BROOKLYN, NY (Workers World Today) — “Rosewood, one of Virginia’s grand plantations, is resplendent with its vast acreage of the South’s most important cash crop, king cotton!…the undisputed economic engine of the Southern way of life…made economically feasible…due to the legalized practice of human bondage, slavery.” These words open Marvin V. Blake’s historical fiction book: Why, A Novel.
The plantation prosperity that characterized American agricultural economy over a century ago in the South, prior to the demise of the divisive Civil War, was a society where the landowners didn’t just employ a gargantuan number of slave laborers. It was a society that accepted a custom whereby slaveholders were engaged in unwelcome sexual liaisons with the female slaves. During daylight hours the work environment was the plantation infrastructure. However, during the nighttime hours when the workday ended, phase two reared its ugly head. When the female slaves went home to the “one room dirt floor slave shack,” they were unceremoniously forced to welcome into their beds their masters.
In the novel, Henry Billings and his wife Peggy owned the magnificent Rosewood Plantation. Marriage and children were all that was expected as a wife to such an entrepreneur. Peggy’s “lack of exposure to the pragmatic business vicissitudes needed to …manage a large plantation were directly the result of her gender…a female raised in the Southern plantation culture did not include the exposure to business affairs…females were not to be…knowledgeable of such serious masculine things as agriculture, business…were raised to marry the white gentlemen and to bear white children…ensuring the perpetuation of the Southern aristocracy.” However, there was one job requirement that was to be obeyed by these “Southern belles” — to turn a blind eye to their husband’s philandering with the female slaves.
The mistress of Rosewood gave birth to Rebecca and the slave Ruth gave birth to Mandy. Who was the father of both girls? — Henry. The romantic honeymoon was barely over when Peggy observed her groom’s nocturnal departure from the marriage bed. She knew his destination and knew he was the father of the slave-girl. “The thought that the girls were half-sisters was so foreign to her Southern upbringing that…the thought never entered Peggy’s mind…to entertain such a radical thought Peggy would have to acknowledge that black slaves…are in fact people….”
It was a parental decision that the Billings children were to have a private teacher teach classes within the plantation. Rebecca wanted her sister Ruth to be her classmate but her parents were adamantly against this request. Rebecca revealed her parents’ conversation to Mandy whereby “because you’re a slave, it is against the law for you to read and write.” The plantation ideology was that the slave owner was “able to gratify his carnal lust while at the same time he increased his wealth through the siring of countless…slaves who by law…could not be considered his children but…viewed as his property.” The future slaves were born in the slaves’ bedrooms.
Mandy was leading a double life as a slave to her teenage sister and as an intelligent young woman. She confided in her teenage mistress that “it was dangerous for me to have books…if I were to be seen reading a book, I would be exposing my …family to serious repercussions.”
When Henry learned that his teacher was teaching his slave the ABCs, he immediately fired her since she broke “the laws of the state of Virginia.” Henry justified her termination to his daughter whereby “if [slaves learned] to read and write, every man, woman and child would be in danger of having their throats cut while they sleep.”
As Marvin told me during our radio interview on Writers’ Café, the plantation owners were in fear that literate slaves would join the abolitionists and overthrow the institution of slavery. “The steady stream of Yankee abolitionist propaganda…called for slaves to rise up.”
Faced with financial ruin, Henry, accompanied by Rebecca and Ruth, embarked on a westward travel itinerary — their destination Kansas via a wagon. Along the way, they were ambushed by Indians. And the sisters witnessed the massacre of their father and their abduction. Mandy fell in love and married with her captor Running Eagle, of the Comanche Indians.
Captain Sam Smith was assigned the project of transporting Billings and his daughters to a safe haven. Instead, he witnessed firsthand the slaughter and mutilation of Billings. Gruesome pictures of this abomination were emblazoned on his mind’s eye as insufferable guilt seeped into his consciousness that inspired him to persevere in his mission to rescue the two girls.
Does Pretty Buffalo Hair (Mandy’s Indian name) return to her beloved sister’s white world of privilege after being rescued by Smith from the Comanche Indians after falling in love and wedding her captor Running Eagle? You will have to read the book to find out.
Through this book, we enter a time machine and step into the aristocratic plantation society of America’s south. We enter a world where plantation owners sexually repeatedly and regularly exploited their female slaves, a way of life that was both legal and accepted among this privileged society. We meet two sisters, one a slave and one not a slave. We enter a world where it was illegal for slaves to be literate. Hard to believe that just over a century ago this was life in parts of the United States of America.
Marvin will be a panelist at a seminar, Publishing, Marketing and Surviving in the Contemporary Market, at the International & Multicultural Business Expo, June 19, 2019, Sheraton Hotel, 228 Duffield Street, Brooklyn, New York 11201.
Marilyn Silverman is a writer, assistant editor of Caribbean American Weekly, host of Writers Cafe Radio Show, and Panelist (How to market and promote your book: Inaugural Black Book Expo, New York).