Chapter One (Excerpt)
"Born a Slave in Tennessee"
All you could smell, on this hot Tennessee night, were the fibrous gifts of the livestock leaving mounds on Matthew’s plantation. The entire spread felt as if it had been enclosed in a glass dome, locking out any hope of a soothing breeze, or fresh air.
At this hour of the morning, the slaves would have to be up when the sun began to rise. So rather than get everyone else off their palettes and sent outside for the birthing, a few of the women helped Kersaia to walk out and over to some nearby bales of hay. Thinking the better of soiling that feed, the women joined intents and helped hoist Kersaia up onto the splintering, oak, wagon-bed, using their own dirty dresses as cover to protect her skin, and her modesty, at least a little. They could always wash the wagon, they reasoned, but would face the whip if they ruined the hay with Kersaia’s blood and after-birth— Even if it was the master’s baby.
Kersaia struggled to breathe as she squeezed the midwife’s assistant’s arm for dear life. Even though she was the master’s chosen one, there would be no privacy or pampering on the night she would give birth to his child. There were men-folk in the slave quarters bunkhouse and the women simply would not allow them to gawk and leer at a woman, and her delicate parts, as the life was given— and she was being torn apart. The nearest thing to anesthesia they could muster was a balled-up horse blanket and a gallon of contraband corn liquor they managed to secret away in the woods to ferment once in a while. It was a cure all used for poultices, antiseptic and numbing all in one. It was used as a tonic also, and less seldom, as a high— Generally in small doses, and in moments of celebration, such as another birth, or a passing.
Matthew Jones, owned this plantation, and at least two-dozen slaves. Kersaia, his dearly- loved, was one of them. She screamed into the, star-filled, night sky as she attempted to usher his
child into the world through her tender center. A woman, immediately, covered her mouth with her hand. Though the master’s wife knew what was going on in that field, one wouldn’t want to rub it in her face. The consequences would be harsh. The seventeen year old girl had never been eviscerated in such a way, as the baby’s head began to crest through her canal. He deflowered her passionately— the master did, when they began to have sex many months back. That hurt her rather greatly as he decimated her hymen. He tried to be gentle, but his ampleness precluded that. Now, however, she endured a pain she never knew existed in her young life.
Only a girl, now that she was in the master’s favor, the other slaves would take to calling her “Ole Missus”, which was an epithet reserved for women in her role as the master’s concubine. In the south, at the time, white, landed gentry could intermix and even intermarry without challenge or consequence. While he had other children with female slaves who bore him more “children of the yard”, as they were called, Kersaia was his most genuine, emotional love.
The old midwife stood at an awkward angle in her attempt to receive the infant. She knelt then, in order to be in a good position. Kersaia began yelling in her native Yorùbá language, invoking Gods and Goddesses to protect her and stop her insufferable pain. The names of the divinities, or Orishas, flowed easily. Among them, Yemoyá— who is the amniotic fluid in Kersaia’s womb. Oshun— to guide, and nurture, the baby, and the protector of the feminine core. She called upon the High-Priest, Orunmilla— who heals deformities. The women didn’t muffle her incantations and pleas for comfort. They would not insult the deities, in which they believed. The word “Yorùbá” applied to her native language, her ethnicity, her motherland in West Afrika, and her religion. So rich was the culture from which she was stolen those years ago, but she accepted it as her “Àyànmô”, or her lot in life.
The women surrounding her also began to chant in swallowed, murmuring tones, so as not be heard. They were forced to hold, and attend, church services in the Baptist tradition, and held their personal beliefs in secret. Because of the master’s love for Kersaia, and his good nature, as long as they were discrete, he would allow their secret worship without interfering. The slaves knew that they were extremely lucky in this regard, so they remained subdued in their praise, so that neighboring plantations would not get word of their more-liberal master’s benevolence. He even taught her words in English, in private, which she would share with her fellow villagers who shared the passage from Afrika.
The baby’s shoulders now inched forward, nearly rushing uncontrollably forward and tearing her further. Kersaia’s yells soon tempered themselves into a rapidly babbling moan, encapsulated in the sounds of her lips popping apart as she, now, prayed in tongues. She relied on that glossolalia reaching the heavens, and the deities rapidly. Accepting the inevitability, and futility of resisting the moment, she sought solace, through her fat, and seemingly endless, tears. She found comfort in the iridescent blanket of tens of thousands of stars glimmering in celebration and approval, above her head and filling every inch of the night sky. Her own rapid pulse filled her inner ear with the drums of her former village as a mother gave birth.
She had already had a vision as the delivery date approached. The boy-child, she would secretly call, in her mother-tongue, “Babatunji Sotunde” (Father awakes once again, the wise man returns). She pronounced his names as she felt him slip free of her insides. The only words she could utter: “áº¸ ku abá»! Oruká» mi ni Kersaia. O sheun, Orisha! Moni ife e, Sotunde”. (Welcome! My name is Kersaia. Thank you, Orishas. I love you, Sotunde.)
From the trauma of her first birth, the heat, the liquor, and the lullaby of the woods’ creatures singing their night songs— now that she was quiet, Kersaia drifted off to sleep for a moment. Her fading vision, her newborn son, covered in her. He didn’t make a sound. His spirit was far too old and experienced for that. He looked his mother in her eyes. He writhed, but didn’t cry.
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