Musings on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl–Part 3
Before Ellen leaves, Linda is able to see her and say good-bye. But after this, she hears nothing for months; even Mr. Sands in Washington won’t respond to her letters asking what has become of Ellen.
A little girl in the family finally writes that Ellen is safely arrived, is welcome and eventually will go to school–but also that she’s to be the eldest daughter’s waiting maid.
Linda doesn’t know what to make of this. Is this a temporary arrangement, or is she a slave again? Is it possible to trust Mr. Sands, or has slavery perverted him, too?
In chapter 28, we read that slaves could not legally be married. They would get the consent of their masters and be married by clergy, but it was not legally recognized and their masters could annul it at any time.
And if a master wanted a slave to sleep somewhere other than beside her husband, to perform her usual duties, he could require it.
Linda’s aunt was required to sleep on the floor near Mrs. Flint’s bedroom, and slept there through her own six pregnancies, summer and winter. She was on-call to bring Mrs. Flint anything she needed during her own pregnancies, and tend to her babies at night.
This hard bed and lack of rest, after working all day long as housekeeper and waiting-maid, led to the premature loss of every one of her own six babies.
When Dr. Flint finally realized what this was doing to her, and that such a valuable slave could die, they let her sleep in her own room in an outhouse except when someone in the family was sick. She had two more babies, but still, none lived.
Now, Aunt Nancy dies while Linda is in the hiding place. The Flints are actually affected by her loss; Mrs. Flint even takes to her bed in grief.
But then Dr. Flint tries to use this grief to get Aunt Nancy’s mother, Linda’s grandmother, to get Linda to come home and take Aunt Nancy’s place. But her grandmother replied,
“It was not I that drove Linda away. My grandchildren are gone; and of my nine children only one is left. God help me!”
After breaking her slave down with years of “cruel selfishness,” “incessant, unrequited toil, and broken rest,” Mrs. Flint now wants to make “a beautiful illustration of the attachment existing between slaveholder and slave”: She wants Aunt Nancy to be buried at the feet of her own spot in the Flint family burial-place.
Linda writes that “It had never occurred to Mrs. Flint that slaves could have any feelings.” The clergyman suggests she consult Nancy’s mother first, and the mother wants her in the slaves’ graveyard with her own family.
After a “mighty grand funeral,” Nancy is buried, and Linda notes,
Northern travelers, passing through the place, might have described this tribute of respect to the humble dead as a beautiful feature in the ‘patriarchal institution’; a touching proof of the attachment between slaveholders and servants; and tenderhearted Mrs. Flint would have confirmed this impression, with handkerchief at her eyes.
We could have told them a different story. We could have given them a chapter of wrongs and sufferings, that would have touched their hearts, if they had any hearts to feel for the colored people.
Chapter 29: Linda stayed in that hole for almost SEVEN YEARS: August 1835-June 1842. Imagine having been in a cramped hole since 2003, getting wet during storms, only occasionally getting to come out and stretch your legs. And the effects of being in there for so long, continued in her body ever afterwards.
Now, a chance arises finally for her and another escaped slave to flee in a ship. Linda’s grandmother doesn’t want her to go–fearing the chance of seizure more than what being in the hole is doing to Linda–but then someone gets careless and Linda is at risk of being ratted out. So even her grandmother tells her to leave.
In time it’s discovered that the suspected betrayer did not actually see Linda. But for now, they have to assume she did, and Linda flees.
Chapter 30: And she’s out and off! Off she goes with her friend Fanny on a ship headed to Philadelphia.
Chapter 31: She’s in Philadelphia. Exercise and rubbing her limbs with salt water have nearly restored their use. She’s taken in by a black minister and his wife, and they also find neighbors to take in Fanny.
She meets with members of anti-slavery societies, and things are going well for her and Fanny–until she goes on a train and discovers that blacks are not allowed in first-class cars for any money.
Chapter 32: Linda finds her daughter Ellen, but discovers that Mr. Sands did not emancipate her as he promised, but actually gave her to his cousin’s eldest daughter. Ellen is supposed to be her waiting-maid when she grows up, so Ellen has not even been sent to school.
So Linda writes to Dr. Flint and his daughter, asking the price at which he would sell Linda so she can be free. Only through her own freedom can she protect her children. But instead he responds that she should go back and submit herself to her rightful owners, “and then any request I might make would be granted.”
Chapter 33: Linda’s health is much better, but her limbs still swell up when she does a lot of walking. She finds a job as a nurse to a baby, which is supposed to last for a month, but her legs bother her so much (from going up and down stairs all the time) that she can no longer work.
Instead of firing her, Mrs. Bruce makes some changes to save Linda steps, and gets her a doctor. Mrs. Bruce is kind and helps thaw Linda’s heart, but Mrs. Hobbs is reluctant to give up little Ellen, making Linda suspicious that she might sell Ellen if times get too hard.
So her distrust for white people begins to go away, but not completely. But Linda’s brother William comes home from the sea, so they are finally reunited.
Chapter 34: It’s amazing when a bully of any type claims to have treated their target very well, basically playing the victim. I’ve had this happen to me–with the bully claiming to have bent over backwards for me, even though they had been making my life miserable with covert and overt persecution and gaslighting–and here it is happening to Linda:
The girl who owns her has received her letter asking for permission to be sold; the girl’s brother writes back, saying how Linda had never been treated badly or like a slave, but as one of the family, so they thought she was above disgracing herself by running away.
Somehow the family has taken her letter to mean she wants to come “home,” and the brother writes how she will be received with open arms, with no resentment, and made happy, etc.
But Linda recognizes that the young boy could not have written this himself, and the disguised hand of Dr. Flint. So she does not respond. As she recounts,
“I did not return the family of Flints any thanks for their cordial invitation–a remissness for which I was, no doubt, charged with base ingratitude.”
I’ve seen the same thing myself, the bully making demands that cannot be met without psychologically destroying the target, then petulantly claiming that their olive branch was thrown back at them.
Her son Benny is sent to her, to her great joy. Dr. Flint, meanwhile, has come North looking for her, but can’t find her, because she has heard about his visit and gone to Boston for the duration.
In the summertime, as a nurse she needs to take her employer’s baby outside for exercise, but Southerners are everywhere. She writes,
“Hot weather brings out snakes and slaveholders, and I like one class of the venomous creatures as little as I do the other. What a comfort it is, to be free to say so!”
Chapter 35: Unfortunately–and showing a detail that Margaret Mitchell got right–the North has segregation and prejudice, despite having no slavery. Linda encounters it on a steamboat, in a cab, on a train, in various places.
On a train she gets put in a Jim Crow car. Rather than sitting in a decent seat in a cab, she’d have to sit on top of the trunks in a truck.
As a servant her employer, Mrs. Bruce, could save her from some of these indignities, but she still finds “cruel prejudice, which so discourages the feelings, and represses the energies of the colored people.”
Finally, at a luxury hotel, she follows the other nurses–all white–into a long hall with her charge. A man, who is in charge of ordering everything, points her to a chair; she sits down, but he says the baby is to sit there, while she stands behind the chair and feeds her. Then she is to go to the kitchen for supper.
Linda sees the other nurses eyeing her “with a defiant look, as if my presence were a contamination,” even though many of them are only a shade lighter than she is (her parents were mixed race).
She says nothing, but picks up the child, goes to their room, and refuses to go back to the table. Her defiance is not that of a drama llama, but quiet, polite and dignified–and thereby probably far more forceful than a rant or tirade.
Mr. Bruce has her meals sent to the room, but after a few days, the white waiters complain, “saying they were not hired to wait on negroes.” The landlord wants Mr. Bruce to send her down to her meals, and “the colored servants of other boarders were dissatisfied because all were not treated alike.”
Linda really shows her mettle in the following:
My answer was that the colored servants ought to be dissatisfied with themselves, for not having too much self-respect to submit to such treatment; that there was no difference in the price of board for colored and white servants, and there was no justification for difference of treatment.
I staid a month after this, and finding I was resolved to stand up for my rights, they concluded to treat me well. Let every colored man and woman do this, and eventually we shall cease to be trampled under foot by our oppressors.
…And may we all stand up to our own bullies with such quiet dignity.
To be continued….