As I sit here reflecting on my life I see things so clearly, now. Where was that clarity when I needed it? I am currently locked away in this dank and dirty hole in the wall with dozens of other former slaves who are touched in the head. The so called doctors keep me locked away from the rest of the residents, which is a blessing because I am not really insane. I just needed a break from reality for a little while. I think I will be ready to go out and find my way in the world soon. At least that’s what Dr. Richards says. He told me it would help for me to think back to when I started having the feelings of rage and hate; I think I found it. For a former slave, the feelings of rage and hate came when I took my first breath. Almost everything in my life to this point has made me want to go inside of myself for a while and just hide. Let’s see…
I was born into a world of poverty and despair, but there was just enough hope to keep me going. Hope was a gift given to me by my papa before he was murdered. In fact that is my name. There is no doubt about it; Papa had enough hope for the entire world, in his little finger. I wonder what it would have been like living in his head. I wish I could have jumped in there and run around for a while. We were close, him and I, but sometimes he drifted off into another time and place. My mama called it “checking out”, and I was not allowed to bother him when he was like that. Sometimes he would talk out loud when he was “out”. At first it scared me, but once I sat still and listened to what he was saying, it all made sense somehow.
The older ladies on the plantation said, “Yo papa is touched, little Hope. You stay way from him when he like that. It’s such a shame such a fine looking man is battling demons in his head. ” For some reason the ladies were afraid of him; as if he would hurt me if I got too close. What they didn’t know was my papa was the gentlest man on the Jones Plantation, and nobody was going to keep me from him, except maybe Old Massa Jones. He owned us, so he got to do whatever he wanted.
“Come here child” he demanded of me. “Yes Master Jones?” I said with the urgency of a snail. I hated being called over for one of his senseless talks. He never seemed to want anything except to stop me from working, and then complain that I wasn’t working. “Girl, don’t you ever call me Master. My name is Massa Jones. You hear. Don’t go using that fancy talk your mammy and pappy done teached you. I don’t want no educated slaves round here.” I conformed to his will, “Yes Suh, Massa Jones.” It was always like that with him, he just couldn’t stand the fact my parents were educated Negroes and taught me how to read and speak English better than he could. That’s the chance he took by stealing a free man and enslaving him. My papa could read and write with the best of the scholars. One day while he was walking home from a lecture, he was kidnapped and forced into slavery. I can’t imagine what it would be like for a man who was born free to have his most treasured possession taken away from him and being forced to submit to the will of a man with half his intellect. I came to the conclusion, this was the reason Papa started “checking out”.
All of the ladies on the plantation, even the white ones, had eyes for Papa when he wasn’t “checked out”, but he only had eyes for Mama. Miss Cynthia was the worst one. I heard her talking about Papa one day with her friend Miss Jenny, “He’s just so muscular and tall. I wonder how it would feel to be held in those big ole black arms of his.” Miss Jenny almost fainted, “Cynthia I can’t believe you would say such a thing. Why he’s nothing but a beast. He’s dark as midnight and those big hands would crush you to death. You better hope your brother don’t hear tell of you liking him.” “And how, pray tell, will he find out; unless you plan on divulgating my private secrets. If I had a friend to do that it would be just shameful. I might have to tell all of her ungodly secrets to anyone who would listen.” Miss Cynthia threatened. “Besides,” she continued, “he is just about the best looking Negro man I have ever seen. Just look at that wavy hair and that broad chest.”
Just then Miss Cynthia spotted me spying on them and snatched me up. She threatened to whip me until I bled if I told anyone. I acted dumb, as usual. It was my way of not having to do what the white folks wanted me to. I would pretend not to understand what they wanted until they would give in and leave me be. “Now get out of here. Your services will no longer be required in the house. Since you want to act like one of them, you can just pick cotton like the rest of your people.” Just like that I was removed from being a house servant, and sent to the fields to toil and sweat in the sun. I did not mind because I could finally be with my parents all day. I no longer had to put up with the beatings from Miss Cynthia just because the wind blew or the strange looks from Master Jones. For some reason he had taken a liking to me, and was always trying to get me alone. Miss Cynthia had noticed, and has hated me every since. She had been waiting for any excuse to remove me from the house and now she had one.
“Why did she put you out of the house, Hope?” mama asked. “Mama I don’t know,” I lied. “Well she had to have a reason, and you’d better tell me right now!” Mama had a certain way of talking that meant business. If I did tell her she might get mad and fight Miss Cynthia, but if I didn’t tell her I would get the switch. Just thinking about that switch made the flood gates open. “She was lusting after Papa and I heard her. When she caught me spying she got mad, and made me leave the house for good.”
“What you say child? She got eyes for my man? Well I’m gonna show that heffa who she’s messing with. She’s not getting my man lynched because she wants to know him.” Mama went on and on about Miss Cynthia liking Papa, and then my life changed forever in less than five minutes. Mama marched right up to Miss Cynthia on the grand front porch; the very one all field slaves were forbidden to approach. Before she had time to react, Mama spit dead in Miss Cynthia’s face and said, “You best stay away from my man, white woman.” “Helen you must be out of your mind to approach a fine white lady with some nonsense about her liking some big, black buck.” She was guilty and would have let Mama off with a warning, but Mama would not drop it. “Hear me good woman; nobody slides up to Henry Jones, but me! Try me if you got the notion.” Miss Cynthia face looked like it was melting off under the sweltering Carolina sun. Her hands started shaking, and she did not know what to do. Nobody dared to talk to the owner of a plantation like that, especially not a southern belle like Miss Cynthia. Miss Jenny was so mad there was smoke coming from her ears, Cynthia are you just going to sit there and let that slave girl talk to you like that on your own porch. I wouldn’t stand for that kind of sass from any of my slaves. They would get the whip for sure.”
Just then Old Massa Jones came outside to see what the ruckus was. “Helen what is going on round here? I can hear Miss Jenny screechin’ all the way in my office.” Mama looked him dead in the eyes and told him “Keep your sister away from my husband! My child heard her talking lustful about him, and I don’t want my man lynched. You better keep her in her place or I’ll do it for you.” I always knew Mama didn’t play when it came to Papa. She had beat Julie so bad she couldn’t walk, for rubbing up on Papa one day. Even so, I never thought she would talk to white folks like that. She must have lost her mind and Massa Jones was going to help her get it back. “What you say to me Helen? You forget I am the massa ‘round here and you the slave. Can’t stand for no back talk from no slave, even if it is you Helen.” Mama did not back down. “Do what you got to go, but keep that woman away from my man!”
The next thing I knew Mama was sailing off of the porch, and landed on the ground face first. She tried to get to her feet, but Massa Jones was quick to knock her back down. With his boot in her back, he began to whip Mama with his walking stick. Then I heard Papa running and screaming, “Get off of my wife, you devil!” The next few minutes were in slow motion. I could hear someone screaming, but I didn’t realize it was me until Massa Jones yelled at me to shut up. Massa Jones was beating Mama senseless, and she was broken and bleeding from every inch of her skin, her ears and eyes. I had never seen anything like it in my life. I could see her skin being peeled back with every lick of Massa Jones’ stick. Eventually Mama stopped screaming and went limp. “She ain’t dead yet, throw some water on her,” Massa Jones called to one of the new male slave. The sting of the water hitting her open flesh was enough to jolt Mama awake. She could barely whimper, but her face showed the pain was too much to bear. The merciless beating continued until almost all of the life drained out of Mama. With her dying breath she told me “Remember who you are Hope and never let them kill you. Be strong and honor your ancestors.” With that she was gone and I wanted to go with her.
Meanwhile, two other men were holding Papa back with ropes, while Massa Jim, the overseer, got his shot gun. Massa Jim pointed his gun at Papa and said, “Get back in that field and get to work. You need to make up for Helen’s share so you better get humpin.” Those horrible men would not even allow us to clean Mama up, and bury her. They let her lay in the hot sun attracting bugs and smelling to high heaven. Massa Jones forced Papa and me to continue picking cotton with Mama baking less than 100 yards away. As sad as I was, I could see Papa was almost uncontrollable. He kept talking to Mama and telling her he was there, and he would honor her. I saw a crazed look in his eyes, not like when he “checked out” this was different.
Henry Jones was the son of a warrior, and he must avenge the death of his wife. Papa started pacing back and forth and mumbling something in the old African language he taught me as a little girl. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but I knew it was never good for him to start chanting in the Orangolo language. Papa retrieved a machete he was hiding in the field, and cut Massa Jim’s head clean off his shoulders. The hot blood splattered all over the pure white cotton staining the ground and Papa’s hands. “HELEN!” papa yelled so loudly everyone stopped what they were doing to see what was going on. He bent down and picked up the severed head holding it in the air he shouted, “They Kill my wife I take their life.” With those words Papa charged through the field and struck down every white man he saw. He was headed to the porch on the big house when I heard the loud crack press through the air. Massa Jones was standing on the porch with his rifle and tore a hole through my Papa’s chest. Just like that I was an orphan.
I stood quietly in the cotton field drenched in blood. I had not noticed before, but it was all over me, in my hair, on my face, and my clothes. All of a sudden a blood curling scream came from the depths of my being and I could not be silenced. “Chile, it’s alright chile. Please stop screamin’ or Massa Jones gonna come over here an git ya. Please chile don’t make it worse fo yoself.” Old Miss Janie pleaded with me, but there would be no peace today; not after they just killed my family. I stopped my screaming and started laughing. Old Miss Janie started backing away from me. She told the other slaves, “I seen this before. She done gone mad.” All of the other slaves in the field followed Miss Janie and backed away from me while mumbling to their selves. I was mad, but not the insane kind. My anger had crossed over into my being and everything I would do from this point on would be my revenge on the Jones Plantation.
I closed my eyes and remembered the last words my mama said to me “Remember who you are Hope and never let them kill you. Be strong and honor your ancestors.” When I opened my eyes I could see my ancestors standing before me along with my parents. They told me I was the last in our bloodline and I must survive. I would have their protection as I navigated through life. Right now, I was being instructed to exact revenge for my parents’ murders. I must use my brain and outsmart them because they would be looking for me to become violent. I listened to the instructions, and remembered them exactly. I allowed the wisdom of the ancestors to guide me. “You must act like you are sick from grief. The lady of the house will take pity on you, and invite you back in to work there. Once you have re-established yourself as a servant, you must be on your best behavior. At the dawning of the full moon, you go into the woods where your papa took you to pray. Under the big tree with the markings you will find an herb growing. Gather the herb, but mind you do not let it touch your skin. Use a cloth to gather it. Chop the herb up and put it in the white people’s food. It will paralyze them and once you are sure they can’t move you must chop each one of their heads off and hang them on the front porch, covering yourself with their blood. Do not swallow their blood! Nobody will harm you because we will be there to protect you. You will be taken to a hospital and once you are released, you will have your freedom!”
I followed the instructions of the ancestors to the letter. The cook came down with severe stomach pains, so Miss Cynthia informed me I would be cooking alone. The ancestors came to me and guided my hands. The herbs were placed into the potatoes once they were cooked and mashed. Everyone loved my mashed potatoes so I knew they all would eat extra helpings. Once they were unable to move, I went to work using the same machete Papa has used to avenge Mama’s death. I started at the head of the table with Massa Jones, no hesitation just a quick slash of the sharp knife and his head rolled onto the floor. The rest of the room was horrified. I could see it in their eyes. They may not have been able to move their body parts, but they were fully aware of what was happening. I took pleasure in torturing them one by one. Each slice of a throat was righting a wrong done to my ancestors. I saved Miss Cynthia for last since, after all she was the one who started this downward spiral. She watched one by one as everyone she loved was violently snatched out of existence. “This is for my mama”, I said as I slid the sharp blade across her pale throat. “If you would not have been lusting after my papa, none of this would have happened.”
As instructed I hung the severed heads above the front porch, covered myself in blood, and waited for someone to discover what I had done. Papa had already killed the overseers and they lay dead in the cotton field. No slave wanted to bury them, and there was no one left to make them. When the other slaves saw what I had done they cheered and celebrated. I convinced them to help me give my parents a proper burial, and then most took off for the North to snatch their freedom. To buy their silence I wrote them all freedom papers using Massa Jones’ stationary and wax seal. The few that remained were too scared to leave and decided they would run the plantation until a new white master came along. I sat on the porch and waited for three long days. When they finally came to see why Massa Jones had not been seen in the area, they were scared out of their minds. The news spread fast about the insane slave girl who slaughtered all of the white people, and hung their heads from the porch. Dr. Winston came and would not allow them to hang me. “She is obviously touched in the head. Let me take her to the state mental institution for Negroes and get her the help she needs.” Dr. Winston was a well respected member of the community so they did what he said.
So now I sit here waiting for the doctors and nurses to say I am ready to leave here. The ancestors still appear to me every day, and I listen to them. They have not let me down yet. “Soon you will be released from this hell and before those white folks can lynch you, we will guide you to the North and Freedom. Nobody will know what happened here and you can start your life over. You’ll get married, have two beautiful children, and teach them about your family history all the way back to the Orangolo people.” I wonder what my husband will be like. What kind of life will we build together? For now, I Hope and wait.
© Lisa W Tetting
I hope you enjoyed reading Mind of Hope as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please check out my accompanying Pinterest page for a photo scrapbook of the story.