#WhatImReadingNow : The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson

Persimmon is the name my mama gave me, after the fruit she stole off a tree down in the woods while she was carrying me, and Wilson is the name of the man that last owned me. I don’t want to call that man master here, but for the pupose of making this easier to read than its content might allow, I will. Master Joseph Wilson owned me down in Louisiana, owned me as best he could, and I reckon I was owned as best I could be, till the Federal governement and General Butler decided I couldn’t be owned any longer. …

He died by my hand, although I really shouldn’t take all the credit. In spite of being a heathen, I do know something about etiquette, and because of that I have to admit I had some help from my friends, the band of Comanche warriors I rode and raided with. Many of them are dead now, or else corralled onto a pitiful plot of land the white folks have not decided they want yet. Me, they saved for hanging. …

You’ve probably already picked out a few words that trouble you for a black man to be using. Big old words. Thought-heavy words. Dangerous in the wrong head, and mine is the wrong head, isn’t it?

I know too much. All the more reason to put a noose around my neck. Never mind that my last request was paper and ink and to be left alone to write this. Never mind that my jailer Jack laughed at the idea of a nigger writing. It was a novelty to hand me paper and ink and see what I’d leave behind. It might be something to sell, might be worth something later on, or it might be something to burn. It shouldn’t matter to me. If I learned anything at all from living with the Comanche, it is this: words don’t mean a thing unless they’re true. So you do what you will, burn my words if you want to, set them loose into the air. Nothing would make me happier than all of you having to breathe this story, this truth of what I am about to tell you. Nothing can kill truth, not even white men.

Master Wilson did not know he was buying an educated nigger. He’d likely not have bought me had he known. He might wish now, if the dead wish at all, that he hadn’t bought me. But I didn’t kill him because I was educated. I killed him because I had the chance, and I took it, and it’s not as though educated was listed as one of my assets when I got to the slave pens in New Orleans. …

No one asked, “But can he read?”

I could read. And I could write. More than just my name, as you can see. I was taught when I was a boy. Taught by an old spinster white lady I was hired out to. Miss Clemons was her name. She hired a boy named Bessle and me from Master Surley every winter for twelve years. She worked us by daylight: bringing in firewood, hauling up water, mending up fences and digging her garden for spring. No one knew that by night, every night, she gave us lessons, teaching us first to read and write, and then in subsequent years adding on layer after layer of knowledge, until finally, that last year before I was sold, I could speak and write and read as well as or better than most any white man. Out in the field I had to keep up appearance though. I had to pretend I didn’t know anything more than the hoe and the mule, just like I had to keep on saying yassuh and nawsuh.

Slavery still has its supporters. Some might think while reading this, it was the education that ruined me and made me want to bolt. But it wasn’t the education; it was the whip, and a woman named Chloe, and the idea of a life spent taking orders from a man who didn’t deserve to own a mule, much less a human being. …

… I was born to slavery, and just when I was feeling like a man, I was sold from the Surley place, along with every other slave I knew. … My mamma and daddy were sold separately, her to a local man, my daddy to a trader. My sister, Betty, was sold upstate. I got sold to another trader and taken downriver for profit. …

I spent three days in that showroom and each day was the same. White men coming along, taking my fingers in their hands and moving them back and forth, checking for nimbleness. They ran their hands up my legs, along my arms, across my chest and abdomen, looking for tumors, hernias and wounds, anything that would bring my price down or make them decide not to buy me. They pulled my lips back and looked at my teeth. I was told to strip that they might check my back for the marks of the lash. …

… All I could do was stand there, let the white men look, and answer their questions.

“What’s your age, boy?”

“Can you drive a buggy?” …

“Where did you live before?”

“You got a wife?”

“Would you like to come home with me boy?”

We’d been told what to say. … In answer to that last question, would you come home with me, boy, the only reply a slave could give was yassuh.

Yassuh, I answered the gravelly voiced man who had prodded at me for the last hour. It was then I raised my head slightly, and got my first look at Master Wilson, the “innocent” man I would kill ten years later. He was short and round. Two days from now I will be dead, hanged for his murder, and the kidnapping and rape of his “wife.”

You who find this, I know what you will be thinking. You will want to take those words, “innocent” and “wife” out of quotation marks. You will think that I, a nigger, a heathen, a horse thief, a murderer, a kidnapper, a rapist, do not know the meaning of what I have just written, but you will be wrong. I know its meaning. Innocent in quotation marks means that he was not innocent, and I tell you, sir, that he was not. And wife in quotation marks means that she was not his wife, and I tell you, sir, that she was not. She was his former slave, Chloe, and she is dead now.

I write this for Chloe. It is my urgent task these last few days of my life. I write this that she may be known for who she was, and not for who you think she was. She was not Master Wilson’s wife. She was not white. She was a former house slave, and I loved her, and I love her still.

—Nancy Peacock, The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson: A Novel (Atria Books 2017)

Some thoughts about this book:

  • Slavery was and is a horrible thing. So is racism. That we haven’t managed to put this behind us makes me ashamed.
  • I learned things about history I didn’t know, which as you know is something that delights me about good fiction. I didn’t know about the ragtag exodus of plantation owners—their supposedly already free slaves in tow—from adjacent slave states into Texas at the end of the Civil War. I also knew nothing about Comanche society, nothing about their life and customs.
  • Words are powerful. Education is powerful. You know this already but this book is an example of both.
  • I bought this book when an author friend of mine championed it because her friend (the author) had a bit of bad luck with the timing of the publication, which was 17 January 2017 (i.e., in the middle of a frantic news cycle that has left absolutely no bandwidth for folks to think about literary fiction). And there’s more bad luck: since Atria is an imprint of Simon & Schuster, which has recently signed a controversial, divisive alt-right creep (I won’t name him; I don’t want his name or the company he works for associated with my blog in any way), many buyers and big reviewers are boycotting S&S. It is, as the author notes in this private statement made to a friend, “a rotten pound of luck.” Sometimes these things happen. But readers, one at a time, can make a difference. I am recommending the book to you for that very reason.
  • Just because you think almost everything about the story is laid out in these few paragraphs from the beginning of the book, you are wrong. There is depth, humanity, and many layers of story to discover. And surprises. The writing is lovely too. Highly recommended.

Tweet: Words are powerful. Education is powerful. This novel is an example of both.
Tweet: The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson: What a beautiful book this is!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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