A Story by R J Fuller

How well can we understand? Why is it we fail to do so?

"Look! They're unloading the new slaves!" the little boy yelled excitedly to his friends. 
The old man standing with his hands on his hips at the doorway called out to the kids.
"You boys get away from here, now," he told them. They seemed to half-regard him but stayed close to see the turn of events. 
Gradually the dark figures emerged, one-by-one, manacled like prisoners, chained together, some staggering as they walked into the bright sunlight. Confined within the lower bowels of the ship for months on end had left them completely broken and emaciated. The villagers looked on as if they were circus exhibits. 
"Oooh," one young woman said. "Where are they having the auction? Does anybody know?"
"I need a new house servant." 
"Those would make excellent field hands."
None of the prisoners sought to utter a word, just stared in uncertainty and defeat. The men were corralled in one area and prepared for auction, while women and children were taken elsewhere.
"How well can they learn?"   
"Appear to me as if they all just might be best working the fields."
The auctioneer stepped up onto the platform stage. He was a frail, thin man, until he spoke with a voice capable of doing his job. 
"Allright, folks, it feels like it is getting hot out here today and I know we want to get inside and leave the outdoor work to these fine, freshly acquired servants, . . ."
A few light chuckled from the crowd. Well, he thought to himself, it wasn't that good a joke. 
". . . so let's begin with the men, to get them all situated, then we'll move on to the women and little ones."
"Oh, I like that little one there, father. See him."
"Which one, Miranda?"
"The tiny, naked black boy there." 
The small waif she spoke of stood with large eyes, looking about at everything going on around him. He seemed separate from any family and was crying very loudly. A white man with a whip drove him and the other women and children back together. He ran and screamed in terror, but he had no one to go to. He just had to huddle with all the other children. And he continued to wail. 
The first living product ascended the stage and stood for all the white faces to see. He looked back at them, turning his head to-and-fro, seeing the gawks and mumbles. As he breathed heavily, he turned and looked at the man with the voice of an angry bird, squawking shrill and loud. The tones and inflections of this language was truly horrifying, like the breaking of human bones, being cut with a sharp object. He turned away again to look at the masses. A jab from behind him between his shoulder blades seemed to want him to move further up toward the edge of the stage. 
"Good, strong young buck," the auctioneer croaked. "Many years of hard work to be gained." 
The crying naked boy stepped away from his group again. He was so loud, there was no way those near him could not be aware of him, but no one made a move to retrieve him. They could tell by his gesturing that he seemed to want to just ran away, and they didn't want to do a thing to discourage him. They wanted him to run, to flee, to get as far away as possible from all of this. 
"He'll sire many future offspring to work as well," the auctioneer continued about the black man standing for all to see. The small child continued walking away from the group. One or two black women pointed at him, as if they should stop him, but they seemed to fear any sort of reaction. Even Miranda's attention was turned elsewehre. 
"Come, lovely Miranda, let me take you away from all of this," the gentleman in the fine tailored threads said to her. "Let your father and Mr. Mason proceed with today's purchases." 
Miranda blushed nervously. 
"Oh, very well, Jonathan," she answered all a titter. The young couple slowly strolled away from the business dealings and made their way to a nearby eatery. 
"Strong legs," the auctioneer continued, "and a sturdy back. So if you need this one on your plantation, make a good bid on him, he'll be worth it."
For no discernable reason, the handle of the whip struck the slave from behind, as if to divert his attention from observing too much. He reacted painfully to the hit. He could detect amusement from a few persons in the crowd. He brought his head around, breathing fitfully from the strike, and spied the small dark form standing in the middle of the wide, dusty roadway. The child continued to move even further from the group, standing directly in the path. That was when the potential slave still unpurchased raised his head to see a horse-drawn wagon making its way down the same path. His eyes grew big as he realized the wagon would run directly over the child, and all these people stood around and did nothing. 
He looked to those also in captivity and wondered if any of them realized the turn of events. Surely someone did. The wagon drew closer, the hooves clopping in the dirt and creating dustclouds. The child actually stopped and saw the horses coming toward him, but he seemed to have no idea what to do. He just stood there. 
"Do we have any more bids? You're bidding on a fine, young stud here. Valuable." 
Then the white man with the whip saw the child. He moved forward, unfurling the whip as he did, and sent it across the toddler from behind. The thundering horses and wagon drew even closer. The child screamed in terror at the sting of the whip, turning to see the slaver, who rared back for another strike. Stepping away from the slaver, the small boy actually moved closer to his approaching doom. 
"Git out of the way, boy!" the slaver yelled. Obviously the child didn't understand him. 
On the podium, the black man in chains could only stare as he watched the baby, crying, turning away from one attack that seemed to be under the guise of rescuing him, and moving nearer another. The slave clenched his teeth and never turned his gaze from the unfolding events. 
The crowd gasped in astonishment at what they had just heard. The auctioneer looked at the slave standing hear as well, unbelieving what had transpired. Slowly a tear ran down the imprisoned man's cheek. He bared his teeth as he gasped with comprehension of the recent events. 
"Lordy," the auctioneer said. "Did I hear correctly?" 
One of the handlers from the back came forward. 
"Naw, Mr. Curtis, he was just imitating what he heard us say," the handler answered as he moved closer to strike the black man. 
The slave turned to look at him. 
"Do not strike me!" 
The handler stopped moving and likewise stared at the slave. 
"He can't have said, . . . " the handler began. 
"I said, do not strike me!" 
The auctioneer looked on, bewildered. 
"Can you speak?" he asked. 
"Yes, I can speak. Mr. Curtis, is it? Yes, Mr. Curtis, I can speak. The real question is, can you understand?" 
Women screamed. A couple of them fainted. 
"It's a bewitched slave," someone yelled. 
"How is this possible?" Mr. Curtis whispered as he looked closer. 
"Careful, Mr. Curtis, . . . "
"Be silent!" he hissed as he drew even nearer the slave. 
"You can speak our language?" 
The slave gulped one time as the tears ceased to appear on his cheeks. Rather disgustedly, he looked at Mr. Curtis. 
"Do I speak your language?" he calmly inquired, "or maybe it is you who speak mine." 
Curtis observed him, absolutely astonished. 
"No," he answered, "this is our language. The English language we have always spoken." 
The black man looked at him very sarcastically. 
"How do you know?" he asked. "You have spoken it only in your lifetime, but have been told it has always been spoken by your forefathers. They, in turn, only know what they were told." 
The auctioneer drew even closer. 
"Mr. Curtis, will the auction be continuing?" one of the handlers asked, rather fidgety. 
"No, it will not!" the black man turned to address the handler. He turned to look back at the crowd of astonished white people staring back at him. "This auction is over!" 
By this time, word had spread that an ignorant slave was speaking very eloquently. Local authorities had been summoned and now came toward the slave, still standing on the stage. 
A law enforcer stared at him and quietly asked, "what's your name then?"
"Might I sit down?" the slave asked. "I'm tired of all this standing. Mr. Curtis brought him a chair. 
"Here you are," he said with no realization of what he was doing. 
The slave promptly sat down on the chair. 
"What an accomodating device," he said as he looked around at it. "I was able to see a few of these on that horrible ship. You are to be commended on your design skills." 
The law enforcer and a couple of other dignitaries that had joined him simply stared and spoke not a word. 
The black man turned once more to face the group of gawking on-lookers. 
"Now then," he began, "you asked me my . . . can I have these removed?" he said, holding up his fettered wrists. 
"Dan, remove the manacles," Mr. Curtis called to the handler. 
"But Mr. Curtis, . . . " 
"Do it now!" 
"You heard him, Dan," the slave spoke, holding out his fists. The chains rattled loudly as they fell to the floor, striking the black man's feet in the process. 
"Ow!" he said, looking down at his feet. "Can I have these removed as well?"
Dan grumbled as he virtually knelt to the black man and removed the links. 
"Thank you," the black man said to Dan as he stood. As Dan moved away, the slave kicked at the empty chains, as if to remove them from his presence. 
"My name, yes?" he asked now. 
"Do you have a name?" Curtis asked. 
"Of course I have a name, Mr. Curtis, just as you have a name," he answered.
The law enforcer standing down before the stage spoke up then. 
"Well," he said in his gruff voice, "can you tell us your name then?"
"Why?" the black man snapped. "Would you honor my name? Would you honor the name bestowed upon me by my elders when you have honored nothing else about me? You have destroyed my village, my home, my family. Why should I offer you my name as well, so you can dishonor that as well?"
"We . . . we meant you . . . " Mr. Curtis began. 
"You meant me no harm?" the slave erupted. "Is that what you were going to say? You meant me no harm?" 
The black man stood to his feet. 
"Look about you," he roared. "How you have done me and my people, what you have subjected us to already, and you can honestly attempt to say you meant me no harm?" 
"We was wanting . . . " Mr. Curtis began and once again, he didn't finish. 
"What? What were you honestly wanting that we had to endure this cruelty, this torment upon that vessel, the confines to our bodies, our loved ones seized from us. All for what purpose, Mr. Curtis? Can you answer me that? All for what purpose?"
Mr. Curtis simply stared in total disbelief. He wanted to speak, he must speak, but he could find no words. His mind would not connect to his vocal chords to bring forth any explanation, so he just spoke what he knew to be true. 
"We wanted money," he managed. "We needed workers for our crops to be sold." 
"Sold?" the black man fumed. "As you did me? Sold me?" 
"We wanted you to tend to our crops," Curtis struggled to say. 
"We'd provide you with good homes," the law enforcer declared. He looked at the black man staring back at him and knew the answer was going to be met with absolute displeasure. 
"I had a home," he said calmly, then bellowed, "I HAD A HOME AND YOU TOOK IT FROM ME!"
The black man sat down once more. "You wanted to give me your idea of a home so I could pick your crops? Is that what you wanted? IS THAT WHAT YOU WANTED?" 
The familiar grumble from the back spoke up. 
"What, you had nothing where you lived," the handler, Dan, sought to reason. "You lived in pitiful huts and ate bugs and worms. If anything, we sought to civilize ya." 
Turning in the chair, the black man looked at Dan, unshaven, disheveled, bloated. 
"You were going to civilize me?" he asked, then gave forth with one of the loudest laughs to be heard. The white people simply looked on in amazement. 
Mr. Curtis sniffed and scratched the side of his nose. 
"Well," he began, "where does this leave us?"
The black man sat and looked forward and raised his head to survey the mob. 
"Return us to our home," he answered. "I want us to be here no longer."
"Well, we can't do that because there has already been documentation about purchases to bring you, . . . to bring you here in the first place, with monetary agreements stipulating the delivery of these ah, . . . these 235 slaves on this date," Curtis began, looking back to his paperwork on the nearby podium. 
"You cannot return what you have stolen," the black man said. "Why does that sound as if it will truly have dire circumstances in a distant future?" 
"So Dan and his boys using the whip on you is out, obviously," Mr. Curtis said, almost humorously. 
The black man shot Mr. Curtis a look. 
"The idea of using a whip upon another person." 
A strange lull seemed to come from Dan, as well as ran throughout the crowd. Only Mr. Curtis seemed oblivious to the statement. The black man looked at them. 
"After all," he began, "I AM a person, aren't I?" 
Mr. Curtis looked at him and calmly spoke, "you speak to us, so clearly you are a person of reason and means. You are truly unique, but there are no ah, no more of you about, are there?"  
The black man remained seated and turned from Mr. Curtis to look beyond the gathering, far off in the distance, along the dirt path where other Africans stood, still assembled, tired and weary from this perilous ordeal they had been subjected to, and now this confine of young women and children, who just moments ago witnessed the unthinkable occur with the small, frightened child who sought some understanding and familiarity in this situation he and others had been hurled into, only to receive the earliest deliverance of freedom from wretched tragedy they endured. There he still remained, kicked out of the way, a small heap crying no more, from his final resting place on this dusty roadside. 
"No more intelligent black people, Mr. Curtis?" the black man asked. "No more reasonable black people? No more black people capable of absolute comprehension?"
He paused. 
"Yes, Mr. Curtis," he declared. "There are others who are such a way, but only if you ask, will you ever find out." 

© 2021 R J Fuller

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Added on July 18, 2021
Last Updated on July 18, 2021
Tags: speaking, language, slaves, auction, child, comprehension