Every eye fixed on me. Missus said, ‘This is our little Hetty. Sarah, dear, she is your present, your very own waiting maid."

Oprah's note:
I read that and think of my 10-year-old self and what it would feel like to be someone's present. This helps me imagine that, and reminds me that I was born at the right time.

At the age of eleven, I owned a slave I couldn't free.

Oprah's note:
Both the power and the powerlessness of this struck me. To know at age eleven that slavery is wrong, and yet be able to do nothing about it.

What came next was a fast, bitter wind.

Monday, after we got done with devotions, Aunt-Sister took mauma aside. She said Missus had a friend who didn't like floggings and had come up with the one-legged punishment. Aunt-Sister went to a lot of trouble to draw us a picture of it. She said they wind a leather tie round the slave's ankle, then pull that foot up behind him and hitch the tie round his neck. If he lets his ankle drop, the tie chokes his throat.

We knew what she was telling us. Mauma sat down on the kitchen house steps and laid her head flat against her knees.

Oprah's note:
As a student of African-American history, it's always been stunning to me that otherwise seemingly civilized people could concoct such punishments for other human beings, for people they ‘owned.'

I closed my eyes then, but what I saw in the dark was worse as the real thing. I cracked my eyes and watched her trying to keep her leg from dropping down and cutting off her air, fighting to stay upright. She set her eyes on top of the oak tree. Her standing leg quivered. Blood from her head-cut ran down her cheek. It clung to her jaw like rain on the roof eave.

Oprah's note:
I'm thinking of how a child must have seen this, how the image must have embedded itself in her spirit and colored everything from then on—influenced her entire future.

Mauma's legs would walk again same as ever, but she never was the same inside. After that day, it seemed part of her was always back there waiting for the strap to be loosed. It seemed like that's when she started laying her cold fire of hate.

Oprah's note:
There it is. "The cold fire of hate." Such a vivid foretelling of the future.

When she set it down, I said, "Hetty, shall I teach you to read?"

Oprah's note:
Knowing the risk for both of them—for a slave to learn to read was against the law—I thought this was an incredibly powerful statement. For Sarah, it was about doing what she could. If she couldn't free Hetty physically, she could at least empower her mind.

That summer, I turned eleven years, and mauma said the pallet I slept on upstairs wasn't fit for a dog. We were supposed to be working on the next ration of slave clothes. Every year the men got two brown shirts and two white, two pants, two vests. Women got three dresses, four aprons, and a head scarf. Mauma said all that could wait. She showed me how to cut black triangles each one big as the end of my thumb, then we appliqued two hundred or more on red squares, a color mauma called oxblood. We sewed on tiny circles of yellow for sun splatter, then cranked down the quilt frame and pieced everything together. I hemmed on the homespun backing myself, and we filled the inside with all the batting and feathers we had. I cut a plug of my hair and plug of mauma's and put them inside for charms. It took six afternoons.

Oprah's note:
Do what you can—a small way of honoring and standing up for yourself. This passage also reminds me that I used to go to my grandmother's house and sleep on a pallet. They're like little blankets laid on the floor. Little stuffed pieces of blanket.

Next: The powerful passage that moved Oprah


Next Story