Chapter 16
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The Life They Were Supposed to Live

A young enslaved woman in New Orleans finds a way to fight back

“Ady was now part of a community that she could only see a small part of, but that she could feel stretching across the nation from the streets of New York to the frontier. The Daughters were wreaking havoc from toe to crown,” writes Maurice Carlos Ruffin in The American Daughters. The novel tells the story of Adebimpe, known as Ady, a young, enslaved woman living in New Orleans just before the Civil War, and the underground network of powerful women to whom she is introduced.

Photo: Claire Welsh

Ady comes of age as the legal property of a wealthy French Quarter businessman. Brought to New Orleans along with her mother by slavers when she is a child, Ady at first knows no other kind of life. It’s a brutal and humiliating existence, but Ady is fortunate to have her mother, Sanite, with her. A woman of guile, strength, and bravery, Sanite protects Ady as much as she can, and even escapes with her briefly into the swamp.

After they are captured separately and reunited on a plantation — or as the novel continually renames it, “the slave labor camp also called a plantation” — Sanite is desperate to explain the meaning of freedom to her young daughter. “It ain’t our fault for getting a taste of nature in that swamp and then getting took here. It’s this world that’s slanted. … You know what is freedom? You my freedom. My life out there don’t mean anything. My life in here ain’t much either. But you my daughter. My joy. That’s why we here.”

Freedom and the dispossession of enslaved peoples are, not surprisingly, constant themes within the novel. About a previous escape attempt, Sanite says, “I wasn’t running away. I was running toward myself.” She also tells Ady to remember her true name — rather than the European name their captor gives her — so as not to forget who she really is. Ady closely observes the diversity of “Free Negroes” who inhabit New Orleans, all of whom share one trait in her eyes: “Their chin never touched their neck.” She comes to understand “that the very nature of freedom was to nourish and of slavery to devour.” And in a poignant story Sanite tells Ady about her father, James, he says, “That’s what makes all this so backwards. Not a one of us gets to live the life they were supposed to.”

Ady is plunged into this backward and slanted world, a world of shame and despair in which an innocent human being can be emotionally devoured and stripped of her own name. As she struggles to adapt and survive over time, Ady slowly begins to meet others who help her to find meaning. In Lenore, a free Black woman who owns her own business, Ady finds her first friend and an introduction to The Daughters, a well-established underground network of women dedicated to the destruction of the forces of enslavement and injustice. Lenore tells Ady, “I was born into it. So were my mother and grandmother. … We’ve always been here, ripping them apart from the shadows.” Inspired by a cause bigger than herself, Ady is unafraid and eager to play her part.

The American Daughters is somewhat experimental in tone and structure, as Ruffin weaves glimpses of a (sometimes) more enlightened future into the events of the past, but he also paints a fascinating portrait of New Orleans in the mid-1800s — both its richness and its cruelty. Best of all, he brings alive the characters of Ady, Sanite, Lenore, and the others and makes real their suffering, as well as their courage and their joy. As her mother watches, young Ady often joins the musicians, singers, and dancers on Sunday mornings in Congo Square: “The girl possessed the spirit of freedom. She threw her head back and added her voice to the swell of voices as her feet moved so quickly beneath her, it was as if she might fly.”

The Life They Were Supposed to Live

Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.