A Timely Peace

February 20, 2008
When I returned in the early evening, father had already returned from Hampton with the new field worker. He was much needed; one of the other Negroes was quite advanced in years and could not work as well as he once had. I saw him being shown the slave cabins by one of the other workers as I walked to the house. He appeared to be strong, and was tall and young, seemingly capable of heavy work. Father had chosen a profitable addition to the plantation, by my quick sight of him. Not wanting any great involvement in the affairs of the plantation and being very foot-sore from walking to and from the school-room, I entered the house.

His name was Josiah, and was from a plantation up north. I eyed him to be the ambitionless, dreamless sort of Negro, but he was not without manners. He was as polite to the master as he was to us. I showed him the cabin he would be calling home, and gained the feeling he wasn’t used to such living, although the cabins are not bad, comparing them to the surrounding farms. The Whittier plantation is thought of as being in fine state, even though it is small, and rural. Five simple log cabins, about 6 by 8 paces square, are home to all 26 Negroes. Seemingly, he was not accustomed to heavy labor, nor was he quick about the wits. He had to be told to do every little task all the time. But he is a great help now, since Elijah is dying. Dying from that universal disease, Time. He lived almost his entire life at Whittier. Now his hands can barely open from his years of endless labor. He doesn’t speak much, not anymore. Everybody knows this new one is Elijah’s replacement, including Elijah.

The new slave aroused as much attention as the purchase of a cow on the plantation. Or maybe less. The other slaves paid him some notice when they came back from the fields. Father did not. I could only find out his name was Josiah and was from a distant plantation which did not need his labor. I surmised he is very competent and healthy, able to serve his oppressors well. He seemed passionless and without zeal, so there was no spirit to break, no will to hammer into submission. He does not think for himself. Thus, to my father, he is the perfect slave. My mother and two sisters concern themselves only with their expected chores as women and their personal pastimes, and pay no attention to these happenings. Once again, my family’s apathy was pressed upon me, and I could do nothing but turn away from it.

Father bought another Negro for the fields, the most expensive we have ever paid for, because he is youthful and muscular. If it had been me, I would have never bought another. They live on our land, eat what we provide them, and rely on us in every way, but they do not work hard. Father has three or four flogged a week, but they learn nothing about work. Spending our money on more of them won’t get the harvest in faster; he’ll be lazy like the rest. They have little incentive as it is. Now that there is another…father and Robert should be out there keeping the overseers on the job, but father does not manage things closely, and Robert is off reading, or talking to his clergy friends, instead of learning the duties of the plantations, He does not care about becoming the next master of Whittier. He did not even know about the new slave until he got back from the town, and even then he said nothing about the new nuisance.

John said nothing to his son as he poured over one of the papers he was always pouring over, intently reading one of the letters and newspapers he was always intently reading. Robert sat down and waited in one of the chairs in front of his father’s desk. After a minute, and without looking from his papers, he tells Robert “I called you because I am giving you a job. You will be the overseer of the field workers.”
Robert had expected something of this sort, and responded with reserve.
“What must I do?” Robert asked evenly.
“For the next few weeks, you will learn to manage the workers. You will learn from James how to properly punish and control the slaves. This experience will be valuable. You will have authority over all the workers and other overseers, James and the other two. I have told James you will be taking over tomorrow in the morning.” He paused. “This is only temporary, Robert, only until you learn how this plantation works. You have little practice in these affairs as of now.”
From experience, Robert knew not to ask more. “Thank you” and he left.

The morning proved to be a warm one. Streaks of high, thin clouds did little to block the sun’s rays. By the time I arrived at the slave cabins, the early dawn already manifested the signs of a typical Virginia day. The slaves, all of them, were ready and waiting for me; apparently, I was late. The overseers frowned at me. I realized I was not well liked, not for anything I have done, but for what I have not done. I have not been involved in the farm and I haven’t done any physical labor except work in the house. I have long had a disinterest in my family’s plantation, solely because of the slaves.
When I was young, I shared my father’s views without thoughts of my own, but the more I studied the scriptures, and thus drew closer to God’s will, the more I distanced myself from the evils of the farm. A year ago I would have never have called the treatment of slaves evil; I justified slavery and the punishment of slaves in a variety of ways. Many masters treat their slaves simply as servants, with kindness and Christian goodwill. My father does not. But, as I have said, I never have spent time with the slaves, and never knew the extent of the brutality until father put me in charge of the slaves. This task will be the first of many, I knew. He is engaging me in the farm, preparing me to one day control it. The experience had the opposite effect.
The other overseers took a number if the slaves to more distant fields and my group of eleven worked the field next to the slave quarters. This field was corn. In my group was one named Elijah. He was by far the oldest, and was very near to the end of his life. But they still made him work. He had recently been tasked to shucking the few early bushels of corn, because he was not productive enough in the fields. He had great difficulty moving and breathing.
While the other slaves worked the field with unnecessary diligence, Elijah sat in the shade on the tree line shucking the corn, and I stayed with him. We got to talking about all kinds of subjects, starting with the weather and finally arriving at a discussion of the brutality he had seen in his lifetime. He spoke slowly, deliberately and without fear of me. In his age, he apparently gained unreserved honesty for him to be able to talk to me candidly about what my father has done. His unapologetic speech was broken, so broken there wasn’t anything left to break, and he knew it. Still, he harbored no animosity towards me. When he stared describing the horrors he had seen, his tone changed to reflection, reverence and to sadness, but also, incredibly, to forgiveness. I heard no bitterness in his voice.
“Dey used to take de stubborn ones an’ tie ‘em to a post, ahms above ‘em, out en de swamps.” He motioned towards the trees “den dey whupped ‘em, and hit ’em till them backs was raw all ovah. Den dey lef’ ‘em all night and day, wid nothin’ but de musketeers and the cold and heat to keep company, and it made ‘em go crazy. Some of ‘em died out there. But wen I came here, dey didn’t punish ‘em as much.”
“You mean Whittier is better than the other plantation you worked at?”
“Well, de first week here, all dem years ago, a negro new like I was hit a white man back. He ran into that creek ovah there” He pointed with an ear of corn to the creek behind the slave cabins. “De marster came and told ‘em to get out to get de propah beatin’, but he refused. De marster took a pistol out, and told ‘em again. De negro say he ain’t never movin’, or bein’ told what to do again. Den de marster shot ‘em, and left de body floatin’ in de river.”
“Just like that? Cold-blooded murder? Did anyone else see this?”
“All de other whites, yassah. I don’t think dey liked it, but dey didn’t say nothin’. Das why whuppin’s wasn’t common here. After dat, all dem Negroes never disobeyed. Corse, dat was a long time ago. Bunch more been lynch’d till dey died. Las’ week dey whupped Waddy for taken a few potatoes from de field, ‘cause he had no food to eat.”
“Who was the master who killed the man?” I was not sure if he was talking about something he heard about, or something he saw. He spoke as if he was only talking to himself, and I had to be close to understand him.
“Dat was Marster John.”
I realized, with a deep shadow of horror over my mind, that I was the son of the people who did this. I was speechless for several minutes as he continued working, seemingly unaware of everything around his except his task. I kept talking to him, and he described more of the cruelty. Again, I was surprised he harbored no ill will towards me.
For the next three days this scene was repeated. As I learned more about him through our discussions, I actually began to admire him. Of course, I spoke to no one of this, and preformed my tasks well and with regularity.
On the third day, however, I saw one of the other overseers whipping one of the slaves severely for taking a break in the shade out from the searing sun. The coldness and brutality of this act struck me when I watched. But again, I said nothing.
That night my father suffered a stroke. It was not a major one, but it was strong enough to debilitate him for several months, at least. When I went to bed that night, I fully realized what my father’s stroke meant.
The next morning, Elijah died. When I arrived at the cabins, the others had already gone to the fields. He had made his way, by the help of the others, to his place where he shucked corn, in the knobby roots of an old moss-draped tree. He was not shucking corn when I found him, however. He was leaning with his back against the tree, his breath heavy and labored, his eyes placed on me.
“One day” He said when I approached him “One day things are gonna be different. All dis’ sufferin’, its for a reason. It’ll teach the people somethin’. History will remember it, and the races’ll be better for it. Men’ll learn. Dey’ll learn.”
“I hope so.” I answered, with a feeling of reverence towards this neglected man. I knew I was the only white person who ever bothered to get to know him.
“I pray so. Lordy!” He struggled to take a deep breath “Da good Lord’s gonna take me home soon, real soon.” I did not know what to say, so I said nothing, I just studied his face. It was just him and I and the soft light scattered through the great tree, and the cooling wind and the deep, thriving land, and a thousand unseen hosts, and no humans.
“Tell ‘em, tell ‘em to bury me under the old mulberry tree, wid da cross I been carvin’”
“I will.” More silence.
“Oh, Lordy! Finally I’m glad. Now I have joy, oh de joy!”
“But you are dieing.” I said, confused but still reverent.
“No, no. I ain’t dyin’. Now I start to live! I don’t go to death; I go to de good Lord an’ life, forevah!” His eyes widened, fixed on something not of this world, filled with light that did not come from the sun. “Heaven calls me from dis worn-out body, from dis worn-out earth! Whispahs from above! I dismay to leave, but the father calls me, and I mus’ go! The good Lord waits wid open arms.” And with a last, labored and tired breath, his eyes seeing much, but although seeing nothing from this world, he exclaimed “My Father!” And the breath went from him, his eyes faded dark as the light left them, and his eyelids fell limp.
Those who watch this scene, the ones who are not humans, saw the Crucified Man lift him from his troubles, and then they walked together towards the Land of Light…
You have struggled, now struggle no longer.
Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest!

I sat there with him still, for how long I do not know, holding his hand as it grew cold. I had grown to know his so well, that I felt tremendous personal loss. But not all of the tears I shed that day were of pain or of sorrow.
Eventually, I found the strength to stand, and leave Elijah’s vessel. I found the cross he had referred to in his cabin, a skillfully carved, beautiful and smooth cross, and brought it back. I placed it on him, his arms I crossed over it.
Passion, long dormant and repressed by corrosive apathy, rose in me. By this time, it was near midday. I walked, amongst my tumult of thoughts, back to the house. There I entered my father’s study. When I did, he quickly glanced up and then back down to what he was doing. He was wrapped in a blanket, and was looking very haggard and unhealthy. He should have been lying down, but he refused to doctor’s advice for the purpose of working and had the attendants help him into his study.
“Why are you not in the fields?”
“Elijah died.”
He sighed. “Finally. I wanted to talk to you anyways. Come in.” I did. “I am only up now to get things in order. But I will be obligated to my bed for some months.”
“So you want me to take over until then.”
“…Yes. It will be a great duty, but only for a few months. It will be a good experience and practice for when you gain full mastership. You will need to deal with this year’s corn crop, which is ripening now, as well as the potatoes, the sales and the profits, as well as…”
“Managing and keeping the slaves in line.”
“Yes, that too.” He did not catch my tone.
“A man just died.”
“yes, it’s a good thing. He was becoming a burden.”
Anger, while selfless, was aroused in me.
“That uneducated negro was a wiser, and a better human being than you, me, or any of us here!”
“Excuse me?” He looked up with uncertainty. I finally let my thoughts run.
“Look around you! Cannot you see as I do? The world cries out and the earth laments, but none take heed! If we cannot rise above this self-motivated tyranny, how can we advance? How can we stop this cycle of misery, violence and fear? Not through superiority by suppression! We cannot hold them down without staying down with them! Christ didn’t die to free men and then to have us enslave them again! We were slaves once too, slaves to sin, but Christ gave us the option of freedom, yet we imprison, and murder! Our own brothers, and spill their blood, which is as red as ours, but I say we destroy ourselves! For are we not one body in Christ? Then we destroy our own flesh by harming other Christians. And the heathens too! Is not the greatest commandment love? We are not above them! We are below the heathens, we have an obligation to them now we know the truth, to manifest and share it! So we kill our brothers, our own flesh and blood, without remorse or troubled spirit. If we do not listen to God’s word, it is useless. We ignore God’s purpose for the word for our own gain! How cold the spirit is within you! Don’t you see?
The son of God has freed the world, but when I look around, I see nothing but chains. Why do we make slaves of the freed? Why do we destroy, instead of build? Why do we hate? Why do we judge? Why do we cut and kill instead of heal and resurrect? Why father? You must give answer!” I had his full and unhindered attention, yet I saw no empathy in his face.
“Father, I saw Elijah’s eyes, and those eyes saw heaven.” I paused. He showed no agreement or reaction to what I had said; only a gaze that made me feel an alien amongst my own family. Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.
“We claim to be little Christs, to carry God’s flame, yet do all these godless things. But despite our hypocrisy, that man loved God, when his oppressors believed in Him, claimed control over Him. He knew truth when he saw it. I either walk away from the Spirit, or from this bondage. I cannot be who you want me to be father. I must be who God wants me to be.”
Still, his face suggested no perception or goodness. Only of self-motivated indifference. I began to leave, but stopped at the doorway as he asked “Where are you going?”. He was more confused than anything else because he could understand none of my sentiments. I did not turn.
“I am going to bury a brother.”

Robert’s group of field workers were friends of Elijah, and when they Robert leave, they knew something was wrong. Returning to find their friend dead, who was too many of them like a father, they mourned for him.
After a time, they started to build him a coffin with the wood planks and nails they had kept in anticipation of his death. When Robert returned, it was late in the day, for he had walked slowly and prayerfully. They had finished the coffin. He joined the five close friends of Elijah in lifting his earthly body into its earthly abode. It is the only object they can pay respect to, the only physical thing they have, the only means, to honor the one already gone. Robert told them tearfully and softly “He wanted to be buried under the old willow.” They nodded silently. They knew where it was. Robert helps nail the top on the coffin on, him and another named Warren. No one talks; there is a quiet and speechless understanding between them.
Four of them- three workers and Robert- carefully lift the coffin while the other two walk behind. Robert takes up one of the front corners. The great Willow stands dolefully on the edge of the northern field, a great distance. They move without hurry, although the journey is long; respectfully, although nothing in what they carry is alive. The body, to them, is the representation, the last remembrance and vessel left behind, of their passed friend. Although weary, they carry the coffin strongly as if that wood contains the essence of whom they valued so highly. .
They are near the somber passage’s end when the evening wanes. They move stiffly, musingly and composed, walking away from prejudice and towards a recovering future, softly silhouetted against the faithful sky as the last fires in the bedazzled east die.

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