A. Whittenberg

The Process

The horses whined, the mules brayed, and people got sold.  Me included. That’s what I was there for: a price.

I could hear myself breathing as the air stilled around me. Fear set in.

The sun’s heat wasn’t that strong, but I was swimming in sweat.

For a second, I almost prayed. Just like all the other times I’d been up for sale, I’d hoped that I wouldn’t be herded out. I wished that somehow they’d let me be for once. Leave me alone. Let me stand on that block for to find my own eternity. But, this was about money and tradition and the law. I knew this part so well. The selling process was the thing that was followed by the mystery. I’d be forced into a question, a new place, like a drop of rain falling from the sky; I had no say in where I’d fall. 

“He looks well fed enough, but is he obedient?” one bidder asked.

“He is. You can bet good money on it,” the slave seller promised, his voice bleeding with a different kind of fear.

I was the last one left, everyone else had a bill of sale.

I wasn’t in a collar or manacled to the post: I had the kind of chains that don’t give, ever. The kind that weren’t visible. I stood there all the same. It was all the same as all them finely dressed folk eyed me like a prize mare, testing me, feeling the muscles in my arms.

In a parade, person after person spied me, appraised me, and judged me. Some seemed grasping as if looking without knowing what they were looking for. They looked up my nostrils and into the whites of my eyes.

I refused to blink.

As potential buyers noted the condition of my teeth, I caught sight of their appearance?  All their given warts and pockmarks.  

“This one here ain’t no lazybones,” the slave seller boasted of me trying to win back their attention even as they strolled away in clusters.

They didn’t believe him.

My whip marks to them proved otherwise. Everyone knew lazybones get the whip. And my scars were deep, deep as marks in Jesus’ palm. People thought the worst. In their mind, they sketched scenarios of wild rebellion.

“We treat slaves like they’re family,” a woman with the parasol said, “We usually don’t have to get physical.”

“Then this one would be a good fit. Seeing that he’s already broken in,” the slave seller said, changing his sales pitch.

The slave seller’s well-placed words were a little too late. Before long, the next round of onlookers approached and he snapped back into form.

“Step right up. Get in as close as you like,” the seller said.

The woman, who was surrounded by other ladies and gentleman in well-designed garments, just nodded and walked away. I was familiar with her type — I watched and considered. People like her might have kindness in their voice at first, but they were no better than the rest. They were still looking for constant labor and if ever you didn’t deliver they know how to make hell.

The seller continued to speak highly of me.

But that group moved on.

Another fill of people came by, and I began to consider which one would pay for me?  Which would take me as property to their property and would that place be like big with lots of silverware and candlesticks and rows and rows of cotton to pick or would it be a far less grand spot, with only a narrow lot to till over.

Maybe no one would buy me, I thought again. I hoped again. Then stopped myself. I would stay the day until I was sold and then come back the next day and the next day after that until I was moved.

The heat settled on me and was here to stay. 

There was not, nor would there ever be for me more to life than growing rice and picking cotton.  There was no need kidding myself, trying to keep that little something I used to have in reserve. That part that wanted adventure and fun.  That part that thirsted to be free. I might as well lose that portion too.   

“Twelve, huh?” someone asked.

The slave seller, perked up, nodded agreeing to the lie.

I wasn’t. I was ten and five, but they listed me as ten and two to get more money. Certain things sell better so often life stories change. Years get subtracted or added. Even blood gets altered. If they can, they’ll pass you off as mixed, or even quadroon or octoroon. If they can convince people that you are not pure, but part of the buffer race, that way you seem more refined, cultivated and civilized. But anyone could plainly see that I didn’t have skin yellow as ripe corn or my black hair didn’t grow in ringlets. Nevertheless, my face was smooth of stubble and light brown – so it was on the same round as believable that I was mulatto lad who had yet to shave. The truth was I didn’t know what to believe about my age or most anything else — I knew little of my mother and nothing of my father.

As soon as I learned to walk, my mother was sold one direction and I was sold another. I was raised, (when I was raised) by someone else’s mom.

As far as father … fathers weren’t important, I was told.

“Got some marks on him,” that same man commented then eased along.

A scrap of my thoughts lifted as I saw beyond the block to the trees and sky all around. I love to look out and see things. The air stirred right then, but went back to not circulating.

I’d been sold five times before. Once because of gambling debts, another time because of divorce, twice due to death. This time I was sold on the count of my master’s moving. He’d had enough of his plantation on the Mississippi river and was going back to green grass of Edinburgh, Scotland.

It’s nice to have a choice in where you go and what you do.

As the last drop of daylight left, the slave seller got desperate. He looked at me like a cat looked at a cornered mouse.

He went to pull people in with promises, “Strong and healthy and can work all day.”

“Fine looking boy,” a man in an ascot said nodding.  “What does he answer?” 

“Whatever you want him to,” the seller said.

The accosted man moved closer, and my heart sank further.

He, too, wanted to see if my mouth is filled with teeth.

“Open,” the slave seller said.

I did, but I didn’t speak. 

Silence was my friend.

I did listen.

“You’ll get a lot of hard work out of him.”

After this inspection, there was private talk between seller and potential buyer and then the magic words were spoken:


A Whittenberg is a Philadelphia native who has a global perspective. If she wasn’t an author she’d be a private detective or a jazz singer. She loves reading about history and true crime. Her other novels include Sweet Thang, Hollywood and Maine, Life is Fine, Tutored, and The Sane Asylum.