“What the hell kinda name is Kweku,” the white man asked her.
“It means born on a Wednesday,” she met his stare with her own. Her horse whinnied and she patted his side, keeping her hand close to her shotgun, wrapped in a quilt.
“What’s in them satchels,” the man spit tobacco onto Kweku’s boot. She looked down at the boot, then back up at him. Her horse whinnied again. She reassures Shiloh with her touch and moved her hand closer to the butt of her gun. “Easy now,” she said.
“You better answer me when I talk to you nigger,” the man huffed.
She stared at him coolly, “Books,” she replied.
“Books,” he said with a snarl.
“Yes. Books,” Kweku matched his tone.
“The niggers in these parts don’t read and it’s gonna stay that way,” he snapped.
“Not if I have anything to do with it,” Kweku shifted her hand ever so slightly onto the butt of her gun.
“You sassin’ me, girl,” he huffed. Kweku scoffed. Her horse whinnied again and reared back on his hind legs, warning her of the imminent danger. The man jumped back.
“You better get control of that horse,” he snapped.
“Shiloh. Down, boy,” she whispered and clucked her tongue. Shiloh settled continued to neigh.
“You best be goin’ back the way you came. We don’t need you stirrin’ up trouble here.”
“I’ll keep heading in the same direction, if it’s all the same to you,” she said. The man’s face twisted into a scowl as he spit tobacco dead into the center of her chest. Kweku looked down at the gooey, brown glob as it ran slowly down her dress. “That was unwise,” she put emphasis on each word.
“Unwise, huh? Listen gal,” he went to finish his sentence but was interrupted by Kweku’s quick hand as she drew her shotgun from its quilt.
“No, YOU listen. I tried to be cordial, but I don’t take kindly to people spitting on my shoes and my clothes. Now you can move or BE moved.”
“You better have a lot of bullets, nigger, cuz if you shoot me, I’ll let the entire town know what you done.”
“Be kinda hard to talk if you’re dead,” Kweku said and drew the trigger back with her thumb. There was no turning back now. Kweku knew what she had to do. The man’s eyes grew wide as he raised his hands slowly in the air. “Now wait,” he said. It was too late. Kweku pulled the trigger and shot the man square in the chest. The horse reared back on his legs. She put the gun down to her side. “Whoa, whoa, easy, ” she cooed at Shiloh.
When he was calm, she walked over to where the man landed. He lay on his back motionless, eyes wide with death. Kweku observed her surroundings. A thick forest of trees lined both sides of the dirt road. She went back to her horse, pulled a shovel from her pack. “Shiloh. Stay,” she warned. She walked back to the man. “Damn fool,” she said looking down at him. She grabbed one of his hands and dragged him into the woods. She found a level spot near a tree, dug a shallow grave, and dragged his body into it. She spit on his face before she covered him back over with dirt. Trudging back out of the woods, she dusted off her dress, pulled a handkerchief from her pocket. “Disgusting,” she said wiping the brown sludge from her dress. Shiloh neighed. “Don’t you start. You know his type…sooner see me swinging from a high tree branch than teaching Black people to read.”
Kweku had become known as the Freedom Rider. She traveled on horseback, her satchel loaded down with books. Her mission was simple: literacy for Black people. She’d heard that they were living in something called “the Great Depression,” but that didn’t mean much to her. She’d survived the greatest and most cruel depression of all: slavery. Somewhere in her sixties, Kweku never knew her exact age or her birthday. The slaver who owned her never felt such details were that significant.
The most important day of her life was when old Mr. Chadwick, the man who called himself her owner, gathered his slaves around and begrudgingly told them that President Lincoln had declared slavery officially over. Directly after that auspicious announcement, Buck, one of the slaves Mr. Chadwick had put in charge of keeping his shotguns clean, went and got one of those guns and blew old Chadwick’s head clean off. Then he took one of Chadwick’s fine horses, a couple of shotguns (Mr. Chadwick was an enthusiast who said you could never have enough guns to keep your niggers in line) – and headed off to someplace where he could be a man.
Mr. Chadwick had only one redeeming quality. He felt that his house slaves must be well spoken and “know the ways of the good Lord above” and so he had Mrs. Chadwick teach them how to read, but only the Bible. She taught Kweku that each letter makes a sound and certain letters together make words. Kweku took to reading like a fish to water and became very well spoken and intelligent, though she was always careful to hide her mental prowess from the Chadwicks. She learned from experience that slaves who knew too much made white folks uncomfortable and edgy.
Kweku lost track of how many bone-chilling winters and humidity smothering summers she’s spent bringing the greatest freedom of all, literacy, to her people. She travels from place to place on her horse, depending on the kindness of strangers for a place to stay. She reads books to children who can’t get enough of the stories she shares. They are hesitant at first, fearing what holding a book in their hands may mean. Kweku always reassures them they are safe. It is the same each place she goes: they approach hesitantly with suspicious stares, wounded and abused by illiteracy, uncertain if what she offers them is some sort of cruel trick.
She can see the yearning for knowledge in their eyes. So she sits and reads and pretends not to notice as they inch closer to her, their little brains desperately soaking up new words. These are the moments she clearly sees in great and heartbreaking detail what a crippling monster ignorance is. She wouldn’t force it upon even the least of men. Even more heartbreaking than the ignorance is those who refuse to free themselves from its clutches. Some folks feel so starved by their illiteracy they’ll lap up any knowledge they can get their hands on, like a man being given a cool drink of water after working the fields in the cruel summer sun. Others embrace their ignorance; wrap themselves in it like a favorite old blanket. They are more than illiterate, they are mentally broken. She doesn’t dwell on them. She is frugal with her time, spending it on those whose desire for freedom is stronger than any fears they may have. She knows the words of Frederick Douglas ring very true: “once you learn to READ, you will be forever FREE.” So she keeps riding, teaching, and bringing freedom to the masses. Her masses. She doesn’t do it for the glory, but because she knows all too well that though the institution of slavery may have been declared officially over, its brutal effects still have her people in chains.