When Caesar first asks Cora to flee to the north, she says no; this refusal is related to the experiences of Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry. Ajarry was kidnapped from Africa as a child along with her father (Cora’s great grandfather), who was beheaded by slave traders. Ajarry is sold multiple times on the journey to Port Ouidah, before being forced onto a ship with people speaking a mix of languages (so as to avoid rebellion). Conditions on the ship are hellish; six weeks into the journey, Ajarry is gang-raped, and she attempts suicide twice. The remaining members of Ajarry’s family have been sent to Bermuda. For the rest of her life, she imagines them working for kind masters and eventually living free up north. These fantasies comfort her, enabling her to endure the brutal reality of her life. In Charleston, Ajarry is sold again. She stands naked on the auction block, and eventually a man wearing a pristine white suit purchases her for $226. The man pinches Ajarry’s breasts to check if she is going through puberty. She and the other slaves follow the man’s buggy home through the night.
The novel opens by tracing Cora’s heritage. Note that there are no details given about Ajarry’s life of freedom in Africa, before she was kidnapped by slavers. This reflects the fact that African identity, history, and heritage were systematically erased by white slave-owners who punished slaves for speaking their own languages or engaging in traditional social and religious practices. This passage illustrates the multiple ways in which Ajarry responds to her captivity. At first, she tries to kill herself, recognizing that the only chance she has of freedom now lies in death. When her suicide attempts are unsuccessful she resorts to comforting herself through fantasies about her family; these fantasies become the only means by which Ajarry is able to endure her fate.
Ajarry is sold so many times “you would thought she was cursed.” One of her masters goes bankrupt, another dies, and another loses her in a card game. Being sold so many times gives her a keen understanding of the dynamics of different plantations and helps her to survive. Ajarry also learns about how she and other “commodities” are valued and she comes to realize that her value determines her “possibilities.” Finally, Ajarry ends up on Randall plantation, the “home” where she will live until her death. Ajarry is married three times. Her first husband drinks too much and is aggressive, and he is eventually sold; her second is a kind, religious man who dies of cholera. Her third husband has his ears bored as a punishment for stealing honey, and he dies from his injuries.
The story of Ajarry being repeatedly sold and traded and the account of her marriages highlight the way in which black life is treated as having no value beyond the financial. The “possibilities” to which Ajarry refers do not include the possibility of exercising agency or pursuing happiness; rather, Ajarry realizes that the higher her financial value, the more likely she is to survive. The deaths of Ajarry’s second and third husbands emphasize that being a slave means being constantly surrounded by death.
Ajarry has five children; two die of fever, one of blood poisoning, and one is killed by a boss who hits him with a piece of wood. Ajarry is at least grateful that the children are not sold off. The only child who survives is Cora’s mother, Mabel. Eventually, Ajarry dies from a brain hemorrhage while standing in the cotton fields. Ajarry feels that a lifetime in captivity is inevitable, that “liberty was reserved for other people.” When Cora refuses to run away with Caesar, it is Ajarry “talking.” Three weeks later, when Cora changes her mind, she is inhabiting the spirit of Mabel.
This passage introduces one of the key questions of the novel. Why do some enslaved people, like Ajarry, resign themselves to the idea that freedom is “reserved for other people,” whereas others decide to risk their lives by seizing freedom for themselves? Ajarry’s story suggests that the answer is complicated. Perhaps surprisingly, the fact that Ajarry knew freedom as a child does not make her more inclined to run away.