The Stella Trilogy: The Research (Book One)

Cane River Creole National Park – Oakland Plantation, Natchitoches, Louisiana, November, 2016.

Since the meat of book one focuses on what life was like for a little girl, and then a young woman, growing up in slavery, the bulk of my research had to do with reading slave narratives and studying enslavement through the eyes of women and children.

Between Slavery and Freedom centers on Stella’s enslavement on The Saddler Plantation in Louisiana. As I introduce us to the first Stella, she is a six-year-old girl enslaved with her mother, Deborah. At this age, she is not aware that she is living property, which was typical for some enslaved children in their early years. She plays with the other children, including the slave owners’ daughter, but she does not yet understand the value of her flesh, that she could be bought, sold, traded, transferred, deeded, and gifted. Stella describes the plantation as a “big family.” She loves running through the dirt and the way it feels on her toes. She talks of childish things like eating sweet cakes, playing with Miss Carla, and trying to convince Mama, she touched the sun.

“One time, I made it where I touched the sun. It wasn’t even hot either. It didn’t feel like nothing but air. I told Mama the sun was tricking us. 

“And how it do that?”

“Cause Mama. I touched it, and it ain’t burn my finger none. It feels hot, but it ain’t really.”

– Stella, Between Slavery and Freedom

Historically, enslaved children who had a “childhood” in this way realized their status gradually. Their awakened consciousness may have been signified by seeing a family member sold for the first time or being sold themselves. The research points to ten as the age where the enslaved child knew and understood that he or she was property, except in the circumstances, as I have mentioned. As soon as they were old enough, the enslaved child’s life changed, and they realized that their lives as enslaved differed greatly from the lives of the white children they once played with as small children.

Slave-owners raised southern white youth as enslavers in training. Sometimes slave-owners gifted their children an enslaved person as a pet (sometimes it was the same child they played with). Literature also played a role in the training of southern youth to not only accept slavery as a regular part of society but to prepare them to own slaves of their own. Examples of such books is The Child’s Book on Slavery; or Slavery Made Plain. In a chapter called The Duty of Learning about Slavery, it states:

“if slavery is good, we ought to help it forward…”

In a chapter called Does Color Make Slavery, it states:

“Moses and all his people, I have said, were slaves in Egypt, but they were not colored people.” 

This explanation was to try to explain to the children that slavery wasn’t based on skin color, and it is a lie. Egypt is in Africa. Moses and his people were “people of color.”

In a chapter called What is a Slave, the author compares the enslaved to a horse, saying:

“Perhaps your father has a horse. That is his property. He has a right to make the horse work, only he should treat him kindly and give him good food. If the horse is his, nobody has a right to tell him he must not use the horse so. And then, if he thinks it best, he has a right to sell the horse to somebody else. Nobody has a right to forbid him. He need not go and ask even the horse, if he may have him plow the garden, or draw the wagon, for the horse would not understand him, and could not speak to him, and will never grow so old or so wise, that he can understand our words, and talk himself.”

Source: https://archive.org/details/ASPC0001969600/page/n5/mode/2up

Speaking of literature, another part of writing book one was reading many slave narratives, including Frederick Douglass An American Slave, and Up from Slavery. Other books included When I Was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative CollectionBullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember, and Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation.

Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Cane River Creole National Park – Oakland Plantation, Natchitoches, Louisiana, November, 2016.

“Some people have to take the cotton and pick out the seeds, and others have to spin and weave. They don’t do nothing but spins and weaves. Some people even had to turn the weaves into threads.”

– Stella, Between Slavery and Freedom

More profound than this is my visit to a former slave plantation at The Cane River Creole National Historical Park in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

You might ask yourself why anyone would want to visit such a place. I was writing about people living on a slave plantation and what better way to get inside their heads than to visit one.

Originally called Bermuda, the founder of Oakland was Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prud’ Homme, who began farming the land in 1785 and received a Spanish land grant in 1789. The land’s first cash crops were tobacco, indigo, and cotton. The Prud’ Hommes were the first family west of the Mississippi River to farm cotton on a large scale.

Cane River Creole National Park – Oakland Plantation, Natchitoches, Louisiana, November, 2016. Slave Quarter turned home of Sharecroppers

“Down in the quarters, every family had a one- or two-room log cabin. Mostly one room though. We had mattresses filled with corn shucks. Sometimes the men build chairs at night. We didn’t know much about having anything, though. There were a lot of cabins for the slaves, but they weren’t fitting for nobody to live in. We just had to put up with them.”

– Stella, Between Slavery and Freedom

After the Civil War, sharecropper and tenant farmers continued to live on the land until the 1970s, and slave quarters became homes to sharecroppers later. The people worked twelve hours a day, six days a week. Seeing this with my own eyes put it into perspective how the south had reconstructed slavery by returning land to former slave owners and putting former slaves back into the fields under another name. Slave codes designed to control the enslaved became black codes intended to control freedmen, and cotton pickers became sharecroppers.

Martha Ann, an enslaved Laundress, worked in this wash house in the 1850s. In the 1940s, her descendant, Martha Helaire, earned $4 an hour working here as a Laundress. All we have to do is walk a few steps to the washer and dryer.

I blogged about this visit years ago. Get the full picture and see more pics by revisiting that post here.

Living on 40 Acres of Land

Finally, part of my preparation for book one also included where I was living at the time I started writing these books.

At the time I released the first book in this trilogy, my husband and I lived in an old house owned by our elderly cousin on 40-acres of land. Over the years, we planted a garden on the property, built a chicken coop and raised chickens, owned several dogs, goats, and even a horse. My grandmother-in-law also recounted stories of when she and some cousins picked cotton on this land.

The elderly cousin and her father built the house we rented many years ago. It was an old house and an old land. It was easy for my overactive imagination to envision what it would be like if we were not renting this house from our cousin; if we were not free to live life on our own terms; if this was not the 2000s, but the 1800s, and if we were not free but enslaved. I walked the property, breathed the air, and looked up at the trees. I had dreams of black people hanging from those trees and visions of people trying to escape.

We lived on that land for five years, eventually moving away in 2015, and I had a completed manuscript.


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Published by

Yecheilyah

I write Black Historical Fiction, Poetry, and Inspirational Non-Fiction for the Freedom of all People. Visit me on the web at yecheilyahysrayl.com/

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