or night, that your wife or daughter can be taken for the “boss’s pleasure” at any time of the day or night. Imagine you cannot leave without a pass or that if you do, you can be maimed or killed. Imagine that you have to watch your children be sold away, your partner sold away. Imagine that someone stands over you and inspects you as if you are a prime side of beef – pinching your biceps, poking your thighs, looking through your hair for signs of illness.
Yeah, slavery wasn’t really that bad.
If you’d like to learn more about the incredible, strong, perseverant people who were enslaved on the plantation where I grew up, I hope you’ll check out my book The Slaves Have Names.