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Flamboyant Blue Skeleton Suits
It was in the years when mother still imprisoned me in those flamboyant, blue skeleton suits, as blue as the lazy afternoon sky. At least, I felt imprisoned when she would relentlessly tug at the immortal knots in my tousled, honey-colored hair with an ivory comb, and force me to hold my breath as she buttoned every last button on my starched, collared shirt. Truth be told, I did not know what imprisonment was then. And if you inquired, I probably would not have been able to tell you where that ivory for my comb came from either. I was merely a child that morning when I set off to the schoolhouse, my sweaty little palms clutched tightly in the hands of my protective siblings; I wouldn’t be able to grasp my place on this planet until much later that evening.
Until then, I took my place in a crowded desk between my siblings. I read over Ann’s lace-covered shoulder--as supplies were scarce before the war--and let my doll-sized feet dangle to and fro. I don’t remember what Mr. Hayward taught us that morning. Maybe I was distracted by the itchy stiffness of my collar, the humming of flies or the impenetrable heat.
We walked home hand-in-hand: Ann, Joseph and I, Stanford. We took brisk steps through the still, salty North Carolinian air with a certain alertness. Should any ladies with parasols want to come our way, we would immediately halt. As children, manners were all we had to our name. This particular morning we had to stop, not to give a parasol-clad aristocrat the right of way, but for sugar. I closed my eyes and listened to the coins chiming in my pocket with pride, and squeezed my sister’s hand, as if pride could leak out of my pores and sweat into circulation. Mother had trusted me with her sugar money, and why not? Every task seemed possible that year. Andrew Jackson had just been elected president, a victory for those of us who did not inhabit the east coast.
I couldn’t see atop the counter, which comforted me because John Turner worked at the Hutchinson General Store. An ex-slave, John Turner had the whipped hand to prove it. I reached up on my tip-toes and strained to toss my coins onto the counter, hoping to have no interaction with that deformed colored hand that frightened me so.
Joseph hastily grabbed the sack of sugar two feet above my head, and placed it in my pristine, unscarred hands; hands that had never known treacherous labor or degrading tasks. Ann’s maternal hand was placed upon my dewy back, and guided me gently out of the store. I probably was quite the spectacle in my sky-blue button-up suit, carrying a sack of sugar larger than my torso that soared past my head into the heavens. My neatly-buckled, harmless feet were swiveling me into oblivion, even with Ann’s guiding hand on my back. My head was as empty as my pockets the moment that an axis of a cherry wood wagon struck my ankle. My sugar sack and I tumbled down helplessly, letting beautiful white horses stampede all over my baby-fat-softened stomach. Ann’s cries and Joseph’s wails pierced through me. Mother would soon be wailing too, for I had let her down. There would be no sugar tonight, in the form of sweet rhubarb pie, cookies or wafers. But Mother wouldn’t have the worst of the situation in all her worrying, nor would Father for having to afford medical attention, my siblings for being irresponsible guardians, the shredded sugar sack next to me in all of its crumbled glory, nor I, even if I ended up as mutated as John Turner. The one person who would suffer the greatest wrath from the collision was 19-year-old George Freeman, cherry-wood carriage driver extraordinaire—because he was born a negro.
“Mister, mister, are you alright? Good lord, please, return to us!” A clammy, black hand was tapping my face.
“Get your colored hands off of him,” screeched Ann, before I could respond. “Stanford, open your eyes.” I obediently squinted and noticed that Ann’s once-pristine lace sleeve was being baptized in a puddle of blood. I was too petrified to further investigate the source of my misery, so I lowered my heavy head to the warm, fertile earth and closed my velvety eyelashes forever.
“VENGEFUL EX-SLAVE MURDERS YOUNG BOY” was the headline of the North Carolina Tribune that week. It was not murder, and I will never forgive Joseph Ann, or the twenty-some onlookers outside the Hutchinson General Store for not saying otherwise. We all take out our grief on different kinds of victims, whether that victim is a canvas, poetry anthology or a certain George Freeman. In 1829 North Carolina, negroes seemed to be the only kind of canvas suitable for depositing grief upon. Though he was as free as his surname implied, George was not given a trial, but a life-sentence in a state prison far away. If I had only not been so prideful, and admitted that the sugar sack was too heavy for me, George Freeman would have never been enslaved.
Contrary to popular belief, sugar doesn’t always concoct the sweetest of things. Mother nearly rinsed all of the maroon blood from my suit with her tears. Joseph dug my grave, and Ann buried me with my ivory comb. There was still a wavy strand of honey-colored hair on it from that morning. The longest summer that my family had ever known eventually drew to a close.
George Freeman stared out of his cell in a faraway prison, scolding himself for thinking he had had better views outside the crevices of the Feloz, the Brazil-bound slave ship he had been chained to only years before. Though America had passed a bill in 1807 prohibiting the slave trade, underground overseas commerce was not yet uncommon. Patrollers had discovered and confiscated the Feloz in what Freeman considered to be the incident he discovered God. While the rest of the ship’s human cargo was transported back to Africa, George offered his services to the patrollers and eventually reached the East Coast to find his sister. It didn’t take George long to realize that the odds of finding his sister were similar to that of coming to America to locate a single Leghorn chicken without the name or address of its hatchery; George escaped to freedom only to discover his own people being sold and bred as casually as poultry. Yet, George had less freedom than poultry. Birds could fly, and George would not be able to conquer the sky until many years from now. Well, maybe not after he failed to save that white Stanford boy.
“What nonsense crime did you commit, boy?” A toothless mouth grinned at George.
“Murder,” he replied coolly.
“To hell you killed somebody. I’ve been watching you stare out that crack in the wall like it was your lover. Now tell me, son, what’d you do—look at someone funny, pick some bad cotton?” George lowered his gaze and pretended to occupy himself by de-scuffing his shoes, but the toothless inmate was relentless.
“Don’t matter, boy. We’re better off here than in the fields. At least here we’re guaranteed to have some nice shade. Boy, out in my field, the sun was worse than the overseers! And my master was rough! So…what’d you grow? It doesn’t look like the bugs have gotten to you, so you couldn’t have grown rice. By the look of those muscles you must have grown something mighty—”
“—I’m a free man,” George interjected, his large jaw clenched tightly. “I was a free man.” Before Toothless could scoff, George rolled up the sleeve of his itchy, convict uniform to display an unmistakable light-pink number 552 branded into his otherwise hazelnut-colored skin.
“What’d you do, swim to shore, boy?”
“God saved me.”
“Is he gonna’ save you this time, 552?”
“My name is George Freeman,” he howled, “and I’m not changing it anytime soon. You don’t know my suffering.” He sighed. “It’s worse to have tasted the sugar before it’s taken from you forever. You’ve never dipped your finger in the sweetness of freedom, so don’t you dare act like you understand.”
George turned to the crevice on the wall at the last ocean he would ever get to muse upon while somewhere in Carolina, a harmless white boy set out to school. And George smiled cynically because he had all day, all month, and eternity to philosophize over the irony of that statement: harmless and white cannot coexist in the same sentence, unless, of course, we’re discussing Leghorn chickens.