Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I finished this book in two sittings; I did not want to put it down.
Pheby Delores Brown is an enslaved woman in 1850s Virginia. She has been promised her freedom for her 18th birthday by her enslaver, who is also her father. She has been educated, plays the piano, and also knows herbal medicine thanks to her mother, who is the dressmaker and weaver on the plantation.
When one of the enslaved people dies, Pheby is brought into the house as a servant. Her enslaver’s wife resents, Delphina, resents Pheby. Delphina has been unable to have children herself and envies Ruth (Pheby’s mother) despite the fact that Pheby is a product of rape.
Pheby is in love with Essex, an enslaved man. He runs away, but promises to find Pheby. This becomes an important subplot of the book.
When Jacob (the enslaver) is injured in a carriage accident, Delphina takes advantage of the situation and sells Pheby to Rubin Lapier’s slave jail. There, Lapier puts Pheby into his home and grooms her to be his concubine.
Pheby, Lapier, and the slave jail are all based on real people. Robert Lumpkin ran what was referred to as the Devil’s Half Acre. Lumpkin was notorious for his brutality toward enslaved people, and enslavers from the area would send enslaved people to him for punishment to make an example of them. He purchased a light-skinned woman named Mary, with whom he had five children … and is noted in documentation to have treated them sell and seen to their education.
After emancipation, Mary sold the Lumpkin property to a minister. It eventually became Virginia Union University, one of the first Historically Black Colleges & Universities.
Sadeqa Johnson was inspired to write this book after walking the Richmond Slave trail, which included a marker for Lumpkin’s Jail. She’s not only done her research; she’s also created a world filled with complicated people. This book is not for the faint of heart; the punishments endured by the enslaved people in this tale are brutal — and accurate. Still, it’s an important read that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys exceptional historical fiction and who wants to understand more about the history of race relations in the United States.
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