“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, Wench. The 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.”