Beginning in the spring of 1775, against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War, Chains tells the story of 13-year-old Isabel, an enslaved Black girl. When Isabel’s owner dies, Isabel expects to be freed along with her five-year-old sister, Ruth—her owner’s will dictates that the girls should be freed upon her death. But since the will is missing, Isabel and Ruth are instead sold to wealthy New Yorkers, Master and Madam Lockton, who are ardent Loyalists (they support the British in the war). In New York, Isabel throws herself into trying to secure her freedom through any means possible, including spying for the Patriots. But Isabel comes to suspect that while the white Patriots seek freedom from oppressive British rule and often talk about how everyone deserves freedom, they actually have no intention of helping enslaved Black people become free as well. However, Chains shows that despite the hypocrisy Isabel observes among the Patriots, their rhetoric about freedom and equality is still powerful. In fact, the Patriots’ cause helps Isabel realize that there are different kinds of freedom. Although Isabel isn’t physically free from slavery by the end of the novel, she realizes that her mind and soul belong to her alone—and in that way, she and other enslaved people do have some degree of freedom.
Isabel begins the novel with a specific idea of what freedom looks like. Isabel initially conflates freedom from slavery with freedom from British rule because of the way the Patriots talk about freedom. One of the Patriots’ central beliefs is that “all men are created equal,” which means that no one person is superior to another and that all people have the right to live freely. Isabel and some other enslaved people—most notably Curzon—take this to mean that they’re included in the group of “all men,” since they are, of course, human beings too. In this sense, Isabel comes to think of freedom as being treated equally to everyone else and not being tyrannized by an oppressive ruler. And she assumes that if she supports the Patriots’ cause, they’ll free her—so, she does as Curzon asks and spies on the Locktons for the Patriots.
Yet few characters in Chains—other than wealthy, white men—are actually free by Isabel’s definition, suggesting that how free a person is depends on a variety of factors (such as gender, skin color, and class status). Isabel, as an enslaved Black girl, has very little, if any, freedom. At one point, Isabel is branded with an I for “insolent” because she dared to call Madam out for selling Ruth (who’s also enslaved) and then ran away. And selling Ruth in and of itself illustrates enslaved people’s lack of freedom, as Ruth has no agency over her life. In essence, Isabel and other enslaved people aren’t allowed to think for themselves, defend themselves from abuse, or speak for themselves—they’re supposed to mold their behavior and thoughts to please the people who own them. Yet Curzon sees himself as freer than Isabel even though he’s enslaved too, since he’s able to join the Patriot army and earn his legal freedom that way. But this doesn’t free him from the effects of racism. For instance, when he and his fellow soldiers are imprisoned, Curzon’s cellmates steal his rations and his blanket, as the white soldiers don’t believe it’s right for an enslaved person like Curzon to receive the same accommodations they do. And while Madam is a villain in the novel and is one of the most formidable figures standing between Isabel and freedom, it’s possible to see that Madam herself isn’t truly free. She may have the power to abuse her staff, especially those who are enslaved, and she lives a lavish lifestyle—but Master Lockton demands total deference from his wife and becomes physically abusive when she tries to advocate for what she wants. In this way, Madam isn’t treated as an equal in her relationship, and Lockton oppresses her similarly to how the Patriots believe the British are oppressing them. This, of course, doesn’t excuse Madam’s abusive and manipulative behavior, but it suggests that few characters in the novel are able to enjoy Isabel’s definition of freedom.
While Isabel doesn’t end the novel legally free (she’s still technically enslaved), she does ultimately discover that she can find a different sort of freedom by understanding that her mind and soul belong to her alone. After Madam sells Ruth, Isabel is traumatized and defeated; she stops trying to resist Madam’s abuse. But as Isabel reads Thomas Paine’s political pamphlet Common Sense and starts to remember some of her deceased Momma’s advice, Isabel realizes that in some ways, she can be free—she realizes it’s her choice whether to let Madam take her soul and her spirit. Though Isabel acknowledges that she has to work within the system of slavery and follow Madam’s rules, she can also find ways to bend or break them, as when she continues to visit Curzon and the other prisoners in the Bridewell prison despite being forbidden to do so. This is also why Isabel decides to bake a bread pudding for a houseless family on Christmas. She knows Madam wouldn’t approve, but doing so allows Isabel to feel like she’s still a human being who can make choices for herself. One of the things that spurs Isabel to accept this kind of emotional and mental freedom is her realization that no matter what the Patriots say, Isabel—and other enslaved Black people—aren’t included when the Patriots say that all men are created equal. Put another way, in the world she inhabits, she’s severely limited in the kind of freedom she can access. This doesn’t deprive the Patriots’ words of their power, but it does show Isabel that for now, at least, she’s going to have to work harder to achieve the same kind of freedom as the Patriots, or she’ll have to settle for a different type of freedom. It’s Isabel’s realization that she can keep ahold of her mental and emotional freedom that spurs her to plan her final escape from the Locktons’, and to take Curzon along with her. Achieving her mental freedom, in other words, is framed as the first step to Isabel eventually achieving physical and legal freedom.
Freedom Quotes in Chains
On the hearth stood the jar of flower seeds that Momma had collected, seeds she never had a chance to put into the ground. I didn’t know what they’d grow into. I didn’t know if they’d grow at all. It was fanciful notion, but I uncorked the jar, snatched a handful, and buried it deep in my pocket just as the privy door creaked open.
“You feel beholden to Lockton?”
“He’s going to feed you and your sister, give you a place to sleep. He can order you sold, beat, or hung, if the mood takes him. That could make a person feel a kind of loyalty.”
I stopped, considering this. “Someday I’ll find that lawyer and Miss Mary’s will and that’ll free us. Until then, we need to eat, work, and stay together. So yes, I guess I’m loyal to Lockton.”
The words tasted bitter. Being loyal to the one who owned me gave me prickly thoughts, like burrs trapped in my shift, pressing into my skin with every step.
As the crowd marched off to make bullets and celebrate liberty and independence in the taverns, I realized dark was fast falling, and I had tarried overly long. I picked up a sliver of lead that lay in the street. It was fringed with gilt; my own piece of majesty. Tyrants beware, I thought as I put it in my pocket.
“Listen,” he started. “Our freedom—”
I did not let him continue. “You are blind. They don’t want us free. They just want liberty for themselves.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Oh, no. I understand right good,” I countered. “I shouldn’t have believed your rebel lies. I should have taken Ruth and run the night we landed. Even if we drowned, we would have been together.”
A second man, this one with neatly trimmed hair, leaned on his shovel. “Dunmore freed the Virginia slaves so the crops would go unharvested and ruin the planters. The British care not for us, they care only for victory. Some Patriots own slaves, yes, but you must listen to their words: ‘all men, created equal.’ The words come first. They’ll pull the deeds and the justice behind them.”
A thought surfaced through my ashes.
She cannot chain my soul.
Yes, she could hurt me. She’d already done so. But what was one more beating? A flogging, even? I would bleed, or not. Scar, or not. Live, or not. But she could no longer harm Ruth, and she could not hurt my soul, not unless I gave it to her.
This was a new notion to me and a curious one.
It would have eased her mind if I thanked her for wanting to buy me away from Madam. I tried to be grateful but could not. A body does not like being bought and sold like a basket of eggs, even if the person who cracks the shells is kind.
She awaited some word from me. I did not know how to explain myself. It was like talking to her maid, Angelika, who was so much like me and at the same time so much different. We two had no string of words that could tie us together.
I laid down one long road of a sentence in my remembery: “For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever.” Way I saw it, Mr. Paine was saying all people were the same, that no one deserved a crown or was born to be higher than another. That’s why America could make its own freedom.
I was not a Lockton. Nor a Finch. Isabel Rhode Island? That would not do. Isabel Cuffe, after Poppa, or Isabel Dinah, after Momma?
I closed my eyes and thought of home; the smell of fresh-cut hay and the taste of raspberries. Robins chasing bugs in the bean patch. Setting worms to work at the base of the corn plants. Showing Ruth what was weed and what was flower…
I opened my eyes, dipped the quill, and wrote out my true name: Isabel Gardener, being a Free Negro […]