Authors: Ta-Nehisi Coates;
It was early afternoon now, cloudless still, and the races were about to begin. But when the first flight of horses galloped off, I was not watching them, I was watching Maynard, who had, it seemed, forgotten all the insults and slights and was now laughing and boasting with the low whites, and it seemed that Maynard had, in spite of himself, found his people. Or they’d found him. The prospect of a high-born Walker frolicking among them allowed these low whites, too, to bask in the glamour of the day. This esteem only increased itself when Maynard’s time came and his own horse, Diamond, running among the other horses in a great cloud of brown and black, everything noses and legs, emerged from it all, taking a clear lead from the cloud, and holding this lead all the way to the finish. Maynard exploded. He screamed and hugged everyone around him, threw his arms into the air, and then pointed up in the box, toward the jockey club, and yelled something haughty and rude. And then sighting his Corrine in the ladies’ box, he did the same. The men in the jockey club stood there stoic, their lovely sport having been desecrated by this oaf who was born among them, but whose every win lowered the entire game.
After the last race, I met him back off Market Street. I had never seen Maynard more happy in all of his brief life. He looked at me with a huge smile, and said, “Hot damn, Hiram, I told you, didn’t I? It was my day, I said it.”
I nodded and said, “You did call it.”
“I told them,” he said, climbing into the buggy. “I told them all!”
“You did,” I said.
And then, mindful of my father’s admonition, I turned the chaise back out of the town toward home.
“No, no! What are you doing?” he said. “Go back! I want to see them. I told them and they did not heed me. We have to show them! They have to see!”
And so I turned back around and headed toward the center of town, where, by then, the gentry had gathered themselves, along the streets for the last bit of intercourse before parting for the day. But when we rode past in the Millennium chaise, instead of any show of respect, the men and women of Quality glanced our way, nodded without smiling, and went back to their conversation. I don’t know what precisely Maynard wanted or why he expected to get it. I don’t know what was in him that made him believe that this time they would at last acknowledge the merit of his blood, or forgive his impulses and outbursts. But when it was clear he would find no satisfaction, he growled and ordered me to turn to the far edge of town, where I was to leave him at the pleasure house and recover him in an hour.
I was now alone, and grateful for the privacy of my thoughts. I hitched the horse and began to wander the town. I was recalled again to recent events, to my dream, to the realization of the unending night of slavery, to that morning, when I watched the daylight of Sophia fade like dying sun over the blue Virginia mountains. I do not claim to have loved Sophia then, though I thought I did. I was young and love to me was a fuse that was lit, not a garden that was grown. Love was not concerned with any deep knowledge of its object, of their wants and dreams, but mainly with the joy felt in their presence and the sickness felt in their departure. And in Sophia’s own private moments, did she love me? I did not think so, but in another world, a world beyond the Task, I thought she might.
There were two roads leading to such a world—buying one’s freedom and running. What I knew of the first consisted of a cluster of free coloreds, living in the southern corner of Starfall, who, in the era of red earth and booming tobacco, were allowed to save some small wage and then buy back their bodies. But that road was closed to me. Virginia had changed. Even as the old lands of Elm County, of Lockless, declined, the luster of those who tasked among them increased. What was lost in their labor upon the land could be recouped in their sale, at a premium, Natchez-way, where the land still bloomed. So where once the Tasked could work their way to freedom, they were now too precious to be granted the right of paying their own ransom.
If the first road was blocked, the second was unthinkable. Every single person I’d ever known who’d run from Lockless was either returned by Ryland’s Hounds, the patrols of low whites who enforced the order of the Quality, or they had lost their heart and returned themselves. In any case, so total was my ignorance of the world beyond Virginia that running seemed insane. But there was one who was said to know more.
No man was more esteemed among the coloreds and the whites of Elm County than Georgie Parks. He was the mayor, the ambassador, the dream, though the dream took its meaning from whatever vantage it was glimpsed from. Back when he was tasked, Georgie worked the fields and, much like Big John, seemed to have a preternatural understanding of agriculture and all its cycles. He could spend an hour walking among your wheat fields and tell you about the harvest three years from now or put his hand on your tobacco hillocks, feel for the heartbeat of the earth, and reveal whether your tobacco ears would be elephants or mice. And he had warned the Quality of what they courted with their love of tobacco, in a sideways manner so that his warning was not remembered by them in spite, but with a good-natured regret. But there was a tantalizing shadow about Georgie. He would disappear for long periods or be seen out in Starfall or glimpsed in the woods at the oddest of hours. We had an explanation for these mysteries. Georgie was tied to the Underground.
And what was this Underground? It was said among the Tasked that a secret society of colored men had built their own separate world deep in the Virginia swamps. What powers guarded them there, I did not know. What I knew were the tales of Ryland’s Hounds sent off on expeditions to discover the Underground and root them out, tales of how these expeditions returned, reduced in number, scarred and battered, testifying of snakes, strange ailments, poisons, and root-doctors marshaling crocodiles and catamounts into the fray. And this Underground, I was told, would, from time to time, take on new recruits who preferred the wild freedom of the swamps to the civilized slavery of Elm County. It seemed perfect that noble Georgie, praised and esteemed by the whites, and held to have some secret life by the coloreds, would be their man.
I was pulled out of my ruminations on Georgie by the sound of gunfire. I was at the southern end of the town square. I followed the sound and saw a gentleman, in his formal black uniform, laughing uproariously with his shotgun pointed in the air. The tenor of the day was changing. Clouds now crowded the sky. I watched two men stumble fighting out of a pub and into the streets—one older with a long scar across his cheek—and when the older man was bested, in seemingly a single motion, he pulled out a long knife and sliced the face of the younger man. Then two more men raced out of the pub and jumped the older fellow. I hastily walked away as they started to thrash him. On the next block, I watched as a low white woman grabbed a Dutch girl by her hair and slapped her. Her male companion laughed, pulled out a flask, took a drink, and then emptied the rest on the Dutch girl’s head. I walked on. This was the riotousness that my father had warned me of, that he begged me to keep Maynard distanced from. But it was always like this with them, a race of cackling Alice Caulleys. Like the parties of Lockless, race-day would start off in high pageantry, and then the drinking would start and the festive spirit would darken, and all the masks of fashion and breeding would fall away, until the oozing, pocked face of Elm County would lie revealed.
There were no other colored people out, because we all knew what came next—the ill feeling descending on the whites would soon be turned upon us. It is odd to say this, but it was the free coloreds who had the most to fear under such circumstance. We who were Tasked belonged to someone. We were property and any damage inflicted on us must be done under the orders of our owner, for you could no more beat another man’s slave than you could beat another man’s horse. But even from my relative safety, I felt uneasy. And in that state of mind, I endeavored to make my way away from the square to Freetown, and the home of Georgie Parks.
It was a small community, clustered together so tight that I knew everyone who lived there. I knew Edgar Combs, who’d once worked iron at the Carter place, and now did the same for the blacksmith in town, and Edgar was married to Patience, whose first husband had died when the fever hit all those years ago. And across from there was Pap and Grease, brothers, and next to them was Georgie Parks. So I walked out of the madness of the square and to the southern end of the town, and there found myself before Ryland’s Jail, which marked the beginnings of the free colored section of Starfall.
It was all planned this way, it had to be, for Ryland’s Jail was not a jail for criminals. Sprawling two city blocks, it was a warehouse for the Tasked who’d been caught running away or were being held before being sold. The jail was a daily reminder that no matter their freedoms, these coloreds of Starfall existed in the shadow of an awesome power, which, at a whim, could clap them back into chains. Ryland’s Jail was run and staffed by the Low. These men became rich off the flesh trade, but their names were of too recent vintage and their work of such ill repute that they could never rise above their designation. It was the strong association between the jail and the low whites who fed and served it that gave them the name Ryland’s Hounds. We feared them and hated them, perhaps more than we feared and hated the Quality who held us, for all of us were low, we were all Tasked, and we should be in union and arrayed against the Quality, if only the low whites would wager their crumbs for a slice of the whole cake.
Georgie’s wife, Amber, greeted me at the door, smiling. “I thought you might be making your way past here today,” she said. “And timed right, just before supper. You hungry, Hiram?” I smiled and greeted Amber and then stepped into the one-room hut, and that is what it was, barely better than what I enjoyed down in the Warrens. The smell of ash-cake and pork wafted over me and I realized I was indeed hungry. Georgie was there, seated on the bed, next to his just-born son, who lay there pawing at the air.
“Why, look at you,” he said. “Rosie’s boy gettin’ big.”
Rosie’s boy, that is what they called me down in the Street, though I had not heard a greeting such as this in some time, because there were so few left who still remembered me as such. I embraced Georgie and asked how he was and he smiled and said, “Well, I got me a woman, and now I got me a little boy,” and he walked over and rubbed the baby’s belly. “So I reckon I’m doing just fine.”
“Why don’t you take Hiram out back,” Amber said.
We stepped outside into a small area where Georgie kept his garden and chicken coop and seated ourselves on two upturned logs. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small wooden horse that I had carved for Georgie’s son and handed it to Georgie.
“For your boy,” I said.
Georgie took the horse, nodded a thank-you, and put it in his pocket.
A few minutes later Amber came out with two plates and the cakes and fried pork on each of them and handed one to me and then one to Georgie, and I sat there eating wordlessly. Amber went back in and then returned with her cooing boy cradled in her arms. It was now late in the afternoon.
“Ain’t had nothing today, huh?” asked Georgie, smiling large, his reddish-brown hair seeming to flame against the dying light of that late autumn afternoon.
“Naw, guess I haven’t,” I said. “Somehow it just slipped me.”
“Something else on your mind, mayhaps?”
I looked up at Georgie and started to speak. But then, fearing what I knew I wanted to say, I stopped. I set the plate down next to the log. Amber had gone back inside. I waited for a moment and heard muffled laughter and the baby squealing, and I reasoned that Amber was now out front enjoying the company of some other visitors.
“Georgie, how’d you feel when you walked off Master Howell’s place for the first time?”
He swallowed half a mouthful and took a moment before answering. “Like a man,” he said, and then chewed and swallowed the rest. “Which is not to say I wasn’t one before, but I had never truly felt it. My whole life depended on me not feeling it, you know?”
“I do know,” I said.
“I don’t need to tell you this, or maybe I do, because they have always favored you in a particular way, but I’ll say it anyhow and you may make what you feel of it. I now rise when I want and I sleep when it is my will. My name is Parks because I said so. I pulled the name from nothing—conjured it as a gift to my son. It got no meaning except this—I chose it. Its meaning is in the doing. Do you get me, Hiram?”
I nodded and let him continue on.
“I don’t know if I ever told you, Hiram, but we was all crazy in love with your Rosie.”
“She was a beautiful girl, and there were so many beautiful girls down there in the Street. Wasn’t just Rose, you know, was her sister—your aunt Emma too. Such beautiful girls.” Emma another name like my mother’s, lost in the smoke; I knew she was my aunt, that she’d once worked in the kitchen, that she was a beautiful dancer, but she had otherwise disappeared into the flat words of others and the fog of my mind. But Georgie had it all. The past unfolded itself in front of him like a map, and I saw his eyes glow as he recounted his travels through every mountain pass and gully and gulch.
He said, “Man, I think back to them days, and how we used to stomp the floor. Good golly. Your momma and Emma was as opposite as could be—Rose quiet as Emma was loud, but when they got down to Deep Meeting you knew the same blood was between them. I am telling you I was there, all those Saturday nights. I was there with Jim the Phenomenal and his boy Young P. We had the banjo, jaw-harp, fiddle all going, pots and pans ringing out, and sheep bones clacking, and when it got hot, Emma and Rose would get to it. And it was something, I tell you, with the jars of water on their heads, going back and forth until a splash of water fell from one of their pots. Then they’d smile and curtsy, and whichever one of them had come out on top would look out for any other who should like to step in the ring.”