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Yellow Wife


Yellow Wife

Award-winning author Sadeqa Johnson takes us into America's dark past in YELLOW WIFE. Here, we meet Pheby Delores Brown --- a woman of valor who has loved deeply and fiercely, a slave who has managed to keep her dignity. Despite her relatively privileged upbringing in the plantation house where she grew up, where she is taught to read and play the piano by her master's sister (who is also her aunt), in the end, there is no one left to protect her. Pheby reverts to being nothing more than a possession, a belonging, to be sold at the whim of her owner.

Pheby's mother, Ruth, has told her for 16 years that on her 18th birthday, her father Jacob --- the master --- would give her the emancipation documents that would set her free. So her world is shaken when Jacob’s wife sells her on the day of Ruth’s funeral. She is taken to a jail with other unwanted slaves. And now, in the short time that she's on the cart with other castoffs on the way to be sold, we get our first real glimpse of the horrors that were perpetrated in the name of slavery. We learn about the woman on the cart who had just given birth to a stillborn baby and was still pushing out the afterbirth while her baby was being thrown into a ditch by the slavers.

"Johnson's writing is exquisitely, almost unbearably detailed.... [Pheby's] story is engrossing and emotional, but it also gives us insight into those who might pass for almost white and how their lives weren't necessarily any better than those whose skin color had not been bleached by generations of rape by white masters."

Pheby is lucky and escapes being sold to a whorehouse. Her light complexion and beauty make her valuable. When she refuses to strip as she is put on the block for sale, instead of a whipping or the forced removal of her clothing, a stranger steps up and stops the sale. Rubin Lapier --- the Jailer, as she refers to him --- owns the jail and the half-acre upon which the jail, the tavern where the sales take place, and his home are situated. Pheby is safe, at least for now, but is leery about what exactly the Jailer will be expecting.

Pheby knows that her father will come for her and rescue her, but when she finds out he has died, she realizes that she can't count on anyone else to save her. We assume that his death resulted from the same carriage accident that killed her mother. And we come to learn about Ruth and her fierce determination that Pheby not see herself as a slave. In fact, when a teenage Pheby does finally lie with Essex Henry, a slave on her father's plantation, she knows that her mother would be horrified.

While Pheby is in no danger of losing her life --- Lapier passionately desires her --- her continued survival and favor in the eyes of her master require her to help him sell slaves. It's her job at the jail to prepare the female slaves for sale. She uses her sewing skills to dress them, and provides rouge and adornments to make them more presentable, thus making sure they will fetch top dollar. All the while, Pheby recognizes that she will do anything to protect those she loves. And eventually, when she meets Essex Henry again under terrible circumstances, she must decide how far she will go to help him.

Johnson's writing is exquisitely, almost unbearably detailed. She vividly depicts the Devil's Half Acre, as Lapier's jail is known, and we can picture the bodies of the dead slaves and all but smell their decomposing corpses as they lie in mud and filth. We can imagine the stench coming from the shed where the slaves awaiting auction are kept, lacking even such basic sanitation devices as buckets. We see the degradation that is routine when slaves are forced to stand naked in front of buyers. They must squat, open their mouths, or even, in the case of female slaves, go to a private room to be further "examined" by prospective purchasers. Lapier is a complex character, sincere in his affection for Pheby, yet brutish and brutally sadistic with others.

This story is in many ways a paean to a mother's love for her children. One of Pheby's tenets when making important decisions is to think about what her mother would have done for her. Ruth's love was all-encompassing and uncompromising. We also learn about slaves who grew up without ever knowing their mother, and we see that Pheby's life course is determined by what will benefit her family. It's difficult to reconcile what Pheby did to aid in the sale of slaves with her own position as a piece of chattel in Lapier's household. Here, we see the almost universal truth that to ensure survival and protect family, we will do almost anything. Almost.

Pheby's narrative doesn't just draw us into the life of a “mulatto” during the time before the Civil War. Of course, her story is engrossing and emotional, but it also gives us insight into those who might pass for almost white and how their lives weren't necessarily any better than those whose skin color had not been bleached by generations of rape by white masters. Johnson’s book is based on the actual life of Mary Lumpkin --- and Lumpkin's jail in Richmond, Virginia --- and includes historical figures who were slave traders with light-skinned wives, making this work of fiction real, powerful and moving. The details about Pheby, Essex Henry, the other slave traders' "wives," and the education of their children up North are all inspired by real people and events.

Johnson provides a partial list of resources she used while writing YELLOW WIFE in her Author’s Note, which is well worth reading and absorbing.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on January 29, 2021

Yellow Wife
by Sadeqa Johnson

  • Publication Date: December 28, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1982149116
  • ISBN-13: 9781982149116