“Yellow Wife” by Sadeqa Johnson

Yellow Wife (Simon & Schuster, 2021) by Sadeqa Johnson has garnered much recognition already: A Best Book of 2021 by NPR and Christian Science Monitor, and a Goodreads Choice Award. Yet Southern Literary Review didn’t want to let this extraordinary historical novel escape our readers’ notice, so Donna Meredith and Claire Matturro discussed the novel’s merits in an email exchange.

 Excerpt from Amazon summary: Born on a plantation in Charles City, Virginia, Pheby Delores Brown has lived a relatively sheltered life. Shielded by her mother’s position as the estate’s medicine woman and cherished by the Master’s sister, she is set apart from the others on the plantation, belonging to neither world. She’d been promised freedom on her eighteenth birthday, but instead of the idyllic life she imagined with her true love, Essex Henry, Pheby is forced to leave the only home she has ever known. She unexpectedly finds herself thrust into the bowels of slavery at the infamous Devil’s Half Acre, a jail in Richmond, Virginia, where the enslaved are broken, tortured, and sold every day. 

Donna Meredith

DM: I’ve read so many stories about the evils of slavery, but none quite like Yellow Wife. Mixed race people with very light complexions were often referred to as yellow or high yellow. Johnson focuses on the particular dilemma of an light-skinned enslaved woman, Pheby Delores Brown, who bears several of a White man’s children. Her fierce love for her children traps her in a life she didn’t choose with the monstrous man who runs the Devil’s Half Acre, a jail in Richmond, Virginia, where the enslaved are broken, tortured, and sold. Yet even Rubin Lapier, the monster, has contradictions. In some ways, he does love Pheby and allows her to have comforts and a life unavailable to most enslaved women. Yet there’s no denying, the sex is not consensual. It is rape. And she knows she is at his mercy. He could sell her, beat her, separate her from her children—or worse yet—torture her children at any moment. The child Pheby fears for most is Monroe. He is the child of the man she loves, another enslaved person, Essex. The Jailer is less likely to harm or sell his own children, but Monroe isn’t his and doesn’t have an ivory complexion.

CHM: One thing that struck me was some similarities in the initial plot to Robert Penn Warren’s Band of Angels. In that novel, the offspring of the plantation owner and a slave woman is being raised and educated as a White woman. Then her father dies, and his vengeful wife sells the mixed-race daughter off to a slave dealer. In Yellow Wife, Pheby is not passing as White, but is educated and has privileges as the owner’s daughter. And, again, it is the vengeful wife who sells her off to a slave dealer. There the similarities between the two novels end, but I am left with the recognition of how far in our consciousness we’ve come since Warren—a White man writing in the 1950s—wrote Band of AngelsYellow Wife takes the romance out and describes the harsh, brutal view of how horrific it was for enslaved women caught in such a situation. Of course I read Band of Angels while in college and in truth it is the movie (starring Clark Gable, a then unknown Sidney Pointier, and Yvonne De Carlo) I remember best. In the movie, the slave and her owner fall in love. He frees her and she elects to stay with him even though he had an ugly past as an illegal slave trader and importer. Though there are strong anti-slavery moments in the book and the movie, Hollywood basically recasts the novel as a romance between slave and master. The movie was quite different from the book as I recall, where her owner is killed and she marries a Yankee soldier and moves up North. But, anyway and to my point, having the voices of Black women more often in print now has opened a new level of consciousness for White culture. No one would mistake Yellow Wife as a romance between master and slave.

DM: Certainly not a romance from Pheby’s viewpoint. After Pheby is sold and being held in the slave jail enclosure, another slave, Abbie, tells Pheby that the Jailer is courting her. Phebe thinks that is ridiculous, but Abbie says, “No respectable man would marry his daughter off to the owner of a slave pen. Even though Marse is wealthy, high society southerners consider traders dishonorable. Call them the pariahs of men.” I found it ironic that Whites looked down on slave traders—the very people who provided them with the engines of the Southern plantation lifestyle and economy. It seems hypocritical and an admission that slavery is evil.

CHM: Yes, that was an interesting point in the story. No doubt slave owners did not want to rub their noses too closely in the horror of the slave trade business. And yes, at some level, the governing Whites had to realize that no matter how they justified slavery, it was repugnant and evil. The capture and importing of slaves by slave ships and the slave trade between nations was outlawed in 1808 by Congress. A brief history of this act can be found at the National Archives website. And, according to the History Channel, “some Southern congressmen joined with the North in voting to abolish the African slave trade.”

DM: Slavery dehumanized White people too, bringing out the worst in them. Miss Delphinia, the wife of Pheby’s father, takes out her hurt and anger with her husband on Pheby. It’s hard to sympathize with her, yet Miss Delphinia is in an untenable position. As a White woman, she has to put up with her husband openly having relations with one of his enslaved women—and then have his child from this liaison thrust upon her as a personal servant. As Aunt Hope, the plantation cook, explains, “White women too wrapped up in they own head to figure out we ain’t ask for this life. We take what’s given and makes the best out it.”

Claire Matturro

CHM: Agreed, and none of the White people in this novel are more dehumanized than the jailer/slave dealer to whom Pheby becomes bound. Rubin Lapier, the jailer, is a monster who enjoys torturing the captives. He is even famous and sought out as a man who punishes slaves, especially run-aways. And yet, as you mentioned, there are moments in which he shows some genuine feelings for Pheby and the children they have had together. To me, this is a mark of what a truly talented author Sadeqa Johnson is, that she can humanize this truly despicable man. There is even a scene in which his need for love becomes clear. In chapter  40, Rubin the jailer asks Pheby, “Do you love me?” Pheby attempt to dodge the question with a vague “Of course I do.” He then demands that she say it. “He suddenly appeared sober and solemn. ‘Say that you love me.’” She replies, as she must to survive and protect her children, “I love you, and the life you have made for our family.” And, it does seem that the jailer loves his children. In the end, he wills his property to Pheby. But, all that aside, Rubin is a cruel, evil man and these nuances into a different side of him which the author creates make him complex, not a one-sided, cliched villain (again to the author’s credit.) Yet, the bottom line is that he still remains a horrible human being with a blood thirst for cruelty and torture.

DM: One of the most horrific scenes in the novel—and there are many—is the beating of Pheby’s lover, Essex. The carnival-like atmosphere and preparations for visitors to come and watch seem surreal. The scene becomes even more appalling when you learn from the Afterword that the scene happened to a real human. Someone was lashed and the wounds washed in scaling hot pepper water over and over again.

CHM: Yes, a horrifying scene and all the more horrifying as you mention because the author took this account from historical research. One of the great strengths of this book—and there are so many—is the depth of research and accuracy in it. One mark of great historical fiction in my mind is how accurate the underlying history is portrayed and how much the novel might spark a reader to do his or her own historical research on the subject matter. This novel wins points on both accounts. It certainly made me dig for more factual information, which led me to discover just how very accurate the story is. For example, Corinna Hinton, who appears as herself in the book and plays a key part in the plot, was historically an enslaved woman who bore several children with the Richmond slave trader Silas Omohundro and helped him run his business. Pheby is also based upon a real person in history, Mary Lumpkin, described in a Washington Post article as showing “her compassion for [enslaved prisoner] Burns by giving him a testament and a hymn book, which Burns, who was literate, could turn to for comfort.” These details are used in the novel. The online Smithsonian magazine has an intriguing account of Mary Lumpkin’s life, or what little of it survived in history.

Though the fascinating plot, character arcs, sometimes horrific conflicts, precise details, and interwoven social commentary make this a profound novel, I would urge readers not to overlook just how well the author tells the story in terms of her sheer writing talent. Sadeqa Johnson knows how to write a sentence, with vibrant details that evoke the senses and put the reader right into the scene (though there are some scenes we’d probably rather not be pulled into with such vivid writing). This is a stunning and often disturbing book, but profound in its overall scope, and it deserves a wide audience.


Sadeqa Johnson

Sadeqa Johnson, a former public relations manager, spent several years working with well-known authors such as J.K. Rowling, Bebe Moore Campbell, Amy Tan and Bishop T.D. Jakes before becoming an author herself. She is a New York Times Bestselling author of five novels and the recipient of the National Book Club Award, the Phillis Wheatley Award and the USA Best Book Award for best fiction. Her most recent novel, The House of Eve was an instant New York Times Best Seller and was it selected by Reese’s Book Club as the February 2023 pick.

She is a passionate public speaker, writing coach and Kimbilo Fellow. She teaches for the MFA program at Drexel University and is a writing mentor for Story Summit.

Originally from Philadelphia, Sadeqa currently lives near Richmond, Virginia, with her husband and three children.

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