Chapter 9: Araminta Ross
1826 – Dorchester County, Maryland, America
I was a happy youngster, or should I say toddler? It seems to me us black folks grow up quicker than the whites. Just my opinion, but folk go right from cradle to field, skippin’ childhood. I’ve got fleeting memories of it, mostly I remember my ouma’s sunken in cheeks; she didn’t have no teeth. She was a ferocious lookin’ woman, lines criss-crossin’ over every inch of her face. Don’t let that fool ya’ though, she was sweet as molasses unless you frustrated her. Another reason I think everyone thought she was fierce was ’cause her eyes watched you like a hawk. They were so dark it seemed the outer ring blended with the pitch dark inner iris and one could never tell her mood by her gaze.
Her head was always wrapped in a head-rag, usually a white one but sometimes light blue. Her smock hung on her small frame and a piece of old rope usually cinched it around her waist. It closed off the deep pockets so that when she found herbs, pinecones, or berries, they’d disappear into the folds and not tumble out. She always had an ancient clay pipe that was hangin’ out her lips, too. Never remember seein’ her smoke anything out of it, but it was as much a daily accessory to her as a felt hat was to any white woman. Some of the kids were ’fraid of her ‘cause if you acted up, she didn’t hesitate to use a gum tree switch across your backside. The trick was to make sure you stayed close enough to her that she knew what you was up to and knew you weren’t wanderin’ off down by the creek or by the forest where you could get lost but far enough away from her you didn’t get in the way of her chores.
Those moments, when I was a child, she was the center of my world. When I started crawlin’, she hung a string with a pork rind around my neck like she did every baby that was teethin’. I learned to walk on the hard-packed earth behind our cabins, again, like every other negro child born on our plantation. All us kids just toddled around in our birthday suits that the good Lord gave us. It wasn’t until we were walkin’ and talkin’ before we got a gunny-sack shift made of burlap.
On Sundays, there ain’t no work and all us slave folk have a day to wash our clothes, cook, and eat together. Before bed, we sing and dance like there ain’t no tomorrow. It’s my favorite day of the week.
My mother’s mother tells me it’s a shame I was born into slavery, but I was so little I didn’t even know what that meant. In my mind, there were precious long days with her. The way I remember it, in 1825 or 26, Mama goes up to the cook house before dawn every morning so Ouma takes care of me and the other pick-a-ninnies. We’re all the kids that live on the plantation, too small to work but too big to be left all day alone. The round belly of my mom is something I recall, fresh, like yesterday. She was carryin’ my little brother, Benji when I was still just an innocent little thing full of wonder and awe.
Ouma got us our daily meal. Sometimes there was cornbread, but mostly it was a mush like the pigs get fed. She’d put it in a little trough and we’d gather ‘round like a bunch of starving cats, pushing and shoving to get our share. Once, on one of our nature walks, I found a half shell from an oyster. I used it to scoop up the mush so I got bigger bites than my not-as-clever companions. My ouma had helped me drill a small hole in the shell and attached a piece of twine to it and I wore it around my wrist. That way it was always with me when it was mealtimes. Eventually, I found one a little smaller for Benji. He lost it after a week. Us kids were never really starvin’ but we were never really full either.
Since Mama and my oldest sister worked in the big house, they would bring the newspaper that was tossed to the trash back to the quarter. Sometimes it had been wrapped around a fish from the market and was stinky and folded but other times it was fresh like it just came from the general store. Our family’s big secret is Ouma can read. Slaves aren’t supposed to be able to read or write and a person can get in trouble if they’re caught teaching a negro but Ouma said she learned as a girl before she was kidnapped and sold into slavery.
On July 4th, 1826, exactly fifty years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, two of the foundin’ fathers died. Both John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson passed on the same day. It made the front page.
The article Ouma read to us about their lives also had some of the original declaration draft which went against negro slavery. She said Congress eliminated it, took it out. Ouma continued to read what was written and signed by the founding fathers. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
“If you ask me, that just don’t seem compatible with legalized slavery,” my pa chimed in.
“To bad it ain’t you makin’ the laws,” Ouma said, shaking her head. She crumpled the paper and tossed it to the ground.