It was Elijah’s twelfth birthday. He stirred and pulled the tattered coverlet a bit more tightly around his shoulders. Early morning sunshine was slipping through the cracks in the small cabin he shared with his mother and two sisters. Life wasn’t bad on the Calhoun estate. Whippings were few and light. Massa Bennet meant to do well by his slaves, so he saw to it that they were fed well, kept dry, even schooled a bit and taught some scripture. On Sundays he’d take them to his country church where they’d sit up in the slave gallery and hear the same sermons the whites did.
Christmases were good, as were harvesttimes, corn shuckings, and hog killings. And most all Saturday nights were fine. Folks would clap and frolic to the fiddling and dance long into the moonlight. When things got quieter Aunt Esther would tell tales of magic, ghosts, and talking animals. No, things weren’t bad. But in the 1840s in that region of Virginia the tobacco economy faltered and times got harder. Some years back Elijah’s father had been sold to an Alabama cotton farmer. Massa Bennet hated to do it, but had to do it.
It was Caleb’s twelfth birthday too. Caleb was the massa’s son. Stories were still told of that magical evening in early spring when the two boys were born, one up in the massa’s house, the other down in the slave quarters. For the first seven or eight years they’d played together, even learned their letters and numbers together. Elijah had a quick mind, and their shared birthday meant he’d always be treated specially. But things seemed very different now. For Elijah it probably began the day his father was sold. His mother Anna called it “de saddes’ thing dat ever happen to me.”
It was also Sunday, and things were all astir on the estate for that morning Caleb would be doing his first public scripture reading at church. He’d march to the lectern in his Sunday finest, and if Elijah chose to go, he’d watch it all silently from up in the gallery. If he chose to go. Caesar and January—two slave boys a little older than him—wouldn’t be going. They didn’t care much for the massa’s church. Most Sundays they’d take off for the woods to gamble, fight, drink, and generally break the Sabbath.
Elijah still didn’t know what he’d do as morning rustled around him. He liked Caleb. There were too many memories of midnight visits to apple orchards not to think fondly of his friend. But it wasn’t the same anymore. Caleb had taken to being called Massa Caleb, and some days he was now left to mind the help. He seemed very white, and Elijah felt very black—like he’d feel in church. If he went.
He’d heard all the sermons about slaves submitting themselves to their masters. He’d been told, often enough and clearly enough, that some are meant to be masters and some are meant to be slaves. Some are born with the mark of Cain and on them rests the curse of Ham. The Good Book says so, he’d been told. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all had slaves. So had Job. It’d always been that way; there had been masters and slaves since the dawn of time. And since it’d always been that way, that’s the way it always ought to be. God so ordained it, he’d been told.
Elijah rolled over and went back to sleep. Maybe later he’d look up Caesar and January.
I tell this story so that more and more voices will arise in the church to challenge all such patterns of subordination and the misuses of Scripture upon which they depend.