Monthly Archives: January 2022

“Negro Wench for Sale”

“Any persons inclined to purchase, may know the particulars by . . .”

ULSTER COUNTY GAZETTE. Published at KINGSTON (Ulster County [NY] By SAMUEL FREET and SON (Vol. II. Num. 88. Saturday, January 4, 1800.)

How it got into the secretary of my great–grandparent’s home in Alabama, that prized piece of furniture I was told was made by the slaves, I’ll never know–that desk that sat up against the wall in the long hallway that ran from the front to the back of my great–grandparent’s house. But that’s where I found it. It was loosely folded and stuffed in a back corner of the top drawer, a page from the January 4, 1800, Ulster County Gazette. It was the early 1970s and my great–grandmother had just died, following the passing of my great–grandfather a few years earlier. I, rummaging through the old secretary, had found it and asked my grandmother if I could keep it. For many years it remained in one of the boxes where all the old family pictures and other relics were stored. Then, not too many years ago, while cleaning out, I found it again. This time I took the time to look it over and immediately saw “Negro Wench.” I knew in that moment that, someday, I’d write about her. Today is that day—in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the dream still yet to be realized by so many.

Wench. It’s a word that makes my stomach flinch. Historically, it referred to a girl or young woman. But to better understand the full meaning of the word in the context of the times, we can look at Dolen Perkins–Valdez’s, 2010, best–selling historical fiction novel, WenchThe book’s front matter includes a quotation from 1836 about a slave owner who, “especially prided himself upon owning the swiftest horse, the handsomest wench, and the finest pack of hounds in all Virginia.”

So, it feels reasonable to imagine that, in this case, the wench was, likely, a young teenage girl. But why would she be for sale? And just what were those particulars? Did she not make the cut on the handsomest scale? Was she unruly? Was she just one mouth too many to feed over the long winters? Regardless of the reason, it’s clear she was just property to be monetized —a dispensable thing—and not likely even a second thought on her owner’s mind while he was sippin’ his brandy, the slow goin’ down kind, just like the evening sun.

So, to honor her, I thought I’d quiet my heart just long enough to ask, and maybe hear, just what she’d want us to know today from all those years ago—about her life, in her voice. May her words somehow honor, in some small way, all that’s been lost, forgotten, tucked away, relegated to the back corner of our collective mind.  

And from across time, I heard . . .

“I never had a chance to be nothin.’ I was human just like you but no one saw. Why you’d own us? All I wanted was to be free. To fly away somewhere. I just knew if I could, I’d find some new fine place to be. I just knew. But truth is, I’d never leave on account of my little sister. Never.”

“What were your days like?” I asked.

“We’d be up with the sun to work the fields. Sundays we’d maybe get some time for ourselves. Sometimes Master would come in my bed at night. I’d just close my eyes and go somewhere until he’d be done and gone. Next day, I’d be so tired cause I could never sleep after that. The Misses, she’d look at me like she could kill me. Like I did somethin.’ Fine with me. Most the time, I wished I was dead anyways.

I was sixteen and gonna have a baby when he went to sell me. Didn’t want the Misses to find out. That’s the ad you saw. I couldn’t read but I knowed he’d done it.  

My mamma’d been sold a few years back and I’d takin’ to spending all my time trying to forget her being put in that wagon and watchin’ her get smaller and smaller away from me. For a long time, I’d go back and look down the road first thing when I got up and then before I’d go to bed just to see if she’d be comin’ back. I just knew she would. But I wasn’t old enough to know that wasn’t gonna happen.   

So, when I got sold to a family a good ways away, I begged Master to let Pee, that’s my little sister, go with me. I called her Lil’ Pee cause she was so small. Never did grow right. But I knew he wouldn’t so I tried to tell Pee what was gonna happen. But every time she’d just start crying so I’d have to stop. I started staying up late to make her a bracelet out of twine to go with one I made for me just like it. The day Master told me it was the day I’d be goin,’ I gave it to her and told her to always wear it and I’d wear mine too and that way we’d always be together. Being hauled onto the wagon seein’ Lil Pee screamin’ and tryin’ hard to run after me, just like I’d done after my mamma, haunted me all the rest of my days. I never saw her again. Don’t know what ever happened to her.

Next year my baby was born. I called him Moses cause I’d heard how Moses had parted the waters to let his people go. I wanted him to be strong like that. The years went by pretty fast and he did grow big and strong. But I tried hard not to get too close just in case one of us got sold. But he was a good worker so Master kept him.

Shortly after my first grandbaby was born, I came down with the cough. Master had the doctor come but he said there wasn’t anything he could do. I died a few months later.”

“What do you want to say to us here today?”

“Always remember that we all be God’s children—no matter the color. We all want to be somebody and you got to be free to do that. We all want to just love our mammas and pappas, our sisters and brothers, children, grandchildren. We all just want a chance to live. Whenever you start thinkin’ you be better than someone else cause you be white, stop yourself, cause it ain’t true. Cause you be no different from me. Stop and ask how’d you feel to be sold, to see your mamma hauled away or you bein’ hauled away and your lil’ sister just screamin’ like crazy. If you’re a girl, how’d you’d feel to have some big white man come into your bed before your time and you to wake up bleeding all over and not know why. Ask yourself and I bet you get the same answers as me.

Stop and ask how’d it feel to make a twine bracelet for the one you know, real soon, you’ll never see again, the same one you make for yourself and never take off for all your life.  

Ask yourself. Then, you’d know me. Better yet, maybe then you’d be knowin’ youself better . . . cause we want the same things . . . you and me.

Ya know? I’d make you one of those twine bracelets if I could . . . sure enough . . . just so we’d always have something to remind us that we be the same . . . you and me . . .

We be the same.”      

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Stardust

It was one of those warm, bright, clear nights at the wilderness camp just over the border from the Magical Kingdom. Abbie, now growing tall and straddling childhood with coming adolescence, wandered out after dinner to gaze up at the expanse of sky, spotted with all those glittering stars that looked just like diamonds. She had a lot on her mind. A mysterious virus had changed when and how she went to school, got to hang out with her friends, do many of the things she’d always loved to do. Basically, like for so many others, her life had been turned upside down.

As she sat on the front steps staring up at the black velvety dome that somehow could hold all those stars in place, it seemed to her to be the most amazing thing. But suddenly, her magical reprieve was interrupted by what she thought was the silhouette of a woman moving towards her. As the woman came closer, Abbie could see that she had long, shinny, grey hair and wore a flowing light blue gown. But strangely, Abbie didn’t feel afraid, just curious.

“I’ve come from the North Star,” the mysterious woman said, pointing up to what then seemed like the brightest star in the sky. “As a part of the North Star, I shine very bright in the sky but, sometimes, I choose to come down to earth to give someone a message. Tonight, I’ve come with a special message for you.”

Abbie wrinkled her forehead feeling uncertain now that what she was hearing was really happening. But still she was curious.

“As you grow older, you’ll experience many new things—some you’ll enjoy, and others will be challenging. But whatever life brings, always remember three things,” the mysterious lady from the North Star said. “If you can, it’ll make all the difference.”

Now the young girl was all ears.

“First, just like me, remember that you’re made of stardust.”

“What?!” Abbie exclaimed in disbelief.

“It’s true. Scientist here on earth can now prove it and are saying so. This means that you are here to shine on earth just like I shine in the sky.”

“But how do I do that?”

“When you wake up in the morning remember that each new day is like a precious gift just for you. If you can do that, you’ll start to shine. Every time you feel joy in doing something you love, or watch someone else doing something they love, you’ll also start to shine. And, most importantly, when you feel like life has become very dark, like those spaces between the stars, if you can believe that something good, or helpful, will always come out of the worst of times, most especially then you’ll shine the brightest. Remember. You’re made of stardust. It’s your true nature to shine—regardless of the circumstances.”

“But how can I shine when I feel sad or mad?”

“It’s okay to feel sad or mad. In fact, it’s okay to feel all that you feel. Most importantly, don’t try to push your feelings away. They can help you to recognize and consider more deeply certain things that are happening in your life that are really important to you.”

“But then how do I shine?”

“What you’ll discover is that when you take in those hard feelings, they become something like clouds passing in front of the sun. They may hide the sun’s full light for a while but, sooner or later, the clouds pass, and the sun will shine bright again. And so will you. In the meantime, as you’re working with those hard feelings, it’s good to remember that the sun is still truly shinning even when those clouds are passing by. And, dear Abbie, so are you.”

The young girl’s head was starting to spin with all she was hearing.

Secondly, just like the stars, be sure to share your light equally with all but pay special attention to those around you who may need it the most. Maybe there’s a kid at school who no one seems to like or is always alone. And, you know, the absolute best is to give something away to someone when they don’t know it was you who gave it. It’ll just make you giggly with happiness! Just remember, when you share your light, you’ll start to run into joy everywhere.”

“But I want someone to know when I do something special for them,” the young girl protested.

“That does feel good, doesn’t it? But one day just try doing something in secret and see what you discover. Just give it a try sometime.”

And, lastly, remember that, as we’re all made of the same stardust that comes from our Creator, the Great Spirit of all things, I’m always with you and you’re always with me. And we’re both a part of all that is. Now that’s the most wondrous thing!”

“. . . a part of all that is . . .” Abbie repeated to herself and then just sat quietly allowing all the swirling in her head to quiet down as she continued to stare up at that North Star that still seemed to be shining the brightest. Then, when she turned to look, the mysterious woman was gone.

“Did I just imagine it?” she wondered. She wanted to go in and tell her family all that the mysterious lady from the North Star had said but decided to just keep it all to herself for now. There was a lot she had to let settle in her heart.

Just then, her younger brother came out to sit on the steps too.

“Hey there,” she said as she hugged him close. “Just look at all those amazing stars. Did you know that the stars are made of stardust?”

“Stardust?” her brother repeated curiously.

“Yes, stardust, just like us! We’re made of stardust, too!” she said.

“No way!” her brother said in disbelief.

“It’s true,” the young girl said . . .

and the North Star continued to shine the brightest in the night sky.

Epilogue

This New Years, I wish for all of us to remember that we’re made of stardust, that it’s our true nature to shine. May we both feel and observe those dark clouds that will inevitably come but also remember that we, just like the stars, could not shine without those dark spaces in between. May we aim to be more like the sun and allow our light to shine on all in equal measure even as we also keep a watchful eye out for those who may need a ray of light in order to remember their own. And may we discover that unparalleled joy that comes in times when we share our love anonymously allowing love to ignite two or more flames at once. And, perhaps most wondrous of all, may we remember that, as sparks of stardust, we’re all born of the one great Star, our blessed Creator, the Great Spirit. Let’s all decide to shine bright like diamonds and light the night sky!

Who knows, just maybe we too will get a special visit from the mysterious lady from the North Star.     

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