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The Diary of Isabelle Adams
June 1, 1831
The setting sun sparkles, a florescent glow bouncing off of his smooth brown skin. He appears an angel of radiance amongst the quickly darkening surroundings as he lifts the ax once more…chopping wood to feed the starving fire. His bruised, muscled arms quiver, but never falter as he continues to work endlessly. A few faint stars are appearing now in the sky, but he doesn’t pause for so much as a second to admire the beauty for fear of taking his eyes off of the task ahead. All the while, from inside my bedroom window, I can’t take my eyes off of him.
I often feel guilty watching Isaac from the window-like an innocent bystander at a zoo, watching the animal suffer and bleed for my amusement. I fight a constant battle between my head and my heart. My head tells me to rid myself of sympathy-I will never be accepted in society with the mindset I have now. My heart, however, burns with a passionate desire for Isaac that even I cannot deny. Never in my life have I experienced such exhilaration as when I’m close to him, even for brief moments. I know it is wrong, interracial love, or so I’m told…but I can’t help where my heart leads me, can I?
I have a confession to make: I create excuses to be with him. Subtle excuses of course, but justified nonetheless. Many a time I have asked him to aid me in housework with petty tasks such as fetching water or building a chair for the sitting room. I always find a way to be around his workplace, performing a task of my own and making small talk. Sometimes though, when my husband is gone, we’ll have real conversations and when that happens, I can’t help but feel the spirit of my husband still looming over me, forbidding him to remain in my presence. I can’t suppress this giddy attraction though and I feel as though my passive temperament betrays me every time I turn around.
My husband doesn’t respect me as Isaac does. Paul is always out on matters of business as a cotton merchant while I stay at home all day, abandoned to be with my thoughts. He is always too tired for me, too frustrated, too uninterested. Isaac is there all day however, hard at work, but always willing to listen to me, to be there for me. We have a relationship that is more than just master to slave, but friend to friend. No words can come close to describing the devastation I would feel if Isaac weren’t a part of my life-I think I would slowly wither away into myself. I’ve secretly and subconsciously given my already owned heart away.
If Paul knew of my admiration for Isaac, the consequences would undoubtedly be severe. His opinions are law-I find it’s easier not to fight him on matters of controversy. However, his anger and racist views towards the Negroes are absolutely dreadful. I can’t ever bear to hear him speak badly of Isaac. Then again, I hardly view Isaac as our slave so much as Paul does. He is forever speaking to me of how Isaac is but an annoyance, a hassle, a worthless dog…it breaks my heart listening to his insulting views of society today. I suppose I should be used to being subjected to racist conversation…but I still experience a pang of remorse and anger whenever I hear the word â€˜n***’.
What can I do though? I feel as though I’m an individual, drowning in a sea of stereotypical intolerance. I’ve never moved from my birthplace in Fairfax County, Virginia…I’ve been drowning my whole life. There’s so much that reminds me everyday of what I’ve become and what I hoped I’d never be; women and men alike joining together in slave trade, children being raised to despise and look down upon their â€˜n****s’. My stomach feels queasy just thinking about it. I wish I were brave enough to become part of an abolitionist revolution. I wish I were strong enough to face my husband’s wrath of disagreement. I wish I weren’t so scared by individuality. I wish I could find something to grab hold to and pull myself out of the bitter waves crashing upon me. I wish I could save the world.
August 25, 1831
My love for Isaac grows stronger with every moment. The thrill of being together is almost sickening with its intensity. I have so much to learn from him. He tells me of his suffering, his determination to be free, and his desire for the outside world and knowledge. He wants to travel, raise a family, work for the one he loves and only for them, not an abusive master who could care less. He tells me of being torn away from his friends and family as a child, sold into slavery before he could even begin to understand injustice. He tells me of his memories, feeling used and disgraced as he was sold as an object of worthlessness. He tells me of his unfaltering hope that, one day, we will be able to be together without having to hide our love. I tell him that, though it may seem hard to believe, our lives are not so different…only I hold myself captive within my heart.
Over the years, I have taught him to read and write a bit, as that is one of his life goals. He is intelligent and eager to learn as anyone I have seen before and it is a great moment when he catches on to a new piece of information. It seems that the littlest bit of knowledge thrills him and I want to give him everything I possibly can. I feel devoted to him in every way and his sweetness overwhelms me. He calls me his rose bud and tells me that I’m beautiful. I can only smile blissful innocence as he strokes my hair…touches my skin…the only thing keeping us apart.
I oftentimes worry about Isaac though. He seems to be under the pressures of opposing forces, tugging at him at all times. The crease in his brow seems permanently scarred to his face. He never totally seems at rest and it pains me that I seem to bring about more uneasiness. One must make sacrifices for love however I suppose.
Paul is beginning to get restless with Isaac and I fear he knows that dishonesty lingers in our home. He’s working Isaac harder than ever before, coming home earlier, always making sure he keeps a close eye on him. I casually asked him the other day why he was making Isaac struggle so and didn’t he think he could relax a bit. All the while I was screaming inside, wanting Paul to accept the truth, wanting him to leave us alone and let us be. I was so fearful that he knew I wasn’t faithful; it took all of my concentration to keep from quivering. His answer, though, shocked me out of my old fear and a wave of new terror washed over me. He was convinced that Isaac was in conspiracy against us.
Stories of a black rebellion against the whites, Nat’s Rebellion, were rampant in Virginia. I had heard talk of murder, deceit, and unexpected attacks. In the early hours of the morning five days ago, a slave man named Nat Turner and a small group of other Negroes had set out with bloodshed on their minds. They had killed every member of the family that owned Turner, but they didn’t stop there. They continued to move from house to house, slaughtering whites in their own homes, and succeeded in killing at least 55. Of course, the militia broke up the rebellion, capturing and killing Turner and some others involved in his posse. Some, however, escaped…raising suspicion among many…including my husband.
Paul brought forth the revealing evidence to me when I asked how our Isaac could possibly be involved in such a feat. Paul’s reasoning caused me to break out in a cold sweat and I could hardly move for fear and guilt. Isaac was acting strangely around him lately and seemed nervous and uncomfortable. Isaac had been sneaking away at odd hours of the night and not returning until early the next morning. Isaac was not home the night of the rebellion.
Tonight as I lay in bed, I can’t help but wonder what to do. Guilt possesses every essence of my being and I feel faced with yet another impossible situation. I know that Isaac is innocent; for he was with me all those nights he snuck out. My husband seemed to think nothing of the fact that I would come to bed late every night. At first I took precautions and told him that I had to clean the kitchen or do some other mindless task, and he accepted that without question. As time moved on however, I began to just come to sleep long after he had retreated to the bedroom. Poor timing had dictated Isaac’s fate, and I couldn’t help but feel responsible for the sure punishment that was headed his way.
How can I save him though? If I reveal his whereabouts on the night of the rebellion, everything would come crashing down. Our secret love affair would be discovered, Isaac would no doubt be sent away or worse, and who knows what would become of my marriage and reputation. I am no hero. I cower behind my pure reputation, afraid to reveal the truth and face the fact that change must be brought about. I can no more reveal Isaac’s innocence to my husband than I can walk on water. I am undeserving of love-all I can do is betray it when fear and conflict comes along. All I can do is sit back and watch Isaac hurt and suffer. My heart is breaking with the reality of it all.
Why can’t I be more like Isaac? He, who has little to nothing to show for himself, has found himself and knows what he wants. I am hopelessly lost and this tear-stained page cannot answer my prayers. Even as a slave, he is freer than I myself could ever hope to be.
October 29, 1840
Isaac grows more and more weary with every day. He shrinks under the watchful guard of my husband and the smile in his eyes begins to dull and weaken with every crack of the whip. I miss seeing them sparkle so dreadfully. It is all I can do to resist crying out and rushing to his defense…but I know I cannot. I can’t make myself look away.
Isaac talks of running away. He tells me of a secret Underground Railroad through which freedom can be pursued. Abolitionists and free African-Americans have made it their goal to safely escort runaway slaves from the clutches of the south to the opportunity of the north. There are stations along the way to shelter and feed the fugitives along the journey and through secret hidings and disguise, slaves were able to reach the north. It is not without risk though that this operation persists. The legal and “moral” complications involved in harboring slaves were high and it was a hazardous position.
Through all the turmoil and threat he faces if he flees though, he still seems willing to risk the journey. Of course, I cannot even begin to prevent him from leaving. Seeing him dying slowly here…it would be completely inappropriate for me to beg him to stay. His happiness means the world to me. However…I can’t help but feel a growing sense of desperation and fear well up inside, begging resolution to a question which I feel shamed to even ask myself-what about me?
Isaac is my other half. He is the reason I wake in the morning and the last thought that flows through my mind before I drift off to sleep at night. The thought of him not being there hurts too much to even think about. Tears sting at the corners of my eyes, the unfairness of it all is incomprehensible. Can I bring myself to let him go? It seems impossible.
He senses my distress-I don’t have to say a word. He holds me as he hums a soothing melody, his arms wrapped around me tightly. He tells me that the brightest star in the sky will be his guide to eternity. All I need to do to feel close to him is to look at the North Star and know that he’s somewhere looking at that very same one. I can hardly take comfort in this statement as he will be risking his life to follow that star through the night, running from men on patrol and braving the wilderness. Cold…lonely…hungry…frightened…I softly shed my tears into his ragged shirt, burying my face into the warmth of his body. There has to be a way for us, not this nightmare which we face.
All of these years of hiding, I suppose I knew that Isaac was unhappy…but I couldn’t help holding onto the hope that maybe I might be enough to make him stay. But he has reached the point, as I had always known he would, in which he just can’t take it anymore. I understand, and yet I am jealous of the freedom he has to seek opportunity. I feel trapped inside my life, like I can’t risk anything without being ostracized. He can only move up in life-I am stuck in a reverberation.
Love has a funny way of clinging on forever and breaking your heart even when you’re still together. I never thought I could miss a person so much as I did in those late hours of the night, just dreaming and loving and knowing who we wanted to be was who we were in those moments. As I turned to walk away tonight, he grabbed my hand and slipped something into my outstretched palm. As he closed my fingers over the gift, his eyes danced and smiled, as if he had a secret. Then, he dashed silently away to go back to his quarters, leaving me alone to my thoughts. I slowly opened my hand and inside lay a small note and a dried rose bud. The note reads “You are so beautiful. Don’t let anyone hold you captive inside yourself. Show the world the gorgeous petals that you keep dried and stowed away. I love you my rose bud.” I never did quite appreciate the significance of my name. I understand now.
October 30, 1840
Isaac is gone.
November 23, 1840
Please, help Isaac to be strong. Help him to survive whatever injustice throws at him. I pray that he is warm, fed, and above all, satisfied. I pray that one day, we will be able to be together again. I sometimes like to believe that he’s already in the north, safe and happy, and will be coming back for me soon. I know that it is just wishful thinking…but oh how I wish it were true. Please give me the strength to move past these painful memories of fidelity and allow me to move on with my life. I feel so weak, so tired. Every day is a struggle to find motivation and I can hardly look out the window without my heart failing me. I can’t stand the pain of not knowing. A dull ache lies in the pit of my stomach and chest at every moment. I find myself spending sleepless nights, gazing at the North Star and imagining that he is looking upon it too, thinking of me. Is he thinking of me? Is he really safe and still following the stars towards freedom? Keep him, oh Lord, in your thoughts. Isaac is a good man and I pray you allow him favorable conditions for achieving his destiny. I want all of the happiness in the world to fall upon him. Thank you oh Merciful One.
May 4, 1851
The Compromise Act of 1850 was supposed to be a means of making everyone happy. I’ll have you know that, while the states as a majority may have been content with these negotiations, it certainly didn’t make my life any easier. The compromise allowed California to be let in and declared a free state, New Mexico and Utah the decision to choose on the matter of slaves, and for Texas to pay 10 million dollars by the federal government to settle the Texas-New Mexico fight over boundaries. In addition, selling slaves became illegal in DC, however the act of slavery remained legal and the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. The Fugitive Slave Act forced the population of free states to assist in the capture and restoration of runaway slaves. All I could think when I heard the news was of the one who continued to hold my heart: Isaac.
Paul saw this change as wonderful. He understood the compromise and completely agreed with it. I wish he weren’t so outspoken about his opinions though. Sometimes I feel as though he is a bit rash in his decisions. Paul had never fully recovered from the rage of Isaac leaving. With the discovery of the escape, he had left the house in a fit of fury with a shotgun and, though I knew Paul would never kill Isaac, I still was fearful. I had never seen him so full of rage and revenge-seeking fury before. Isaac was long gone by the time Paul realized and Paul didn’t even think to ask me if I knew anything of his whereabouts. What would I know, after all?
I am so confused and afraid now. What if Isaac is captured? Of course, he’d be returned and I could see him again…but I couldn’t wish that on him. I’m sure he’s happy where he is-free and content. Besides, with my husbands compulsive anger attacks, who knows what would happen to him once he came home. I cannot believe that, though I haven’t seen Isaac for years now, his memory burns in my mind as though that night of his departure was yesterday. He is still a part of my life, and I fear for him now.
I have often contemplated telling my husband of the love Isaac and I share…but I can never work up the courage. When I hear him talking of his strongly racist views, I have a sudden urge to throw something at his head. I don’t want to be known as â€˜Paul’s wife’. I want to be my own person with my own thoughts. I want the world to understand that slavery is unjust and wrong. I want Paul to know that his own wife fell into interracial love. I want to scream in his ear so he’ll never forget.
All of my life I’ve been suppressed and I can’t take it anymore. Why is it so wrong to be an abolitionist? Why can’t I tell everyone who I really am? Why is it so hard to understand and accept that I’m different? I don’t belong in the South; I can’t belong in the South. Of course, if I did take action and tell the world of my lofty goals for a non-racial community, that would mean facing the consequences. I’m not afraid of flying…it’s the landing that I fear.
What Isaac said, to show my petals to the world, could that really be what I should do? I was closed up too tightly, too dry and out of energy to affect change. I can’t follow in the footsteps of my neighbors forever and I can’t make everyone around me understand and change. I can hardly do anything but be myself.
When will I finally find my own voice? Can it really be this difficult to maintain a sense of self while complying to society’s desire? Will this everlasting conflict ever find resolution? Or will this Compromise tear my life into even tinier shreds?
September 10, 1851
Today my heart collapsed and healed itself all in the same moment. Today a smile returned to my face and I floated in a cloud of ecstasy and delight. Today, I started to live again. Today, I received a letter from Isaac.
I will keep this brief, as I know you are busy brightening the world with your presence. I am safe and well and traveling the Underground Railroad was the adventure of a lifetime. The feeling of fear added to the desperation of missing you kept me awake most nights, but the adrenaline kept me alert for danger so, in a way, you saved my life many a time. Thank you for that. In addition, I have been living in Pennsylvania by myself and I have been doing better than ever. Knowing I don’t belong to anyone is a feeling so liberating, I cannot even find the words to pen them to you. All I know is this now-my life is not complete without you. I have dreamed about you every night and not a moment goes by where I don’t wish that I could see you and be with you. That is why now I must ask for your hand in marriage. I cannot live without you and, if you will have me, I know I can make you happy. I offer you this ring as a promise to love you forever. The ring may not seem like much, but what it represents is bigger than you could possibly imagine. Of course, I understand that you’d be risking everything to come run away with me to the North, but I felt that I must at least know I tried rather than die not knowing your answer. I love you no matter what and I always will, regardless of what anyone else says. I will never let go of you.
My response was short and simple:
Yes. Come take me away.
Yours Forever and Ever,
October 17, 1859
I have been waiting for Isaac every day for the past eight years and not once did I reconsider my decision or falter in my promise. Life became a burden and I wanted time to pass as quickly as possible-anything to see him again. His ghost had become an obsession to me and all I wanted to do was to hear his voice one more time and I felt I would be happy forever. My devotion is overwhelming. I don’t really know what I’m doing or why I’m doing it, but the spontaneity feels good. This feels right. I finally get to be away from it all, I finally get what I want. I need to run out to town for a few hours for Paul, I will write more tonight.
It’s true what they say; that one mans decisions can affect your life forever. For me, on this day, that man is John Brown. Brown is an abolitionist of epic proportions, determined to destroy slavery at all costs. He decided that America needed a bit of revolution to change the way things were for slaves and gained monetary support from abolitionists in the North who wanted to see him succeed.
Last night, he gathered 21 men, white and black, to start an upraising in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He wanted to take the federal armory over, give those weapons taken to nearby slaves, and start a revolution. He kept sixty townspeople captive in hopes that their slaves would join him in his quest…but not a single one did. Local officials came instead and killed ten of Brown’s rebels and Brown himself was captured. His plan failed quite miserably.
When I first heard of this rebellion when I went to town, I instinctively tried to push it out of my mind, as racial uprising made me think of Isaac. Plus, there was nothing I could do about it but mourn the loss of the dead. But suddenly, the situation became all too personal. I heard the name “Isaac” among the gossipy townswomen discussing the matter and suddenly I felt all too much inclined to listen in and catch pieces of their conversation.
“Isn’t the one boy, Isaac, that runaway slave boy of the Adams family?”
“Such a shame…I wonder if they know…”
“Terrible way to die really. Oh well, at least he was just a n***.”
My heart froze in that moment. I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. In a fit of pure desperation for the truth I strode up to the women. Asked them what was going on. My suspicions had been clarified. Isaac had been killed by one of the troops, fighting for liberty. Isaac was gone.
In that moment everything was hazy. Then my life became amazingly clear to me. I looked at the women, nodded in a controlled manner, then turned to leave. Before I could do so though, they started talking about the insignificance of the slave deaths. I couldn’t take it anymore. I turned back around and I yelled at those women like I never had before. I told them how sick I was of racism and how could they honestly stand there and say the death of a person didn’t matter. I don’t even know what I said exactly; all I know is that everything I had bottled up my whole life came out to these random women. And they just stood there, silently, not quite sure what to make of me. When I turned to leave, they remained silent. I felt liberated. I felt overwhelmed. I felt doomed. I felt everything around me go black.
October 18, 1859
Isaac is dead. All my years of waiting, all my dangerous daydreams, everything has been anticlimactic. He is gone and this time, there is no point in pretending he is coming back. He’s gone. Gone. Gone…
I feel numb. And cold, so cold. I live for him, I breathe for him, and for a moment or two, I consider dying to be with him. Then, I stop to realize that I have a battle to fight. I can’t just give up-Isaac is depending on me still. He died fighting for a cause we both believed in-he died for freedom and justice. The only way he can continue fighting and make his mark on this earth is through me. I’m his last hope of salvation.
I confessed everything to Paul. I told him of my undying love for Isaac. I told him that I knew he was going to run away and I had received letters from him in the North. I told him that I hated his thoughts and opinions and that, for once, I was going to speak what was on my mind-racism is not right. I told him I had never loved him as I loved Isaac and I never would. Then I ran.
I have run as far as I possibly can and I am now sitting under a large tree, shivering its multi-colored leaves off in the bitter wind. I don’t know what I will do now or where I will go, but all I know is that I am free now. I am free to express my thoughts to anyone and everyone. I am free to become a conductor on the Underground Railroad. I am free to move north and express my abolitionism with those who sympathize with me. I am free to live.
I received this letter addressed from Isaac this morning and upon reading it, I decided to confess to Paul. Isaac took half of my heart with him when he died, but replaced it with something much better-a reason to keep going. I think about him every moment of every day and I wonder if I could have done something differently-but I realize I wouldn’t change anything for the world. Fear is a terrible enemy, but love conquers all. I’ll still remember the smile in his eyes on my deathbed. I’ll still feel the warmth of his body against mine as I march to save lives. I’ll still hear the sound of his voice, calling me his rosebud and loving me with all his heart.
Never again will I be afraid to speak up and I speak the truth when I say that I am a changed woman. Isaac is my inspiration and my dream. He says I saved his life, but he saved mine. He held the keys to the truth I didn’t know was locked away. With him resting safely now, I can live to the fullest knowing I am serving him in doing so. At last, I can save the world.
I am here in Virginia. A man by the name of James Brown has offered me the chance of a lifetime-the opportunity to fight side by side with Negroes and whites for liberty and justice. He wants to start a slave uprising and I feel as though this is my calling. I’ve always wanted the chance to make a difference, and now I can. I will fight for this cause with all that I am and, when I am done, I will come and find you. I am anxious to see you again and my love for you pulses stronger just knowing we are close together. Fear not for me during the uprising, for I am ready to die. Just knowing I have loved you and have done something to change the world…that’s all anyone could ever ask for. If I don’t live to see you again, just know that no one can tell you what to do. You have to choose your own path and don’t let anybody or any emotion hold you down. Don’t live your life for me, but live life how you feel you should. I eagerly anticipate our reunion and I love you with all my heart.