What is unique about literary voices of the American South?
The American South has produced some of the greatest literary voices of the past two centuries: William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, and Lee Smith, among many others. Their writing typifies the uniqueness of being a Southerner. The fiction captures a strong sense of place, examines religious themes, and wrestles with the region’s slave-holding past.
Place is an important element in my novel, My Secrets Cry Aloud. While the novel is a collection of women’s stories over seven generations, the house in which these women live is in many ways a character in itself. I also understood the history of our region and our state, so as I imagined what women might have lived in this house over its two hundred year history, it seemed likely that one of the women would be a former slave. The story of “Billys Jane,” excerpted below, is less about her life as a slave than it is about her negotiation from slavery to freedom.
(An excerpt from My Secrets Cry Aloud, by Sherry Robinson)
March 3, 1884
I knowed when I first seen that old quilt and read those papers I found up there in the attic I would sit rite down and write my story too. It done sent a shiver up my spine reading that letter. You know like when you walk over somebody’s grave. There was somethin in that story somethin in the quilt still a layin there in the attic that made me think of things in my own life I hadn’t thought of in a long time.
Miss Meredith done sent me up to the attic to fetch Amy’s yellow dress from that old steamer trunk, leastways she thought it was up there. But I looked every which way with no sign of the dress. That attic is as cluttered as my mind sometimes–bits of junk scattered hither and yon with maybe a piece of a silver tea service or a crystal punch bowl hidden there.
Some people like to collect things what can be bought or sold, like silver or crystal–or people. Me, I like to see words that have been wrote down. I was pretty near thirty the first time I seen words in a book and knowed what they meant. So when I was looking for that yellow dress and found the trunk with the letter and those papers and that quilt, I thought I had found me a buried treasure. I turned the envelope over in my hand and saw the name Sarah wrote on it. I wanted to read the letter and such and look over every stitch of the quilt right then but I knowed Miss Meredith would wonder where I had got off to. So I put them back into the trunk and figured to get back up to the attic quick as I could spare a few minutes.
“Where have you been Billys Jane? I thought maybe you had gotten lost or something.”
“Lawsy day Miss Meredith. I don’t know how you spect anybody to find anything up there. You’s sure got a lot of things in that attic.”
“Actually they aren’t all my things. When Jonathan’s father bought this house it was full of furniture and such. I heard tell that when the former owner, Missus Fuller, died her son said he didn’t want any of it. Said they could keep it or sell it or burn it for all he cared.”
“Mercy, that sounds awful hateful.”
“Seems like they hadn’t spoke to each other in years. Anyway Jonathan’s father did sell some of it and the rest he put in the attic thinking maybe somebody would want it sooner or later. But it seems like no one’s had time to go through any of it. Who knows maybe Amy will when she grows up.” Miss Meredith laughed making her green eyes shine like a playful kitten, which I loved. She has a natural laughter that just puts a body at ease.
I wanted to ask her if she knowed about the quilt and who Sarah was but I didn’t. Me and her get along fine, but I know my place. Even tho I have knowed her since she was a youngen, I am a hired hand, and a slave afore that. Anyways, ain’t no white woman–no matter how good she is–ever gonna get to close to a colored.
So as soon as I could I went up to the attic and brung the papers and quilt down to my room. I aimed to return them to the attic when I finished and I figured it wouldn’t be very likely that Miss Meredith would ever knowed it was missing for a time.
As much as I wanted to read the papers, I studied on the quilt first. I have always been knowed for my piece work–which kept me in the house sted of the fields–so I like to see how quilts and such is put together. Seems like I can tell an awful lot about a person by the quality of their pieced goods. This quilt was no more than squares of old cloth laid together, but I seen the care that had been took by its maker. The stitches was small and even and the way the different colors and textures was laid spoke of a woman who was careful–maybe too careful–but I liked her all the same. Maybe it was because I felt like I knowed her, after I read her story, I mean. Or maybe it was because I felt sorry for her, being separated from her family thataway.
I couldn’t help feelin a little angry though. I mean white folks actin like that–they got no excuse. Ain’t like they had their children ripped from their arms, sometimes breast milk still warm on their lips, to be sold with this year’s prize calf. Ain’t like they cried theirself to sleep a wonderin why the good Lord don’t send a plague of locusts or frogs or boils down on them that’s hard hearted and wicked and who only see black skin and profit sted of beating hearts and trampled souls.
My own children–ceptin the last one–was took from me thataway. Two I kept with me till they was four or five year old before they was sold to some farmer two counties over. But when I was give to Master Garrett’s oldest boy Billy upon his twenty-first birthday, I was the one had to go–and my newest youngen not but two.
“But Master Garrett,” I pleaded. “Cain’t Nan go with me? Master Billy’s surely gonna need more help in the kitchen and she’ll be big enough in no time to help.”
“Gracious heavens, Jane, what’s gotten into you–trying to tell me how to run my business?” He put a firm hiss on the end of the word business and I knowed to hush up. Master Garrett wasn’t a specially harsh man, but many of us had felt the back of his hand acrost our cheeks when he was challenged.
The morning I was to go I rose early–wakened not by the usual crowing of a nearby rooster or the gray morning light slipping in between the cracks of the clapboards in our cabin but by the dread that had come upon me. I stood for a moment in the doorway, staring into the blackness. Only the lambs in the nearby barn made noise, bleating helplessly for their mamas. Suddenly my stomach felt the fire of longing and I stooped to snatch up my little Nan who was still sleeping on her pallet.
“Don’t fret none child,” I comforted as she squirmed in my arms. “It’s just your Mama.”
She settled back into a quiet sleep and I knowed this memory would be mine alone. She would wake in an hour or so and I would be gone. Her cries for Mama would be answered by Flora, the light-skinned kitchen girl. My face would slowly fade until she knew nothing of me–could pass me on the streets of Lexington tomorrow and not know me from Adam.
I clutched her tighter, then laid her back on the pallet. Beside her head I put a small square of red fabric I’d snuck away from Missus Garrett’s sewing closet in the great house–somethin I done twiced before to give her a play pretty. I hoped Nan would see it when she woke up and know that her mama would always be near–somehow.
I pushed back the urge to pick her up again and fly right out of that cabin. But it woulda been a sin to a done so–leastways thats what Master Garrett says when he’s quoten the Bible about slaves obeyen their masters. So, I just touched Nan’s soft cheek, comin visible in the breaking light.
“Maybe one day you’ll fly free, my sweet Sparrow,” I whispered. “Maybe one day we both will.” Then I walked toward the great house without looking back.
Over twenty years passed afore I felt the wind of freedom lift me heavenward. It was in late October 1865 that Master Billy called all his slaves–there was eighteen of us–to the large rear porch that ran the length of the great house. We knowed what was comin, leastways we felt pretty sure. The air had been buzzing for weeks about soldiers comin round to see to it people like Master Billy was really freein their slaves. So it wasn’t no surprise to us that we would be summoned to the porch sooner or later or that Master Billy would speak the things he did.
I studied on him in the morning light. He coulda passed for much younger than he was cause he still carried the glow of youth, cept for the mark of war on his right cheek and forehead. When they brung him home from the battles, his head was bandaged and bloodied. Law, Young Missus Garrett cried and carried on, you never seen the like. But I was overcome myself because Master Billy was like one of my own children, though we was but a year apart in age. I prayed for God to save him, and when he did get better we rejoiced. But nothin really changed on the farm, cept his angry moods grew more frequent which only made that white scar all the more noticeable. On the morning of our Mancipation that scar shone bright with sweat.
“It is with a sadness in my heart that on this morning we must say our goodbyes,” he began, moving his slender arm in a great swooping motion–like a stand of corn that row by row is blown by an angry August breeze. “You know I have treated you well and that you have had more than most in your condition. I can tell you with great sincerity I am not happy about having to send you from here. Not for my own sake, because my business will remain unhampered. But you . . . you have no idea what awaits you beyond the stone fences of this farm. You, of course, may stay and work for me. But if you choose to go, you will find the world a cold and hateful place, especially for your kind.. Remember that you may always come back here. I will pay you a fair wage and you know I will treat you well.”
He stepped back in the house with the quickness of a startled rabbit, but the rest of us, well, we stood quiet. We had visioned this moment for so long that it didn’t seem quite real. Finally Ben–the biggest and darkest slave on the farm–proceeded to whoop and whistle so that all of us begun to cheer and laugh. We carried on thataway as we walked the muddy path to the cabins that had been our homes. Only Aunt Sallie, who was every bit of sixty and had probably never figured to know freedom, remained quiet. Her thin frame stooped slightly, and I could see one of the snakelike scars that covered her back rise above her rough cotton shirt and kiss the tip of her neck. During a lull in the laughter, we realized she was singing in her low, soft voice. Afore long, we quieted our laughter and joined her.
Break that slav’ry chain, Jesus.
Break that slav’ry chain.
We ain’t gonna die no more.
Hallelujah, break that slav’ry chain.
We sang all the way to the cabins, almost like we was heading to a revival meeting.
Maggie, my youngest child, was already in our cabin when I come in. Her breathing was hard because she had run all the way from the great house, which had brung on one of the coughing spells that plagued her during her eighteen years of life. But in between coughs, she would smile brightly, caring not a lick this time about her missing front tooth.
“We’s free, Mama!” she finally said when the coughing let up.
“I know, honey. I cain’t hardly believe it.”
“I’m headin’ straight over to Little Jim’s place. We can be together, Mama. Really together. Ain’t that wonderful?”
“It sure is, honey.” But the words stuck in my throat and I had to turn away.
“What’s wrong? Ain’t you happy for me? Ain’t you happy that we’s free to do what we please?”
How could I tell her the truth? That I was not happy for her runnin off the be with the man that she’d married not three months before? How could I tell her that her very own Mama was jealous that she had a man to run off to and a life of unshackled choices ahead of her?
“Of course I’s happy, Magpie,” I managed to say. “I just cain’t take it all in right now, that’s all. Don’t you mind your ol’ Mama. You get on over to Little Jim’s afore he takes off somewheres.”
She hugged and kissed me afore she hurried out the door. I lingered while the others was gathering their few scraps of clothes and a cook pot here or there. They was all heading out–where to, nobody knew, but it was some place other than Master Billy’s farm.
“Ain’t you comin?” Betsy asked me when they got to the door.
“I’ll be leavin directly. You all go on.”
I fingered the pair of worn shoes in my hands, pretending to be studying whether to take them with me. I just wanted them all to go, and as soon as they did I sunk to my pallet and pulled my knees to my chest. I was alone. I suppose I could count on my ten fingers the number of times I had truly been alone in my life. I listened while the others stirred in their cabins a few feet away, but they soon left, calling good-byes and best wishes to each other. It didn’t seem like nobody decided to stay with Master Billy. Soon the only sounds were the muffled snorts of the horses grazing in the field and the birds announcing the coming of winter. Afore long, the tears was streamin down my cheeks along with an overpowering uneasiness.
“What’s come over you, woman?” I muttered to myself. “You’s free! You should be dancin and shoutin sted of cryin like a newborn babe.”
Free. I’d heard the word many a times and even seen it onct or twiced on papers that certain coloreds carried so that the white folks would know that they didn’t belong to nobody. But I was struggling now to understand its meaning. My second husband, Henry, was free, had been free since he was thirty-seven. He could come and go as he pleased, could even earn wages for his labor. But he never earned as much as white carpenters, even though he was a better craftsman than most of them. Henry wanted to buy my freedom but he barely made enough for him to live on, so it woulda been years before we was really together. He was free enough, though, to enlist in the Union army in May 1864, and he was free enough to die in November that same year.
So what was free gonna mean for me? I was suddenly able to walk out of that cabin and do whatever I wanted. But I had years worth of wants that had been pushed down and buried so deep that I didn’t know if I would ever find some of them. I knew there weren’t no point a wanting my children, nor my first husband neither. They had all been sold many years before and only God knew where they was or if they was even alive. And iffen I ever did find Samuel it was likely that he had taken another wife and moved on with his life–like I had moved on with mine–though I had a powerful ache in my heart for him.
So I was left to want simple things, like the taste of sugar in my coffee–something that had been a rare treat only when Aunt Sallie would sneak a pinch or two from the kitchen. Like a bolt of blue cotton print to make me something other than a plain brown house dress. Like a bed with a soft down coverlet–and a room I wouldn’t have to share with nobody.
But I knew that even these simple wants were not at all simple. I would need a job, and that meant relying on the goodwill of white folk–and they didn’t often have much goodwill for coloreds. But since I had no other choice I gathered my old shoes, my winter dress, a battered fry pan, and bound them together in the rough cotton coverlet. As I walked through the field, I tried not to think of the ache in my belly nor the trembling in my hands. I tried to think of being free, though I still wasn’t sure what that meant.
My Secrets Cry Aloud, by Sherry Robinson can be purchased through Amazon in paperback or via Kindle. $14.95 retail, 234 pgs.