Well hello again! Another Saturday has rolled around again, so that means it’s time for another blog post! This week has been chock full of fun for me. We have family visiting from the US, and we’ve been going on lots of adventures. The most recent one was a trip to London yesterday. We managed to pack in a LOT in just 9 hours: Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, the National Art Gallery, 10 Downing Street, Westminster Abbey, and a boat ride up the river Thames. London is really such a captivating and beautiful city!
So, this week’s post is a short story. It was actually an assignment that I had for my American Literature class a few weeks back. I had to write an empathetic research paper on a folk song from American history. Now I love writing stories, and I love history, so this was a great paper to write. I really enjoyed the process! This short story is based off of the song ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd’ – a song about the Underground Railroad. For any of you who don’t know, this was a secret organisation (that peaked during the 1850s) that helped slaves escape from their plantations down South to free land up North. I find this period of time absolutely fascinating, and I loved researching and writing this story. I hope you enjoy reading it just as much as I enjoyed writing it. 🙂
Follow the Drinking Gourd
“Remember chile’, it be a secret.” Mama told me. “You cain’t tell nobody.”
“Why not, Mama?” I asked, looking up at her face that shone like polished ebony in the dim moonlight.
“Because it be the secret that will take us to freedom one day. And that be the most precious secret of all.”
It was on that dark night, surrounded by the whine and whir of mosquitoes and crickets that Mama told me. I remember we were sitting on the steps of our ramshackle cabin, looking up at the stars. Mama pointed out the pictures that filled the heavens, tracing them out with her finger while her soft voice told me their stories. She talked and I listened, and we both relished the company together after a long day’s work in the fields.
Then she went quiet, and when she spoke again, her voice had a new sound to it – a strong and serious tone. “John-boy” she said. “You see this picture?” She traced the path of a strange shape. “That there’s the drinking gourd.” Following her finger, I could see the gourd in the sky, like a pattern held in place with diamond pins.
“Yeah, I see it, Mama.”
“Now if you follow the line from the edge of the gourd, straight up, you come to that especially bright star. See it?”
“Uh-huh.” I replied, squinting to make the picture clearer.
“That’s the North Star. If’n you follow it, it’ll guide you up North to freedom.
“Freedom?” I echoed, hardly understanding. “Yes honey. Freedom. An’ one day me an’ you are gonna follow that the drinking gourd to freedom.”
The next evening, we were squatted together in the stuffy gloom of our cabin. She was busy scrubbing out the iron pot that had held our evening meal of corn pone, salt pork and greens. I was beside her, trying the mend the handle of our only piggin with some twine. I was busy mulling over the strange thought of freedom that Mama had brought up the previous night.
“Mama?” I asked.
“How we gonna git to freedom?”
“Hush chile, not so loud.” She admonished me. “There’ll be trouble if anyone hears ‘bout this talk of freedom.” Her eyes rolled white in the dim light as she looked around, making certain there wasn’t anyone within hearing range. When she was satisfied that we were alone, she began to talk in a low voice. “Well chile, you know there are people who hate slavery up North. Free black people and some white folks will do anything to stop it. If’n we can jest git across the Ohio River to the Northern states, there’ll be those people that do whatever they have to do, jest to help us runaway slaves.”
“Then what, Mama?”
“There be them good folks that will help us. They kin guide us to the Promised Land. To Freedom.”
“When we goin’?” I asked.
“As soon as the timing is right. And until then we gonna trust in the Good Lord, and we gonna pray. Massa Jesus hears our prayers, and one day he gonna answer them.”
The days passed by in monotonous rhythm of heat and labour. Mama and I worked side by side in the cotton fields, the sun scorching down on our ragged, oft-mended clothes. Only Sunday served to break up the drudgery and toil.
One Sunday, Mama and I again sat on our cabin steps. She was mending my only spare shirt, and I was busily occupied in scratching chiggers and thinking about freedom, again.
“Mama. I’ve been thinkin’.” I said eventually. “What happens if’n we get caught?” Mama’s head snapped up, and a warning glint came into her eyes.
“John-boy… don’t talk so loud. Remember it’s a secret.”
“I know, but there ain’t anyone near to hear anythin’.” I gestured at the dusty and deserted yard in front of our small cabin. “So, what happens?” I asked again. Worry clouded her eyes, and she shook her head.
“I jest ain’t gonna think about that.” She finally said. “I jest ain’t. I’m gonna do my best and pray to Jesus, and jest hope we make it. Because I cain’t face havin’ you live a slave for the rest of yo’ life, let alone face it myself for the rest of my life. We just gotta get to freedom.” Her voice rose in intensity, just like that night under the stars. “I cain’t havin’ you livin’ like this, never knowing how to read or write, never knowin’ when you might get sold away like yo’ Daddy, never knowin’ even jest how old you are. You’re the only chile I got left, all my other babies died or were torn out of my arms by slave massas. And I ain’t gonna let that happen to you!” Her voice was thick with tears.
“But Mama, I heard that if massas ketches their runaway slaves they whip ‘em or worse!”
“I know.” she said. “But that ain’t gonna stop me.” Tears glistened in her eyes and made tracks down her careworn face. “I’m gonna follow the hope of freedom until I reach the Promised Land. And I’m gonna take you with me, John-boy.” She reached over and grabbed my hand, and squeezed it hard. “One day soon, me and you are gonna follow the drinking gourd all the way to Freedom!”
It’s been weeks since that first night under the stars. Mama and I, we keep on working, day after day. Sometimes I feel like there ain’t no hope, that we’re gonna be slaves forever. It’s easy to feel hopeless when the sun is beating down on your head, and the overseer’s whip lashes too often on your raw back.
But when evening comes, Mama and I sit out under the stars, and dream of freedom. I trace the path of the drinking gourd with my finger, and hope wells up again in my heart. I just know that one day we’re gonna follow that drinking gourd up North to freedom. And I know that one day, Mama and I will be free.
Postscript: Why I Chose to End the Story Here
I know that ending this story here may seem odd. But there are two valid reasons why I chose to end the story with John-boy and his mother still in slavery.
- Historical accuracy of the song: This story was based off of the song ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd’. Popular folk myths say that this song was written by an abolitionist before the Civil War, and used to help slaves escape to freedom by giving them a verbal map to follow. This is actually not the case. Evidence shows that this song was most likely written much later than the Civil War, probably around 1947. And on the small chance that this song was around during the Underground Railroad era, it would not contained all the geographical information that it now does. That would’ve been added much later, during the aforementioned 1940s. Thus, though it would’ve been nice, I could not have written a story with slaves using the song to help them escape to freedom. It simply is just not historically accurate. However, the inspiration for the song certainly would’ve been around during the Underground Railroad era. As my notes have shown, slaves did call the Big Dipper the ‘Drinking Gourd’, and they did use it to help them find their way North. So while the song and its geographical contents most likely did not exist, the inspiration for the song definitely did.
- Historical accuracy about escaping slaves: Though it is not nice to think about, there is also the very blatant fact that the majority of slaves stayed slaves their whole life. Only about 50,000 slaves out of the estimated 4 million successfully escaped North to freedom with the Underground Railroad. That left a huge majority of slaves that lived their entire lives under the bondage of slavery. A huge majority of slaves that never saw freedom, or became free themselves. This is a sad, but true fact. I wanted to reflect that truth in my story, and I chose to do that by leaving the ending the way I did. The hope of freedom was harboured in many a slave’s heart, but the reality of freedom for them was quite rare. We know some of the stories of the lucky ones that did escape, but many thousands of stories of the slaves that remained in bondage still are unknown to us. Yes, we know many facts about the institute of slavery itself, but the stories of so many individuals ensnared in that institute will remain a mystery to us. I hope that through this story I will have given a little glimpse into the life of few of those thousands that were enslaved. I also hope that you will come away from reading this with a sense of gratitude for our own freedom, and a sense of respect for the power of hope. Because hope is ultimately what this story is about. The hope that the slaves harboured of a new and better life. And the hope of the thing they all longed for – the hope of freedom.
 Slaves worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset.
 To slaves, the Big Dipper was known as the Drinking Gourd.
 Two of the stars in the Big Dipper line up very closely with and point to Polaris. Polaris is a circumpolar star, and so it is always seen pretty close to the direction of true north. Thus, if you follow the direction of Polaris, you will be heading pretty straight north.
 Weekly food rations for slaves were usually corn meal, lard, some meat, molasses, peas, greens, and flour, and were distributed every Saturday.
 A piggin was a small cedar bucket used for carrying water.
 The Underground Railroad was predominantly run by free Northern African Americans.
 The Underground Railroad was primarily a Northern phenomenon. It operated mainly in the Free States, though there was some organized assistance in Washington DC and some of the upper slave states.
 The people that operated the Underground Railroad hid slaves in many different places – homes, shops, churches, schools, and barns. Some put slaves on boats or trains, some led them on foot. All offered food, clothing, shoes, and a compassionate heart that passionately believed in the evil of slavery.
 At the end of the Underground Railroad line was the ‘promised land’, which was free land either in the Northern states, or more likely in Canada.
 Slaves found in Christianity a faith that gave them hope in an oppressive world.
 Between the ages of 7-12, slave children were put to work in intensive field work.
 Crops cultivated on antebellum plantations mainly included cotton, tobacco, sugar, indigo and rice.
 Slave clothing was distributed by the master, usually only once a year and most often at Christmastime, and was apportioned according sex and age as well as to the labour performed by its wearer. The slave had to do with what they had for the whole year until the next annual clothes distributing.
 Slaves worked 6 days a week, having only the Sabbath off.
 A chigger is an insect (officially known as the Trombiculidae mite) that bites humans during their larval stage. The bite causes intense itching, and often, dermatitis. The word chigger is of West African origin that was brought over by the slaves.
 It was illegal to teach slaves to read and write.
 The most conservative estimates say that at least 10 to 20 percent of slave marriages were destroyed by sale. The sale of slave children from parents was even more common. As a result, over one 1/3 of slave children grew up with one or both parents absent.
 Normally slaves did not know how old they were. This was one of the ways that the slave masters kept their slaves in submission under them.
 Over ½ of all slave infants died during their first year of life.
 Any runaway slaves that were caught could face harsh punishments such as whippings, brandings, amputation of limbs, and sale down to the Deep South.