Tragedy & Triumph

The Slaves: Aunt Binah, 1837-43

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The following is an excerpt from Tragedy and Triumph, a recollection of the slave Binah. Read on as she recounts her experiences crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a slave ship.


Aunt Binah did not like what she saw. The elderly slave leaned forward, narrowed her eyes, and grimaced. Just above her mistress’ head floated a strange silver mist as she talked to Mr. Truman, the young Virginia lawyer. She shifted her gaze and stared at he chair where the woman sat, and then looked back above the black bonnet on her recently widowed mistress. It was still there – an ibambo, an unhappy spirit – caught in the thin veil between this world and the next.

She shuddered. The first ibambo she had seen was when she sailed away from her home in Sierra Leone forty-five years before. A gray mist had swirled over the deck of the slave ship, and it pulled out to sea with its cargo of captured humans, a long line of men chained in pairs jumped overboard. The chains attached to their leg irons made a heavy clanking sound on the ship’s wooden floor as they plunged to death into the water.

Five-year-old Binah covered her ears, hid her head in her mother’s lap, locked her arms around her mother’s waist, and held on.

Binah saw the powerful haint mist again as it worked its way lower and lower into the ship, over and around the nostrils, eyes , and ears of the terrified mothers and children. Stacked and shackled on platform beds in the stinking, dank belly of the ship, Binah woke weeks later with her mother rigid and cold beside her. She locked arms around the dead body and refused to let go until the crewmen threatened to throw her overboard with her mother. Moments after she released her arms, she watched as her mother was hurled into the waters, the Green Sea of Darkness, her dead mouth opened as though to exhale the last words her daughter would hear.

Certain the sailors were going to eat her flesh, Binah hid for many days in a crate and watched the white-skinned men drink the dark, red liquid that looked like blood. She was afraid they were demon-fish, men who lived on ships, their country not of  land but water. Before disembarking in the port of Cuba, they discovered her and force-fed her vile rice and meat, prying open her mouth with their fists. She was sickly, labeled as a “refuse” slave moments after arriving at the slave market. No one wanted to buy a miserable, puny child. Finally, a buyer from the rice fields off the South Carolina coast bought her for five dollars to use as a water girl for his workers.


What are your thoughts – reactions – to this piece? I’ve done my research and we’ve all studied slavery in school; these descriptions are spot on. How would you react, in Binah’s situation? Would you hold on to the dead arm of your mother?  Would you struggle and hide? Would you give up?


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