The first black soul to speak is Elson Farwell, who begins by saying, “I did always try, in all my aspects, to hew to elevation; to dispense therewith, into myself, those higher virtues of which, rendered without, one verily may sag, and, dwelling there in one’s misfortune, what avails.” As he speaks, the Barons—whose bodies lie next to Elson’s in the mass grave—urge him to “say it more simple.” Nonetheless, he continues using elevated language to tell his story, explaining that he educated himself whenever he could during his enslavement, always hoping that improving his intellect would “assuage” his unhappiness, though this was never the case. Then, while traveling to the countryside with his master’s family, he fell and couldn’t get up. Eventually, one of the master’s children passed him and promised to send help, but he clearly forgot, leaving Elson languishing on the trail.
Elson Farwell sees intelligence as an inherent virtue, something that can help a person combat his or her own “unhappiness.” Indeed, he hoped while he was alive to improve his life as a slave by “hew[ing] to elevation,” increasing his intelligence in order to attain “higher virtues.” Unfortunately, though, this pursuit did little to help him overcome the harsh reality of his own enslavement, and when his master’s son forgot to send help for him, he was forced to fully recognize that the “higher virtues” he attained by educating himself ultimately meant nothing to his oppressors.
As Elson lay on the trail, he realized that had been “sorely tricked,” and that his master’s family had no respect for him, regardless of his intelligence or impressive vocabulary. As such, he has resolved to take his revenge on them whenever he has fully recovered from his fall. When Elson finishes his tale, Thomas Havens—another former slave—explains that he never felt such anger toward his masters, for he led a rather pleasant life and was even allowed to enjoy moments of free time once or twice a week, assuming his master didn’t need him for something. “I had my moments,” he says. “My free, uninterrupted, discretionary moments. Strange, though: it is the memory of those moments that bothers me most. The thought, specifically, that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments.”
When Thomas Havens admits that his “moments” of “free” time only made his existence as a slave even more unbearable, he shows that people often don’t realize their own unhappiness until they’ve had an opportunity to reflect upon the ways their lives haven’t amounted to what they might have otherwise hoped. In turn, Saunders suggests that many of these former slaves exist in the Bardo because they’ve been denied the lives they deserved as humans. Indeed, they recognize that they never got to live unencumbered by racism and bigotry, and they now want to correct that, unwilling to die before they’ve experienced freedom.
Next, Litzie Wright steps forward with Mrs. Francis Hodge, who tells Litzie’s story, since Litzie can’t speak. Mrs. Francis Hodge explains that Litzie endured a lifetime of rape at the hands of her masters, forced to submit to horrific acts. As she describes these tragedies, Lieutenant Cecil Stone pushes his way through yelling, “Back, SHARDS, get ye back!” With the help of several “burly white men,” he clears “the black supplicants away from the white stone home.” In response, Thomas Havens says, “Ah. Here, as there?” Ignoring this, Lieutenant Stone and his cronies push the crowd of black souls against the “dreaded iron fence,” but the black souls are uninfluenced by the fence’s “noxious effect.” Unable to push them further, Stone and his group plant themselves in a standoff with the black souls.
Thomas Havens’ statement, “Here, as there?” emphasizes the extent to which many of the Bardo-dwellers have taken racist narratives into this transitional realm. As previously mentioned, all of the souls in the Bardo are in the same existential circumstances, but this doesn’t stop people like Lieutenant Stone from propagating narratives of division and superiority. In this way, the Bardo reflects the United States during the Civil War, as the black souls push back against Stone’s racist henchmen, standing their ground and fighting for equality in the same way that many black soldiers fought for the Union.