Saturday, March 13, 2010


A nation divided. It is the violent, bloody zenith of the Civil War. While all around, in neighboring states and counties, slave owners take out their frustrations on the backs of their work force with a horsehair lash, there is one secret, safe place where property of color can feel, at last, valued humans. It’s the vast Jennings tobacco plantation in Beluga, South Carolina, passed down through my family for generations. But now that I am in charge, things are different.
I’ve gathered all the help and their babies into my huge, expansive, parlor. Mind you, I’ve placed burlap sacks over all the furniture because these people can be a little grimy after toiling in the fields all day. But still, I invite them into my home instead of having our meeting in the barn.
“Thanks for coming this afternoon,” I say, attempting to reinforce the concept they actually had a choice in the matter, something I imagine they’re not used to. “I want to let you in on a little secret. Thing is, if this secret gets out, all of us will die.”
A collective look of recognition passes among those gathered. This one, they understand perfectly.
“I do not believe it is right for one human being to own another. This may shock most of you, having worked, pretty much for free, for my father all these years. But now that he is dead and I am lord of the plantation, things are going to change. Starting today, all of you will be given a salary for whatever it is you do. So, okay, I guess it’s okay for one human being to rent one another, ha, ha. Seriously. But if you take the paycheck I’m going to give you and start blowing it all over town on new clothes and fancy food, people are going to notice. So take your money, save your money, hide your money, but don’t run down to the dry goods store and buy a fine new dress. Or if you do, be sure and tell them it’s for me. No, wait. Okay, no dresses, agreed?”
No one says a word. I am sure that the notion of earning a decent wage for hours worked has them all dumbfounded. I continue.
“Slavery no longer exists in this household. We just have to sort of, you know, pretend that it does in order to fool the neighbors. So yeah, those of you who pick tobacco from sun up to sunset will still be doing it…but you’ll be getting money for it. And I promise you, not a soul will ever physically harm you again. Unless we have visitors and you’re acting, you know, uppity. ‘Cause like I say, we gotta keep up the image of being anti-abolitionist and so forth. But you’ll get extra, hazard pay for that if, under those very rare circumstances, the foreman has to beat you.. Not that I want to see anyone acting out just so they’ll get a whipping and the extra moolah.”
A man timidly raises his hand. “Uh, suh?”
“Yes. You there. In the straw hat and bruises.”
“Do you means to say we’s gonna be getting’ paid by de hour?”
“Um, what’s your name, sir?”
I wince. “Not anymore. That’s a racist, slave name forced onto you by some landowning swine. What was your name back in Africa?”
“I was born here. On this here plantation. Your daddy owned my moms.”
“I’m so sorry. From now on let’s just all agree to call you Larry.”
“But I been Sambo since—“
“C’mon Larry. Step up to a new age of enlightenment. Your wife there, um, from now on I want you to call her Tammy. And those two naked babies she’s got on her lap? I’m thinking Zoe and Linda.”
“It’s ok, Larry. I understand how hard it must be for you—and for all of you—to come out from under the shadow of the low-self-esteem life you’ve lived so far. But to answer your original question, yes! Yes, absolutely, you’ll all be paid by the hour for the work you do. Now, granted, although I’ve inherited my entire family’s money, I’m not exactly made of it. So instead of paying you what backbreaking work in the hot sun truly deserves I’ll just be paying you what I can afford; a new idea I like to call minimum wage. But still you’ll be earning actual money—not that you can flash it around town or anything—and will be able to take pride in the fact that you are actually earning your living instead of having it, you know, handed to you.”
A hand waves. “Another question, yes?”
“Will we still be living in the slave quarters?”
“Yes. You will. I mean, we have to keep up the appearance of slavery or the neighbors will burn us to the ground. Plus you’ll find the rent I’ll be charging you, now that you’re making your own way, is very reasonable. But the good news is that there will be no more of this Master crap. You’ll all get to call me Brent. Isn’t that nice?”
“Uh, Suh?”
“Please. Brent.”
“Brent. You mean we gots to pay you to live here while we work for you?”
“Your name?”
“Mmn, not feeling it. How about Ed? Look, Ed, you have a right to a decent wage. Okay, a wage. But with rights come responsibilities. If I let you stay for free I am no better than the slave owners. I’m trying to create a society of equality here, you know? Can you work with me on this?”

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