Autobiography of One Self

Autobiography

My memory from ten years ago is vague. Perhaps this is normal, as I was only eight years old back then. Maybe nobody can really remember all the way back when they were eight. I am 18 now, and my life is vastly different from what it was ten years ago. I spent my early years -- or so I was told -- with my family on the distant, dark continent of Africa. For some reason the name always makes me think of pounding drums and hard, damp earth. I remember very little from that time, beyond something about bushes and dangerous animals. I am in civilization now. I am lucky. So I am told.

The white people are alien to me. Another distinct memory from my childhood is a distinct fear that my death was imminent. I didn't know what these strange creatures wanted of me beyond seeing me suffer. I had never seen white people before the slave ships came to take me away. The smell of sweat is something that still makes me gag. I believed that those with the pale skins were demons. I still believe that sometimes, late at night, when I haven't had enough to eat or when I was beaten for some mysterious crime.

When we arrived in Louisiana, I couldn't quite believe that they actually let me off the ship. I felt that I was in a sort of hell from which there was never any escape. I thought that the ancestors had come to punish me for something I had no awareness of. There has been a lot of that feeling over the last ten years or so. They punish you and beat you. While I understand more now than before, the white people seem equally mysterious to me now as all those years ago.

In Louisiana, they made us stand on a platform while more people than I had ever seen together spoke the strange language of my captors. Everyone was shouting and sweating. It was an unpleasant business. When the shouting finished, a big man led me away, with six or seven others that I had never seen before. Like me, they seemed confused about their surroundings and what was happening. I was afraid to speak to them, because I didn't want to go back into the darkness of the ship. I didn't know what their plans were, but felt that it was best to keep quiet in the presence of the strange white demons. I was put in a room with four other boys. We had beds but little else. The rooms were incredibly small and damp. It wasn't something I was used to. I missed my home terribly and cried myself to sleep every night. I couldn't understand why my mother wasn't coming for me. Later I thought the ancestors were punishing me for forgetting her face.

The other boys looked like me, but spoke different languages. Soon I began to learn English from the older slaves who were familiar with the Swahili that I spoke. They said it was the only way to survive. Only if you could speak English did you have any hope of understanding what they wanted of you. Only then could you hope to understand some of the many reasons why they would beat you, and perhaps make them do it less.

During the days, we work on the land. I remember in the beginning that I thought it was not so different from my home. I was waiting for my parents and family every day. I still found it hard to believe that they would abandon me like this. I found it impossible to believe that I might never see them again. But that was what happened. Ten years is a long time. Eight years old is very young. Even if I had the opportunity today, I doubt that I would find them if I were to search. I wouldn't even know where on the dark continent to look.

The other boys sharing my room soon became my friends. We formed a sort of community as slaves. It wasn't ideal, but at least I wasn't alone. I lost my native language soon under the assault of all the English I was hearing. My fellow slaves tended to speak only English. Because we came from so many different regions, it was the only way to understand each other. Life was too hard to bother with keeping alive a culture that we believed we had lost for good.

I don't even remember my real name. The "demons" gave each of us new names like John or Timothy or David. We were told that it was a sin to believe in the ancestors. The older slaves told us about the Bible, and how this was the only religion the white people believed in. Not having parents to tell me differently, I clung to this new faith. Like everything else, I lost my ancestors too.

I must say I rather liked working on the plantations. The land was green and water was plenty. I liked singing the spiritual songs of the older slaves. Later I learned that we referred to ourselves as "negroes." The exhaustion I felt at night helped to keep my personal feelings of loss at bay. I soon learned to live with my new situation. I forgot about my home and my family. I lost what I used to be, and became something new.

After the day's work, we would make a big fire at the slave quarters and sing songs that we composed during the day. The other slaves were not only my friends, but also my family. They helped me to forget my exhaustion by singing songs. They helped me forget my pain when the white masters would beat me for no apparently good reason. Some of them even shared their food with me when I was a child, because they were sorry for me.

I was warned to never try running away, as this would only make the white demons beat me more horribly than ever before. They would watch me much more closely than ever before, and they would find reasons for beating me, because of trying to run away. I was afraid of the beatings, so I stayed put.

Some of us fall in love and marry and have children. I do not see the sense in that. Why bring a child into slavery, only to live a life of misery and die an equally miserable death? I find myself without joy and without hope. These were the last things the white demons had taken from me. When I was a child, I clung the hope of my family finding me for the longest time. This hope gave me joy. The hope is gone now, and with it any joy I might have felt.

I still enjoy working in the fields, but I see not purpose in anything. I am not working for myself after all. I work for the profit and joy of others. Occasionally I see the white masters. They have parties and smiles and beautiful free children. I should hate them, and for a time I did. After the older slaves told me that there were no ancestors to punish me for anything, I understood that it was simply terrible human beings who hurt us like this. So I hated them. Now I cannot even muster the energy to hate them or resent them. Such emotion takes too much strength, and I need all that I have simply to work hard enough so that they won't beat me anymore.

My best friend, Timothy, recently fell in love with one of the older slaves' daughters. She had herself been born into slavery and knew…