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Like his mother and grandmother before him, Joseph Jacobs was born into slavery. Joseph lives with his grandmother and sister in North Carolina, but he has not seen his mother for more than seven years. Unbeknownst to Joseph, his mother, Harriet, has been hiding from her owner in the attic of the house that Joseph lives in. But when Harriet's hiding place is in danger of being revealed, she is forced to flee north to safety only moments after being reunited with her family.Devastated by losing his mother for the second time, Joseph begins to ponder the nature of the world he lives in. Soon Joseph, seeking freedom and a place where he can be himself, follows his mother north. As he searches for answers, Joseph experiences life in Massachusetts, California, Australia, and aboard a whaling ship -- but there's no place where Joseph feels that he can truly be free.In this companion novel toLetters from a Slave Girl, Joseph's stirring quest for freedom and identity is told through letters imagined by the author. Based on the real-life stories of Harriet and Joseph Jacobs,Letters from a Slave Boyis set against the backdrop of some of the most exciting and turbulent times in American history.
MamaEDENTON, NORTH CAROLINA 3 April 1839Dear Mama,As you can see, I no how to rite. A skinny stick of a white boy, name of Josiah Collins, is teeching me. He say, Joseph, rite down wurds that mean something to you. You will learn spelling soon enuf.I meet Josiah this time last spring, round tree-leafing time. We standing on the fishing bridge, me at one end, him at the other.He call out, Hey! How come you catch three stripey bass, while I only caught one?Use short little fish for bait, I tell him. Then I give him baby shad from my bucket, and he catch two bass.Next time I go to the bridge, Josiah show up with a pensul and old ledjer book. He rite alfabet letters in it to get me started. From then on, he been showing me how to turn letters into words and how to make punctuashun. He say it is a trade. I teech h im to fish, he teech me to write.Mama, I figure one fello in this family shood get some lerning. Your brother John can not read, leastways not before he run away from Mister Samuel Sawyer lass year. Great Uncle Mark can not ethur.A boy is got to have his private thorts sometime. That is why Gran do not know bout this practice book. Only you, Mama, and it is our secrut.Your good boy, Joseph12 May 1839Dear Mama,Lass nite I ask Gran again where you gone. She creak to her feet, poke at the coals in her bake oven.Look in the sky, she say like always. Find the handle of the dipper. Your mama is working her way along that line of stars. They point to New York. To freedum.And duz she miss me, I ask.Same as if her right hand cut off, Gran reply.And my daddy, where he, I ask again.Stop pestering me, Gran order, or I will send a witch hag after you. Now go fetch a log.Gran always say this when she want me to shut up. So I stomp outside to the woodshed. Stare up at the Big Dipper and look tord New York. The stars blink back, like they is smiling at such foolishness. I think them stars must be right.I am nine years of age. That is too old to believe my mama is traveling thru the sky. A n d too old to believe the ghostie stories Gran tell. They is no such thing as hags, is they, Mama? Or plat-eye monsters?Your son, Joseph3 July 1839Dear Mama,Something happen today that burn my bottom. I am walking down Broad Street, going to buy cinmun for Gran. Mister Samuel Sawyer pass by with his wife.She call to me, What a pretty little negro! Who do you belong to?I run home fast, tell Gran and Uncle Mark. Say I am a colored boy and do not like a white lady calling me negro. Or little, ethur. I am three and one half feet tall and growing every day.Gran take her loafs of bread from the oven, slide in a pan of krackers. What folks call you don't matter, she say. It's what you answer to that matters.But Gran, I ask, what the lady mean, who do I belong to?A secrut look pass between Gran and Mark. The look that growed-up people think children don't see.Joseph, she reply, remember when you was a teensy thing, and we have a big party? How we shut the curtains and light the candles?I try hard, Mama, but nothing come to my mind.The night we clap and sing, Mark remind me.Oh, I say, when Lulu and I spin round the room, make ourselfs dizzy?That's right, say Gran. That night we celebrate. Cause Sawyer buy you and your sister from Norcom, the man your mama run from.Sawyer own me and Lulu? I cry. I never knew it!Mark wrap each loaf in paper and tie it with string. You only five when it happen, he splain. Lulu but two. Both of you too yung to understand.It don't make sense, I say. Sister and I, we live here in Gran's cabin. I am a free boy!Sawyer is letting me raise you and Lulu, Gran reply, but he ain't signed your free papers yet. You still belong to him.Then why don't Sawyer's wife know that? I ask. Why don't he tell her?Gran lift her apron, dab a dot of sweat from her lip