CHAPTER 1: A REALIZATION
I wish I were a pear. Doesn’t that seem so freeing? I ain’t, I mean, I shouldn’t wish for my life to be any different than it already is. At least that’s what mama says. But sometimes when I sneak away from the plantation to my sacred pear tree, I try to imagine that I am anyone but myself.
“Amina!”, calls mama from the plantation. Her voice is unique (both light and airy), remnants of an once hopeful, youthful, outgoing girl overshadowed by years of hard work and exploitation. She was stern most of the time, but her blue eyes were gentle enough to show that she cared even if her words didn’t always catch up to her actions. I would feel her love when she would braid my hair, her long skinny fingers cascading across my dark, auburn, kinky curls as she attempted to organize the hurricane that was my locks. But just like that, my bliss was over. I quickly buried the book under some brown soil that my brother Nizam had gotten for me and raced to the door of our shack, to heed my mother’s beck and call. I could feel the breeze through my blue ruffled skirt as I raced across the cotton field and saw Nizam, drenched in sweat, his white skin, red and sunburnt as he picked cotton. He gave me a smile and a wink, his blonde, wavy hair glistening white in the sunlight. I knew he had to be exhausted but he always managed to find a way to hide all the sadness from me and make it all better.
“Don’t you worry, little pear, everything’s gonna be just fine” he’d say.
As I got older, I started to believe him less and less but the way his green eyes sparkled when he said it always gave me hope. Nizam was only 18 but he had seen just about as much as any man and had the strength of a lumber man. He could still scoop me up after a hard day at work in the fields and swing me around to make it feel like I was floating. He gave me a quick wave, as I fluttered by as not to upset the groundskeeper and I made my way to the door of our shack.
As I peered in, my dirty, bare feet began to dig in deeper into the worn-down floorboards and made a “eeeeeeee!” sound. However, my mother didn’t seem to notice. She was staring off into the distance as she often does, her blonde-gray hair in two fishtails. Sometimes I felt like my mama wasn’t really here sometimes, she’d come back now and then to make sure we got fed or done up for when my father invited his plantation buddies over but other than that, she often went somewhere else.
“Come, have a bath, yo daddy wants to see you in the office up at the house” she said still staring into the abyss.
“I’m not finna…” Just like that she broke up out of her trance and grabbed my arm, peering deep into my soul with those sea-blue eyes and said,
“I shole didn’t spen all that time beggin yo daddy to let you read and write so you could go on and waste it!”
My mom never learned how to read or write so she was insistent that I learn how to although I still don’t understand why it matters. Ain’t like, I mean it isn’t like it is of much use here on the plantation. I wasn’t black enough to get into a top school and my father wouldn’t even bother paying to send me to a mediocre one. Every week I go up to the big house for my lessons. I take them with a black girl called Annie, but in exchange my father requires that I give him a forced hug and kiss. I don’t know, he conditions himself to believe that those affections are genuine. It strokes his ego to see me presenting myself as the perfect girl, truly her father’s daughter. He’d just love it if I was really under his spell.
“Okay mama, I’ll take a bath and put on a nice dress.” I said in eventual agreement.
I hated those tight, shiny ass ballet church shoes and the stockings to go with it. It made me feel restricted, more restricted than I already do normally. I undressed and sunk down in the tin bathtub, the water still warm. My curly hair began to relax into long luscious waves as it began to collect more moisture. How I ached for kinky hair, instead of this in-between bird’s nest that I ended up with. I desired so strongly to be able to do bantu knots and twists and braids, but my hair was too soft for those styles and they would just unravel. Yet somehow, my hair still had a curl. I grabbed the tiny bar of soap and began to scrub away at the dirt underneath my fingernails. I wished the dirt was strong enough to scrub away all the pain I ever saw my mama go through.
Like the time my father slapped her into the kitchen cupboard claiming it was for her own good. Before I could spend time gawking at the battered remains of mother’s beautiful cheekbones, there was Nizam scooping me up and whisking 6-year-old me away. We played hide and go seek and tic tac toe. He was good at that, making me forget. He wanted so badly to protect me from the despair that my mama had given herself to. He knew that if I ever let myself go there, that I’d have a hard time coming back.
I can feel the warmth from the bath fading and I began to rise, reaching for the towel. My mama sections my hair into two braids that float their way into a bun. She hands me a pink Sunday dress that compliments the undertones of my caramel colored skin. I reach for the shea butter that sits on the nightstand and melt it in my hands till it is liquid enough to smooth into my legs and elbows. I can already feel the stockings start to itch as I begin to make my way to my father’s house. I have quickly come to learn that in this life, my decisions are not my own. I am merely a pawn in everyone else’s game.
I finally reach the porch and before I can knock, the maid answers and leads the way to my father’s office. What could he possibly want with me? I ease my way into an office overcome with grandeur. Gold and beautiful patterns adorn each and every wall, the bookcase and the desk. This is far removed from the colorless, broken down dilapidated building that is our shack.
“You asked for me, Father?” I make sure to ask in proper English as my mother instructed.
“Yes, my msupa, I am quite curious as to why, in all 14 years of your life, you insist upon staying in those awful conditions with your mother and brother when you’ve always had an open invitation to come live out here with me? Why is that?”
As he asked this precarious question, I thought back to all the times throughout my childhood when my father, touted me around for his friends and extended family members as if I were a prize to be masqueraded around and shown to the masses. Being the brownest of his descendants among my brothers, I was “his legacy”. He would do anything to preserve it even if that meant hurting
“Well, Father, it is where I am most comfortable.” I replied
He leans in now, making me more uncomfortable than ever and shoots me a look of curiosity with a hint of disdain. It is almost as if he is wondering how the mixing of the sophisticated blacks and the barbaric whites was able to create something as normal as me.
“Don’t I give you everything you ask for?” he asked
As if my love and loyalty could be bought, as if he could erase all of his sins against my family with just a few transactions? I had not forgotten those long nights, that Nizam and I were left tending to my mother’s wounds or when we buried my oldest brother, Ekon. And yet somehow, I still find myself caring for him; he had only ever shown love to me. Does that make me selfish? I owe allegiance to my family but part of me had hopes that he’s changed, and I could live out my fantasies of living in a house with my own room, and my own clothes, going to school with other brown girls. Could it all be so simple?
“You do Father, it is just the shack is all I have ever known” I say, choosing my words wisely as not to anger him in any way.
“Well you are getting older now and your mother can no longer make your decisions for you. The choice is yours, you are always welcome” he says with dark brooding eyes that match his long dreadlocks. My father, Kwame Ekanem, was intimidatingly tall but had a smile that made you forget, just for a moment all the pain he could cause with his anger. His grip was firm as he came close to grasp me on the shoulder.
I leave, more conflicted than I have been in quite some time. I never felt as though my mother was choosing for me to stay with her, it just went without saying. Maybe… No, I could not go live a life of luxury when I saw how my brother and mother struggled. My father only favored me because I took on some of his melanin while he left my brother who favored my mother out in the sun, picking cotton from sunup to sundown. I acknowledge my naivete and pushed the thought to the back of my mind. I returned home, eager to eat whatever my mama had made for supper.
“Hey baby, how was it?” she says more out of obligation rather than genuine curiosity
“Oh, you know daddy didn’t want nothin..nothing just to check on me.”
“Oh okay, as long as he treated you right”
“Yes, well what’s for supper?” I asked eagerly.
“Not much tonight I’m afraid, I sent Nizam off hunting because all we have is rice”
I nodded and went to sit on the porch. Just across the cotton fields through the stained-glass window, I saw my father being fed a feast made for a king. Turkey, couscous, jollof, cachupa and fufu all adorned the table. My mouth watered and I secretly wished I had asked to stay for dinner. No, the guilt began to drown out the hunger pains as I remembered my loyalties. It seemed like hours until Nizam returned with two rabbits strung up by their feet. Sometimes the Mississippi gods are generous. Nizam began skinning the rabbits on the porch, his dark circles and sunburnt skin standing out even in the moonlight.
“Well how was your day Pear?” he asked with a smile.
“I got further in my book, the princess is very close to rescuing her family! Daddy asked to see me today, it was nothing….also…” I could tell he was happy to hear about the carefree details of my day which were a far cry from his long day picking cotton. I was eager to tell him about my day even if it brought him a tiny ounce of happiness inside.
“Well, sounds like you were pretty busy!! I’m glad you likin’ the new book. How’s mama?”
“She’s okay, a little sad today but she did my hair! See?” I said.
I spun around and modeled my braided bun like I would imagine the fashion models in Nigeria that I’ve read about do.
“My, oh my! Well aren’t you just the prettiest piece of fruit this side of the Mississippi? Pear didn’t do it justice, I oughta call you Ms. Pear Princess” he said.
I laughed; my brother always had a funny way of talking about fruit. He finished the rabbits and took them inside to my mama for cooking. We had rabbit stew and rice. Dinner was about the only time I ever saw mama smile but Ekon’s chair was empty and it almost felt like something was missing. I got real sick about a year ago, nothing could keep my fever down and I kept falling in and out of consciousness. My mom was praying to Obatala and Bumba for my recovery, but nothing was working. Ekon, angry and fed up snuck into my father’s house and grabbed some quinine medication. He snuck back and gave it to me. I slept for two days straight and when I woke up, Ekon was already on his deathbed. Sakani, the groundskeeper saw Ekon do what he did for me and told my father. So, my father told Sakani to whip him but Sakani didn’t whip him like he had before, he whipped him until there was nothing left to whip.
When it was done, my mama untied him and went to work on his wounds, but they were too deep, they had hit organs. Even if she could patch them up, he would get an infection for sure. So, when I woke up that’s how I saw him, on his last legs towards the end of a blood infection. I wept and I screamed, “I am sorry Ekon this is all my fault, I shouldn’t have gotten sick!”
“Don’t you worry darlin’ ain’t none of this yo fault take care of mama for me okay.”
I stayed by his side all night even as the last breaths left his badly beaten body.
I finished the last of my rabbit stew and asked mama if she could sing one of her songs like she used to. She shook her head. My heart ached, mama wasn’t getting any better and she barely ate as it was. Mama never talked about what caused her so much pain but Nizam knew better and he would never tell me. How bad could it be? I took up all of the plates and put them in the sink. As I began to scrub away at the bits of rice, my mind floated away to my pear tree, and Ali, the boy I’ve had a crush on since I was 6 years old. His dark curly hair and green eyes accentuated his brown freckles and white skin. He was tall and lanky, almost goofy but yet still refined. He was a touch mischievous which made my heart swoon, leaving me notes in the dirt by my pear tree with the few words I managed to teach him how to write and sneaking away from the plantation to see me for just a few fluttering moments to the pear tree to see me. He continuously propositioned me with plans to leave the plantation and start a new life up north, but I always told him no because I could not leave my family under the tyranny of my father. Also, I was a planner and he definitely did not have a plan, that scared me, but it also excited me a little. I would dream of us and drift away from the restriction that existed in my present life. I envisioned myself running away with him and being like the rich black folks in this country, going to shows and dinner. We could have a family and I could become a teacher. If only it could all be so simple. A slow, broken apart knock at the door awoke me from my trance, and as I glanced at the door, I saw the black, torn up boots of Sakani. His scarred face peered around the corridor, making my heart sink. Please gods, no, what now? His coffee colored skin had patches of white as if the gods had simply decided he would never belong. He resembled a Dalmatian but reverse. The scar across his left eye came all the way to the middle of his cheek and added to his intimidating stature.
“Can I help you sir?” said Nizam respectfully but with just a hint of scorn.
“You been stealing boy?” said Sakani with a deep, southern drawl that bore the brunt of years of mistreatment.
“No sir, I have not” retorted Nizam.
“Yes you have, come wit me”
Before I could even protest, Nizam gave me a wink and a smile like he always does as he simply said “Everything will be fine Pear, don’t you worry”
This time when he said it, it was different, this time when he said it, he didn’t do a good enough job of concealing the fear in his voice or the lump in his throat. Sakani had tried plenty of times to take my brother away from me but he always failed. He could never catch Nizam in a lie or plant enough evidence to make my father Kwame believe. Something told me, that this time, Sakani had become cleverer. My mama, stood, emotionless as Nizam was whisked away to what felt like certain death and I lost control.
“Mama, why won’t you say something, why won’t you react? They took him! They took him! Are you really not going to say anything?” I yelled as I fell into her lap, searching for the mother who used to take care of things and make me feel like everything would really be alright. She glanced down for a few seconds and resumed her unbothered trance.
“Fine, I’ll prove his innocence myself, I don’t need you!”
I knew that because of curfew there was nothing I could do in the present moment, so I made the decision to go to the pear tree in the morning and strategize. I tossed and turned all night, waking up in cold sweats hoping that the accusations against Nizam were just one, very long, very bad dream but every time I awoke, I was jolted by reality.
I woke up, washed my face with some leftover water from the basin and put on my most detective outfit which was no shoes, my black hoop skirt and an old red blouse with ruffles. I made my way to the porch, ready to begin digging for clues.
And then I saw it.
They had put up the whipping post, freshly cleaned for its newest victim. No, maybe it isn’t for Nizam, maybe it’s for someone else, it’s possible. I couldn’t let my mind go there as I raced to the pear tree. I sat underneath the shade and laid out what I knew. I knew that Nizam had been accused of stealing but of what? If I could figure out what he was accused of stealing and then find a way to prove that it never left its rightful place or that someone else stole it entirely, he’d be free!! I raced through the fields with my feet light and my stride eager. Then I heard it--the crackle of the whip against human flesh. I knew instantly who it was.
Only his screams and grunts could take on that pitch. I raced my way to the plantation to see him there, arms tied around the post, face brutally battered, gasping for air.
“This pale degenerate shall be whipped every day until he admits that he stole food from the master” said Sakani as he took the whip and with all his strength slammed it into Nizam’s back.
It was as if Sakani was taking out all the violence he had experienced over the years on onto one person. The Nizam I knew was gone, his smile and optimism no more. As badly as I wanted to sink into the ground and curse the gods, I raced to my father’s house to look for any evidence of this so called “food” that would exonerate my brother. The normally closed decorative word-carved door stood ajar as I made my way inside. I raced up the stairs, dug through dressers and cupboards, I yanked out any and everything with no regard for how my father might feel. I ran all through the house, tears in my eyes because I kept coming up empty. I ran around so quickly that I did not stop to wonder why there were were no butlers or maids to stop my intrusion. Then I found her, the maid sitting cross legged in the pantry gorging on a feast fit for a whole village “Miss….this isn’t….miss”
“Don’t say anything” I said quickly before racing to my father to reveal the news to him. I reached his office “Daddy, Nizam is innocent, it was all the maid, Sakani was lying” I said eagerly.
The expression he wore made all the enthusiasm disappear from my face. Something was wrong. “I knew, Amina, I knew all along” he stated smugly.
How could someone do something like this to their own son, their own flesh and blood? I felt my stomach turn and I wanted to vomit. The world began spinning and I felt lightheaded. The room began to feel really hot.
“What do you mean, you knew?” I mustered.
“Didn’t you notice the front door wide open as I anticipated your arrival? Or the fact that none of the help were anywhere to be found? I knew, all along my msupa, that he was innocent, I just wanted to see how much you cared for him. I wanted to experience the love you have for him, how strong it was, what you would be willing to give up” he said.
I could feel the anger welling up inside of me, I wanted him to keel over and die. I wanted him to choke on his own spit but nothing could prepare me for what he was going to say next. My mind drifted to the conflicting upbringings I had experienced as a child, with my father celebrating the black side of me but vilifying the white part and my mother, reminding me of the pain that my father had put her through.
“I can end all of this now, just at the snap of a finger” he said.
“If you agree to come live with me, here in the house, separate from your mother and brother, I will free your brother of his pain and suffering” he said.
My heart sank, what an impossible decision. I was always a pawn, but he had only just started to decide to play chess. Except it wasn’t normal chess where each opponent has a fair shot, it was a game in which, I wasn’t a player but a piece. I knew what it was that I had to do but for some reason, that didn’t make it any easier. I wanted to melt away, disappear into the floorboards and pretend I was anyone but me. I held my breath and swallowed the lump in my throat as I said “Fine, I will move in with you, just please stop this madness”
“Very well” he said. He went out to his porch, yelled out to Sakani and just like that it was over, the madness ended sooner than it had begun.
This was the last straw, this illusion of freedom I thought that I possessed was just that, merely an illusion. I was powerless to better my family’s predicament in my present circumstances, I had to get away. It was as if my father were a stableperson and I am the chained-up horse with the carrot that is my freedom being constantly dangled in front of me, forever just out of reach.
I raced to come to my brother’s aid and he, completely unaware of the life-altering decision that I had just made, said “See, I told you…Pear, everything was going to be fine” he said in a rather moribund fashion. It wasn’t the time or the place nor did I have the heart to tell him what I had just agreed to. I didn’t even want to think about telling mama, it might just break her.
We laid Nizam down on the kitchen room table on his stomach and began to apply herbs, warm water and dressings to his back. I don’t think he would’ve lasted much longer. His wounds were very deep, but he managed to pull through. As he slept, I managed to pack my things and kiss my mother who had only broken from her trance to tend to Nizam’s wounds. Now, she stared off into the distance, back into her usual, reserved state.
I arrived at my father’s house to a bedroom that was nothing like the shack that my mom and brother and I shared. It was pink and had satin sheets. It had a dresser, which I only had enough clothes to fill one drawer of. I didn’t sleep as I felt I was betraying my family and the softness of the bed felt unfamiliar. I awoke at sunrise and made my way to the pear tree long before the maid could wake me for the breakfast that could feed a whole plantation. I stopped in my tracks. He was there in his mischievousness, the shadows of the pear, dancing silhouettes across his cheekbones, Ali. Even just being in near proximity to him, made my entire body feel warm and my knees buckle. I could not describe the way he made me feel or how my heart seemed to thump with the rhythm of his calming yet enticing voice.
“Hey Amina, I knew you’d be here. How is it up there at the big house, all fancy and whatnot” he asked.
“You shouldn’t be here Ali, you know you aren’t allowed off the plantation.” I said half-heartedly out of both concern and excitement.
I knew he wasn’t allowed but it always made my stomach fill with butterflies and my cheeks get flushed whenever he snuck away.
“So you know I’ve been thinking about leaving for a while now and I know you won’t listen but I’m still going to ask again, I would really like it if you came along”, he asked.
Normally and on every other occasion I would dismiss him and make arguments about my family and how I could never leave them, but this was the first time ever in which, I was actually willing to listen.
“Well, let’s hear it” I said.
“Hear what?” he asked puzzled that I didn’t flat out say no.