Chapter 18: Araminta Ross
1841 – Dorchester County, Maryland, America
When I look back at my life, I know there are moments in time that had I done things differently, my life would have turned out… well… different. Like chasin’ that Thompson slave. My mind ain’t never been right since then, I have bad headaches and sometimes I just fall asleep. Yes, just chattin’ it up one minute and the next, I’m sawin’ zzz’s like there ain’t no tomorrow. It’s a heavy, exhausting sleep ‘cause I never feel refreshed when I wake, usually just confused and sad I lost a lump of my life. I got to meet God, so I guess my head issues ain’t nothin’ compared to meetin’ the Almighty.
Ever since I sat with Ouma while she was dyin’, I think of freedom. I think about her, and Ma, and me, never have slept in a bed, never had the basic comforts white folk take for granted. I think about Nat Turner and his bravery that cost him his life.
I think of Fredrick Douglass, my own personal hero. Born a slave and owned by Massa Thompson’s third cousin, Aaron Thompson. They’re over yonder in Talbot county. Somehow, I feel akin to Mr. Douglass. His mother’s named Harriet, too. He was set to task when he was six like me, and pretty much raised by his ouma. He was beaten and whipped when he was just a child, just like me. He taught himself to read and write. That’s somethin’ I admire about him, too.
Like Calvin, and through no fault of his own, Fredrick’s got a bit of his massa’s blood in him. But he escaped, he sho’ did. He’s a free man now in New York and married a free woman! A preacher, doin’ God’s work and helpin’ folk, not just blacks, but women and natives, too. For years, my mind has just spun in circles thinkin’ of that kind of freedom.
One day I told Benji I thought we should all run together, me and the three boys. At first, he was a bit hesitant, but then he knew I was right about livin’ free. We talked to Robert and Harry and they had the same reaction. Don’t want to stay, but ’fraid to go.
One Friday night we all snuck off together. It made sense to leave on a weekend since the earliest the paper could print a run-away ad was Tuesday. That gives a couple days lee-way for the runner. It was in February, too, so not a lot of work at that time of year. I was in the lead and had to hold up for them. They come a crashin’ down through the woods like a bunch of old dairy cows and makin’ more noise than I can say.
“Hush now,” I tell them. “Walk soft, move quietly.”
Robert was startin’ to talk bossy to me. “You don’t need to tell me how to move, little sister.”
“I guess I do, big brother,” I say back. “You’re gonna get us all caught. The padda-rollers gonna scoop us all up you don’t tone it down.”
“I think we made a mistake,” Robert says and moves up near me, stretchin’ his height over my little frame. “I think we should head back before anyone knows we’re gone.”
“I ain’t goin’ back,” I say and put my hands on my hips. I can see Harry and Benji exchange nervous looks, the whites of their eyes betraying them.
“Yea, we’re all goin’ back. I ain’t breakin’ Mama’s heart and end up hangin’ ’cause of some stupid dream you had, sister.”
“Well then, I’ll go alone,” I said.
“No!” Benji said entirely too loud. “What if you fall asleep, Minty? What if you have one of your blackout periods, the padda-rollers will get you for sure then.” The concerned look in his face softened my heart, and I knew deep down he was right. I couldn’t go alone but I wasn’t about to be bullied by Robert.
“The night’s gonna turn to mornin’ soon, we have to keep moving.” I could hear my hesitancy and hoped he couldn’t.
“We’re going back,” Robert said and grabbed me by my arms. I jerked and tried to free myself. “Grab her legs,” Robert hollered to Benji and Harry. They looked shocked for a moment then sprung into action, pickin’ me up by my legs and they started haulin’ me back to the Brodess spread.
“No, no,” I squirmed and tried to get away from them but Robert’s grip on me was too much. After a minute of all three of them carryin’ me I promised to go back without protest. I was steamed though, burning mad. We made it back before day-break. It would be days before I looked any of my brothers in the eye and weeks before I spoke to Robert.
Another life changing decision I made was all caught up in a young girl’s ego. Us negroes’ only social engagements revolved around church. My parents were God-fearin’ Christian folk and that rubbed off on all us kids. When I was about nineteen I started thinkin’ about my future. Like other girls my age, I thought about havin’ a husband and some children. Since there was never anythin’ extra in our cabin, I had to make my own dowry. Linah let me go through the mendin’ scraps. I’d get a little triangle of green cloth, or a swatch of white. I bundled it all up until I thought I had enough, then cut and pieced them together to make a quilt. My eyes weren’t so good with a needle and thread, I was more apt for the outdoors, but bein’ a woman, it was somethin’ I needed to learn.
With Linah and Ma’s help, we laid the pieces of cloth out so it made an impression, not really a picture, but an abstract view of the plants that keep us alive. I could see the green, yellow, and brown pieces that looked like a little garden and the white patches that looked like cotton tufts. I added a gold piece at the top of the blanket. Ma showed me how to make a bunch of little pieces look like one image. She said it looked like the sun shinin’ down over our plantation, but to me it looked like the north star, showin’ me the way to Canada.
During the summer, I was stitchin’ the quilt together, a man named John Tubman started courting me. At first, I thought I must just be a passin’ fancy for him. After all, he was born a free man. Now I’m sure you’re wonderin’ the same thing I was… why’s a handsome free man interested in a little ugly slave girl like me? I know I’m not as beautiful as Linah, or my other two beloved sisters who were sold. I’ve got scars on my face, neck, and hands. I’m black black too, not that high-yella or coffee color that’s preferred by most men. He said he admired my ability to be strong. No man had ever looked at me in that way, it made my knees weak. Made me glad to still be in Dorchester county.
Ma said John didn’t sit right with her. She said there was somethin’ about him that dogs and kids didn’t like. That’s one thing we all learned from Ouma, trust kids and dogs when it comes to character. That summer though, I just didn’t listen to her wise words.
Pa was happy for me. He’s known John, they’d worked together. In fact, I found out that’s how John first seen me, when I was helpin’ with the timber. Pa thought if I married John he could purchase my freedom; Thompson was all about money. The plantation had been gettin’ smaller and smaller over the years so it was somethin’ he may have done. And besides, the politicians were changin’ all the slave rules. Things were bein’ divided throughout the country over our freedom. It was as if the views of us slave folk changed with the fancy of the white folk.
Just that spring, President Harrison died of pneumonia. It was the shortest presidential term in history, and the vice-president, Mr. John Tyler, was sworn in as the tenth President of the United States.
Fredrick Douglass was in the news quite often, too. He was one of the first black statesmen, and he even got nominated to be vice-president, runnin’ under the Equal Rights Party ticket against a woman named Victoria Woodhull. Just the idea of a woman running for vice-president against an African American showed us all that this country was changin’.
When I heard Fredrick Douglass’ words, “I would unite with anybody to do right and nobody to do wrong,” I got tingles down my spine and gooseflesh to my ankles. These words reached into my soul. As a newly freed man, he was rallying for all us blacks to be freed.
And not just the blacks. Mr. Douglass was for women’s rights and the rights of the Native Americans, too. In so many ways he was my hero. It’s silly because he’s only a few years older than me, but I looked up to him like no other. A man who escaped slavery and then spoke out against it. That man put himself right in the country’s spotlight and fought for us all. That’s the type of man I was hopin’ John Tubman to be.
At first, John was everything I was lookin’ for in a husband, handsome and free toppin’ the list. He had a swagger to him that I think only those black-folk born free have, a confidence and poise that comes with never havin’ been introduced to the overseer and whip. His folks were slaves that had been freed before the children were born.
At my age, I couldn’t really see beyond how handsome (and free) he was. He brought me little things at church. First a hollyhock he’d picked from his house, then a piece of blue ribbon he said I could use in the Bible as a place mark. We only had one Bible. It belonged to my grandfather on my pa’s side, a man I never met. The good book stayed wrapped in a fine piece of linen that was placed by my parent’s bed roll. I didn’t have the heart to tell John I couldn’t read. I thought I’d sew the blue ribbon in my quilt, though. It was a nice color and if I placed it down low, it would look like a little stream below the herb garden.
The Sunday afternoon he proposed to me, he brought me a spool of thread and told me to finish up the quilt. Folks was happy, and I could see tears shimmer in my pa’s eyes. My ma was harder to read, I just wasn’t sure how she felt.
“Ain’t you happy for me?” I asked her, placing my hand on her shoulder.
She turned and looked at me with sadness. “You love him?” I wasn’t expectin’ her to answer a question with another question and I had no response. “His soul is dark, Minty. Watch yourself.” With that, she turned and moved into our shanty.
“Yes, I love him,” I said to the air at her back.