Book Excerpt: Breaking the Rules

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After being kidnapped from his home in the free state of Pennsylvania, Randy has been taken to the Castle Thunder Prison in Richmond, Virginia.  He is in a large cell occupied by many other African Americans awaiting their fate. 


“Hey kid,” a voice said, “mind if I sit here?”

 Randy looked up to see a small man standing above him.  He gave a smile that surprised Randy.  Not only because of the large amount of teeth the man was missing but also because of the warmness behind the smile.  Where does this guy find the joy to smile like that?  Randy thought to himself.

  “Sure,” Randy replied with a wave of his hand at the empty spot next to him, “suit yourself.”

  “You’ve been really quiet,” the man began immediately.  “Something wrong?”

  “No, yes, what, what do you mean?” Randy wondered.  How could something not be wrong?  I’ve been kidnapped, I am in a prison, I am surrounded by strangers and I’ll probably never see my family again!


 “I just mean, you been really quiet,” the man explained.  “Everyone else has been talking, sharing stories, even laughing a little.  You’ve just been sitting there for hours now.”

  “So,” Randy shot back at the man.  There was tension in his voice and even some anger.  “I just don’t feel like talking.”

  “Well you should,” the man scolded Randy.  “It helps you deal with all this.  It’s not good for a body to keep all that stuff pent up inside.”

  Who is this guy?  Why does he care so much about me?  Why doesn’t he just leave me alone?  Randy wondered as he stared back at this strange man sitting next to him.  Looking into his dark black eyes, Randy could see pain and despair barely hidden by the man’s almost permanent smile.  It was a smile made all the more obvious by the man’s round, full cheeks.  It’s as if he’s hiding cotton balls in them, Randy chuckled. 

  “Name’s Robert,” the man held out his hand, “Robert Anderson.”

  “Randy Lightfoot,” he replied, taking the man’s small hand and grasping it firmly.  Randy noticed a scar running in between Robert’s fingers.

  “Glad to know you Randy,” Robert began.  “What’s your story?”

  “Story?” Randy repeated.

  “Yeah,” Robert explained.  “Why you here?”

  “Oh,” Randy sighed.  He didn’t really want to talk but it seemed as if he really had no choice.

  “I was kidnapped,” Randy began.  “I was trying to help my sister get away from town before the Rebels arrived and I got caught.”

  “Who’s your master?” Robert asked.

  “Master?” Randy repeated in anger.  “I don’t have a master.  I’m free, always have been.”

  “You don’t have to lie in here boy,” Robert scolded.  It was the first time his smile disappeared.  Randy did not like the change.  “We can be honest with each other.”

  “No, really, I am free,” Randy protested.

  “Yeah boy, that’s what we all say to the white man,” Robert explained.  “We all hope he’ll let us go, won’t sell us south or something.   Lots of us hope our master’s lost track of us, or that he got killed in the war or something.”

  “I am telling you,” Randy said angrily, starting to stand up, “that I don’t have a master!  I never have had a master!  I was born in Pennsylvania, my dad was born in Pennsylvania and we been free all our lives!”

  “Okay, okay,” Robert put his hand on Randy’s shoulder to shush him and force him back to his seat.  Several of the people nearby had turned around to listen.  “I believe you, I believe you.”

  An awkward silence followed.  Randy looked down at his hands. (They were still all bloody and bruised from the ropes.)  He looked around the room at the other prisoners who were talking quietly.  He looked up at the window that was letting in a little of the daylight.  Finally, he looked back at Robert who was also sitting quietly.  His smile had returned.  Strangely enough, it gave Randy some comfort.

 “So,” Randy broke the silence, “what’s your story?”

 “Ya really wanna hear it,” Robert wondered, “or are you just saying that to be polite?”

 “No, really,” Randy responded, realizing that he did want to hear it, “I do.”

 “You ain’t gunna believe it,” Robert protested,  “especially after what you said.”

 “Yeah I will,” Randy urged him,  “Try me.”

 “Well, O.K.” Robert agreed.  “You see Randy, you’re not the only one here who was kidnapped.”

 Randy’s eyes grew wide.  Without thinking, he leaned closer to Robert.

 “Fact is,” Robert went on, “lots of us were kidnapped.”

 “Really?” Randy gasped.  “I thought you all were fugitive slaves who had run North.”

 “Some of us are,” Robert admitted, “heck, most of us are.  But that don’t mean we belong here anymore than you.”

 “We?” Randy repeated.  “I thought you said you were born free.”

 “I was,” Robert answered quickly.  “I was just speaking like we all should speak.  We are all in this together.  We are all slaves to the white man.  Even the free ones, like you and me, we still slaves, still have to do the white man’s bidding.”

 “I am nothing like you,” Randy said firmly.  He hated the idea, even the suggestion that he was no better than a slave.

 “You’re just like me,” Robert said through clenched teeth.  His eyes grew narrow, his puffy cheeks grew red and the pain and despair in his eyes turned dark.  It frightened Randy.

 “Your skin is just as black,” Robert went on with conviction and anger,  “your soul is just as tortured.  Your people are my people.  We all were kidnapped from our homes in Africa.  We all have felt the sting of the white man’s lash and just because your daddy managed to get himself free of his master, doesn’t mean you’re any better than me, or any of us.”

 “I-I didn’t mean,” Randy stuttered nervously.

 “No, of course you didn’t,” Robert smiled.  The change was instant and shocking to Randy.  One minute, Robert seemed on the verge of hitting Randy and now he was all smiles again, as if Randy had never said anything wrong.  “You’re just a boy.  A boy from up North, who’s confused and frightened.”

 “Uh, yeah,” Randy admitted. “I guess you’re right.”

 Yet, Robert’s words disturbed Randy.  He had never thought of slaves as his brothers before.  He had seen them as different.  They were uneducated.  They were lazy and weak.  If they really wanted to be free, why didn’t they run away?  Why didn’t they do something about it?  

 “You don’t get it do you,” Robert interrupted Randy’s thoughts.  It surprised Randy that his feelings were so visible to this stranger.

 “N-no, I don’t,” Randy replied slowly.  “I-I mean, I get what you’re saying about how we’re all African, but that was decades or even centuries ago when we were kidnapped.  Things have changed.”

 “Have they?” Robert questioned back.

 “Yeah,” Randy answered a bit too quickly. “There’s lots of free blacks in the North and in the South.  There’s lots of educated Negroes.  There’s schools and newspapers written by black people.  Heck even I can read and write.”

 Robert did not respond.  He seemed to be letting Randy go on and on as if he wanted Randy to exhaust all his arguments.  It made Randy doubt what he himself was saying.

 “Th-then there’s Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Tubman and all them abolitionists Negroes.” Randy quickly added. “I heard some of them have even met with the President.”

 “You still don’t get it kid,” Robert finally began, once it was clear Randy was finished.

 “Get what?” Randy snapped.  “What is there to get?  I am a free negro, not a slave!”

 “You, are, not, free,” Robert said slowly and directly, emphasizing every word.  “You can’t vote, you can’t travel freely, you have to carry papers with you wherever you go…”

 Robert’s voice began to rise as his anger grew.

 “You have to live in constant fear of being kidnapped and sent south.  And now that its happened, you sit in this jail, rotting and worrying that you will live the rest of your life as a slave,” he finished his words through clenched teeth, “all because your skin is black!”

 The words shook Randy as the reality of his situation hit him full force.  He looked around the room at all the people, all the black people, who were in this hell-hole with him.  He thought of how they had done nothing wrong, just like him; how they were taken from their families and friends, just like him;  how they were lonely and afraid and scared just like him and how they all would be slaves for the rest of their lives, just like him and how they all had black skin…  just like him.

 Randy hung his head and wept.  Robert was right.

 “I don’t want to be a slave,” Randy cried through the tears. “I don’t want to live like this. I want to see my family. I want to see my home.  I want to leave!”

 He wept harder. Robert put his hand on Randy’s shoulder.

 “Help me,” Randy begged.

 “Hey, hey,” Robert nudged,  “It’s alright Randy, it’s alright.”

 “It’s not alright,” Randy shouted back.  “I am not a slave!  I should be free!  Free!”

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