The next day, Sophia is taken away, though Hiram doesn’t know where. She may have been returned to Nathaniel, sent to Natchez, or sold into “the fancy trade.” He remembers the hatred of Georgie that radiated from Sophia, a hatred he also feels himself. In jail, Hiram is forced to exercise and wash every day, then taken out to be displayed to Natchez slave traders. These are white men who come from low class backgrounds yet who have grown wealthy from slavery and tend to have vulgar mannerisms. They take sadistic pleasure in invasively probing Hiram’s body, demonstrating the total power they have over him.
As Hiram pointed out earlier in the novel, the position he occupied at Lockless would be seen as comparatively enviable by almost all enslaved people. Although he was still made to suffer many of the humiliations and brutalities of slavery, he at least had relative privileges such as his lessons with Mr. Fields and the fact that he worked in the house, rather than the field. It is almost a guarantee that wherever he is sold will be significantly worse.
Hiram shares a jail cell with others, one of whom is a boy of no more than 12 who cries at night. The boy’s mother comes to visit, and from her clothes Hiram guesses that she is free. During her visits they sit silently, holding hands through the bars. Hiram finds the scene “achingly familiar.” The other person in the cell is an old man who, because of his age, is not monetarily valuable and is thus subjected to horrifying treatment. The prison guards make him do humiliating performances for them and whip or beat him. Unable to help the man, Hiram feels consumed by shame.
In the prison cell, Hiram is confronted with the two heartbreaking ends of life as an enslaved person. On one hand, the young boy (like Hiram) is separated from his mother and left to fend for himself in a system of utter brutality. Meanwhile, the old man has lost his financial value to enslavers due to his age and is thus tortured simply for the sadistic pleasure of white people.
One night, the old man says that Hiram reminds him of his son. He says he dreams of his son, who was also betrayed. They speak about their backgrounds, and the old man predicts that Hiram will be sold, while he himself will die in prison. He notes that the world is changing. In the old times, when things were better in Virginia, enslaved people could at least have the stability of remaining united with their families throughout their lives. His own grandfather was brought over from Africa. Hiram has heard stories like this before, and although he appreciates that things were better then, it is important to remember that “solace is not freedom.”
The point Hiram makes here is an important one. When considering slavery, it can be difficult to know how to assess relative comforts and privileges (such as the ones Hiram receives at Lockless, or memory of the old days when family separation was less common). The fact that a situation is relatively better than it could be does not detract from the fact that it takes place within a system inherently built on dehumanization.
Hiram asks the old man his name, but the man replies that it doesn’t matter. He says that when he was younger, he was married to a woman he loved, with whom he had a son. The son was liked and respected by everyone and was fiercely intelligent. The old man’s wife died of fever, but before she did, she made the old man promised to keep their son safe. For a while, he managed to do so. His son got married and had three children, although two of them died in infancy. One day, the headman on his plantation apologetically told the old man that his son was being sold. The headman explained that he would send the son’s wife and child along with him, but that there was nothing more he could do.
The fact that the old man says his name doesn’t matter indicates that he feels his humanity has been erased so totally that he doesn’t even have a sense of his own identity. Indeed, perhaps the cruel humiliations he is forced to endure at the hands of the prison guards instill in him a shame so great that it makes him not want to have an identity at all.
The old man sank into a deep despair. When his son was taken, he remained stoic, promising that he and his father would meet again in the afterlife. However, the old man then found out that his son’s wife had been left behind. He and his daughter-in-law were both “crazed” with despair. He believed that she was going to try to set fire to the cookhouse in revenge and stopped her from doing so. The old man ended up getting together with his daughter-in-law himself. He tells Hiram that he “will not disavow it.” Years later, the old man’s son returned, and in order to “atone” for what he had done, the old man set fire to the cookhouse himself.
The old man’s decision to couple up with his daughter-in-law might seem shocking or even reprehensible, but in a system of extreme degradation and brutality, it can be difficult to judge such acts. Moreover, this part of the novel serves as an important reminder that enslaved people do not have to be morally perfect or even upstanding victims in order to see the profound immorality of the dehumanization to which they were subjected.
The old man begins to cry, wondering what how his wife will greet him in the afterlife. Hiram doesn’t know what to say. He listens as the man cries himself to sleep. After this incident, the boy is removed from their cell to be sold. Hiram watches as the boy’s mother walks along with her son, who is chained, and then screams curses at the enslavers who are taking him, calling them “child-killers.” Hiram is moved by her emotion, reasoning that there is no point in trying to maintain a respectable appearance when one’s children are being ripped away. She attacks Ryland and is quickly torn away and beaten by a group of men, but not before causing Ryland serious harm.
This passage further emphasizes the point that it is ridiculous to demand respectable behavior from a group of people so brutally harmed, with no access to justice or redress. Indeed, in the case of the boy’s mother, the only power she has is the limited capacity of her physical body and the moral judgment of her words.
One night, after the guards take the old man for their “amusements,” he never returns. Hiram wonders if he has finally gone to “his reward.” Hiram himself remains in the cell for three weeks. He faces terrible starvation and thirst and is forced to perform intensive manual labor. However, eventually Hiram is taken out of his chains, blindfolded, and gagged. He listens to the conversation between Ryland and the person who is buying him. Then, after being taken away from the jail, his blindfold is lifted, and his arms are freed. Unsteady on his feet, Hiram realizes that he is in a pit—a pit so dark that it is “a kind of death.” He has heard about whites who buy black people just to enact sadistic fantasies and experiments, and he is sure that this is what has happened to him now.
Hiram’s experiences in this part of the novel underline why slavery was often characterized as a form of living hell. Each time it seems as if his torment could not get any worse, it does, and the fact that he has no foreknowledge or control over his fate makes this even more painful. Indeed, being taken to the pit which he compares to a kind of death shows how Hiram is being pushed to the brink of his physical and psychological limits.