Alison Treat | Birthdays on the Plantation
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Birthdays on the Plantation

Birthdays on the Plantation

It’s birthday season in our house again! We have other holiday seasons. Why can’t we have birthday season? In our family, it begins in mid-September and ends in mid-October.

Photo Credit: April Olivia Roskos

Birthdays are kind of a big deal around here. Not in an “over-the-top, take-out-a-second-mortgage” way. More in a “you-were-born-and-we’re-so-glad” way. At least, that’s my goal.

Also in a cake-baking way. I love baking and decorating cakes.

I love eating cake, too. Ahem.

All this birthday partying reminded me of a piece of information I picked up recently. As you know, I’m writing another book. So, on the Books page of my website, right now, there is only one book listed.

That’s going to change.

If you’ve read One Traveler, you might remember Rhoda. She was the black woman living with Sid’s aunt and uncle. When I was writing One Traveler, I became very interested in Rhoda. Especially toward the end, when I was revising and researching like a madwoman—or like a writer on a deadline. I had to delve into her character more deeply to finish writing the book and I loved her so much, I had a feeling one day I would write more of her story. This is that day, folks!

I promise, I’m getting back to birthdays and cakes here soon.

Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones who signed up to receive my newsletter in July or August and got to download the first chapter of my current work-in-progress. If so, you got to meet young Rhoda living on a plantation outside Richmond, Virginia. I had to make some changes to that first chapter, so I’m not offering it right now.

“Chapter One” originally opened with eight-year-old Rhoda waiting for her brother, Henry, to return from his first day working in the fields. Side note: it still opens this way. In the first version, though, it was his twelfth birthday. Mama had made a cake. That’s what mamas do on birthdays, right? And Mama is the cook, so it worked out.

I started wondering about Henry’s birthday, though. How would Henry’s family celebrate his birthday? Would Mama have baked a cake? Would they even be allowed to celebrate birthdays? And this train of thought led me to the following quote:

“I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.”
–Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

Photo by Anna Vander Stel on Unsplash

Can you imagine not knowing your own birthday? I realize there are people even today who don’t know their actual birthday for a variety of reasons. Maybe some of you reading this don’t, so you understand how it feels to lack what seems to most of us basic knowledge about ourselves. In pre-Civil War America, though, most slave owners kept this kind of knowledge from their slaves in an effort to control and oppress them. It isn’t even about the birthday cake anymore. It’s more about feeling special. Being important. Being known.

Each of my children knows we remember the day he or she came into the world because that day ranks among the happiest of our lives.

What if we couldn’t tell our children what day they were born because that knowledge had been purposely kept from us?

 

I found this thought overwhelmingly sad. It also led me to the problem of Rhoda’s age. As the author, I know Rhoda was born in the spring of 1830. Does she know this about herself? Frederick Douglass would have me think not.

As I was reading about birthdays, I was also researching free papers for another section of the book. Free papers (or freedom papers) were official documents proving that a black man or woman was free. I found copies of actual free papers online. Most of them state the age of the slave at the time they gained their freedom.

Perhaps these ages were only estimates, but I came to the conclusion for the purpose of my novel that younger slaves, at least, would have some idea of their ages. They might not know their exact birth dates, but if they had grown up with their parents, they would be privy to a general estimate of their age. Perhaps they would know they were born in the spring, and though they might not know the year, their development would give them an idea.

It certainly wouldn’t be enough to satisfy that desire to know themselves and to have the privilege of a birthday celebration. However, an estimate was all I needed to know that when my book opens, Rhoda is about eight years old and Henry is around twelve.

Unfortunately, though, contrary to my original wishful thinking, Mama did not bake him a birthday cake.

2 Comments
  • Laura Gibson Kudey
    Posted at 16:49h, 27 September Reply

    Wow, this was very interesting! Birthdays are something so many take for granted it seems, and to have that privilege non existent is saddening to me. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge! Can’t wait to read your book!!

    • Alison Treat
      Posted at 05:52h, 28 September Reply

      Thanks, Laura! I can’t wait till it’s out!

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