(Novel Excerpt) The Negro Claim

Chapter One

(Massachusetts, December, 1850)

He couldn’t read well, that was the problem.

Sure, he knew his letters well enough, thanks to Harriet. He could make out each and every one from the first to the last if he tried hard, could even wrestle into sense the bitty-bit words like “all” and “the” and “so.” But that wasn’t enough. Fortunately Biddy knew that if he simply stood long enough before the poster in the chilly New England afternoon and waited, somebody who could read would come along. Something inside Biddy, a heated feeling, a faint kind of ringing as from a bell far, far away, told him the poster was important. That poster contained information he needed to know. So he would wait. Harriet would wonder but would not worry at his tardiness. She knew that whatever he was doing at any given time, it was a man’s business.

Biddy had actually seen the town clerk nailing the poster to the post earlier in the day. Had seen too the steady crowd of people, both white and colored, who drew near and stood in the cold staring, then shook their heads and moved along. He’d been some distance away at the time, down on the docks, too far to yell up and ask what the poster was about and too busy unloading the heavy bales of cotton from the ship’s hold to take a break. Still, all day long as he worked he had wondered, the poster never fully leaving his mind. What was it about? A new whaling ship making ready to depart? Some other news about New Bedford Town?

Biddy was a curious man, both by nature and by habit, though his mamma had always warned him against being so. Wanting to know stuff was a dangerous way for a colored man to be, a colored man and a slave (which was the same thing as far as ever she knew). Couldn’t lead nowhere but to trouble; better to keep your eyes down, your mouth closed and your mind on whatever task was at hand. “Curiosity sure ‘nuff killed that cat, you know, baby,” she would tell him. “Killed him dead.” She herself made it a point of pride never to show the slightest bit of curiosity about anything bigger or more important than was what was happening in her cooking pot. Not, Biddy knew, that it did her much good in the end.

But he was born curious and grew up curious and he was curious still, and curiosity had served him pretty well so far, he thought. It had gotten him out of Georgia, gotten him to Massachusetts and Harriet and as sweet a life as a man who was free. One of the only things it hadn’t gotten him, in fact, was the ability to read. But he planned to learn, as quickly as possible. Harriet would teach him. She read like a white woman, as pretty as you pleased. She’d been pressing to teach him almost since the day they met but he didn’t have time just now. He had work to do, money to save up, a home for them to buy.

All that day he worked unloading the bales of cotton from the dark, foul hold of The Jezebel, a two-masted schooner based down in Providence. He hated cotton. Hated it so much he’d rather work almost any other load: the sticky oak barrels of molasses piling in or the bone-stretching casks of rum headed out; even the drums of whale oil which left him so foul and slick Harriet insisted he wash up first in the icy waters of the river before coming home to bathe again. Anything but cotton. God, how he hated the sight of it. If he never saw another boll in his entire life it would be too soon. Though it was cotton which had been his salvation in the end.

Since the age of six or seven he had worked in Mason’s fields, planting, tending, hoeing and picking the stuff. Harriet had asked him once if picking cotton was as hard as people said. She didn’t see how it could be, really; cotton was so pretty and fluffy and white. She had only seen it baled or bagged, had never actually seen a cotton plant or felt the nasty prick of the stickers which guarded the bolls, and Biddy just kissed her and laughed. He liked it that she had never worked in a field, never stood beneath a broiling Virginia sun, watering the land with her sweat. He liked most of all that she had never felt the lash of the whip on her back. Or the drag of a white man’s hand on her thigh. He liked that most of all.

But Biddy knew how hard it was, picking cotton, and how hard it was loading it on a ship for selling, up here in the north. He had done both.

By quitting time he and his fellow workers had emptied the ship, carrying the last, damp bushels up and into the darkening New England eve. They lined up to receive their wages from the dock master, then one-by-one strolled off toward whatever delights or despair awaited them in town. But Biddy lingered awhile.

Glancing around at the emptying docks he thought for a moment of going home to get Harriet and bringing her back to read the poster to him. But that would take too long, and anyway she probably had supper waiting. His stomach growled at the idea. Harriet was a good and steady cook, though it had taken some time to adjust to the foods they ate up here: all those different kinds of beans, all those stews made with milk instead of tomatoes or gravy – chowder, they called them. No biscuits but brown bread steamed in a can. No banana pudding but something called Indian pudding. Harriet had never tasted a hog jowl or a pig knuckle in her life and when he tried to describe how good they were, how it tasted to suck the maw from the hard, bony fist of a hog for long minutes at a time she squealed in disgust. Fish she cooked; fish and clams and maybe a scrawny chicken for Sunday dinner when they were feeling really flush but never any pork. Pork wasn’t easy to get around here, he realized. Even the corn bread Harriet baked for him – and she had never baked it before but when he asked she’d gone to an old former slave woman she knew and learned how – tasted different than the cornbread he was used to, the cornbread that old Tassie used to bake up in the kitchen behind the big house because Harriet couldn’t find any pig fat to grease the pan with.

Thinking about old Tassie’s cornbread, about the fragrant, buttery smell and the way it crackled sweet and golden in his mouth not only made his stomach gurgle but made something else happen too. Something strange: the back of his eyes stung, abruptly. Biddy lifted his rough hand and swiped it across his face, as if a fly had landed there and needed to be driven away. He’d be damned if he was going to be sad. He’d be damned if he was going to miss one damn thing about that miserable plantation. Not even Tassie and her cornbread.  He’d be damned.

True, Tassie was the closest thing he ever had to a mother. She had all but raised him – but then again she’d raised at least half the field hands his age and younger, the ones whose real mothers got too good at sewing or baking, or just too pretty to be allowed to stay on the plantation. The ones who didn’t have sense enough not to turn out children who looked just like the master spit them out of his thin, hard mouth. His mother had fallen into this category, not with him but with his younger brother Elijah. Biddy himself, only four years old at the time, had never seen a baby so splotchy and pale and red. He had also never seen his mother cry so much as she did in those days after Elijah was born. When he asked what was wrong she’d just grab him and kiss the dusty top of his head, then send him back out of the cabin to take water to the men in the fields. Two weeks after Elijah was born, when his mother had gotten up and returned to fields for at least half the day, the Missus came down to the cabin one afternoon. Biddy didn’t need the funny ringing inside his head he sometimes heard to know this was trouble: the Missus never came down to the slave quarters. He had only seen her from afar, as she clipped fat yellow roses in the flower garden immediately behind the big house or leaned from the veranda to summon Sarah from the kitchen or sat primly beneath her parasol in her carriage as she road past the fields taking the road into town. He had just finished his midday dinner – black-eyed peas seasoned with pig knuckle bones – and was on his way to rest for at time in the shade of the willow tree before heading back to work when he saw her sweeping down the wide path from the big house. The men resting around him stiffened and leapt to their feet, disappearing so fast he barely saw them. When the Missus headed straight for the cabin he shared with his mother Biddy leapt up too and ran to the door, but the time he reached it the Missus had already disappeared inside. His mother was inside, nursing the baby and getting a break from the brutal midday sun. Hovering just outside the door (he was too afraid to enter and the cabin’s one window was too high for him to reach) he heard the Missus say, “I hear you have had a baby, Cherry.”

His mother’s voice, always so strong and comforting folks begged her to use it singing in the fields, sounded broken now. As though someone had stepped on it until it cracked.  “Yes’m,” she answered. “Named Elijah.”

“Let me look at him,” demanded the Missus.

For a long, long time there was only silence, silence so deep and so still Biddy could hear the crickets singing way off near the pond. Then a sharp crack, the sound of flesh meeting flesh and a harsh, muttered curse.

And then the Missus was sweeping out the door, knocking him to the dirt as she left. He picked himself up and ran into the cabin. It was dark inside as always and in the minute or so it took for his eyes to adjust he heard his mother begin to speak, harshly and all in a rush. It took him a minute to realize it was not the baby she was addressing but him.

“Akwukwo nri.” she said. “That mean ‘leaves for eating.’ ‘Ufie ufie. O na-acha ufie ufie.’ That mean something yellow-red, like the clay down at the riverbank, or the face of this bitter demon of a child. ‘Imeela.’ That mean thank you, thank you, you’ve done it.  ‘Ndi iberibe’ that mean, fools! Foolish people, which is what we are, all of us here, foolish people,” his mother said, and then she was crying and pulling him close, shoving the baby aside so roughly Biddy worried he might be hurt.

“Remember these words, Biddy,” his mother said, crying now into the dusty naps of his head. “These words are from my mother, who was an African. Your grandmother. A priestess. Who they killed. Say them with me. Say them now!”

He did, over and over, until she seemed satisfied.

“Good.” She grasped his head between her rough hands and kissed the top, so hard he could feel the pressure of her lips. “Whatever happens, remember: we will survive. Remember that.” Then she sent him off to Tessie. He was crying when he arrived in the kitchen were Tessie worked pounding biscuits with a large, wooden paddle.

“I hate that Missus!” he cried. “She made Momma cry! I hate her!”

Tessie dropped her paddle, walked silently across the floor and smacked him, hard, across his mouth. His face caught fire.

“I never want to hear you talk like that again, you understand?”

Standing now on the docks in New Bedford, Biddy said a silent thank you to the old witch.  If not for her indifferent but diligent care, he would not have survived. And if not for the example of her life, he would still be enslaved.

The docks were all but deserted now. He’d just have to wait until the next day to find out what the poster was all about. But just as he had tossed his gunny sack full of xxx over his shoulder and turned toward town, he spied a figure coming slowly toward him along the boardwalk. Though the sun was behind him and the figure cast in shadow, Biddy knew from his walk who it was: Randolph Freeman.

Randolph had also been a slave, had belonged to a relatively kind master in South Carolina somewhere (he could never pinpoint the spot, although he tried). But unlike many of the black people roaming the streets of New Bedford, Randolph claimed his master had died and set him free in his will. Said he had the papers to prove it, which he carried carefully wrapped in a double-leather pouch around his neck. He declined to take them out to show to Biddy. What was the point? He only showed the papers to white people.

Randolph could read. He claimed to have learned how from his master himself, though Biddy surely doubted that story. No white man in the world would willingly teach a colored slave to read! He’d even heard that it was against the law in most places. No, Randolph must have learned some other way. He just liked to brag.

“Good evening, Mr. Randolph,” said Biddy, tipping his hat. It was important to show the old man the respect he so desperately craved.

“What you want, boy?” Randolph demanded, barely breaking his tortured stride. “I’m trying to get home to my supper.”

Biddy felt a flash of irritation at the man’s open disdain. It was one thing to be treated like the plantation dog by the rich colored folks, the ones who had been born up north and could read and write and owned their own homes and lived a life Biddy could never have imagined possible five years before. Harriet’s people. He didn’t like it, didn’t like either their sniffing noses or their pitying stares but at least it made sense. But Randolph was just an old field nigger like himself, only one who had gotten out earlier. He knew what it was to live under the shit-caked boot of some white man. He had no call to be turning his nose up at Biddy, even if he was fresh out of the fields.

But now was not the time to challenge him.

“Yes, sir,” said Biddy. “I bet your wife got some fine fixings waiting for you. I saw her earlier in the market buying up some pumpkins when I was unloading The Jezebel.”

Now Randolph did stop. “You been eyeing my wife, boy?”

Biddy cursed himself for being stupid. Randolph’s wife was a pretty brown-skinned thing no more than half his age; the man probably spent half his days beating off competition from other men, either imagined or real.

“No sir!” Biddy said, trying to look horrified at the very prospect. “I just meant I happened to see her, that’s all.”

Again Randolph eyed him, but apparently decided this dock-working field hand was no immediate threat. Shifting the lantern he carried from one hand to the other he made to start walking again. “I got to go.”

“Yes, sir,” said Biddy quickly. “But before you do, I was wondering if you’d do me a big service, sir, and read this here poster to me. Seeing as how you’re so smart and able to read, which is something I surely cannot do. Not even close.”

“You? Read?” Randolph let out a great laugh. “A fresh-off-the-plantation nigger like you is lucky to be able to even think straight!”

Biddy swallowed and kept his mouth shut.

After his laugh died down Randolph hitched up his pants and slouched over to the poster. He leaned in so close to the notice it seemed to Biddy he was trying to feel the words instead of read them.

“It say …. ‘Caution! Colored people of New Bedford, one and –‘”

Biddy interrupted him. “Caution?”

Randolph slapped his hand against his thigh in frustration, sending a puff of dirt drifting into the air. “Damn it! You want me to read this here poster or not?”

Biddy couldn’t help jiggling his hands against his sides. “Yeah! But – ”

“Then don’t be jumping in and messing me up!” Randolph cried. “I got to keep a running start or I won’t get through it!”

Biddy nodded. “Sorry.”

Randolph rolled his eyes skyward and released a sigh. “If I read something you don’t understand, just wait and ask me about it at the end!”

He spoke as if this was the most obvious thing, as if explaining how to milk a cow or shoe a horse to an idiot. Biddy wanted to laugh, but he knew that would only send Randolph into bigger fits. Instead he dropped his eyes and pretended to be ever more chastened.

“Sorry, Mr. Randolph,” he mumbled. “I’s won’t do it again.”

Randolph let out a hiss, along with a stream of tobacco juice. “Ignorant niggers!” he muttered, hitching up his pants. “You ready or not?”

“Ready!”

“All right then,” Randolph said. “Caution mean ‘Watch out!’ Got that?”

“Yes sir!”

“All right. Here we go:

‘Caution, colored people of New Bedford, one and all. You are hereby cautioned and advised to avoid conversing with the watchmen and police officers of Boston. For since the recent order of the mayor and alderman they are empowered to act as kidnappers and slave catchers. And they have already been actually employed in catching, kidnapping and keeping slaves. Therefore, if you value your liberty, and the welfare of the fugitives among you, shun them in every possible manner, as so many hounds on the track of the most unfortunate of your race. Keep a sharp look out and have top eye open!”

Randolph read the last line with a rising flourish in his voice, then stepped back from the poster and spit a line of tobacco juice into the dirt, as if to cleanse the taste of the words from his mouth. “You understand all of that, boy?” he demanded of Biddy.

In the gathering darkness Biddy closed his eyes. “I understand, Mr. Randolph. I do indeed.”

“Indeed, huh?” Randolph said, mocking him. “If you think talking fancy like a white man is going to save you from the slavecatchers, boy, you got another thing coming. And an ugly thing at that.”

Biddy flushed. He thought no such thing, of course.  He had been trying to raise his language, to stop sounding like some corn-pone-eating nigger fresh out of the cotton fields and sound more like a real northern black man, like Mr. Frederick Douglass or Mr. Henry Garnet. It was Sarah’s idea, and she was the one who had been teaching words like “indeed” and “furthermore.” He liked the sound of them, the way they rolled around in his mouth or vibrated across his tongue when they came out. He liked to hear himself talk in that way. But it was dangerous for folks to believe a man like him was trying to get ahead of himself. Danger from black folks as well as white.

So Biddy put on the grin he’d perfected back in Virginia when Marse Mason was riding through the fields and hoping for trouble. “At least I thinks I’s understands, Mr. Randolph,” Biddy said. “I thinks that poster is telling folks who are runaways to be careful, cause slave catchers are sneaking around like foxes outside the hen house. That about right?”

Randolph took another step backwards, as if the word slave catcher itself was something not to allow to come too close. “It’s that law,” he said, spitting again. “Them folks down in Washington passed a new law. You probably don’t know what it is, so I’ll tell you. In case it might have something to do with somebody you know.”

Randolph gave him a look, then ran his tongue to the back of his cheek to check on his stash. “That new law say folks who own slaves can come way up here to Massachusetts or anywhere they want and catch ‘em if they run away.”

Biddy nodded, no longer really listening. His knee had begun to twitch something fierce. It did that sometimes.

“Didn’t use to be that way,” Randolph said, sounding suddenly bitter. “Used to be if a man made it over the line he was free, as free as the Good Lord intended. But of course they couldn’t leave it that way. That way a body could at least have some hope. Most dangerous thing in the world – hope.”

Randolph turned his head away and spit into the dirt. “White folks.”

Biddy took a different route home than he normally took, turning his back on the waterfront and the skeletal masts which rose into the darkening sky. He decided he would say nothing to Harriet. There was no sense upsetting her, especially since he wasn’t even sure what news of this new law really meant.

After all, just because some rule now said Mason could come looking for him didn’t mean that Mason would come looking for him. Biddy had been gone for more than a year by now; surely Mason had given up by now. Surely he had found someone else to muck his stables and pick his cotton and bear his whip. So Biddy tried to tell himself.

The next two weeks he went on about his life as usual, rising before dawn to build the fire for Harriet and eat her breakfast of hot biscuits and gravy before heading down to the docks to work. But he could not keep a feeling of dread from rising up out of the dark waters of the bay and settling all around like the fog.

In the middle of unloading some cargo of wheat or corn or sugarcane, he’d find himself imagining how furious Mason must have been to find him missing. How he must have rushed from his table, knocking over the glass of whiskey he sipped at every meal. How red his face must have turned, how the thick veins in his sunburnt neck must have throbbed!

In some ways it made him happy. He smiled to imagine Mason stomping his feet like a child, and cursing up a storm. The unhappier he imagined Mason, the happier Biddy felt.

He knew Harriet would disapprove of such things. Would tell him it was un-Christian to take pleasure in the unhappiness of another human being, no matter how “misled” that person might be. That was what she thought of slave-owners: simply God’s children who had been terribly misled by the dark forces and other people with wrong hearts. Biddy knew better. Mason, at least, hadn’t been misled by anything but his own cruelty and greed.

And it was this understanding that caused Biddy to realize he could not pin his hopes on Mason simply letting things lie. He knew the man too well; the first nineteen years of life had depended upon knowing the man. Biddy came to know that when the Missus went off to visit her family in Charleston for a month it was a good time to ask for that new shirt you needed, because Mason would spend the days so sodden with whiskey he’d say yes to just about anything. He knew when to play the happy idiot and when he could risk looking Mason briefly in the eye. He knew when Mason was getting ready to pick another young girl for his bed, and he knew when he had. He knew the man was vain and lazy, too stupid to run a farm without the help of his frustrated father and as vengeful as a snake. More than anything, Biddy knew that Mason would not simply let him be. Whether the white bastard had already paid some slave catcher to find him, or whether he was still considering, Biddy knew it was just a matter of time.

He was gnawing on the problem the day he walked into the small apartment he shared with his wife and found her standing by the window, her hands squeezed so tight in front of her it looked as though she were trying to hang on to something that she feared was about to be taken from her.

“Harriet? What’s wrong?”

For a moment she did not answer, just kept staring out the window, the only one in the two rooms they shared. It looked out the back of the house, over a dark alley which ran between their block of homes and the ones opposite, but Harriet had somehow managed to make it cheerful and bright by hanging a window box made of old crate boards and filling it with flowers and herbs from early spring to latest fall.

She turned to him. “How long have you known?” she asked and even in accusation her voice was gentle and soft, the voice with which he had fallen in love.  He wished that she would yell at him or get angry or sound hard, the way so many of the women he had known back at the plantation so often did. It would have made things easier.

“A couple of weeks.”

“And you did not tell me.”

“I didn’t want you to worry,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything, not to us.”

She smiled sadly. “You know that’s not true.”

She left the window and lowered herself into one of the two chairs which furnished the room. For a moment something passed over her face, something he could not identify. When he stepped toward her for a closer look it was gone.

“Everyone was talking about it today at the meeting,” she said, turning. “We didn’t even get to our real work, so filled were we all by the terrible news.”

The meeting – of course, he should have known that she would find out that way. The monthly meeting of New Bedford’s Colored Mutual Aid Society was something Biddy never attended and Harriet never missed. It wasn’t that he opposed the idea of colored folks banding together to build a school or offer loans or otherwise provide the service for one another that the white world would not. It was just that Biddy had learned early to look out for himself and only himself. The lone wolf moved quickly over the land.

“Yes,” he said.

“It was only a month or so ago they made the law,” Harriet said.  “Within a week those evildoers had captured their first human soul. A man named James, living in New York. Some white woman in Baltimore claimed him as her slave and sent the agents out to kidnap him. Terrible.”

Biddy felt a sudden flush of heat on the back of his neck, as if he were standing in a cotton field beneath the relentless southern sun. He forced himself to ask, “What happened to him? The man James?”

Harriet turned from the window and gave him her sweet smile. “He was taken back to Baltimore. But the people of New York, God bless them, were, of course, horrified by this and very angry at the law. They raised $800 and bought him from his . . . from the white woman.”

She had almost slipped up and said “his master,” words that Harriett never said when referring to a white man and a slave. She said it was not only wrong, but sinful and deeply, deeply offensive to God – the only Master anybody on God’s green earth should ever recognize lived far, far above. That she even came close to letting the word slip from her mouth told Biddy how shaken she really was, despite her calm.

It was dark in the room now; the sun, already sinking when he’d entered, had disappeared.  Harriet was silent while he lit the whale oil lamp and set it gently on the table.

“That’s a nice story,” Biddy said.

“Yes,” Harriet said, her voice rising. She looked at him, her eyes full of burgeoning hope. “Biddy. Husband. I was thinking  – ”

But he knew where she was going and he did not want her to arrive. He cut her off. “No.”

Harriet jumped to her feet. “But they are good people!” she cried. “Good, Christian people, who’ve known me all my life. They would want to help! They feel about slavery the same as we do.”

He let out a sharp, bitter laugh. She looked so wounded he immediately regretted it.

“No,” she said, quietly. She sat down in the chair, wrapped her arms around herself as if she had taken a sudden chill. “No, they do not feel the same as we do. As you do. They do not know and can never know what you have felt.”

“Harriet …”

“And neither can I.”

He knelt before her, took her hand into his own. How small and soft it was! It never failed to amaze him. The work she did for the Albertsons, shopping and sewing and caring for their brood, was never hard, never even approached the back-breaking labor of the women he had known as a child. And never involved the other kind of back work, the kind he could not even bear to think about. How fortunate she was. How fortunate they both were.

“Harriet,” he began. “You got to understand. I know that the Albertsons are fine white people. I am glad and grateful that they have always been so good to you, have given you education and employment. But I don’t want their money or their help. I don’t want the help of no white man ever again. Especially not in this!”

She looked at him, bewildered. “But why not? ”

He paused, struggling to give words to what he was feeling. “I took my freedom like a man,” he said, finally. “I walked off that plantation on my own two feet, made my way to Norfolk by use of my heart and my mind. And, yeah, that white captain, Captain Fountain, he helped me when I got there. Hid me in his ship and brought me north. But I paid him back with my labor. I was the only man on that ship knew what to do when piss went to pot.  I paid him and I don’t owe no white man for my freedom and I’ll be damned if I will start owing one now!”

She squeezed his hand gently, then raised it to her lips for a kiss. He felt a tear fall onto his palm.

“But we don’t have enough money to . . .”

Biddy knew she could not bring herself to talk about him as if he were a mule or a piece of lumber. The word “buy” made his own stomach turn.

“I know,” he said. “Not now. I’ll have to earn it somehow. But not here.”

“Where? Where can we go? To Canada?”

Canada was the obvious choice, the safest and most reasonable one. Another country, one where colored folks were not held in bondage and never had been. Like everybody else he had heard the stories of people who did not dare stop running as long as they were still in the States, who went on north to Canada and there found a life of freedom if not exactly welcome.

But Biddy didn’t want to go to Canada. New Bedford was cold enough for a southern man. It was also Harriet’s home. Her family was there, her mother and father and cousins and aunts. It was the only place she had ever lived, the only home she had ever known and she would not want to leave it, though he was certain that she would if he asked. But he did not want to ask. He did not want to pull his lovely wife away from the people most dear to her. He had had enough of that kind of thing for a lifetime.

“No,” he said. “Not Canada. And not us.”

His wife’s beautiful face lit with fear, but he couldn’t let that deter him. “Remember Harriet: no matter what happens, we will survive.”

“Biddy, please!”

He pulled her toward him and kissed her, hard, felt her soft, yielding body against her. He would miss that more than anything, miss holding her in his arms at night and feeling her give herself so warm and content.

“Biddy!”

He kept holding his wife, holding her tight, knowing what he had to say would hurt.

“California,” he told her. “I need to go to California. And I need to go alone.”

 

 

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