Ness is picking cotton in the heat of the southern summer sun. She has been at Thomas Allan Stockham’s Alabama plantation for three months. She can’t remember how old she is—her best guess is twenty-five. She only knows that it feels like a lifetime since she had been sold and taken from her mother, Esi. Esi was a solid, stoic woman who never told a happy story. For this reason, Ness always associates real love with a hardness of spirit.
Ness’s introduction presents some of the harshest legacies of slavery—the brutality of forced labor, the loss of freedom, the loss of one’s family, the loss of one’s cultural identity as a result, and the lack of hope for progress from parent to child.
Thomas Allan Stockham is a relatively kind master, giving his slaves breaks and water. On this day, in late June, Ness waits in line for water beside another slave named TimTam. TimTam asks her how her day is; she says it’s like all of the other days.
Just as Esi experienced in the previous chapter, the cruelty of slavery becomes stark when the simplest, most basic needs of a person (like drinking water) become luxuries.
Ness thinks to herself that it’s still odd to hear black people speak English. When they were living on a plantation together, Esi had spoken to Ness in Twi for most of her life until their master caught her. He’d given five lashes for each Twi word Ness spoke, and then when Ness had become too scared to speak, he gave Esi five lashes for each minute of Ness’s silence. Before the lashes, Esi had called Ness “Maame” after her own mother, Maame. But the master had whipped Esi for that as well, until she cried out “My goodness.” Thus, she decided to call her daughter Ness.
Forcing Esi and Ness to speak English over Twi is an extension of the racism that serves as the backbone for slavery. Not only does this violence assert that English is superior to Twi, but it also robs Ness of her family’s heritage and her African identity.
TimTam asks Ness where she comes from, but Ness doesn’t respond. She instead gets her glass of water from the head house slave, Margaret. The glass is only a quarter full, even though there are buckets of water behind Margaret. TimTam tells her to fill it up more, and Margaret glares at him as she does so. Ness doesn’t take the offering, walking away instead.
Even the fact that Ness cannot say where she comes from is telling, because TimTam clearly means what plantation she had worked at prior to Thomas Allan’s. The history of her enslavement thus takes the place of her family history and culture.
Ness feels she doesn’t owe her fellow slaves anything. Once a woman had told her not to be so hard on TimTam because he had lost his wife, and he was taking care of his daughter Pinky alone. Ness had responded that everyone has lost someone.
Ness finds it hard to sympathize with TimTam because she has also experienced severe loss, losing a mother, a husband, and a child by this point in the story. Yet she is still expected to be kind to the people around her, acting as if she has no history to speak of.
The day that Tom Allan had bought her, he told her she was too pretty to work in the field. Margaret helped her change into the outfit for the house slaves, but when Tom and his wife saw Ness in the outfit, they were shocked to see that she had intricate scars all over her body. They told Margaret to help her change back into something that covered her shoulders and calves.
Racism pervades the idea that Ness is too pretty to work in the field, because she is biracial, and to her masters, the more light-skinned a slave is, the more attractive they are. Another harsh irony of this incident is that Ness is not responsible for the scars on her back, and yet she is punished for them by being made to work in the field.
Thus, Ness had gone to work in the field. It’s not new to her. She had previously worked in the field at a place she only refers to as “Hell.” In the mornings, Ness takes a small pail of food to work in the field, eating while picking cotton. The other slaves think that Ness believes she is better than them, particularly when she rejects TimTam’s advances. She makes no friends, only working all day.
In “Hell,” Ness had gotten so used to her basic human needs not being met that she has a difficult time acclimating to her new surroundings, an idea that continues to be true through future generations. Additionally, other slaves assume she barely has a history, as she is judged for rejecting TimTam even though she is still mourning her loss of Sam.
One night, someone pounds on the door of the women’s cabin. When they open it, it is TimTam with his daughter Pinky, distressed and worried. He says he thinks she has what her mother had. The women tell him to go fetch a doctor. Ness looks at Pinky, and sees that she only has the hiccups. She says there’s nothing wrong with her.
Slavery has a psychological brutality, too, as Pinky is so distraught over her mother’s death that she refuses to speak, while TimTam and the others think that the only way to help her is to scare her into speaking.
TimTam pulls Ness aside, revealing that they were only trying to scare Pinky because she hadn’t spoken since her mother died. Ness tells everyone that that’s a stupid plan; Pinky will speak when she wants to speak. TimTam hangs his head and tells his daughter to come back with him, but Pinky runs over to Ness and lies down with her. Ness tells TimTam that she can take care of Pinky that night.
Pinky starts to trust Ness because of her ability to speak straight to TimTam and the fact that she knows not to try to force Pinky to speak. However, as Ness starts to take on a motherly protection of Pinky, the tyranny of slavery reveals itself again as Ness gets into trouble for trying to treat her like her own daughter.
From that day, Pinky is inseparable from Ness. She moves into the women’s cabin and spends the whole day with Ness. Still, she never speaks. She is the water girl, carrying the pails from the creek to the house over and over, filling basins for baths, watering the flowers, and giving Margaret water for cooking.
Pinky’s responsibilities recall some of the other female characters in the earlier chapters, particularly Abronoma, demonstrating some of the ways in which Pinky’s heritage stays with her even if she doesn’t fully know it.
One day, Ness watches as the two Stockham children run into Pinky on the porch, knocking over one of her pails. The little girl, Mary, starts to cry that her dress is wet. Tom Jr., the little boy, tells Pinky to apologize to Mary. When only a wave of hiccups comes out, Tom Jr. goes inside and gets a cane.
This episode also demonstrates how racism is instilled in the society, and thus is taught to the children. Pinky doesn’t even protest this injustice, while Tom Jr. knows he is allowed to lie and then beat a child simply because she is black.
Tom Jr. tells Pinky to speak, while Margaret, watching the incident as well, goes to get Tom Allan. Just as Tom Jr. swings the cane behind him, Ness catches it in her hand so strongly that Tom Jr. falls to the ground. Tom Sr. appears on the porch. He sees his son on the ground and Pinky crying. Tom Jr. says that Ness was going to hit him. Ness is sure that Tom Sr. can see what actually happened, but the scars on her shoulders make him doubt. He says he will deal with Ness later.
In the same way that H faces injustice in prison in later chapters, one of slavery’s worst aspects is that being punished automatically marks a slave as a troublemaker, particularly when that punishment is literally scarred on their skin. But when the initial punishment is unjust, the whole system is shown to be corrupt.
That evening, Ness crawls into bed with Pinky. She drifts off to sleep and into memory. She is back in Hell, married to a man they call Sam, who speaks no English. At first they don’t speak to each other. He is a large, muscular man and seems completely untamable. The first day he fights another slave, spits on the overseer, and is then whipped in front of everyone until the blood collects in pools on the ground.
Sam fights his own battles of injustice in the slavery system, particularly because of the stereotypes surrounding black men. Sam is seen as an animal, and the overseer thus treats him as such. Ness is also treated this way, being essentially “mated” to another person without her consent.
Sam refuses to learn English and is whipped for that, too. One night, Sam destroys the slave quarters in fury. Ness says that she did it. The master, whom she calls the Devil, knows that she is lying but whips her nonetheless. When he is finished, Sam is crying and Ness is barely conscious. He goes to the herbal doctor to get a salve for her back. He sleeps in the cot with her, apologizing in English. Soon he learns her name and his, as well as “love.”
A month later, once the wounds on Ness and Sam’s backs have healed, they consummate their marriage. As they clutch each other, their scars reopen. Ness wakes up to Pinky poking her, and crying “Ness.” She asks if Ness was having a bad dream. Ness says it was bad, but not a dream.
Even in this brutal system, there is still some hope for love in the prospect of family—both in Ness and Sam’s found relationship, and in the fact that Ness’s kindness allows Pinky to find her voice again.
In the morning, Ness awaits her fate. Tom Allan had never publicly whipped a slave before, but she knows she had deeply embarrassed him. In the field, TimTam thanks her for helping Pinky speak again, and for protecting her. He offers to talk to Tom Allan for her. She says he should bother someone else with his gratefulness. He leaves her, and she looks at the porch and sees Tom Allan sitting, waiting.
The racism entrenched in the southern plantation society is apparent here, as a black slave can be whipped for stopping a white child from beating a black child simply because it embarrasses a white man, and not a single person within that society would find the action unusual or wrong.
Ness thinks about how she and Sam had spent so much time waiting. She had made Sam wait outside when she was in labor with their son, Kojo. Following Kojo’s birth, Sam rarely made trouble and became a good, hard worker. When he held Kojo, called Jo, he promised that no one would harm his son.
Sam’s transformation into a submissive slave marks the change that family can have on a person, as he wants to stay out of trouble in order to protect his son and make a better life for him.
Ness and Sam then met a woman named Aku at their church. Ness had been singing a little Twi tune when a woman turned to her and whispered something in Twi. Ness didn’t understand, but Aku introduced herself, saying that she had come from Asanteland and had been kept in the Castle just like Ness’s mother, Esi. Aku told Ness that she had taken people north to freedom many times.
Ness’s inability to understand Aku’s words, even though she had been singing the same language just moments before, symbolizes Ness’s drifting further and further away from her heritage. By the time her son grows up, this heritage will be all but lost.
Ness and Sam started planning to escape when Jo turned one year old. They waited until spring for Aku to come get them. When she did, they walked so far that Ness’s feet opened up and her footsteps left blood. When the sun came up, they climbed the trees.
Ness’s bloody footsteps echo her mother Esi’s bloody trail just two chapters prior as she walked to slavery, implying that the hardships of that oppressive system are being passed down from mother to daughter.
Days passed this way. One day, Ness asked Aku to take Jo for the night because her back was aching. That morning, the dogs came with the Devil behind them. Ness called to Aku, telling her not to come down no matter what. She then descended from her tree. Sam had done the same.
For Ness and Sam, Kojo represents a better and free life in the future, and thus they are willing to sacrifice themselves in the hope that their son is able to gain that freedom.
The Devil had asked where the boy was. Ness told him that Jo died. The Devil then took her and Sam back to Hell. Once there, he stripped them both naked. He tied Sam up and made him watch as Ness received her scars. By the end of it, Ness could not lift her body or her head, so the Devil picked up her head and made her watch as Sam was hanged from a tree.
The hardships that Ness had endured on her previous plantation, “Hell,” are revealed here, and it becomes clearer why Ness seems so hardened and hopeless: she lost her hope when she lost what remained of her family.
Now, as Ness awaits the punishment from Tom Allan, she can’t help but remember that day in Hell. Ness continues to pick cotton. She thinks of picking cotton like a prayer, asking for forgiveness of her sins, deliverance from evil, and protection for Jo.
It is worth noting that Ness has also been distanced from her heritage by having to give up her ancestors’ religion in favor of Christianity, as she prays for herself and Kojo using Christian vocabulary.