Authors: Mildred Pitts; Walter
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Praise for the Writing of Mildred Pitts Walter
Because We Are
A Coretta Scott King Honor Book
A Parents' Choice Award Book for Literature
“Walter draws readers into a complex situation with finely paced writing, good integration of themes, and an understanding of the feelings of young men and women.” â
School Library Journal
The Girl on the Outside
A Christian Science Monitor Best Book
A Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies
“[Walter] re-creates the tenor of the times from both black and white perspectives and gives the incident immediacy for today's younger teens â¦” â
“We are moved â¦ by the courage required of these children and their parents â¦” â
School Library Journal
“A moving, dramatic re-creation of the 1957 integration of a Little Rock high school as seen through the eyes of a black girl and a white girl.” â
“A vivid story â¦ written with insight and compassion, its characters fully developed, its converging lines nicely controlled.” â
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
“Based on a real case, this admirable historical novel is unique for the perspective it lends to the Revolution and its profound impact on the lives of all Americans.” â
A Coretta Scott King Honor Book
“Walter immerses readers in Martha's internal struggle, holding their attention to the last page. The quickly paced text utilizes the native dialect, further adding to the aura of the isolated island setting as Walter shows how ritual and superstition dominate.â¦ While Martha's particular problems are unique, adolescent readers will easily empathize with her predicament of feeling confused by the pull from so many different directions at this stage of life.” â
School Library Journal
The Story of a Slave Girl
Mildred Pitts Walter
who understands that American history
is the action of
It is a strange freedom to go nameless up and down the streets of other minds.â¦ The name is a man's watermark above which no tide can ever rise.
Does anyone want to know how terrible it was being a slave? And how it is now to hear and see my sister's name and still remain nameless?
She had a sister and a husband
. That's all they know about me and Josiah. But everyone will forever know her as Elizabeth Freeman, or the name whites prefer to call her, “Mum Bett,” while I live among othersâwithout a name; known only as the sister. I must tell
story, for I, too, have a life. I, too, have a name.
On record: Elizabeth Freeman, also called Mum Bett. Born 1742. There is no record of my name, nor the date of my birth, but I am told that on the morning I was born, an icy rain was falling in Claverack, Columbia County, in the state of New York. My sister, Elizabeth, whom my parents named Fatou (Fa-too), first daughter, and Olubunmi (O-loo-BOON-mee), the midwife, say that I took my time coming and when I finally arrived I screamed loud and long. Did I know that I was being born a slave? Did I know, while still in the womb, that my five brothers had recently been sold off to the dreaded South? That my father, so enraged by the sale, struck his master and was beaten and kicked to death? That my mother no longer wanted to live?
Olubunmi said at my birth, “The ancestors didn't give this child an easy journey, but they granted her special gifts. Unlike other children, this one will appear physically weak, but she'll be strong. She will suffer greatly as a slave.”
My family was the property of Cornelis Hogeboom, a Dutchman, who owned a lot of land in what was then called New Amsterdam. My father made bricks in his factory; my brothers worked in his fields and herded his cattle. Cornelis was above flogging his slaves. However, when one got into a fight, stayed away too long, lost a cow, or did not make his share of bricks, the constable was called to whip him. The whip used had fine wire plaited into the thongs to increase the pain. When the constable was called to whip my father for confronting the master, my father fought back and, defending himself, he died.
Nine days after I was born, my mother died. She lived just long enough to defy the master and perform the naming ceremony befitting a Fulani. I was named Aissa (I-sa), second daughter. Her last words were “Fatou, give your life for your sister. Never let them separate you.”
It was a cold winter that year, when Fatou, still very young, became my mother. She padded me with wool, wrapped me in a scarf that had belonged to our mother, and tied me onto her back. The warmth of her body moved into mine, creating a warmth that flowed back to her. Her heartbeat mixed with mine like the rhythm of the drum. We kept each other warm.
I was passed back and forth to other slave women on the land; and Fatou and I, without the love of our family, survived. There were many women on the farm, but Olubunmi is the one I remember most and the one who speaks to me now in my dreams. Even though I was young when we were sold away from her, I still see her tending a pot hung over a fire between stones. I can now whiff that spicy smell in the mixture she brewed. On freezing mornings she gave me a cup with the words: “It's a new day, so fill your mouth with blessings from the earth.”
Often I wanted to refuse, for I was not sure what she offered. But as our eyes met over her outstretched hand, I felt as if I was drawn to do whatever she asked. When I took the cup, my hands were warmed. Steam drifted up to my nose and I was surprised at the smell of a mixture of sweet herbs and bitter roots. I drank. Warmth spread through my little body and I was able to withstand the most icy cold.
Olubunmi, a Yoruba, whose name means
this highest gift is mine,
was old. Her clothes always looked as old as sheâworn, but clean. Her skin, as dark as the night, was without wrinkles, and her eyes were like black violets in a clear pool. Her liquid stare seemed able to penetrate secrets deep inside and see what ordinary eyes could not see.
It was she who encouraged storytelling around the fire at night. I can still remember the tales of the long camel caravans that came into her town bringing fabric, beads, copper, even salt. Her mother sold the thirsty trades-men fruit, fruit juices, carob cakes, and millet fritters. Olubunmi could make me see streets alive with merchants, laughing children darting between donkeys, and water carriers.
Other women told stories and sang songs, too, but none like Olubunmi. Once while remembering Africa, she broke down and cried, longing for her family and home. I loved her, and when she hugged me close her sour odor, like burnt leaves and spices, was strange but not offensive.
Even before I was born she had taken Fatou under her wing and declared her the one who, like Olubunmi, would become a midwife and healer. Olubunmi and my sister would often slip away to gather herb leaves and roots without the master's knowing. Many times she insisted that Fatou go with her to attend the sick and to deliver babies. Because Olubunmi was both honored and feared, Baas Hogeboom did not often interfere with her activities. When we became orphans, it was Olubunmi who took charge of me and Fatou.
I remember a day of great excitement when I was about five years old. Fatou held my face in her hands and said, “A white man, Colonel John Ashley, they say from Massachusetts, has just come here with a large herd of cattle.” There was fear in her eyes and in her voice. I tried to remove my face from her hands, but she held on. “Listen to me,” she continued. “This man wants to marry the baas's daughter, Meesteres Annetje, and buy some of us.”
Surrounded by older women to whom I always listened, I knew a lot about slavery, especially the word
. I began to cry.
Fatou, a strong, tall girl, picked me up and held me close. “You don't have to be scared. I'll never let them sell us apart. Never!” She dried my face and left me with the other children in the yard.
The place continued to hum with excitement, but Fatou remained quiet even around Olubunmi. She talked to no one but Brom, another slave who was like our brother. Not quite six feet tall, Brom had a narrow brown face. When he arrived in Claverack his hair had been long and braided. But Hogeboom cut his braids, leaving his hair with little peaks standing about his head. He was a little older than Fatou, and after our brothers were sold he claimed me and her as his sisters.
Secretly, they put their heads together and whispered in Fulfulde, our language that the master forbade us to speak. If they had been caught speaking together in any language other than Dutch, they would have been whipped by the constable and one of them would have been sold. Olubunmi often worried about Fatou and Brom. “Why do you risk your hide and even being sold down the river?” she often asked.
“To speak my mother tongue gives me a pleasure worth being beaten for. And who'll know? Will you tell?” Of course Olubunmi would never tell. But she threatened to punish Fatou if ever Fatou let me hear one word, for fear I would speak it openly and lose some of my skin on the whip.
Much of the excitement was about the wedding of Meesteres Annetje to Colonel Ashley. He wanted to give his bride a slave for a wedding gift. He wanted her to have someone familiar and trustworthy. Hogeboom offered to sell the colonel Fatou. This pleased Meesteres Annetje, but Fatou was not happy. Meesteres Annetje was moody and selfish, and, because I was a weakling who was spoiled with too much pampering by old women, she did not care for me at all. She declared I was the embodiment of the devil.