Friday, January 19, 2007

Taking Liberty


Taking Liberty is the remarkable story--straight from history--of a slave woman who took liberty the only way she could. Born a slave, Oney Judge was the daughter of a slave that was ‘privileged’ enough to work in the big house as a seamstress and a white man who was an indentured servant. Taught and trained in her early years in the arts that would entitle her to work in the house rather than the field, she often thought herself lucky compared to the other slaves. Belonging to George Washington is a kind of privilege as well. Knowing that they belong to such a respectable, important man--the novel begins out in the years leading up to the revolutionary war--gives everyone an air of importance. As she grows up, she becomes a pet not only of the other house servants but of the mistress as well. Martha Washington takes a particular fondness for her. She secretly learns to read with her mistresses’ approval, and she is granted more and more luxuries. Now wearing finer clothes and given more privileges, her mother becomes crazy with jealous. Stressing to her daughter that no matter how much of a ‘pet’ she becomes she will always be a slave, her mother makes attempt after attempt to escape and rebel. During the war years, Oney is a good, obedient slave. She takes pride in her master and mistress. She is now the confidante of Martha. She goes everywhere with her. But her mother--now relegated to the field for her rebellious and crazy nature--remains resolute. When the British soldiers come to the plantation--Mount Vernon--she is one of the slaves that takes the British at the word that they’ll be freed if they switch allegiance. But with each passing year, Oney becomes more and more fascinated with the idea of liberty and freedom. Will she ever be brave enough, smart enough, resourceful enough to wage her own war against the system? Set during the revolutionary war and the first term of his presidency, TAKING LIBERTY is a wonderfully honest and emotional journey of one woman’s journey to freedom.

Sinda was another saltwater Negro. Born in Africa...we children loved to visit her...this was how I learned about life around me, the past of both the whites and the Negroes. It all became my past. Sometimes I mixed up people in Virginia society with African tribes. When there was fear, after the general left, that the British would come up the Potomac and seize Lady Washington and burn the place, I saw in my head Sambo Anderson’s village burned by the Hausa tribe. I saw Lady Washington with a leather thong around her neck, marched for miles to the sea... (19-22)

When you learn about someone, hear their stories, you tote them around. They flow in your blood and your dreams. They become a part of you. So that when something bad happens to you, there is something to liken it to. I know someone else it happened to. And he still lives and breathes. So, when I was four and my daddy left, I cried, but I understood. He became part of the Gone. (23)

It was all Patrick Henry’s fault that my daddy left. That’s what my mama said... ‘Give me Liberty or give me death’ sounded wonderful in there, with the fire crackling and us sewing. It didn’t sound so wonderful in our dwelling when Daddy told Mama he was taking his liberty and leaving. (24)

Sally’s (an old servant who was Mrs. Washington’s personal maid) advice to her replacement:
’White peoples will sometimes say things to each other in front of you. Give no never mind to you bein’ in the room. Like you a chair. If they do, you act like a chair.’ ‘How do I act like a chair?’ ‘Do a chair talk? Do a chair allow that it hear sumpthin’? Do a chair tell what it hear?’ So I acted like a chair. (102)

I don’t suppose it matters if you’re Negro or white. If your mama doesn’t love you, you’ve got no color. You’ve got nothing. (124)

White children have childhoods. Negro slave children don’t. If there are moments of joy, afternoons of splashing in a brook, playing ‘prisoner’s base’ or a game with clay marbles in the dust, the moment lives forever in the memory because it must. So little joy comes after. (132)

Remembering eases the pain. We can choose what we wish to remember and pretend that the things we wish to forget never happened. (136)

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