Saturday, April 28, 2007

I Am a Motherless Child (Valerie Anderson)

(Note: In Jennifer Semple Siegel's African-American Literature class, students were offered the option of rewriting a poem into a story. Valerie Anderson decided to rewrite "Motherless Child" [Anonymous], an African-American (Negro) spiritual, into prose.)
No sense in pretending anymore. Life has been too long and too hard for my brief twelve years on earth, on this plantation, on this same God-forsaken piece of earth. I am abandoned and I am alone.

I do not know who my mother is or who my father is. I do not know who this “God” is that the other Negroes sing about. I feel like a motherless child because that’s what I am. I am motherless, fatherless, Godless, hopeless. When I pick cotton I try to daydream, try to close my eyes and imagine a family and a warm wooden cabin with a freshly swept dirt floor. I can hear my momma singing as she stirs a stew over the fire and I can hear my pa’s soft and hypnotic voice telling all of my brothers and sisters a story.

In this house I can smell the fresh, clean earth, devoid of blood and sweat. That smell coming from over the hills is a feast for my family to enjoy, and not for the white family that has enslaved me and caused me to forget, to never know, who I am and where I came from.

In my daydreams it is my birthday, it is April 15, because that day is always beautiful and sunny and flowers are in bloom. It is beautiful, just like my momma tells me I am. I am wearing a clean new cotton dress that belongs to me and only me. It is not a dull brown color, smeared in dirt and sweat. No one has worn it before me because it was made just for me. And I look just as fresh as the beautiful April day.

But the story stays the same – just a story. The crack of a whip and warm blood trickling down my back bring me back to a harsh and unpleasant reality. There is no cabin, no stew, no dress, no ma, no pa. There is only myself in my dirty clothes and cracked and blistering hands.

I am a motherless child, a family-less child. Yes, I know I have been adopted by the older slaves as their own, but it’s just not the same. I am their child for their own sake and not for my own. I am replacing their children but I don’t want to be a replacement, I want to by part of my own family. How dare they pretend to know how I feel! How dare they call me selfish and stubborn when they can’t possibly understand how my life is! I do not feel lucky to be alive, to be provided for, to be loved by God. I feel alone and miserable and spent.

This life is too long and too hard and I know that there is more to the world than this. I know that I could endure my breaking back and bleeding hands if I was loved, if I had a family, not just the mournful and pitying eyes of slaves just like me, whose position in life is not much better than my own.

I feel ready to quit, ready to lie down and die in the dirt that I toil in day after endless day. I am a motherless child, forgotten in a world of motherless children. I have no more hope, no more future, and only one foster parent – the cruel and unforgiving King Cotton. What a poor replacement for the family and love I want more than anything. I feel like I am almost gone.
Epilogue by author

When I was in high school, I sang an a cappella version of this spiritual. In order to be able to sing this with feeling, I tried to imagine what it would be like to feel like a motherless child. This prompt gave me an opportunity to imagine the back story that I had already partially developed several years ago.

Although the poem is fairly simplistic, it is still incredibly powerful. I wanted to create a short piece that had the same power behind it as the fifteen-line poem that I was inspired by. The part of the poem that struck me the most was the line, “Sometimes I feel like a feather in the air.” I really wanted to focus on what would help a slave feel unburdened by their hardships.

Therefore, it seemed entirely appropriate to me that the person who would relate most to this poem would be a young child who is not only motherless, but also doesn’t feel as if she has a place or purpose in the world. The added tragedy is that the child is so young and already wants to give up.

My goal was to create a story that read like an extension of the poem, and I think I accomplished that. My story is about a girl who is imagining an escape and a better life, just as the author of the poem is imagining flying away from her circumstances.


LIT203 African-American Literature, Spring 2007

Published with permission

No comments: