Updated: May 3, 2022
Oh historical fiction… the emotions you stir. I’m careful about reading historical fiction because most of it involving people that look like me involves slavery and that can be a lot. Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson was a harder read for me but it was an amazing one. It’s insightful and a testament to the strength of the people who came before me. Yes, this story is historical fiction but it’s inspired by the very true story of Ms. Mary Lumpkin and the Lumpkin’s jail in Richmond, VA. If you don’t know, i’ll share the history lesson this book taught me. Mary Lumpkin was a slave forced into a relationship with a Slave jail owner most known for his ruthlessness when it came to “breaking” slaves. I ,for one, could not imagine being in Ms. Lumpkin’s or in, our fictional character, Pheby’s shoes. Every decision that Pheby made was rooted in survival and the need to protect her son at all cost. You see this character go through the emotional warfare that came, first of all, with losing all hope for gaining her freedom, with having a family with her master, seeing him with other women and struggling with the complexities that come with that as well. I never imagined how that must have been for these women in those days. To be forced into these familial relationships with these people who, at the root of it all, see you more as property than human and on top of this have to also see them taking other women, often times obviously and with no regard to the “position” that you hold. (and I use the word position very loosely.)
Before Pheby encountered the jailer or even stepped foot on the devil’s half acre she had to deal with the wrath of her slave owner father’s wife. Pheby was the outcome of her mother’s own survival based decision. Therefore, Misses Delphina hated Pheby simply because she existed. As much as Pheby was a slave she was still her father’s daughter which came with a certain level of protection. (also using that word very loosely) The Misses, at every opportunity seemed to want remind Pheby that she is not only just a slave but almost even less than that. She was especially cruel every chance she had and as soon as she saw an opportunity to get rid of Pheby, she did and she did it during one of the worst possible times just to add insult to injury. Did I mention that Delphina also forced Pheby’s love Essex to sleep with her, she bore his child, then drowned it in the river AND THEN made Pheby bury him just shortly after Pheby was forced to say goodbye to the man she loved in an effort to save his life?
Fast forwarding back to the jail, I know I mentioned she helped the jailer with his “business”. Pheby’s job was to “prepare” other slave women for auction or for what was essentially a whore house. Keep in mind, Delphina sent her to the jail with hopes of Pheby becoming a sex worker or at least being some kind of brutally punished for a confrontation that happened between them. Pheby began to document her encounters with these girls. She wanted to tell their stories. She wanted to make sure that they were not forgotten but that doesn’t bring peace to the fact that it was still her job to pretty these girls up just to send them to be abused and forced into only God knows what. The baggage that had to come with having that responsibility…
Let’s talk about her kids, for a second. Pheby successfully gave birth to 4 children. One boy, fathered by her love Essex, and 3 girls all fathered by the jailer. The jailer loved his 3 girls and gave her son as much acknowledgement as any other slave. Actually, less acknowledgement than any other slave. The 3 girls, who could all pass for white, grew up as such. So much so that, much to Pheby’s horror, they even played a game once where they pretended to auction slaves. I will say, I was relieved that Pheby didn’t lose herself so much in her new life that she didn’t address that. She shut it down with a quickness. The jailer, as soon as he could, created as much distance as he could between Pheby and her son and while he barely acknowledged their connection as soon as Pheby “got out of hand” he used him as a pawn to keep her in line. I was terrified when he pulled up to the plantation with the 3 daughters and the son no where in sight.
Now there were a few relationships that were bright spots in the darkness. First of all Pheby’s relationship with her mother. It was the purest love. A mother who would do anything to protect her daughter and a daughter who wanted to be there for her mother. I also loved the love story between Pheby and Essex, while complicated it was still beautiful. She was able to see past the decisions he was forced to make and still love him so wholly. The bond that grew between Pheby and July was sweet. July was Pheby’s left hand and kind of the kid’s nanny. Pheby watched July grow up, they were practically sisters and she wanted to protect her so fiercely. Simply put… July deserved so much better. I was so in love with the growth between Pheby and Elsie. To watch the mutual respect grow between them was heart warming. Elsie, initially felt the need to constantly find ways to remind Pheby that she was just a slave and no better than anybody else working the property. Pheby didn’t intentionally do anything to deserve these daily reminders, Elsie just felt the need to give them. Prime example of the how the roots of colorism in the black community can be traced back to slavery. When Pheby got to connect with other women in her situation, I was most thrown off. It was pleasantly surprising, though. Pheby did get to associate with other women who understood what she was going through and made a connection that would change things for the better which was nice to read.
Overall, this book is definitely a 5 star read. It’s has the potential to be triggering and heavy but it’s still a much needed perspective. This is a book that I definitely recommend. I do want to say one thing though… I’ve been disturbed by some reviews simply recounting this book as a thrilling, page turner as if it’s a far fetched story meant to only entertain. I feel like it’s a little disrespectful to the specific woman and all the unnamed women who lived lives similar to this. While this book is indeed a page turner it is also a reflection of a people’s history and should be regarded as such. This isn’t a Marvel movie, it’s inspired by someone’s real familial history and it deserves that respect. Just a thought.