Sarny does not remember her "birthing mammy" because she was only four years old when the woman was sold away. Like the other slave children on Clel Waller's place, she has been raised by old Delie, whose job it is to take care of all the young ones until they are old enough to work in the fields. Delie, whom the little ones call Mammy, cuts a notch in a stick for each of the girls every year so that they will know when to expect their "troubles" to come and then the breeding. Mammy tells Sarny that her stick has twelve notches, but this information means little to the child, as she does not know her numbers to count.
Sarny was born "all backwards and twixt-and-twinst." She does not say much, so people think she is dumb "and maybe up to witchin'." In truth, the child is just quiet, but she is always listening so that she can "learn things." One day, Sarny is working on the roses in the flower beds underneath the window of the white house, when she hears the "missus" talking to her sister. The "missus" is complaining about Waller, who has just spent over a thousand dollars, a great deal of money, for another slave.
The slaves in the quarters are fed in large troughs. The troughs are filled with buttermilk or cooking juice, and the people dip cornbread and pieces of pork fat into it. The slaves are not supposed to know anything about God, nor are they allowed to pray, but Mammy prays anyway, "late at night when there [isn't] anybody to hear." Mammy prays for freedom, and at first, Sarny does not know what that is either. When she finally figures it out, she starts praying for it too.
The new slave, Nightjohn, is "brought...in bad." He is naked, and his body, which is "all over scars from old whippings," is drenched with sweat and covered with biting flies. Waller has put a shackle with a rope on the new slave's neck and is making him run in front of his horse as he rides, "yelling and swearing...[and] yanking on the rope." Upon arriving at the plantation, Waller unties the rope and, using a whip, drives the man straight to the fields to work, without even allowing him to get a drink of water from the pump.
Out in the fields, the slaves are worked mercilessly. Other than a brief period at noon when they are allowed to wolf down a piece of cold cornbread and pork fat while standing, they toil every minute of the day, under the threat of the whips and clubs of the "drivers." When...
(The entire section is 1860 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Nightjohn Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
This short novel is a stark portrayal of American slavery in the 1850s through the eyes of the slaves. Its narrator is Sarny, a twelve-year-old girl, who tells of the momentous events that follow the arrival of Nightjohn, an enslaved adult male, at the plantation of Clay Waller. Nightjohn's impact is immediate, devastating in some ways, and hopeful in other ways. Himself a literate man who escaped from the South, Nightjohn has voluntarily returned to servitude in order to help slaves learn to read and write. Nightjohn has realized that illiteracy is the slave owner's tool of oppression and that literacy is the slave's weapon to fight back. It is such a dangerous weapon that those brave enough to seize it risk disfigurement and death at the hands of their masters.
(The entire section is 131 words.)