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Antislavery Poetry from San Francisco

Running man image from workshop poster

The Pacific Appeal was the leading African American newspaper on the West Coast during the early 1860s.  A newly-published set of eight antislavery poems from the journal's inaugural 1862 volume captures the sense of expectancy within the African American community for the imminent end of US slavery.  These poems include the work of James Madison Bell, a San Francisco plasterer, brickmason, and poet.  Read more... 
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Helia's Narrative (XHTML)



I was someone whose mother died when I was seven months old and left me as a tiny baby. My grandmother took me because when my father impregnated my mother he left. My grandmother took care me from the time when I was about seven months old. Then my grandmother died and that a neighbor took me in. I was five years old when the neighbor took me in.

I had to do all the work in the house. I had to go and get water even though I was so young I couldn’t do anything really, but they decided that I should be the one to do the work. I had to sweep the whole house and I had to do all the dishes. They showed me how to cook food. And I cooked my own food too because women made food for themselves but they didn’t give me any of it. I was the one who went to bed the latest and I was the one who got up first. As soon as it was four o’clock I had to be on my feet to go and sweep the kitchen and light the fire and wash all the dishes and put the water on for coffee. When they would make their own coffee, they said I couldn’t do it because I wasn’t clean enough to do it. Then they would make coffee but they wouldn’t give me any, they would just drink it with their own children. Sometimes the children of the house would hit me on my head even though I didn’t do anything. And sometimes the children would set it up so that one would take the money of the other and they would say that I was the one that took it. All the children in this neighborhood were in school. There were four of them but she said she wasn’t going to put me in school because I was just an animal without any family. I stayed there because I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I didn’t know anybody in my mother’s family till I was about eight or nine years old.

There was a marketplace that was very far away so then I had to put the basket on my head and go very far, and I would bring back all the provisions for them. She would have me do a lot of different errands but if the money she made from the sales wasn’t enough she would say that I had eaten the profits instead of doing when she had asked me to do. They would have horses that they had saddles for; she wouldn’t saddle a horse for me—she said I had to carry it on my own head. There was water very far away and I had to go below and get it. It was very far down a mountain, it was very steep and the clothes I had, if they got torn she wouldn’t buy anything new for me.

But I had other neighbors who would look at me and say to the woman: “I believe you should take care of her just like she was your own child. I would take care of her like she was any other child of my own.” She would say: “no she’s just an animal without any family.” But they said: “even though she’s not your own child, you should take care of her like she’s any other child.” I stayed there and I was in a lot of misery. She said: “When you have people like this who have no family, they’re just like animals. We should just treat them like animals.”

Once she went away into the city for three days. When I was washing the dishes in the kitchen, a man called me. I responded: “yes, Mr.” And he said: “when you’re done with the dishes come to me under the little shade house.” This was the teacher of the little school and he said: “you can learn a little bit.” And for three days while she was gone I sat there under the shade house with this teacher. When she came back from the city I didn’t see that she was coming in, and so when she got there and I saw her, I got up and ran away. I went inside she asked me what was I doing: “you think you need school?” I said: “No it wasn’t me, it was the teacher who called me.” So she beat me up and she said: “If you learn to read, what’s that going to be useful for?” She whipped me with a whip and she opened my skin so then I never learnt again.

Then there was a neighbor who said: “I’m going to get you out of this, I’m going to put you in another neighbor’s house.” But I said: “no I don’t know where that is. Leave me where I am, let me pass go through this with my courage.” And one day she started to have an argument about me. She said: “oh you’re treating this child like an animal—you’re the one that’s an animal. You don’t even give her your clothes. And the food you cook for your own children, you don’t give to her.” She said the little school had a class and it was for everyone. So when she invited me to go to class I said: “no I can’t because she will beat me.” But the ladies of the neighborhood put a lot of pressure on the owner. They told her if she was going to beat this little girl, they would call the police or burn her house. When she saw that, she let me go to the class. And when they had tests, I went to the test and I passed it.

Then the owner said: “they pressured me, intimidated me, and said they’re going to burn my house. I guess I’m going to have to give you your first communion.” I was 11 years old. On the day of the communion, she took a dress that had three different kinds of fabric in it and I wore that to the communion service. All the children had parents. They were so pretty but I went to church with this dress and barefoot. And all the other children had nice shoes and I was the only one who was barefoot. When I left church and went home, as soon as I got home she told me to take that dress off and put the old rag on. I did that. But there was another child who was in the same communion service and the mother of that child saw me and she cried. That day I remember very well, because she said: “oh how hard it is for a child who doesn’t have a mother.” Then she called me and she gave me a little food of the party food. But the owner saw that I was eating at somebody else’s house and beat me up. She said that I had gone and gossiped. I told her: “no, it wasn’t  me. The lady saw me and she offered me the food.” But I know that there is a God and one he’ll say something for me.

She would beat me, and I would say: “Even though my grandmother left me here, it wasn’t to beat me like this.” And she said: “oh, so now you’re starting to talk back to me? You want to take my husband away from me?” Then one day I saw I can’t stand it any longer. There was a woman from town and I said: “I’m going to go with you because I can’t stand it any longer.” One day when she went out, I took the clothes that she had given me—not the clothes from the communion—and I ran away. The lady told me where she was going to be waiting for me and I found her there.

I thought it was a good thing that I was doing but I should have stayed at the house. I was 12 years old, and now I had to get up early because she was doing a lot of business. This woman had a restaurant and I had to get up really early because I was the one who cleaned all the pots and the pans for the restaurant. Then I had to get to the marketplace. She used to hire people to work for her but then since I was there in the house, she didn’t have to hire anyone any more. I had to light the fire. She was the one who would put oil in the pot, then I had to do everything else. To know if there was enough salt, I had to bring her a spoonful to know if it was correct, if there was enough salt, and after she sold all the food she would tell me that I can scrape the pot to eat.

There was another woman who lived across from this woman, and she saw the misery I was going through. She told me that when I was old enough I could make a living for myself. And I had hope that somebody would deliver me. I always have had that hope. But I stayed at this woman’s house with the restaurant… I would make food and I would wash clothes, and I’d iron, and I carried water. The woman had two children and I was taking them to school. I was there until I was 20.

One day when I went and got one of the kids from school. At that time the child was four so I was walking the street holding her hand. She fell down while I was holding her and her leg got scraped up. The woman called the police. She said that I scarred her child. It was in my fault, because while I was holding her hand, she tripped and fell.

I decided that I wasn’t going to stay there any longer. So I went to a place far from the town of Jeremy, on the southern Peninsula. I bought a machete and I started making a garden, just like a man. Some places would pay you for a day’s work in the garden, and they would buy coffee from you sometimes. They would pay you for a day’s work or they would just give you a can of coffee for the payment. I stayed there and I worked for people. I found a man who loved me and he wanted to know my family and I said: “Well, God put me on this earth and I don’t have any family.” But his parents liked me a lot and so I stayed with them and I had a child. Then the parents of this man got mad at me because I had this child, and then I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was really miserable.

The man’s brother came to visit and said I should come work for him in Port a Prince. So I lived with my brother in law, and his wife and his child. And I had another two children. Then my husband came, and they rented a house together like a family and we had one room in their house. One night while I was sleeping with my husband and my three children, I heard a knock on my door. These people had black masks over their faces and  they raped me. When they were finished, they took my husband and to this day I don’t know where he went. Then my brother in law left that area and I left too and went to another place. I had a lot of troubles because I had nobody to give me anything to help me. And so then I found a man who was already married and said he would take me. I wouldn’t have chosen that but for my children I did.

I had children for him. But his wife every day would come to my house and she would persecute me. She would come every day and scream and holler  and give me problems every day. So the man left. I told him: “now that I have two children through you, send something for them through another person.” He said: “I don’t need to have anything to do with you anymore.” He gave not really anything you would call money. It was only a thousand gouds and every 15 days I had to pay back part of it. So sometimes I would go and sell a few candles or some juice powder and whenever I would sell I would buy tomatoes or potatoes for my children to eat. There was a school close by, a rural school, that I was able to put my children into. But I wasn’t able to buy books and every day they sent them back because I wasn’t able to buy books.

In 2005 my second daughter was 12 years old. I sent her to a friend in Deduex and while she was in this village, bandits came and raped her. Now she has a child at 12 years old. She’s taking care of her rape child. I have two children who are in school. They could do their final exams but I don’t have the money to pay for it.