That great sky above the Missouri territory loomed in grandeur upon the backs of a people who would live to cultivate its benefits but never taste its goodness. The mountains that surrounded the master’s farm were rolls of valleys and saw-toothed hills that billowed the land up and down. Spring was my least favorite season as the horizon remained obscured by the blossom of sycamores, thick green growth, and wild flowers. My eye could carry me further in winter than any other season. When fall’s foliage drifted away and cold settled on the mountains, the light on a winter’s morning would illuminate the land, glistening frost in a brilliant sheen, allowing an unobstructed view of the distant skyline through the cragged, bare branches. What lay beyond the ribbed folds of land and the tousled ridges was unknown to me. Even beauty was contained by the hands of the white man. A free man’s eyes could see beyond the skyline but the slave is circumscribed to horizons with limits. It was in these glimpses of stars and birds and distant horizons that I tasted freedom followed by crushing moments of despair. Touching a limited freedom was more painful than no freedom at all, it whetted the appetite, revealing the truth that a limited freedom could be enlarged, the limits pushed to the breaking point and finally rent asunder.
I was born Benjamin Adams, in the damp season of a Missouri fall when the leaves hung with dew and shadows thinned over the land. The place of my birth, Saint Charles, MO, is a small township just outside of St. Louis lodged between the forged valley of Florisant and Wellsburg, several hundred acres of rugged Missouri frontier scrambling vertically from the banks of the great Missouri River.
A modest plantation by the standards surrounding us, the property consisted of the Master’s farmhouse, a large stable, chicken coops, and grain bins nestled along the front edge of the property. Behind the rolling acres of trees lay the slave quarters, ramshackled huts crudely arranged in a semi-circle, another stable for mules, two large tobacco barns and two kiln houses where the fire-curing took place. The family and its house slaves lived closer to the road, far from the hard work where the priming, burning, stringing, and harvesting took place. The plantation itself exhibited little excitement. It was a dull trade for a small family on a relatively simple estate. The master, with no heirs of his own, no longer purchased land nor slaves, preferring to breed them, the less costly and more efficient form of acquiring labor. Overall, the farm’s production had declined year over year. Tobacco land is slow to heal and once harvested, the growing grounds must move to another tract of the acreage to keep the land healthy. Due to landlock around him, his own declining health, and the portend of war, rumors persisted that the master was hoping to sell his plantation, ideally to one of his neighbors, allowing him to move east.
I had two masters. The master of the plantation, Thadeus Adams, frequently visited the stables to see his beloved horses, namely Apple, the stallion he owned since childhood. Slaves often assumed the surnames of their masters and even first names were of the master’s choosing (hence my name, Benjamin Adams) a subtle reminder that any shred of independent identity would be wholly consumed by the omnipotence of whites. But my second master, Silas, was more feared than the master himself. Silas, a slave, was a driver, a manager of sorts but more an overseer, one who supervised slaves in the field, earning the respect of the master through brutal strength. Tall, thick in his legs and neck with an expansive chest, I never saw him smile. Silas was known to inflict great pain upon slaves and force the sick out of their shacks to tend the fields. If the master knew of Silas’s savage tactics, he turned his head in order to turn a profit. As I grew, my affection for the great horses brought me and the master together frequently and, thankfully, out of view of my second master. Silas complained bitterly that I was treated preferentially and his reproving gaze I took pains to avoid but there is no question that the horses I grew to love gave me more license than other slaves but moreover, they would forever bring me luck, their nobility and gallantry teaching me, nurturing a destiny in me.
My celestial mother, Emeline, a house slave, was small but not delicate. Her hands were not the corroded appendages of a field slave but were hands still calloused by hard labor. She was smoke and iron: elegant, trenchant, and lightly complected, thus able to work in the Master’s household as one of his servants, the mistress of the household esteeming lightness over blackness, considering mulattoes more virtuous. Moreover, she was literate, the depth of which she hid for fear of reprisal from whites who preferred their house negroes tame and only ‘slightly civilized’. Raised on a different plantation, one near the great Mississippi River, mother was purchased by a black minister, John Berry Meachum. Meachum, who worked furiously and skillfully to purchase slaves in order to grant them their freedom, established one of the black schools arising out of the 1847 Missouri statute prohibiting the education of negroes or mulattos. He circumvented the law by floating a steamboat on the great river as the river was considered federal property, and federal law, though indulgent to states’ rights, did not officially recognize slavery. The floating freedom school created a safe haven for learning.
Educated, she worked to purchase her own freedom but shortly after attaining it was caught by a slave trader and cruelly sold back into bondage. Having once tasted freedom, nothing could slake her thirst. She oscillated between bitterness and hope and possessed a bedrock resolve: her son would learn to read and write. So steady her conviction, indefatigable her will, that even while working in the Master’s house, she slipped away as often as she could to instruct me, at first in letters and sounds, then finally in words.
The penultimate seed sown in me years before that opening day of light and closing night of darkness was … a pilfered book. One of the master’s children misplaced their ‘blue book’, so named because of the blue backed boards that bound the small thin volume, a text written by Noah Webster in 1824 from which all white children received their grammatical instruction. Having discovered it, my mother ferreted it away to the barn. We dug a hole beneath the straw mat I slept on, lining the loamy Missouri soil with yellow stubble and a gunny sack, concealing the precious handbook. The contents of that small book, sewn furtively, germinated in me an insatiable hunger for knowledge, the small growth of that sapling proving the possibility of my mind. I slept on my buried treasure and continued to plunder from the workday stolen moments so as to steep myself in its lessons.
On Sundays, when the master and his wife were away at church, or on rare evenings when she wasn’t required, my mother pillaged with me in the corner of the barn. The lack of writing materials was a fortuitous blessing. I would scrawl my lessons in the dirt so that they could be easily erased, all evidence of any subversion destroyed. Often, mother would seep her small feet across the dirt to clear the lesson, "Again!". Or, I would lay in the stall, thumbing pages of the book, fingering over letters, tracing black squiggles, circles, and lines, then carving them in the ground, my mouth repeating the sounds. Even in the dark night we found a way to learn. Holding out my hand palm upward, mother would say, ‘Now we’ll shape the letter A’. Taking my hand she would plot the lines, first up from the base of my open palm toward the apex, then back down the opposite side and across, pressing heavily to ensure I felt every line. She would instruct, ‘now, shape the letter on my hand’. With my index finger, I would repeat the process over and over, pronouncing the letter as I inscribed. I repeated the alphabet upon my mother’s open palm hundreds of times.
As a young boy, I would often lean to kiss her worn, upward-palmed hands at the conclusion of each lesson. Far from appreciating her training, I was simply thankful she cared enough to be with me. In the stable I was isolated, far from virtually everyone except mute Rufus, and thus subject to tremendous bouts of loneliness. My kiss became a prayer of supplication and benediction, the only form of benediction a child can invoke. My mother, likely, could have reached out to Mr. Meachum to prove she had once bought her freedom or she might have been able to conspire with others to run away -she was certainly smart enough to do so- but there is no doubt in my mind, the reason she stayed was to ensure my education. At times, her lessons were virulent, her demeanor agitated and intense, so earnest her desire to deliver me from darkness.
I close my eyes.
My lips touch the flame of her open hands.