Chains of Ink: A Slave Narrative Imagined This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

May 29, 2012
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Taken from the diary of Ayo Obataiye, a slave

“...For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; And they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.' How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.” Psalm 137:3-6

September 3, 1775

Last night came slowly, dawdling at the horizon line as if debating whether or not to ascend the sky. Eventually twilight faded and was replaced by an all-encompassing black. The sky and everything beneath it was obscured by the dark of night. Though the darkness had taken its place, however, I remained. The freedom I had so long anticipated could not be attained till the others fell asleep. My fate rested upon the weariness of six slaves, worked from sunrise till sunset that very day. Surely my liberty was meant to be.

When their breath had slowed, I rose from my pallet by the window and began to creep across the floor. The hard earth beneath my feet made not a sound as I made my way over one, then two of my compatriots. Years of bondage seemed but a day in comparison to my silent escape across the cabin. Though I remained hushed as death itself, my mind cried aloud to God, praying that my tread would not break the quiescence. Minutes passed and I reached the corroded wooden door. As my fingers slipped beneath the latch a hand grabbed my ankle. I stifled a cry and found myself staring into the dark eyes of Addae. He put a finger to his lips and motioned to the door. I stepped outside and he followed.

“Ayo, what do you think you are doing?” He looked at me incredulously.

My brother Addae, though only a year older than myself at seventeen, towered above me in stature. The moonlight augmented his spectral appearance, illuminating the open wounds the rod had left only days ago. The memory, fresh in my mind, played again behind my eyes. Addae, so bold and strong, had quickly succumbed to the pain and buckled at the master’s feet. He felt only agony, but I felt shame at his torment. For days I had been unable to meet his eyes. I did so then.

“You know what I am doing. I am running away.” I tried to sound proud for I felt rather like a child caught performing mischief. Indeed, Addae certainly was aware of my plan to escape. For months he had watched me plot. He knew that I was making my way to the forests where I would await the signal, a lantern hung at a fork in the road. For a mere five minutes it would illuminate the path, giving me ample time to reach the wagon which waited me at the road’s end. If I did not come within the time, the light would be snuffed out along with my only chance at freedom.

“You are a fool, Ayo. You want the white man’s freedom but no matter where you run it shall never be found. Not here, where even if you’d bought your liberty you would still be a slave.”

“But that is where you are wrong. Surely you have read of Lord Dunmore’s Negro Army? He is going to free us, Addae! We will fight against the very colonists who hold us captive and gain our freedom from the Governor of Virginia. I shall earn it!” He scoffed at me.

“I have read no such thing, or do you forget that I do not read and write like the master? Do you see what they have done to you? They took you from the fields. They let you come into the house and serve them like you were better than the others. They have given you their clothes,” he said with disgust, gesturing to the waist coat and cravat I had taken from the house. “They have given you their God. But more than anything they have given you their words. You read like them and you write like them. You think you have become one of them, but you are wrong, Ayo. They would strip you of all of this if they wanted. Have you read so much that you forget you are cattle, branded and ready for the slaughter? It is their words that make you act like king, and it is those selfsame words that shall become your downfall.”

In a way, he was right. Learning to read and write had seemed like a gift from God, but as my skill grew I could not help but change. Like Adam and Eve in the days of Eden, I had eaten from the tree of knowledge and knew everything. Like Adam and Eve, I was thrown from the Garden of my ignorance. They found shame; I found slavery. I had been a slave almost all of my life, but never had I born the weight of it so deeply as when I began to learn. I learned from Thomas Paine that the American Colonists were in bondage. I learned from Patrick Henry that freedom is the sweetest thing life has to offer, and from my own life I learned that I was far from free. Men like Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine did not know what it was to be a slave. I did, and I hated myself for it.

“I am pining for my liberty Addae! Surely you can understand that?”

“How can you pine for what was never yours! You know nothing of freedom! You will die a slave like the rest of us. We will all die here, in a land that is not ours, under the watch of a white God who hates us. You bring shame to your home, the home you have forgotten.” As he spoke, his expression changed from one of anger to one of deep, bitter sorrow. I had done my best to forget the country which cast me off, but Addae cleaved to his memories of Africa as if they gave him life. At night offered up prayers to a god he never knew in a tongue he barely remembered. Just as I was ashamed of my bondage, he was ashamed of his ignorance regarding his homeland.

“You could come with me Addae. We could join the army together. You would be treated like a human being. And when the war is won, you would be free to go wherever you choose. You sing Africa’s praises in a strange land. Take this opportunity, and you may someday sing them in the land from which they came.” I thought I had struck a chord, but his cold answer proved me wrong.

“Go, Ayo. May you find what you are looking for, but remember this: you may take your body far from Africa and you may take it far from the white men, but each will always have its claim on your soul.”
I searched in vain for a hint of warmth or concern in his voice, but found none. Addae was ignorant of the world and of human kindness. His words had stung, a blow from a rod wielded by a slave. He turned and reentered the cabin.

By then the moon was high in the sky. I ran into the woods, not daring to look back for fear I should meet a fate like that of Lot’s wife. The wind carried me until I reached the appointed place, a fork in the road. On the left, a path that would lead me to a hay-filled cart and to my freedom. On the right, a path which circled back to the plantation. Back to slavery. A moment passed, then in the distance, a lantern was lit.

One minute. “For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;” I need to go left.

Two minutes. “...And they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.'” Ayo, take the left path.

Three minutes. “...How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?” Africa is not your home. This plantation is not your home.

Four minutes. “...If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” I must take my body far from them, far from both.

Five minutes. “...If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.” They have branded their words upon my soul.

Six minutes. The light flickered out. Slowly, I walked up the right path.

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