I think I’m over Rev. Garnet. Thank goodness I only have him speaking in two chapters! I don’t know my Bible as well as I should, considering the fact that I grew up in a family of ministers…so writing in the voice of a 19th-century black reverend is hard—I’m throwing in a few biblical references here and there, but I can’t quote scripture like my parents or grandparents. Anyway, I’m nearly done this chapter and then can move on to more fun stuff like Judah’s actual slave narrative (how he was captured, how he was freed) and Genna’s attempts to open a door into the past. I learned that my box of advance review copies of Wish should arrive today—hurray! Will post photos later on…
Now that the nights have turned cold, I sleep on a pallet in the barn. My head is too full for sleep tonight, however, so I check on the horses and then go out back to search for answers among the stars. It is hard to believe this is the same night sky that guided me north just a few months ago. North to freedom. North to Genna. I wonder how many stars she can see at night. New York’s bright city lights make them vanish almost. Here in Weeksville, the stars have no competition yet somehow, standing beneath a million of them, I feel more alone than ever. Does Genna even think about me? Or did she slip back into the future and back into her old life? Maybe all she thinks about is going to college and building a new life without me.
Rev. Garnet’s voice breaks up my pity party. “Mind if I smoke?”
My heart speeds up a bit, but I shake my head and watch as the reverend lights the tobacco in the bowl of his pipe. He takes a few puffs to get it going, then takes a long draw and blows the smoke up into the sky. “Lionel tells me you were born in Jamaica.”
“You’re far from home, then.”
“Yes, sir.” I look up and try to remember the way the stars looked when I lived on the mountain with Pappy.
“I take it you don’t believe we can win this war.”
I should be able to defend my position, but I can’t let the reverend know that I have seen the future. “It’s just that…I’m not sure this war has an end, sir. We’re caught in a long, bloody battle, but I think there will be more to come. Even if all the slaves are eventually set free, that won’t change the way we’re treated in this country. Prejudice will still exist—bigotry, hatred. And some slaves will remain slaves even after their chains are gone.”
“The process of education has already begun, Judah. The American Missionary Association is sending teachers into the South to uplift our degraded brethren.”
I hear the music in my ears but say only the words out loud. “‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.’”
Rev. Garnet nods appreciatively. “Wise words. Are they yours?”
I shake my head and wonder what Rev. Garnet would think of a man like Bob Marley. “My countryman wrote those words. Some call him a poet—or a prophet.”
“No man can see the future, Judah. Only the Almighty knows what lies ahead. But He expects us to rise up and meet our destiny. And the destiny of our people is to be free.”
“In Africa—not here.”
Rev. Garnet clamps his lips down on his pipe and scrutinizes me. “Emigration is only part of the solution, Judah. We cannot plan a future overseas when so many of our brethren are still enslaved here. Africa is our ancestral home, but many of us remember no home other than this land.”
I don’t want to sound defiant so I keep my voice low. “And the missionaries you spoke of a minute ago, will they teach the former slaves the truth about Africa? Or will they teach our people to be ashamed of ‘the Dark Continent’?”
“The truth is not as simple as black and white, Judah. The soul-thieves must be forced out of our homeland, and only the best men of our race can ensure that Africa takes its rightful place in the world. But this country was built on our backs. We cannot walk away from the land that shaped us and which we have helped to shape. To stake our claim we must be recognized as citizens—civilized, educated, industrious citizens.”
I say nothing but think of the three amendments to the Constitution that will follow the end of the Civil War. Slavery will end, black people will be granted citizenship, and black men will gain the right to vote. Then I think of the KKK, Jim Crow laws, and facilities that are separate but not equal. I think of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X—what would they say at this moment?
Rev. Garnet mistakes my silence for confusion. “It is a complex situation, Judah, and even men of my age cannot agree on the remedy.”
I pause. It would be easy to let Rev. Garnet think that I am just a confused teenager. But I am not confused. I feel like I know too much. Yet there is one question that’s been weighing on my mind. “Why do you want to be part of a country that doesn’t want you?” I ask him.
Rev. Garnet ponders the question for a moment and then replies, “Because I am a Christian, Judah. I believe in forgiveness and redemption. Slavery has not only cursed the colored race—it has left its mark on our enslavers as well. But those who emerge from the furnace of affliction shall be purified by the refiner’s fire. It could be that God’s plan is unfolding as intended. It must be so! We have spent our time in the wilderness but we will emerge triumphant. And America will be a better place for our suffering. It will not have been in vain.”
I fight the urge to suck my teeth, but Rev. Garnet still sees the scornful twist of my lips. He pulls the pipe from his mouth and frowns. “Do you think I have never felt a murderous rage against whites burning inside my soul? I once walked up and down Broadway with a knife clasped in my hand, hoping to meet the slave catchers who had torn my family apart. If friends hadn’t persuaded me to go into hiding…only God knows what I might have done. My leg may be made of wood, but my heart is made of pulsing flesh and blood—just like yours, Judah. It has been bruised and battered, but it beats within me still. And where there’s life…”
“There’s hope?” I ask, not bothering to hide my doubt.
He nods and takes another draw from his pipe. “You’ve been hurt, son, I know you have. You’ve lost someone you loved, and you don’t believe justice will ever be served.” He looks at me for confirmation but I keep my eyes on the stars, up where the tears can’t fall. “I see in you the same restlessness I felt as a youth. You feel stifled here—even a country this vast is too small for your ambition.”
I come back to earth and look at the reverend. “You felt that way, too?”
He pulls the pipe from his mouth and chuckles. “I’m a man of the world, Judah. I’ve been to England, Scotland, Jamaica, and I was heading to Liberia when war broke out here. I was thirteen when I went to Cuba.”
“I was just a cabin boy, but I realized then that the world was much bigger than I had ever imagined. And I knew then that my life could serve a greater purpose if I had the courage to cross the sea. Our people are a global people, Judah. We tend to lose sight of that, consumed as we are by internal strife here at home.”
“This isn’t home. Not for me.”
“You could return to Jamaica one day. God’s work awaits us everywhere.” He pauses, then turns to me. “I’m sure you think you know your own heart, son, but I wonder if you’ve truly examined the source of your discontent.”
I take a moment to consider Rev. Garnet’s words, but they feel like a riddle I can’t quite solve. “What do you mean?” I ask.
“You say you have nothing to fight for, yet if that were true, you’d be on a ship already bound for Africa or the West Indies. Instead, you’re here in Weeksville. Why is that, Judah?”
I tilt my head up to the stars again. Why am I here? Because I still have hope that Genna will return? Or because I’m too afraid to strike out on my own?
The reverend comes closer and puts his hand on my shoulder. I look down at the scuffs on my shoes, then remember I no longer have a heavy curtain of hair to shield my face. My tears fall softly into the dust at my feet.
“Son, we are bound to this country and this righteous battle not because of the soil or the flag. We are bound by blood to those who yearn to be free. We stay and we fight for them.”
I lift my head and wipe my face with the back of my arm. I would fight for Genna, but she’s no longer here. “I’ve already been to war,” I tell him. “I’ve seen white soldiers killing each other, lying dead in the mud, weeping over their lost friends. I’ve been in a Union camp and been called ‘nigger’ by the very men who are supposed to be fighting to set us free. They don’t care about us.”
“Does it matter? Will you stand by and let the Confederate scoundrels win this war?”
“You don’t understand.” I shrug hopelessly and turn away but Rev. Garnet grabs my shoulder and pulls me back.
“You think you are alone, Judah, but you’re not. You’re part of something much larger than yourself, son. Together we can shape the future! We can prove, once and for all, that we are MEN!”
The reverend’s hand falls away from my shoulder. He looks at me intently and somehow I manage to hold his gaze. I decide in that moment that I will tell him the truth, no matter what the consequences may be.
“Have you killed before, Judah?”
I start to nod then realize I need to say the words out loud. “Yes, sir. I have.”
I don’t know what I expected Rev. Garnet to do, but the pride in his eyes unnerves me. A slight smile lifts his lips, and he nods with understanding. Then he turns to the vast night sky and quietly sucks on his pipe.
I want to make a full confession. I want at least one person in this world to know why I took a man’s life. But part of me is still ashamed—too ashamed to try and claim that I had no choice. I did have a choice. But I didn’t think I could live another day as a slave, and so I took a life to save my own.
At last the reverend turns to me and says, “It is no sin to take up arms in defense of liberty.”
I frown. “But the bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”
“A slave cannot obey God’s commandments. His desire to be virtuous and true is thwarted at every turn by demons who masquerade as Christians. It is the duty of every child of God to clear the path that leads to the cross, to redemption, to Christ. He who would impede the progress of any freedom-seeker must be struck down. God commands it.”
These are the words I read in the pamphlet Mrs. Claxton gave to me. Rev. Garnet spoke these words twenty years ago in an address to the enslaved. “Let your motto be resistance…”