Self-evident? A Story

Welcome my friends, from every land

Where freedom doth not reign;

Oh! Hither fly from every clime,

Sweet liberty to gain.

–John Mason

Harlem Heights, ten miles north of New York City as the crow flies; September 16th 1776 –  one hour before dawn. The Continental Army is entrenched on the high ground facing the British army, who had successfully invaded Manhattan Island the previous day. Six African Americans – five runaway slaves and one freeman – had been up most of the night, digging and strengthening fortifications ordered to be finished before the sun and the expected British attack. These men are not servants, nor are they black pioneers consigned to haul the army’s supplies and dig latrines. These men are soldiers; they wear the mark of violence, men who have witnessed the heat of battle and suffered the fear of death. Unlike their fellow soldiers, however, they wear the scars of the hatred of white men. 

Whether by lies, forged documents, or the luck of a recruiter looking the other way as they made their mark, these men joined the ranks of Washington’s army: black men standing shoulder to shoulder with the whites of Colonel Varnum’s Rhode Island Regiment. They risked their lives for a struggling new nation that had posted a declaration of freedom just two and a half months previously for all who grace her shores. Now, after only a few hours of fitful sleep while huddled in the bottom of a rain soaked trench, they eagerly await the morning meal prepared by one of their messmates who is the youngest amongst them and the most adept at rustling food where none is to be found.

Slave with musket
Slave with musket

Cato squats in front of the fire hole and stirs the reddish coals into two piles. The embers glow in the low light of early morning. On the larger pile he lays a baking kettle, a deep cast iron pot with a tightly fitted lid. He removes the lid and pours in a little water. Chopped turnips and some ground herbs are added. He reaches into his knapsack and removes a package wrapped in tight skin. He unravels the skin and drops the remains of a previously cooked squirrel into the pot. He’d snared the hapless rodent two days before as it scurried between the cotton woods lining the lower marsh, edging Hudson’s River. He scoops his hand into a worn leather sack by his side and extends his cupped palm over the iron pot and feels the grains slide between loose fingers as he sprinkles salt over the steaming water. He picks up a rough-hewed wooden spoon, darkened from countless stews and blackened where it had been laid too close to the flames.

Cato scrunches closer to the flame. As he stirs the pot he sprinkles in small amounts of flour. Satisfied that the stew is thick enough, he replaces the lid. That done, he uses an old pewter plate and scoops up some of the hot embers. He lays them on the lid, taking care that two thirds remain under the kettle.

The young man stares at the large pot and digs into one of his jacket’s side pockets, pulling out three iron nails. He turns to a smaller kettle resting at his side, lifts the lid, and drops in the nails. A tin sheet, cut to fit perfectly within the pot, is pressed inside. He carefully lays rolled dough on the tin and replaces the lid. Lifting the kettle, he places it on the smaller pile of coals. This kettle is broad and heavy and flattens the ashes beneath it. Cato quickly scrapes a few more embers around its base. Then, as he did with the larger kettle, he covers its rim with coals. This time only one third of the embers lay beneath while the other two thirds are on top.

The young farmer glances around the fire pit and smiles. All is in order; that is, until he sees another kettle sitting on one of the flattened rocks that rings the fire.

“Damn,” he curses under his breath. He had forgotten the coffee. He stands, leans over, and grabs the bent handle. The kettle is quickly hung from a large S shaped hook suspended over the fire by an iron rod laid in the V of two stout branches.

Cato backs up and sits on a small log they’d found on the trail leading to the spring. “Wish I had some hoecake to lay over that bakin’ lid,” he mutters. “Mighty fine for dippin’ in gravy. Thing is,” he says to Josiah, who has just joined him, “there ain’t gonna be enough time to cook down that stew properly a’fore we are hustled to muster.”

“Yea,” mumbles Josiah. He hisses in through his nose, leans over to the side and spits. “Ain’t never enough time for nothing.”

Cato looks towards one of the redoubts built up along the edge of the ridge. All but the gun platform remains lost to his view in the early morning dusk. Tightly bundled saplings and large branches called fascines lay stacked beneath the six pounder cannon. Their white surface, coated with lye, seem surreal against corpses and other incendiary shells thrown by the enemy, like bleached bones mystified to radiate their own curious light. He looks up at the tall blacksmith, whose hard face is illuminated by the glowing coals.

“Josiah… Josiah. You heared the lieutenant? Only reason he ain’t a whippin’ ole’ One-eye’s back raw this very instant is ’cause he got orders. What do you think that means?”

Cato turns slightly and looks further south, beyond the Hollows, where, one by one, the enemy’s campfires flicker to life. Their muted lights appear to weave under a haze that shifts in a slight breeze. “What orders could he have?” presses Cato, his inquisitive eyes wide.

The big man walks to the other side of the pit. He looks down at the young boy. Sore and fatigued from yesterday’s action, and bitter from lack of sleep, he is in no mood for questions.

“Shit boy,” Josiah snaps, clearing his throat, “How the hell do I know what orders the lieutenant was given? Right now all I care about is when those rich bastards in Congress gonna part with some of their silver so we get food as worth eating.”

Cato’s face lengthens. His eyes drop to the large simmering kettle that is just beginning to loosen the aroma from within. He is unlike his messmates, city dwellers who live hard and drink hard. Soon after birth, Cato had been sold to a farm tucked along the Massachusetts border. His sheltered life had assumed an innocence that easily takes offense.

“Crap,” grunts Josiah. He lowers himself heavily on the small log. He looks to the boy and is about to apologize when a high, shrill voice cuts through the growing sounds of a camp that’s slowly coming to life.

“Is that water ever gonna take to boilin’.” A not so tall, lean, wiry man shuffles towards them.

Cato sits up. “Why sure enough is, Scipio. Does every time I hang it up over them there coals.”

Scipio eyes the youth. It’s been six months since the boy joined their regiment. Enough time for Scipio to know this farm boy is incapable of sarcasm. “Move over,” he says, sitting beside the boy. He leans in closer to the warm pit. After a long drawn out yawn, he stares at the large kettle.

Cato follows Scipio’s gaze. He jumps up and removes the lid from the kettle. “Makin’ some stew,” he says eagerly. “Wanna see?” He bends over the pot while stirring, his eyes winking and blinking in the steam and smoke like a toad in a shower. “Usin’ the last of the squirrel.”

Scipio sits back and hugs himself in the chilled air. “Well clodhopper,” he says in a gravelly voice, “I’m so hungry I could eat the arse outa’ a dead skunk. But I don’t see how what’s left of a half-boned squirrel’s gonna help none. Ain’t you got no pork… no sauce?

“Quit complaining,” growls Josiah. “Be grateful we ain’t sitting here gnawing on our shoes.”

“Still wouldn’t help my stomach none,” says Cato lifting up one leg to flash a bare foot. “Shoes wore out a fortnight back.” He gives the pot one more quick stir then replaces the lid on the kettle.

Scipio grunts, leans forward, and closes his eyes.

Having seen to their firearms, the rest of the messmates settle around the fire pit. The wondrous smell of boiling meat and seasoned vegetables set empty stomachs to growling. Eyes fall on the dangling kettle that has yet to issue the expected steam from around its lid. The gentle flow of slumbering conversation quickly focuses on their impatience for coffee.

Cato lays a of couple branches on the fire then sits back and faces the others. “I hear tell of a fella in Philadelphia as wrote about that,” he blurts out.

Scipio casts the boy a fleeting glance. “Wrote about what?” he asks.

“Boilin’ water,” responds Cato. “Put it down in what he calls an almanac. Named it Poor Richards.”

“Shit,” says Scipio, spitting into the fire, “you simple codheaded dimwit. Ain’t a soul as ain’t heard of Ben Franklin and his damned’ almanac.”

“Stop hammering on the boy ‘n let ‘em speak,” scolds Josiah. He looks to Cato. “Go on.”

Cato nods. “That man… Ben Franklin, why he wrote that a watched pot ain’t never gonna boil.”

“Course its gonna boil,” cuts in Scipio.

“Damn it Scipio,” says Josiah in a low growl. “The first thread ain’t make the whole yarn. Give the boy a chance to tell it all.”

Cato grins. “Ain’t that smart boys? Think on it fellas. Many a times I sit here waitin’ on that pot to start a simmerin. Feels like it ain’t never gonna’ happen. Mr. Franklin must be a right good man to take note of such things.”

“Damn it boy,” says Scipio. “Clever talk over a fuckin’ kettle of boilin’ water ain’t gonna make a man smart… or decent,” he quickly adds. “I know for a fact your Mr. Franklin ain’t nothin’ more than a no account slaver. Made a heap of money peddlin’ niggers. Mostly outlandish. Right off the boat from Africa.”

“That was in his youth,” says Pero, staring across the pit to Scipio. The single member of their company from Boston, Pero is a freeman and son of an accomplished lawyer. A man of books and not of spade and soil, he sits calmly, rubbing his hands in front of the renewed flames snapping in the crisp air. “It was long before Mr. Franklin found his true calling in the script of his printing press.”

“Don’t matter if he sold his last nigger afore he bedded his first whore,” says Scipio.

“Mr. Frankly has recanted such barbarous acts,” Pero counters. “I hail those who amend past sins. It is a sign of goodness that one has the courage to do so.”

“Well I don’t care how much that fine gent spouts over the evils of ownin’ another man.” Scipio leans back over the log. “To me, once a man takes on the stench of slavery, he ain’t never gonna get rid of it. An ain’t nothin’ that bastard can do will mend the horrors that taint his hands.”

Pero glances skyward. “We all deserve another chance to…”

“Nosir,” interrupts Scipio. “Nothin’ says a fella’s gotta forgive another for his sins.”

“It sez’ so in the bible,” comes a voice from behind. They look back. The man is tall, clean-limbed with long feminine hands and iron-gray eyes, a chiseled nose, and a finely molded chin grace soft, silk-like skin. Black or white, man or woman, it matters not, all consider Primus handsome.

“Well I ain’t give a crap where it’s written,” says Scipio, turning around briefly to his lofty friend. “The money that freed Mr. Franklin to write all that gibberish in his almanac come by the sorrows of men, women ‘n their littluns. I tell you, hell’s awaitin’ him an every other prick who bettered their lives on the flesh an’ blood of poor folk.”

There’s a lull, filled by the sounds of men settling into what breakfast they can scrounge.

Primus picks up a stick and throws it into the fire. “Ain’t he one of them who signed that important paper that was read to us on the Common in early July?” he asks.

African American Soldier
African American Soldier

“It was July 9th,” says Pero.  Heads turn to him. “Six that evening if you all remember. All the brigades in the city were paraded to hear a declaration read by brigade majors.”

“Primus ain’t asked the day an’ time,” says Scipio. “He wanted to know if Franklin signed that damn pamphlet.”

Pero ignores his outspoken friend. “I recall Major Box standing before us all. He was calling out as clear as can be, ‘Boys, as a new nation, we have proclaimed our independence.’ He pauses, lowers his head, then looks up. “Fellows, I never heard better words spoken.”

“That’s all fine an’ good for you Mr. Freeman,” says Scipio. “But what about the rest of us niggers who are still shackled to a white man’s pleasures?”

“Independence must be declared… first and foremost,” says Pero. “The seeds are now sown. Nourished, they will grow, and offer their bountiful fruits.”

“That’s a pile of sheep plook,” sneers Scipio.

“Freedom is there… for all of us.”

“All of us?” taunts Scipio. “I was there. All you boys were. I ain’t hear nothin’ that made me think them fancy words was read to any us niggers.”

“Sure they were Scipio,” says Cato, stirring the coals. “I recall the major lookin’ right our way when he spoke.”

“Shut your gib,” snaps Scipio.

“Leave the boy be Scipio,” Primus says. “You know he takes a bit more time to figure things out.”

“You ain’t tellin’ me what I can or can’t do,” says Scipio.

“I shouldn’t have to,” counters Primus.

“Then don’t, you soft skinned dandy.”

“I will if I have to listen to you gibber like a cock just afore his head’s lobbed off.”

“You two shut your mouths!” orders Josiah. Like a door slamming shut, the big man’s deep voice cuts them off. “We’re all tired. Sick of bein’ shot at then worked to near death.” Eyes narrowed, jaw out, his face gradually softens as he turns to Pero. “You recall what the major said?”

“No… but I can do one better.” He reaches in a side pocket. “I happen to have one of the pamphlets that was given out the next day.”

“You would,” jeers Scipio.

Josiah glares at the lean dockworker who glances away.

“All of it is written right here,” says Pero eagerly.

“Read some,” says Josiah. “Help pass the time while we wait on the coffee.”

Pero nods and slips his fingers in a tight pocket of his waistcoat. He pulls out small, iron-rimmed glasses and in a smooth practiced motion, lays them on his nose. He begins to read.

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Pero pauses and leans back. He removes his glasses and lays them on his lap.

“Go on,” says Primus.

“Hold up,” interrupts Scipio. “You boys hear it in them fanciful words.”

“Hear what?” asks Primus.

“There…there, in what Pero read first. That it’s necessary for folk to dissolve their connections with them who rules ‘em.”

“In the course of human events,” adds Pero.

“Yea.” Scipio says with a quick look around. “Human events. The British done things to the white folk an’ they ain’t gonna take it no more. So they’re  breakin’ bonds with ‘em.”

“That’s what it says Pero?” asks Cato.

Pero nods. “Pretty much boy,” he says, looking at Scipio.

“Well, ain’t that be the same for black folk? The white folk makin’ us their property an’ we ain’t got a say. Wouldn’t a body think it be natural for us, as them gents say, to dissolve our relationship with our masters?”

Cato’s eyes widen.

Pero sits up. “I understand what you mean Scipio,” he says. “Why do the white folk think they can be justified to sever ties with their government, but not allow their negroes the same option.”

“Guess that’s it.”

“The answer is simple,” says Pero. One is based on politics and the other on race. Politics are a man’s opinions. A fellow can hide his thoughts and sway them either way as fickle as a gentle wind on a summer’s day. He looks upon it as his God given right. But race. Trying to keep it hid is like throwing a blanket over a jackass. Ain’t no way. And once a body’s set on how he treats a man of color, he’s that way for life. The hypocrisy escapes ‘em.”

“But you said the freedom they’s claimin’ in that pamphlet will lead to our freedom,” charges Cato.

“It will boy,” says Pero. “But not by the men who drafted that declaration. It will take time… generations maybe,” he says, looking at Scipio.

Josiah stretches his feet out onto one of the flat stones ringing the pit then looks to Pero. “Why don’t you read some more?”

Pero holds Josiah’s gaze then positions his glasses. “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal – that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights –that among these are life, liberty…” Pero pauses. He glances over the rim of his glasses “and the pursuit of happiness.”

Josiah shifts his weight. “Boys, the man who wrote this declaration of independence is right sure of himself. A man of books,” he says with a brief glance at Pero. “He gives more power to his choice of words than to flesh an’ blood. To a body’s soul.”

“An’ a man’s pride,” offers Primus. “Says it right there,” he continues, “that God created us equal. Don’t see how a fella’ can write such words. Not when he claims another man his own an’ the right to his woman whenever he pleases.”

“Bastard who wrote those words is rich,” grumbles Scipio. “He don’t have to pay no heed to his creator. Don’t have to think on all men as equal.”

Joshua clears his throat. “That’s just it boys. We aint’ men.” Words like a dagger in the gut of a black man, they stare at him. “You know it. You see it,” says Josiah. He waits… “you feel it. Felt it every time one of those bastards laid the lash against your bare back. You ain’t nothing more than a dog as needs kicking or a mule as needs a good thrashing. We ain’t men. Leastways not to those slaveholders who signed that declaration. And neither to those abolitionist bastards all snug in their Quaker beliefs. Hell, they signed it too!”

Scipio stands up. “Damn it Josiah. Them fellas in Philadelphia put their mark an’ gave their honor sayin’ that we all deserve to have rights. Rights of any freeman walkin’ this earth. They can’t deny it.”

“They can’t?” asks Josiah. “Why not?”

Dumbfounded, Scipio just stares.

“Scipio,” says Primus. “Those men can say whatever pleases ‘em. They can read whatever they want into those words they wrote. Ain’t no one to make do different.”

Scipio clutches a fist. “Well… then I say we gonna take what is ours. Take our freedom on account they ain’t about to give it.”

“What are you saying Scipio,” Josiah presses. “That we should rise up an’ fight our own war against these white folk we sworn to fight alongside? Hell, some thirty years back, in that fucking city we just left, why the very thought of a nigger uprising drove the city mad for blood. I remember being told over a dozen niggers were burned at the stake an’ another twenty or so hanged. So what would you have us do?”

Scipio glares at his friend. Hard eyes slowly soften. He looks down. “I… I don’t know,” he mutters.

“Well I’ll tell you,” says Josiah getting to his feet. “There’s nothing we can do ‘cept what we’re already doing for ourselves. Fight this fucking war an’ hope these white folk round us are grateful enough to give us our freedom.” He lowers his voice. “Ain’t nothing more to it boys. An’ if slavery’s our bid… well, then each of us has our own lives to see to.  We toted a musket. We fought an’ killed for a cause. Already tasted freedom. Maybe that’s enough… an’ maybe it ain’t.”

Josiah sits back down. Scipio, still standing, turns his back on them.

Cato suddenly jumps up. He just noticed the hanging kettle spitting steam and droplets out from under the lid. He grabs it off the makeshift hearth and quickly adds the coffee grinds.

“One thing I ain’t gonna’ get over,” says Scipio, his back still to them. “The way all them white boys round us was a cheein’ and slappin each others’ backs when Major Box finished readin’ that declaration. Hell, I tell you boys, at that moment I’d have taken more pleasure beddin’ an eighty year old whore.”

“Hell Scipio, you’d find more pleasure fuckin’ a dead mule,” says Primus to a flow of laughter.

Scipio spins around and glares at his friend. “An’ I suspect you miss waitin’ on your master wishin’ he’d bend over so you can kiss his arse one more time.”

“Maybe so,” chuckles Primus, “but I do long for them times the Mistress of the house made such requests.” Primus glances round the pit. “Her two daughters too… at the same time.” Said to a howl of laughter.

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.

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