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April 27, 2010

Slave Ship

I noticed them as soon as I walked up the stairs to the second deck of the ship. She sat on the stairs that led to the third deck. A black woman with vacant eyes, set in a very ordinary, unsmiling face. She was partially hidden from my view by a man. He was a grey haired white man with black calluses on his toes. He stood over her imposing and possessive yet intimately, reminding me of a shark circling his next meal.

There was an incongruity to the scene. Perhaps my own prejudices led me to think that a white man choosing a black woman as a companion would choose one with some obvious and irresistible attraction, physical or otherwise, not someone so stunningly ordinary. The woman stared out to sea, detached from the man, as though imagining herself swimming away in the ocean that stretched before her, without a care for whether or not she would reach land. On the other hand, the man was focused solely on her, even as he smiled and nodded at others who made their way on to the ship. It was obvious that this was not a couple on a pleasure trip, nor was it a relationship between a boss and employee. Instead, I had the impression of a slave and her master.

I shook my head and, remembering my recent resolve to mind my own business, I took a seat out of view, on the floor, in a shady spot on the ship’s deck. I leaned back, patiently waiting for our departure. After a while, a pair of legs came into view, forcing the matter into my consciousness. As I looked up, I noted that they were long, slim and surprisingly youthful legs. Tatoos decorated the front of the thighs. I was surprised. My impression had been that the man’s companion was a much older woman. My mind, trying to make sense of the scene, had filled in what I could not see by assuming that this sixty plus year old man would be with a mature woman.

She was young, perhaps 18 years old, perhaps younger. Her belly was flat, her breasts small, high and firm as those of one who had never born a child. She was tall and carried herself ramrod straight, but her haunted eyes and devoured finger nails belied any confidence that her stance implied. Her eyes met mine briefly and then drifted back out to sea while her hand went to her mouth from nervous habit.

My imagination began to go wild. Was she with this man of her own accord? What if she was a runaway or worse, being kidnapped by this man. Could I let them escape on this boat without doing anything? I pictured seeing a newspaper advertisement from a desperate mother, “Have you seen this child?” I had to do something, say something to her. My earlier resolve to remain uninvolved washed overboard into the waves.

But she spoke to me first. “Dis t’ing yah nah move?” she said, referring to the fact that the boat was now 15 minutes behind schedule. The rankness of her speech was the first thing to make sense since I boarded the boat. No English teacher could even begin to tackle correcting the grammar of that sentence! I wondered what contribution she could be making in the relationship with this man. It certainly was not an intellectual partnership.

I dove at opening and replied, “I have no idea”. Then, looking, searching in her eyes, I said “Are you OK?” She started at me, drowning in the obvious concern in my eyes and voice. For a few seconds, a cloud moved from her eyes and I saw into her soul. Her pain, abandonment, fear and resignation washed over me like a wave rushing to the shore; it almost knocked me off of my feet. I stepped back involuntarily and my movement broke the spell. The window closed. The vacant look returned to her eyes, and she replied softly “Yeah”, turned and walked away, back to her seat under her companion.

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