James Breeden’s “Negro Woman”
On February 28, 1825, a white Tennessee farmer appeared before the Hawkins County Court with his black slave and two children he sired with her, with the intention of petitioning for their freedom. As required by Tennessee law, James Breeden posted a bond of $500 (roughly equivalent to $9,000 today) so that he might be allowed to convince that body of white men that his “negro woman” and her offspring should no longer be considered his property.
Breeden’s argument apparently satisfied the court. Recorded that day was their decision:
“it is therefore considered…that said Negroes…be emancipated, freed and set at liberty.”
Thus, Charlotte Breeden was granted her freedom along with her two young sons, Lelan and Pleasant. When Pleasant reached adulthood he left Tennessee for Jerseyville Illinois where he purchased 40 acres of land, married a black woman named Cordelia Hinton and produced a free-born daughter, Charlottie Breeden, my great-grandmother.
As I am aware of the economic, social, educational, pyschological and other benefits received by my family, I can say without reservation that the act James Breeden committed before the court on that day more than one hundred and seventy five years ago was good, but I have no idea if he was. He did, after all, own my great-great-great grandmother.
I don’t know if James purchased Charlotte on an auction block, or inherited her from a relative — she might have been a gift from a friend, along with a wheelbarrow and some farming implements. Or, perhaps he bought her from an evil neighbor to save her from a life of torment. There is a heavy ache behind my ribcage as I ponder the possibilities, and concede to the reality that I do not, and probably cannot ever know.
Historical records indicate that James Breeden never married nor sired children with anyone other than Charlotte. In his will he provides for her upkeep,
“I will to my negro woman Charlott (that I have freed) one cow and calf for her support, also one sow and pigs to her own use.“
but I don’t know if he loved Charlotte, or held for her any feelings of respect or esteem. I do not know if the sexual act that led to my eventual existence was forced or consensual, torturous or tender.
What I do know is that at a time in American history when it was perfectly legal for James Breeden to do with Charlotte whatever he pleased, he stood before that body of his peers and argued for her freedom. I am grateful to him for that act. Grateful—a word I choose deliberately, fully mindful that I am offering thanks to a white man who both is, and owned, my ancestor.
grateful: grāt fül) adj. 1. Appreciative of benefits received; thankful.
In writing those words, I feel the need to duck and raise one arm protectively in front of me (metaphorically, of course) as I expect someone (who knows the insidious divisions such favors created among the enslaved) to hurl the epithet “house slave” my way.
The first horn lifts its arm over the dew-lit grass
and in the slave quarters there is a rustling—
children are bundled into aprons, cornbread
and water gourds grabbed, a salt pork breakfast taken.
I watch them driven into the vague before-dawn
while their mistress sleeps like an ivory toothpick
and Massa dreams of asses, rum and slave-funk.
I cannot fall asleep again. At the second horn,
the whip curls across the backs of the laggards—
sometimes my sister’s voice, unmistaken, among them.
“Oh! pray,” she cries. “Oh! pray!” Those days
I lie on my cot, shivering in the early heat,
and as the fields unfold to whiteness,
and they spill like bees among the fat flowers,
I weep. It is not yet daylight.
(The House Slave, by U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove)