THE WRITING LESSON
I am Bill a slave born in the house of the Most Reverend Richard Charlton and his wife old Mary and their daughter Catherine. I’ve heard tell that I am likely a child of the slave Mae a woman who I cannot recall having ever met. I’ve heard stories on who my father is, that for sure. Missus Catherine teaches me about the Lord and how to read and write. She told me to write something about myself to explain to her who I am but that is harder to do than I thought. I like to work hard for the Charltons so next to that I thought this would be easy but it’s not. Truth be told, I would rather go fishing with my friends or even tend to the farm.
Catherine interrupted Bill’s reading. “Bill if you call mum ‘Old Mary’ she’s never gonna like this. No woman likes to be told that she is old. Women are funny that way.”
“But you told me to write what is true and it is true that we call her old Mary, not disrespecting her or nothing but we do that so we know who we’re talking about. We call Old Mary ‘Old Mary’ and Young Mary ‘Mary’ or sometimes ‘Young Mary’. That is just how we do it so that is how I wrote it.”
“’Anything’…not ‘nothing’.” Catherine corrected Bill. “Sometimes when you write you have to pick between telling the truth and not hurting someone’s feelings. But that’s what you have to learn. Well alright just keep going and we’ll fix it later.”
Bill continued his reading.
Missus Catherine told me that if I got stuck I should say something about my friends. I got a great friend named Richmond which is funny because we live here in Richmond although the British call it Staten Island. Maybe it isn’t so funny ‘cause lots of slaves who pass through here have names from the places they from. Just yesterday I met a boy named Orleans who said that was a big place like New York but that no slave child should ever want to see it. He said if they ever say they gonna take you to Orleans you just better run away. Better to be dead than to be in Orleans. That is what he said, but I don’t right know about that. Not that any place is so great for a slave I think, but I don’t get chained and I don’t get whipped like they do in Orleans. At least not so far but I’ve heard tell. I also am friends with Mary who I call young Mary cause she is much younger than old Mary. She is the child of Missus Catherine and gets to live in the big house of course since she be a Charlton. She plays all kinds of music on some struments they have at the big house and she teaches me some songs about the Lord. I been told that I can sing like a bird although to me I don’t sound like a bird. I think I sound more like the old working men I see on the farm every day. We sing other kinds of songs out there and they are not at all about the Lord. I don’t tell the Reverend about that cause he would just tell me that I’m gonna go to hell for that although we both know that he don’t mean it. Maybe one day I will be free and I will be a singer or a soldier instead of someones slave. I ain’t complaining though. According to Orleans some peoples got it worse, way worse.
“Well Bill, it is interesting and a good start given that it’s the first thing you ever wrote about yourself.” Catherine said. “I see we have to work on your punctuation and spelling and some of your sentences but I think you’re doing very well explaining who you are.”
“Well thank you”, Bill replied. “I don’t know why you think I should be learning about all this stuff like punchiation but I do want to learn how to read real bad. They say a slave who knows how to read is a terror but I don’t get that at all. I see you reading all the time and you don’t seem to be a terror. How can me learning how to read be a bad thing?”
“Well let’s just say some folks are scared of their own shadow and those are the people who think what I’m doing here, teaching you to read and write is a bad thing.” Catherine responded. “Some white folks would want to send me to jail for this very lesson, but I don’t pay them any mind. Anyway, I think this is very good, very good indeed for a ten-year-old slave boy who is just learning to read and write. We will keep working on your skills and one day you’ll show people that even though you are someone’s slave you still have your thoughts and feelings to write about.”
“Well ain’t it true that one day I will be a free man? Down at the dock I hear the men talk about freedom all the time. And most of them are white folks who seem free to me. I just want to be as free as them to work for pay and buy me some nice things and have a boy child who knows who his mother and father are.”
“Well Bill”, Catherine said. “I don’t know what our future holds. It would not surprise me if one day you grew up to be a free man. And if that were to happen then you can say that you learned how to read and write and about the Lord from me, Catherine Bayley, daughter of the Right Reverend Richard Charlton and his wonderful wife Mary. While you are still a slave it might be best to keep such things to ourselves. But when you are free you can say that even though the Charltons kept some slaves that we were good people who tried to do the Lord’s work here on earth and that if we failed it was not because we did not try our best to serve the Lord. I want you to say it often and to write it down, because I know I won’t be on this earth for long and neither will mummy or the Reverend, and I don’t want us to go to Hell.”
Bill was always a bit afraid when Catherine started with her serious talk about hell. “I will do what I can Missus, but I am just a slave child”, Bill replied and then he added, “Missus Catherine, is it true what white folks say that I have no soul?”
“You sure are a boy with a lot of questions, aren’t you? I wouldn’t listen too much to what people say. Poppa says that most folks will lead you the wrong way. What do you think?”
Bill knew that if they were right and he had no soul then there was no hope. He would remain a slave all the days of his life. But if he did have a soul that meant that there was a God and if there was a God then anything was possible. The God that gave him a soul would see to it that he was free. Why else give a person a soul? “I don’t know nothing about how God works. I got me enough troubles figuring out people let alone figuring out God.”
“Anything”, said Catherine. “I don’t know anything about how God works. You can’t say nothing when you mean anything or you mess up the whole sentence.”
“Well it is true that I don’t know anything about nothing or nothing about anything”, Bill said cleverly. “I just don’t know why God would give me a soul and put me in a place where I can’t use it.”
“You sure can be clever Bill that is for sure. I don’t know where you get half the things you say.”
“What about the other half?”
“Yes that concerns me as well!”
When Bill’s lesson was over, he returned to his work. He especially liked taking care of the Charlton’s horses and would see to the needs of the animals from dawn to dusk. Even as a ten-year-old child, Bill would do the work of several grown men which was greatly appreciated by the aging Reverend, who insisted on calling him William, since much needed to be done. The Charltons not only ran the large Church and catered to the spiritual needs of their community, but they also had a little farm that provided for their sustenance. With the help of six slaves on the farm the Reverend was free to do God’s work knowing that his small family and the slaves would be fed and there would be plenty left should a widow or orphan or stranger find themselves in need. His wife was free to spread God’s love and the sickly Catherine was tasked to do God’s other work, which included marrying well and raising and teaching the slave children as well as her own daughter. Many thought Catherine favored Bill over her own child, young Mary, who loved Bill like an older brother. When teaching Bill how to read the bible, Catherine would say that she learned as much about God’s love from Bill as she did from the bible or her mother or father, quite a thing to say about a young slave boy. Catherine’s husband, the doctor Richard Bayley, made his best efforts to treat Catherine’s ailments, but the family knew that her constitution was weak and she was probably not long for the world. Catherine did not want for love for she was adored by all around her and she returned the same tenfold when and how she could. Catherine was again with child in early 1774 and the pregnancy was not going well stressing the entire family just as events around them were stressing all the institutions on Staten Island and all of British America.
By 1774, there was much talk of freedom and independence in the Colonies, even on Staten Island, which for the most part was loyal to Great Britain. The Charlton family was steadfastly loyal to the King and like many in Britain and America considered the talk of revolution to be the empty prattle of those who could not know how difficult it was to run anything. Bill would ask Catherine about independence, whether that meant that if the British were kicked out of America he would be free to have a life that he could choose for himself instead of a slave life chosen by his owners. “I am sorry to say”, she would tell him, “but the people around here I know who talk about freedom the most will never let go of their blacks. They would go to war and shed their last drop of blood rather than letting the blacks live free among them.”
Bill was quite disturbed by this talk. “Why should I be a slave my whole life?” he would ask. “What did I do wrong? It is not fair and it is against everything you taught me about being a Christian.”
Catherine would explain that the problem was that everyone had their own ideas about what it meant to be Christian. Bill remained uneasy and unconvinced. He may have been taught as a Christian and may have felt God’s love through Catherine and both Marys and The Reverend, but still he was a slave child. “What about England?” Bill asked Catherine. “I heard tell that they freed all their slaves there because they decided there that owning slaves was unchristian. Why is it that in England, people cannot own slaves but here their cousins can? If it is not a Christian thing to do there, why is it Christian here? If you and The Reverend and the Missus wanted to you could send me to England to be a free man, right? I think that would be the Christian thing to do.”
Catherine answered that she had thought about it but could not bring herself to let him go. “What would we do here without you, Bill? I think everything here would just fall apart and I myself would be heartbroken.” Bill understood the lesson; he was too valuable for them to let him go. Still he had to find his way out of America to freedom in England with the blessing of the Charltons. Bill’s thoughts in 1774 were not that of most ten year olds, but everyone who knew him knew that Bill was no ordinary ten-year-old. Like many others in America, the thought of his own freedom began to consume him.
Bill had heard several stories of how he came to live with the Charltons. There were no records of his birth or past so he had to make up his history from the stories he was told. The Reverend himself told Bill that as a baby he had been exchanged for a sack of potatoes in a deal with a hungry trader that benefited both sides. On the rare day when Bill was resting from being tired out from working the farm the Reverend might chide him, “C’mon William get up and show me you’re worth a sack of potatoes.” And instead of taking offense, Bill would get up and work to sheer exhaustion. He became fond of taking some of the potato sacks and fashioning shirts from them, shirts he alone would always wear. But Bill had reason to doubt the story that he was traded for a sack of potatoes as well as the stories told to many of the slaves he came to know. He had heard from one of the older slaves that he came to live with the Charltons as a baby because he was a Charlton, son of a union between the Reverend and a slave named Mae who was sent away soon after his birth. Bill was told that Mae consented to the arrangement with the Reverend in the hope that with some Godly intervention she would bear a Moses who would free her people from their oppression. Bill did not put much credence in this tale of his creation either. For one thing, his skin was dark making the fair-skinned Reverend an unlikely father. He also knew he was not going to be doing much liberating as a slave on Staten Island. Bill figured that it was more likely that his creation resulted from a union between his mother and one of the muscular slaves that were working for the Charltons or a neighbor. As a slave, she could not marry or control her family but she could not be stopped from being human. Although it was never spoken of, it may have been that kind of behavior that got his mother in trouble with the Charltons and eventually lead to her removal from their household. There was one other story, also told to him by an older slave, which he could not discount despite his dark skin. According to this story, the Charltons did own a slave named Mae who was very hard working and of a happy sort. She sang like a bird, just like Bill. Mae, being quite sturdy and attractive to men, was noticed by some of the locals who returned from the North and West as heroes for fighting in the British Army defeating the French and the Indians in the war which finally provided security to the British subjects of America. These hero soldiers were left to do that which they wanted especially in regard to the local slaves. One day, the story goes, they cornered Mae who punched and kicked and bit each and every one of them with a boundless relentless fury that still ended in her rape and pregnancy. Bill believed that this event did happen to his mother, whether or not it was the event that resulted in his creation. After all, in his ten years Bill had seen countless horrible things happen to slaves and he heard tales of even worse. It was not that Bill wanted to think about such a horror happening to his mother but it did explain to him his rage at so many things. It explained why he would get into so many fights, even with his friends, where his tempered rage would make him always the victor. Old Mary would warn him that such anger would not serve him well so she taught him to pray first before striking out in anger. “Pray that you do not hurt anyone. Pray that your anger does not overcome your goodness. Pray that the Lord protects you and takes care of your soul.”
“Soul?” Bill would think. “Maybe it’s true what those people say about me. Maybe it is true that I am just a well-trained animal. Maybe it’s true that I have no soul.” Still, before sleep every night all the Charltons would say their prayers and Bill too would say his; the prayers he would repeat every night of his life. “I pray that I have a soul. I pray that I have a soul.”