“Momma always said, “Doves are nothing more than useless dirty animals that belong out in the fields or strung up from a tree for being so damned dumb.”
She would tell this to me, my brothers and my sisters and said that she had better not catch us down by the fences or else she’d tan our hides.
There are five of us kids all together.
Momma would have had more, but daddy had a fall from his horse one winters night, and after that, he and momma couldn’t have any more babies. Momma said it was the Lords way of telling daddy to stay off of that vile horse of his, and because of his fall that broke his leg, his left hand, and bruised his head, he finally listened to momma and never rode that horse again. Daddy’s leg never healed suitably and it caused him to have a limp about him, but soon as daddy was able to walk on his own, he hobbled right up to that sickly ’ole horse and shot him dead. Square in the neck.
The wooden fence posts were entangled with barbed wires that stretched out for miles around the many acres of land my daddy owned and his daddy before him. Inside those spikey fences were heaps of bushes bursting with cotton, rows of sweet corn and almost two hundred Doves. Momma warned us about getting too close to the fields, she was always concerned that the doves would do us harm. But I wasn’t worried. I would walk far outta momma’s eyesight, stooping down in the high weeds or I would hide behind oak trees so that she couldn’t see me. I wanted to watch as the fluffy cotton was being picked, then tossed into the brown burlap bags strapped onto the backs of daddy’s doves. Unless a female dove had a youngling that couldn’t yet walk, then that foul would take the place of the cotton pickin bag and the female would have to drag her bag along. Not many females worked out in the fields though, mostly because they were house doves and not bought for field work, and momma needed them taking care of her needs and also of the Big house.
Watching the doves captivated me. I’d hide in the bushes for as long as I could, looking and staring while they picked cotton and at how they all moved so quickly but graceful. They would join together singing or hummin some sort of melody that intrigued me and sounded beautiful. But when momma would threaten us kids to stay away from daddies’ fields. Carla would have a snarky response.
“But momma.” Carla would giggle. She was the feistiest of us kids by far. “My hind parts is already tanned.” Then she’d take off running away from momma, knowing that momma didn’t like a sass mouth. She didn’t like a sass mouth from any of us kids or anybody else for that matter. Momma didn’t tolerate backtalk. Little Carla was a loving child but acquired a talent for a sharp tongue; as daddy called it, and she always had a hasty and open comment about anything and to anybody. Once she told uncle Stewart that his doves would last longer, if’n he’d feed and water ’em like daddy did ours.
“Chile, get outta my face with that talk.” Uncle Stewart would tell my skinny dark-skinned sister. She was just turning 6 years old in the summer of 1845. Barely 40 pounds soaking wet, but that didn’t keep her from saying what was on her mind. No sir. She would tell anyone what she was thinkin ’bout, on any matter, even to the dove auctioneer when he would come to our plantation trying to sell his goods to daddy. Carla would stand up on her tippy toes and point her tiny pointy finger at the salesman, and with a heap of sass in her high-pitched voice, she’d tell’m
“That filthy white rag aint worth no money or livestock! Now you git off my daddy’s land and don’tcha come back.” Then she’d stare him down, with her arms crossed and her braided pig tales bouncing from the tapping of her foot, bare as the day she was born. Eventually they’d load up the doves they’d brought to sell and travel back down the long dirt road that was centered between the two cotton fields.
Normally, daddy wouldn’t buy from the horse and buggy salesmen anyway, he’d much rather travel to the closest auction and pick out the strongest and healthiest doves. He said, to have the best crops, you need the best and easiest Fouls to tame. They should be tall and strong, not too tousled and quick to learn. For the field workers daddy only wanted males. He needed strong backs to take care of the animals, plant the crops, plow the fields and tend to the cotton which was ready for pickin in the hot summer month of August. For the Big house, he bought females. Big ones and small ones, short, tall, it didn’t really matter to daddy, long’n as they could speak and follow directions. House slaves was in charge of preparing and serving all our meals, scrubbing the woodened floors, washing all the linens, mending clothes, and of course tending to anything momma needed. If they were obedient to momma, they could stay in the house and were considered by the field hands as privileged. If ever momma felt one of her doves was being unruly or momma just didn’t like the way the foul completed a chore, then she would have daddy sell them, or put them out in the fields with the men. Which was certainly a harsher life than living inside. But momma had stern rules and she didn’t have any patience for a slave that couldn’t follow ’em.
I named them doves on ’count of, I thought they was beautiful and I felt sorry for ’em. I was troubled by how badly they were treated. They’d be out in the fields tending to the crops long before any of us kids woke up in the morning and even after we settled into bed for the night. On rare occasions momma would let us stay up until the moon came out, and when she did we’d stand near the field doves living quarters while daddy and his overseers brought them in for the night. Some wore wrought iron shackles on their wrist’s others wore them on their ankles. This was usually done to chastise those who might want to run away and to infuse fear in all of the fouls, reminding them that they no longer had claim over their bodies. Daddy did.
The summer months were the hardest on the doves. The sweltering heat of the sun took a ’toll on ‘em that’s for sure. Some doves would pass out from the hot temperatures while working. They’d just fall plum out on to the ground, and if’n they did, daddy’s overseers would be sure to give the dove a good lashing with the long-leather braided whip that he clutched in his hand. Or depending on the day, the overseer would mutilate a foul and then send them back out into the fields to continue working, so that his maimed body was a visible reminder to the others on what could happen to them at any time. Lashes were easy to come by and daddies’ overseers never needed a reason. Their only goal was high cotton production to satisfy daddy, which brought in more money for the plantation, higher raises for the overseer and praises for them from daddy. The harsher they were to the field slaves the more civilized they would behave.
Daddy told us kids that, “slavery was harder for the slave masters than the slaves.” But I didn’t believe that.
He said. “Discipline was necessary, the fouls must be tolerant and that training the fouls to be obedient took strength and know-how by his men.”
Daddy was proud of his farm and of his taskmasters. He said that if it wasn’t for his men, the plantation would fall and be overrun by no-good white Fouls
Fouls looked different from us. I didn’t know if it was the hot sun or the sunlight, but after a day’s work most of the dove’s skin would turn bright red and sometimes blister up, and days later their skin would peel off. Not to the bone of course, but it would look crumbly and scabby, and that seemed painful to me and offended Aisha and Carla. They would wrinkle their noses at the sight of our many doves when they were lined up and connected by metal ankle chains coming in from the fields. Most of them had long scraggly hair, making them look like animals with untamed facial hair that was matted and so long that it touched their chests. Momma wanted daddy to keep the male doves faces shaved on ’count of.
“It doesn’t look proper for hair to cover they faces.” She’d say. “It doesn’t look proper at all. They may be animals, but they don’t have to look like stray dogs.” She would tell him.
Daddy and the rest of our male kin folks had smooth faces without any wound scars or hair, just beautiful brown or black skin and that’s how southern plantation mistresses like the men to look and so did momma. She would always kiss daddy’s dark-skinned cheek and tell him how handsome he was.
Our skin tones didn’t change colors, like the whites did, but then again we weren’t out in the fields from morn ’til night. The doves were pale or pink in color, some were orange, and looked sickly to most brown folks. But not to me, especially in the winter or cool months, the doves kept a beautiful white look about ’em and sometimes when it snowed, you could hardly see ’em, accept for their hair. Some had the blackest hair you’d ever seen and some had brown. Once I saw a dove with yellow hair, and from what I remember, that Dove didn’t last long on our farm. On more than one occasion he had tried to run away but daddy’s best overseer George would track him down and bring him back. The last time he tried to run away, George found him buried in some bushes just passed the old hanging tree. He was marked up from the brier patches and had bruises on his pale skin and his feet were cut up from running barefoot through the fields. George earned the right to be called daddy’s finest overseer on ’count of, he didn’t take runaways lightly and the fouls knew that. All except this one. George captured the yellow haired Dove and made him walk back to the farm with shackles on his feet and a tin mask that covered his head, mouth and nose. This contraption was screwed into place around his neck, and the only part of his face you could see was his bright blue eyes. Extending out from three sides were iron spikes that curved upwards at the ends. Around the Fouls wrists were iron shackles that matched the ones around his ankles. His arms were stretched out in front of him and he was led by George, and Gent. Georges horse. The Fouls working the fields stopped pickin cotton and watched as the runaway was led back to the farm. The overseers allowed this short break so an example could be made. As George and Gent came closer to me and where daddy was waitin for ’em I could see that the dove was looking square at me. At first, I dropped my head down outta shame and fear of him, I didn’t like the way George made him wear that metal thing on his head. To me that was cruel. I slowly raised my head peaking ’round daddy, the foul was closer to us still looking square at me. His eyes were fixated on me and I was frozen. My heart walloped in my chest, like the time momma hit me on the back of my head with a book, ’cuz I was late getting to supper. A bead of sweat formed on my brow and rolled down the crease of my broad nose. I couldn’t break my focus of him, even though I tried. He was only a few feet away from me, when I could see how this foul had the purest and most vibrant blue eyes I’d ever seen. Momma told stories of fouls with blue eyes, she said fouls with blue eyes were evil and that they knew witch craft. Only, momma didn’t have a problem with her house Dove that had the same blue eyes. But I’ll get to that a later.
“But, how could something so beautiful be evil?” I thought.
His iron shackles made a dreadful clanging noise that freed me from my trance, and I shook my head to get myself back into focus. His feet were bare, covered in dirt and blood with patches of hair on each one of his toes. He was dressed in only brown knickers that were held up by a rope tied around his waist and cuffed above his ankles. The sun was starting to set but still out enough to flash light on the lashes across his chest, back and arms. This Dove had remarkable scars that had healed and aged perfectly, drawing a road map of his pain and suffering all over his body. Daddy called ’em aged if’n the pockmarks had mended into what looked like raised ridges. Sometimes they were red and some looked purplish gray, almost like snake shaped bruises. As I watched George lead this Dove to daddy, my heart started to pound even harder, because I knew what was coming next.
“If’n a no-good Foul couldn’t learn his rightful place in the field.” as daddy would say. “Then he ‘gits’ the rope.” And I hated it. I hated the whole thing about hangings. But somehow people from miles around, would learn news of when a Foul was gonna be hung, and they would come to watch. Spitting on ’em calling ’em names, like ‘honky’, ‘whitey’, and ’Ole dog. But Foul, is what they were mostly called, because black folks were disgusted by their white colorless skin. But I wasn’t.
‘Snowflake’ is what my cousin Jefferson would call ’em. He was my older cousin on mommas’ side of the family. His skin was darker than mine, and he’d always brag about how his black skin made him smarter than me, and that I would never be as smart as him. But I didn’t pay him no mind, I didn’t care how black he was to my brown anyway. I also didn’t understand why we needed doves. Pops and I were strong men, we could plow our own fields and plant out own corn and cotton. All the family could help. But momma and daddy wouldn’t hear of my nonsense, as they called it.
Nonsense? It wasn’t nonsense to me at all. Don’t tell anyone, but one day I vowed to myself to set our Doves free.
“Luther!” Momma yelled from the front porch swing. “You come on back up here now son, you hear me Luther?” I could barely see momma on the porch, but you’d better believe I could hear when she called for me. Momma was very loud when she called for us kids or even spoke, I’m surprised all the cotton didn’t shake right off the sprig that held ’em on.
“Comin momma.” I said under my breath. I didn’t want her to hear me anyways. I had snuck down close to the fences and knew she’d git me if’n she found out. Momma didn’t trust daddies field Doves. “Thays dangerous” She’d say. “Evil and mean-spirited white Devils.” She’d preach. Even to her house Doves. She would look ’em deep into the eye and tell ’em,
“You’s a no good for nothing Foul, and you’s lucky you was bought by a Master like my husband, or else you’d be hangin from a tree, or burning to death in a firepit.”
Momma kept her Doves in line with that kinda talk. Sweet as apple pie momma was, until you got on her bad side. She’d always teach us kids to do the right thing, how to be polite and respectful to our elders, and she also set an example of how we should treat the field hands. Momma was smart too, she could read and write, do arithmetic and even taught Carla how to stitch a patch on her britches, after she had torn a hole in’em. Now don’tcha think for a second that momma knew how to mend our clothes. She only knew how to sew a patch ’cause her Mammie Foul showed her once when she was a young girl. Ever since that time, momma took credit for what the house Doves knew how to do. But any fool with a brain would know that momma couldn’t boil water, but she sure knew how to acclaim glory for every stove fire built. But that was momma.
Our home was the largest for miles, it was two levels high and built with red bricks. The exterior stairs climbed up to the terrace, and beyond that was a large oak door that creaked when you opened it. On either side of our large porch were four slim white columns supporting the roof, and in-between those columns were floor to-ceiling windows that Gran-pa had brought here special from the North. The east and west wings of the Big house stretched out far beyond mommas’ mimosa trees and had a total of six chimneys extending upwards, and they were in charge of keeping us warm during the cold winter months. Inside we had eight bedrooms and one room built off the back of the house for the house doves. Momma didn’t want ’em that close to her while she was sleeping, but daddy said, “now what you gonna do if its’ dark in the house and outside and you need something? You’s gonna git up and fetch it yourself?” And just by daddy saying those words momma was more at ease, and agreed to the foul room. Then daddy installed a call bell from mommas’ room that went all the way to the doves’ room. A loud and annoying, metal bell attached to a copper wire, and all momma had to do was yank on the wires that set off a frenzy of noise and her main dove June-bug would quickly and quietly come to momma’s door. Most of the time momma didn’t need anything important, just maybe a glass of water or to be fanned in the summer time while she slept, or an extra blanket in the winter.
I began to carefully make my way back up to the house trying to stay outta plain site. I kept my eye on momma hoping she would just go back inside and then I could save myself from a beating. The closer I got the better I could see her. She had walked down a few steps on the porch holding her hand over her brow to shield the sunlight from her eyes, and standing beside her was ‘June bug’. We called her that ’cause when daddy bought her from a place in Virginia called Jamestown. Or, so I was told. She couldn’t speak, her last master never knew her name, but did tell daddy he thought she was around ten years old. Daddy made it a rule to only buy fouls that could talk, and could already do the jobs that he needed them to do, but this one was special he explained, and after days of convincing momma that we were gonna keep her she decided on the name ’June-Bug, on ’count of, momma said she reminded of her of the summer months, ’cause of her hair and ‘Bug’ on ’count of daddy was nagging her like a bug to keep this Foul, and to keep her in the Big House.
Eventually June-Bug grew on momma, and she come to enjoy June-bugs sweet corn bread and liked how she could style Carla’s hair into one thick braid that started at the crown of her head and ended at her neck. Momma and June-Bug spent time together out on the porch swing after chores was finished, and I sometimes caught momma laughing along with her. June-bug finally learned to talk a little bit and could communicate with momma only from a look that momma would give her. She was small in size but grew taller than most of mommas Doves, she had pale white skin that looked almost porcelain, accept for the light brown polka dots up and down her arms and on her cheeks. Her eyes were brown but her hair was red. A bright orange red. The day daddy brought her home I couldn’t believe my own eyes. I’d never in my 8 years seen a foul with red hair! But momma made her keep it tied up on top of her head underneath a white cotton bonnet. She said fouls with red hair are uncommon and that we needed to hide it on ’count of the other fouls would be scared of her. And even though I was young when June-Bug came to the Big House, listening to that sounded like nonsense. But, that was momma.