Documents began to crumble as I unpacked storage boxes at the National Archives: letters written to and from the Freedmen’s Bureau agent in Fort Bend County, Texas: home of Tom De Lay and Jaybird-Woodpecker War. Contracts between former slaves, now sharecroppers, and former slaveholders who still owned land, houses, barns, livestock, and tools. Those men who had fought as rebels complained that black people wouldn’t work now that they believed they were free. Freemen demanded one day a week to rest and go to church. They broke valuable tools, stole horses and mules. Yes, my ancestors raised cane in Sugar Land, Texas. Sugar I licked from Ruby Red grapefruit my mother served at Sunday breakfast. I don’t believe they forgot or refused to tell the story. They passed it down in late night tales of Master and John. John, the slave who accidentally set fire to the master’s barn. Who somehow lost the master’s horse. John even provoked the white man to murder his own grandmother but only after the master had killed John’s grandmother while punishing John for some intolerable crime, like trying to outsmart Master. My ancestors raised cane in Sugar Land, Texas. They told tall tales about John and Master, and let me sprinkle Imperial sugar on my morning bowl of O’s. HARRYETTE MULLEN grew up in Fort Worth and is the author of several poetry collections including Sleeping with the Dictionary, which was a finalist for a National Book Award. Her latest book, Recyclopedia, is available from Graywolf Press. Mullen teaches literature and creative writing at UCLA. Naomi Shihab Nye JUNE 1, 2007 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23
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