Your ancestors took the lash, the branding iron, humiliations and oppression because one day they believed you would come along to flesh out the dream.”
Maya Angelou

By Jarrel Phillips

All of the historical info in this piece is factual and based on government interviews, narrative, and records of my great-great-great grandpa who was a slave but was freed during the Civil war which begin on the plantation he was a slave on. I originally decided to do this for a class assignment from one of my college courses I had in the African Studies Department at San Francisco State University. We were to create a slave narrative and my uncle had just shown me a photograph of this elder black man who he said was an ex-slave my not so distant relative.

Seeing my Great-great –great grandfather’s photo sparked this making it all too real. It’s one thing to know and acknowledge that I am a descendant of a slave or slaves. However, its another thing to actually see one from which you descend from. His relation to me, alongside the photo, gave him a human quality I don’t fully grasp when generally thinking or speaking about slaves, prisoners, or slavery.

That made slavery all too real. He’s a human like me. And if he’s human like me how could he live through that? Why didn’t he choose to end it all and take his life rather than have it taken and controlled by cruel people? What went on in that mind of his? What would he think if he saw the product of his persistence and will? Would he be happy? Surprised? Or did he already somehow know? Could it be possible that his life couldn’t be taken because he had already willingly given it?

I was attempting to explore what possibilities could have been the source of a slave’s persistence and will. What could have kept them going despite the relentless abuse promised to them day-in and day-out? Why did they just put up with it? Why did they persist? Did suicide not cross their mind? It definitely would have for me. Why didn’t slaves try to do anything about it? Or were they all along? Did they understand something we don’t. Did my great-great-great grandfather know that one day his great-great-great grandchildren would someday thrive in the very same world that deprived him simply because he chose to persist?

I definitely felt thankful upon seeing his photo. And even more grateful upon writing this piece, as I believe it’s quite possible that some of the words could easily have been his own.

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise. I rise. I rise.”
–Maya Angelou

This is not who I am. What is this cursed life? When do I wake up free? Where in the fields does this curse get lifted and my life become that of which I imagine in my dreams that I wake from every morning before dawn to do my masters biddings and not my own? How am I able to resist? Why must I persist? Why do I even bother to wake up?

Before birth it was decided that my life would not be my own. I was born into bondage and deprived of natural freedoms, which seem to be at jeopardy throughout every waking moment of my life. I share this challenging experience, which is my life through the lens of physical, mental, and spiritual enslavement, animated through the fortitude and will that flows through me in return. I awake daily to overcome, then sleep again having triumphed over another day. This is my story. I am Litt Young.

I belong’d to Ole Mistress Martha Gibbs since I was b’on in 1850. .. never knewd the exact day but that don’t matter much anywho. Er’ day was the same really. We lived in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Mistress was a fierce Irish woman. She had herself plenty money and married twice. She had a fine house for herself and so many Niggers that she had two “quarters”. Ole Mistress Gibbs’s place is where the old battleground at Vicksburg happened. Sides from that eventful day, nothin’ out the ordinary happened, just our daily routine.

4am when we would wake up and start work on the fiel’ ‘til sun down, sometimes longer if Ole Mistress Gibbs say so. Wasn’t too bad though long as the scales under candlelight weigh in at ‘xact what’s spected from ya’. Follow those two rules well and you avoid whippin’s from Miss Gibbs white overseer who had a house set right next to our quarters. He sho’ did have a good time lickin’ us wit that there whip of his. Seemed like he carried it wit him everywhere so he never missed at chance for a beating. I even seed my daddy get whipped a handful of times. I never really knowd my daddy well though cuz we was separated into different quarters and he disappeared when I was young. They say he was sold somewhere up North by Hockley, the “Nigger-trader”. And my mother belonged to the Gibbs too, I think, but I never sawd her or any of my three siblings ‘cept when I was real young. Said that they was sold to the Simmons early on.

So it be just me, myself, and I mos’ times but it ain’t hold me back none really. There was something to always look forward to. We were fed plenty good! Greens, and co’n, and co’n bread, and ox tails, and chittlins, and all! Neva had to worry about being hungry but you most definitely get cold if you lose you clothes. Clothes be way more scarce then the food. We got a set of clothes and shoes once er’ Christmas to last us the year. Otherwise, you just be naked. We had us dances er’ Saturday night with fiddles and songs and lots of fun followed by church on Sunday morning. Mistress Gibbs built us our own little church that we go’d to right on the plantation where we learn ‘bout minding our master, mistress, and God, of course.

Yup, that there just about sums up all my life before I become a free man when them Yankees come raising hell. Mighty fine in its on way if ya ask me. You learn to ‘preciate the simple things life got to offer. Every new day was like a new life ‘cept I just kept waking up to the same bondage. I was born into that trap but wasn’t no way I was gon’ let that hold me down. Never knowd for sure if I was ever gon’ be free but I knewd that something was gon’ have to give. Lo’d don’t like no ugly and I knows I done seen lots of it happen on them fields er’ day. So I knewd that that couldn’t be all there was to life but I didn’t know what to think more of it. I just had that feelin’ in my gut, my soul, that I hung on to. They had my body but my spirit was mine and I held onto it with every breath in my body. If not for me then for whoever be next to be born in this trap of life. I had me 6 children once I was freed. Always wanted to make me a family but with the way my life always looked I couldn’t bo’n them into that hell-hole. But hope always said things was go’n change and I believed it in my gut just wasn’t sho’ it be in my lifetime. Like I says, “it can’t get no uglier so must have something better to look forward to, right?”

Them Yankees and Federates battled on Ole Miss Gibbs’s fiel’ tearin’ each other apart. Made hardly any sense—and they called us animals– but it brought more hope of freedom. I was ‘ficially freed in 1866. I was already in Marshall, Texas by then. Mistress had to flee her home when the battle happened on her land and brought as many of us with her as she can.

I worked an honest livin’ after that. Still worked hard but each day’s work was my own reward to have. I wake to do my own biddin’ and ain’t been no whippin’s round here either! I gets outta bed by choice. Yes sir! Who woulda ever imagined in they wildest dreams? God knows wasn’t long ago when no black could ever ‘magine not wakin up to a bell, not being measured up to a scale, and finding your own worth outside of your daily weight in cotton. Feel like I’m living inside a dream I never had so I ain’t tryna sleep through it. Nope I’m wides awake thank you very much! I done raised all my children and had me some grandchildren now too. All born free and hopefully it stay that way. Slavery ain’t right for no one. But work still be part of life and you go’n eitha’ work for your own dreams or someone else go’n get ya to help them with they own. Me? I gots my own.

My soul still thrives off that feelin that kept me goin’ as a slave. Some say its will. Some say it be love. Maybe it’s a lil’ bit of both and then some. I just does what I know. I still wake at 4am and I still works mighty hard. Often times I work harder than when I was slavin’ for Mistress Gibbs. ‘Cept now I does it for my self and to provide for my seeds to make sure they bet getting themselves a good start at life and learns the value of hard work.

Can’t help but love what I do now that I have reason of my own fo’ doin’ it. This new life don’t really feel much like work to be honest. I just feel alive. No lazy niggers round here. No sir. Thems be the ones wanna work fo’ someone else so they can be “cared for”– I done did that one already slavin’ away in them fiel’s.
Slavery done got black folk thinking work is the devil like just cuz we free work don’t ‘posed to exist for us. Just do what you gots to do and you be right. Choose wrong and they be waitin to correct ya’. They be making them penitentiaries specially for niggers now. Used to be for the white folk before but slavery just found new ways and just be waitin for ya ass to slip but I see no need with all this good ol’ freedom, opportunity, and fresh air. But if you want er’ thing handed to ya they given out free beds and food at them penitentiaries if you still want you some handouts or just rather have the easy route. Life not posed to be easy but you don’t gots to make it hard either.

I’m mighty happy with where I be at. I’m livin’ my dream. It ain’t fancied up or wrapped up with ribbons and a pretty endin’ but it’s steady pushin’ forward. It just happening day by day and now my kids got it and they kids too and soon they kids and on and on. If it be up to me it’d continue right through the bloodstream of each and every offspring, flowing like the river.

So you see, I intend to fill in the space between those who came before me and those who will come after. Life ain’t neither mine or theirs… its ours. I pick up where others before me left off paving paths so that those after too will pave more paths connecting us and the generations to come. Life is a precious gift that we must share with one another so that we grow together. I resist the confines in order to persist knowing that my actions effect more then myself. So, you see, my life is not my own. It ain’t never been. And that’s alright with me.
I am because we are. I am Litt Young.

We are the space between god and our ancestors. Fill it up! — Ise Lyfe