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- Bricks Without Straw - 2/87 -
"Wal, I 'clar, now, jes de quarest ting ob 'bout all dis matter o' freedom is de way dat it sloshes roun' de names 'mong us cullud folks. H'yer I lib ober on de Hyco twenty year er mo'--nobody but ole Marse Potem an' de Lor', an' p'raps de Debble beside, know 'zackly how long it mout hev been--an' didn't hev but one name in all dat yer time. An' I didn't hev no use for no mo' neither, kase dat wuz de one ole Mahs'r gib me hisself, an' nobody on de libbin' yairth nebber hed no sech name afo' an' nebber like to agin. Dat wuz allers de way ub ole Mahs'r's names. Dey used ter say dat he an' de Debble made 'em up togedder while he wuz dribin' roun' in dat ole gig 'twixt de diff'ent plantations--on de Dan an' de Ro'noke, an' all 'bout whar de ole cuss could fine a piece o' cheap lan", dat would do ter raise niggers on an' pay for bringin' up, at de same time. He was a powerful smart man in his day, wuz ole Kunnel Potem Desmit; but he speshully did beat anythin' a findin' names fer niggers. I reckon now, ef he'd 'a hed forty thousan' cullud folks, men an' wimmen, dar wouldn't ha' been no two on 'em hevin' de same name. Dat's what folks used ter say 'bout him, ennyhow. Dey sed he used ter say ez how he wasn't gwine ter hey his niggers mixed up wid nobody else's namin', an' he wouldn't no mo' 'low ob one black feller callin' ob anudder by enny nickname ner nothin' ub dat kine, on one o' his plantations, dan he would ob his takin' a mule, nary bit. Dey du say dat when he used ter buy a boy er gal de berry fust ting he wuz gwine ter du wuz jes ter hev 'em up an' gib 'em a new name, out 'n out, an' a clean suit ob close ter 'member it by; an' den, jes by way ob a little 'freshment, he used ter make de oberseer gib 'em ten er twenty good licks, jes ter make sure ob der fergittin' de ole un dat dey'd hed afo'. Dat's what my mammy sed, an' she allers 'clar'd dat tow'rd de las' she nebber could 'member what she was at de fus' no more'n ef she hed'nt been de same gal.
"All he wanted ter know 'bout a nigger wuz jes his name, an' dey say he could tell straight away when an' whar he wuz born, whar he'd done lived, an' all 'bout him. He war a powerful man in der way ob names, shore. Some on 'em wuz right quare, but den agin mos' all on 'em wuz right good, an' it war powerful handy hevin' no two on 'em alike. I've heard tell dat a heap o' folks wuz a takin' up wid his notion, an' I reckon dat ef de s'rrender hed only stood off long 'nuff dar wouldn't 'a been nary two niggers in de whole State hevin' de same names. Dat _would_ hev been handy, all roun'!
"When dat come, though, old Mahs'r's plan warn't nowhar. Lor' bress my soul, how de names did come a-brilin' roun'! I'd done got kinder used ter mine, hevin' bed it so long an' nebber knowin' myself by any udder, so't I didn't like ter change. 'Sides dat, I couldn't see no use. I'd allers got 'long well 'nuff wid it--all on'y jes once, an' dat ar wuz so long ago I'd nigh about forgot it. Dat showed what a debblish cute plan dat uv ole Mahs'r's was, though.
"Lemme see, dat er wuz de fus er secon' year atter I wuz a plow-boy. Hit wuz right in de height ob de season, an' Marse War'--dat was de oberseer--he sent me to der Cou't House ob an ebenin' to do some sort ob arrant for him. When I was a comin' home, jes about an hour ob sun, I rides up wid a sort o' hard-favored man in a gig, an' he looks at me an' at de hoss, when I goes ter ride by, mighty sharp like; an' fust I knows he axes me my name; an' I tole him. An' den he axes whar I lib; an' I tole him, "On de Knapp-o'-Reeds plantation." Den he say,
"'Who you b'long to, ennyhow, boy?'
"An' I tole him 'Ole Marse Potem Desmit, sah'--jes so like.
"Den he sez 'Who's a oberseein' dar now?'
"An' I sez, 'Marse Si War', sah?'
"Den he sez, 'An' how do all de ban's on Knapp-o Reeds git 'long wid ole Marse Potem an' Marse Si War'?'
"An' I sez, 'Oh, we gits 'long tol'able well wid Marse War', sah.'
"An' he sez, 'How yer likes old Marse Potem?'
"An' I sez, jes fool like, 'We don't like him at all, sah.'
"An' he sez, 'Why?'
"An' I sez, 'Dunno sah.'
"An' he sez, 'Don't he feed?'
"An' I sez, 'Tol'able, I spose.'
"An' he sez, 'Whip much?'
"An' I sez, 'Mighty little, sah.'
"An' he sez, 'Work hard?'
"An' I sez, 'Yes, moderate, sah.' "An' he sez, 'Eber seed him?'
"An' I sez, 'Not ez I knows on, sah.'
"An' he sez, 'What for don't yer like him, den?'
"An' I sez, 'Dunno, on'y jes' kase he's sech a gran' rascal.'
"Den he larf fit ter kill, an' say, 'Dat's so, dat's so, boy.' Den he take out his pencil an' write a word er two on a slip o' paper an' say,
"'H'yer, boy, yer gibs dat ter Marse Si War', soon ez yer gits home. D'yer heah?'
"I tole him, 'Yes, sah,' an' comes on home an' gibs dat ter Marse Si. Quick ez he look at it he say, 'Whar you git dat, boy? 'An' when I tole him he sez, 'You know who dat is? Dat's old Potem Desmit! What you say to him, you little fool?'
"Den I tell Marse War' all 'bout it, an' he lay down in de yard an' larf fit ter kill. All de same he gib me twenty licks 'cordin' ter de orders on dat little dam bit o' paper. An' I nebber tink o' dat widout cussin', sence.
"Dat ar, now am de only time I ebber fault my name. Now what I want ter change it fer, er what I want ob enny mo'? I don't want 'em. An' I tell 'em so, ebbery time too, but dey 'jes fo'ce em on me like, an' what'll I do'bout it, I dunno. H'yer I'se got--lemme see--one--two--tree! Fo' God, I don' know how many names I hez got! I'm dod-dinged now ef I know who I be ennyhow. Ef ennybody ax me I'd jes hev ter go back ter ole Mahs'r's name an' stop, kase I swar I wouldn't know which ob de udders ter pick an' chuse from.
"I specs its all 'long o' freedom, though I can't see why a free nigger needs enny mo' name dan the same one hed in ole slave times. Mus' be, though. I mind now dat all de pore white folks hez got some two tree names, but I allus thought dat wuz 'coz dey hedn't nuffin' else ter call dere can. Must be a free feller needs mo' name, somehow. Ef I keep on I reckon I'll git enuff atter a while. H'yer it's gwine on two year only sence de s'rrender, an' I'se got tree ob 'em sartain!"
The speaker was a colored man, standing before his log-house in the evening of a day in June. His wife was the only listener to the monologue. He had been examining a paper which was sealed and stamped with official formality, and which had started him upon the train of thought he had pursued. The question he was trying in vain to answer was only the simplest and easiest of the thousand strange queries which freedom had so recently propounded to him and his race.
Knapp-of-reeds was the name of a plantation which was one of the numerous possessions of P. Desmit, Colonel and Esquire, of the county of Horsford, in the northernmost of those States which good Queen Caroline was fortunate enough to have designated as memorials of her existence. The plantation was just upon that wavy line which separates the cotton region of the east from the tobacco belt that sweeps down the pleasant ranges of the Piedmont region, east of the Blue Appalachians. Or, to speak more correctly, the plantation was in that indeterminate belt which neither of the great staples could claim exclusively as its own--that delectable land where every conceivable product of the temperate zone grows, if not in its rankest luxuriance, at least in perfection and abundance. Tobacco on the hillsides, corn upon the wide bottoms, cotton on the gray uplands, and wheat, oats, fruits, and grasses everywhere. Five hundred acres of hill and bottom, forest and field, with what was termed the Island, consisting of a hundred more, which had never been overflowed in the century of cultivation it had known, constituted a snug and valuable plantation. It had been the seat of an old family once, but extravagant living and neglect of its resources had compelled its sale, and it had passed into the hands of its present owner, of whose vast possessions it formed an insignificant part.
Colonel Desmit was one of the men who applied purely business principles to the opportunities which the South afforded in the olden time, following everything to its logical conclusion, and measuring every opportunity by its money value. He was not of an ancient family. Indeed, the paternal line stopped short with his own father, and the maternal one could only show one more link, and then became lost in malodorous tradition which hung about an old mud-daubed log-cabin on the most poverty-stricken portion of Nubbin Ridge.
There was a rumor that the father had a left-handed kinship with the Brutons, a family of great note in the public annals of the State. He certainly showed qualities which tended to confirm this tradition, and abilities which entitled him to be considered the peer of the best of that family, whose later generations were by no means the equals of former ones. Untiring and unscrupulous, Mr. Peter Smith rose from the position of a nameless son of an unknown father, to be as overseer for one of the wealthiest proprietors of that region, and finally, by a not unusual turn of fortune's wheel, became the owner of a large part of his employer's estates. Thrifty in all things, he married in middle life, so well as nearly to double the fortune then acquired, and before his death had become one of the wealthiest men in his county. He was always hampered by
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