How Can You Tell?

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 3, "Growing Up Southern." Find more from that issue here.

By Honoree F. Jeffers, age 12, 1980  

This young writer tells her story with a keen sense of black history in America and also with her perspective as a black American who has shaped her thinking from her own experiences. 


It was a boy. The midwife held it up so Martha could see him. Although Martha was very dark, the baby boy was the color of milk. 

Martha had hoped that the boy would have a little color at least, but her prayers hadn’t been answered. Master Bryant had told her that if his baby was light, that he would take it into his household as a child of his own. He would then educate him; no one would know that he had black blood in him. She should be grateful, but she wasn’t. 

Martha tried to keep the master from seeing the baby, but three days afterward the master came to the slave quarters. 

“I heard you dropped the sucker,” he said. “Why didn’t you send word?” 

“Well, Massa,” she replied, “he turned out real bright. I jus’ wanted to keep him for a few mo’ days.” “Well,” he said, agitated, “bring him to the house tomorrow when you come to work.” 

The next day Martha brought the baby to the big house. She didn’t know where to put him so she decided to check with the mistress. 

Martha had often thought that the mistress and the master had a peculiar marriage. The mistress knew of the master’s escapades but made no attempt to stop his “activities.” 

Martha stopped at a door because she heard voices. 

“No, Robert Bryant,” that was the mistress’ voice, “I won’t have your bastard in my house! It’s bad enough that I don’t have any young’uns, but to bring one of your nigra wench’s suckers into my house. Especially among my presence, a high quality white woman!” 

“But Charlotte, the child is almost white! You can’t tell that he’s got nigra blood. He could be the child we never had. We’ll never have a child because you’re barren. You know that!” 

“Well, let me see the thang first. I might consider it. Of course, I will have to get a wet nurse for it, and of course I won’t be expected to hold it.” 

“My dear, you have no choice in the matter. I am your husband and you will obey me or I will divorce you!” he replied. “I have no intention of giving up my fun just because you don’t like it!” “How dare you talk to me this way, Robert Bryant!” the mistress shouted. “After all I’ve had to bear with your scandalizin me all over Louisiana, and now this! Well, you’re gonna pay for it! I'm gonna order a new wardrobe of 20 dresses, five pairs of underdrawers, 10 pairs of gloves and five pairs of shoes! I’ll be goin to New Orleans in the mornin! Good day, Mr. Bryant.” The mistress stormed out of the room. 

“Massa, where do I put the young’un,” Martha asked, though she didn’t want to disturb him. 

“You’ll just have to put him wherever you’ll be workin. Tell Jake to make a cradle for him. Since you’re the baby’s real mother I suppose you’ll have to wet nurse him. Of course this means that I won’t be visitin you anymore, but you’ll still work here.” 

“Thank you, Massa. I sho’ do thank you.” 

“You’ll have to keep him for a little while until some house nigras can fix a room up. Meantime you must bring the young’un and nurse when you have time.” 

“Yessuh, Massa,” replied Martha, becoming submissive as she always did within Bryant’s presence. “Could I maybe get some food from Aunty Thelma. I been feelin po’ly and I need somethin extra so the baby can nurse good.” 

“Well, maybe,” the master said, becoming gruff, “but don’t expect no special favors, just cause you and me used to be friendly!” With that he walked away. 


Martha was 18 years old. Her and Bryant had been “friendly” for about seven months. A year or so ago he had badgered her for three months until finally he had threatened her with a whipping. Martha, being a proud girl, had still refused. Master Bryant’s anger got to the boiling point until finally he whipped her at intervals for three consecutive days. He never stopped from sunup to sundown, until finally Martha relinquished. The alliance had gone on for seven months. Even when Martha got pregnant, the master persisted until she started showing. Then he was suddenly repulsed by her. 

Martha was a beautiful girl. She had jet black skin, which was velvety. Her nose was straight, though it widened at the end. Her face was oval, with arched eyebrows. She had a prettily shaped mouth with thick lips. She had a tiny waist with wide hips. She carried herself proud and tall with all of her five feet, eight inches. Her greatest wish was that someday all of her people would be free. 

Martha vehemently hated all white people. She believed that all white people were unintelligent. The reason for this was that white people never saw through the armor of blacks. Blacks could smile graciously in the faces of whites and could plan to poison them when they were alone, in fact they did poison them. Martha hated and scorned blacks who really meant all that nonsense about bowing and scraping. Black folk in these times have to bow and scrape as long as they don’t really mean it, Martha had always thought. 

Martha has been brought up with Master Bryant. He was only six years older than she. They had been born about 10 years before the eighteenth century. America had just been started back then. When Martha had listened to the stories of the revolution from the old folk, she felt like laughing. White folk, she had thought, what they know bout wantin to be free? Whites really didn’t know what it was like to be enslaved, so why did they shout about having liberty? They took others’ liberty.