As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, novelist Sadeqa Johnson discussed her latest book, Yellow Wife, the harrowing story of an enslaved woman forced to barter love and freedom while living in the most infamous slave jail in Virginia. In conversation with Beverly Colwell Adams.
Presented in partnership with the African American Authors Book Club
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Thanks to our bookseller for this event, M. Revak & Company.
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, 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. There, Pheby is exposed not just to her Jailer’s cruelty but also to his contradictions. To survive, Pheby will have to outwit him, and she soon faces the ultimate sacrifice.
“Johnson is unsparing in her depiction of the physical, psychological, and spiritual damages wrought by slavery and realistic in her portrayal of the heroism of Pheby and others in resisting it—they cannot change the world, but they do what they can, and sometimes that’s extraordinary… [an] ultimately moving story anchored by a complex narrator.”—Kirkus, starred review
“Johnson achieves a powerful, unflinching account of determination in the face of oppression.”—Publishers Weekly
“Seldom do I get to enjoy a novel so wholly engrossing, so exquisitely researched, so timely. Sadeqa Johnson has brought a fresh telling to a story we think we already know, making it beautifully relatable and human. Riveting and suspenseful, I highly recommend this novel.”—Kathleen Grissom, author of The Kitchen House
Thanks to James River Writers for sharing information about this event.
SARAH LAWSON: Welcome to “Yellow Wife with Sadeqa Johnson,” a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book presented in partnership with the African American Authors Book Club. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers: Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s book, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it from our bookseller for this event, M. Revak & Company, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.
Thanks to our partner for this event, the African American Authors Book Club, and to our co-host, James River Writers. We also greatly appreciate the support of all Festival sponsors, donors, and community partners. Now, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers:
Sadeqa Johnson, author of Yellow Wife, has been honored with the National Book Club Award, the Phillis Wheatley Book Award, and the USA Best Book Award for Best Fiction. She is a Kimbilio Fellow, former board member of the James River Writers, and a Tall Poppy Writer.
And our moderator: Beverly Adams is a newly retired assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and associate professor emeritus in the department of Psychology at the University of Virginia.
Thank you both for joining us today. Beverly, take it away.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Good evening, everyone. It is with sincere pleasure that I welcome author Sadeqa Johnson to the 2021 Festival of the Book in general and to our discussion of her book in particular this evening.
Now I must put in a little plug for the group that I’m representing, and that’s the African American Authors Book Club here in Charlottesville. The African American Authors Book Club has been in existence since the late 1990s, and we are true to our name. We read books that are authored by Africans and/or African Americans. Each month, during the second Monday of the month at 7 p.m., we come together and discuss the selected book. Now since COVID, we have not stopped our schedule, but our change has been that we meet via Zoom and not at Barnes & Noble in Barracks Road. Once it is safe to meet again, we will meet at The Center in Belvedere, off Rio Road. If any of you are interested in joining us, please leave your email information in the chat or the question and answers, and we will let you know about details in the very near future.
So, Sadeqa, it is indeed a pleasure to have you with us this evening. And I’d like you to kind of summarize some of your book through readings so that we might get a sense of your style and the enjoyment of your style. So, will you share with us?
SADEQA JOHNSON: Thank you. Thank you so much, Beverly. I appreciate it. And thank you to everyone who has tuned in this evening. We really appreciate you being here. Thank you also to the Virginia Festival of the Book for hosting this event this evening.
As Beverly mentioned, I am the author of Yellow Wife. Yellow Wife is the story of a mulatto girl. Her name is Pheby Delores Brown. When the story opens at seventeen, she has been promised freedom at her eighteenth birthday. She’s the daughter of the master of the plantation along with his favorite slave Ruth, who is the seamstress and the medicine woman. And Pheby has been sort of sheltered in a way throughout her whole life. She was favored by the master’s daughter and favored by the master’s sister. So she was taught to read and to write and play piano. Well, she is planning to move to Massachusetts and go to a school for girls, and she finds that things don’t turn out the way she plans it.
A series of events take place, and Pheby finds herself thrust into the bowels of slavery, where she ends up at the Lapier jail, which is called the Devil’s Half Acre. It is a punishing center and a holding pen for enslaved people. And there she catches the eye of the jailer—the owner of the jail. And she’s forced to make really tough decisions for survival, not only for herself but for her family as well.
BEVERLY ADAMS: It’s a fascinating book. And I’m sorry if I’m coming in and out of my video. It’s because my connection says it’s unstable. But once I’m not on video, I am right in tune. So I hope that’s not distracting.
SADEQA JOHNSON: No, it’s fine.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Okay. Sadeqa, your book is fascinating, and it has some themes that I’d like to bring out and to ask you to talk about. And one of the big major themes is that of motherhood. And you hinted at that at the beginning. You talked about Pheby being the daughter of a slave and the master of the plantation. But relative to motherhood, how did Ruth fit into the theme of motherhood in your book? As well as motherhood throughout.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Yeah, that’s a great question. The opening scene of the book Yellow Wife really highlights Pheby’s relationship with her mother. So, I’ll give it a little bit of a read so that the audience kind of gets a feel for the story. And then I’ll talk a little bit about Ruth and Pheby’s relationship. So if you have a copy of Yellow Wife, feel free to open it, and you can follow along. I’ll just start right at the beginning of the book, chapter one, “The Bell Plantation.”
Mama believed that the full moon was the most fertile night of the month, and that everything she touched held God’s power. Each full moon, she dragged me out in the middle of the night with her to hunt for roots, plants, seedlings, and rare blossoms to use for healing. I did not understand why God’s power could not be found during daylight hours, and as I trudged behind her the March cold overwhelmed me. Even my thick wool shawl was no match against the country freeze.
Fear of the woods made my feet clumsy, and I tripped over fallen sticks, scratched my shins on the spiky brush, and bumped my head on low-hanging branches. Mama, on the other hand, moved with skill and confidence, like the earth parted a path and presented the way for her. Even in the dark, she knew where to stop for herbs and how to avoid the dangerous ones. We had only a small lantern to guide us, and when I asked how she knew where things grew she responded, “My gut be my light.”
We slipped through the thicket, past the drafty cabins where the field hands slept on pallets stuffed with hay and husk. I heard dry coughs and a low whine from a hungry baby. Farther down toward the James River, we traveled through the clearing where we met on Sundays for church. Then over the hill along the side of the cemetery, peppered with sticks to honor our dead. As we traveled deeper into the woods of the plantation, the thick forest blocked the light of the moon. I could hear the growls and grunts of unseen animals and fretted over running into hungry raccoons or red foxes, or stepping on a poisonous snake. I tried to clear the worry from my mind as the land flattened out, but then something pricked my ankle. Before I could call out, Mama stopped suddenly and reached for my hand.
“This here is a black walnut tree. Grow deep in the woods, so you gotta know where to look. Cure for most everything. Ever unsure, come seek this tree.”
Mama handed me the lantern, then pulled a scalpel from her satchel and severed a piece of bark. She brought it to her nose, then ran her tongue along the inside of it.
“Husk stain anything it touch. After we make a tea for Rachel, the rest we use to dye those sheets for the nursery. Just hoping we ain’t too late to save that girl.”
Mama reached into her bag and pulled out a red ribbon. “Go on and mark it, so it’ll be easy to find when you come without me.”
I reached up and tied the ribbon on a skinny twig, knowing I had no intention of roaming these woods without my mama.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Wow. Sadeqa, that was amazing. I love your reading. The expression that you give and the sense of just being there during those times. That was really truly wonderful.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Thank you.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Tell us a little bit about motherhood for Pheby Delores Brown. What was that like for her and how she saw mothers and their infant children being separated during the course of the book?
SADEQA JOHNSON: So Pheby’s mother was very instrumental in her growth. Her mother made a lot of sacrifices for her. I do believe that her mother’s relationship with the master was solely for Pheby’s benefit. She was looking for the best way to get her daughter free. And for an enslaved woman, that is really the hope and dream of every single one of them. If they can’t get the whole family free, it was the children. So for her, she had this relationship with the master because she knew it would benefit Pheby in the long run. And she kept planting in Pheby’s head—she would tell her, “You’re not a slave in your mind.” You may be a slave on paper but never in your mind. And she was always showing Pheby how to be free and to think forward. So that was the way she showed her love.
It transcended to Pheby later when she does have children in the story, where she kind of takes on the same role. Her main objective is always to get her children to freedom. And so it becomes a cycle of women who have to make sacrifices for the sake of their children, and they sacrifice every day with their bodies, with their minds, with their souls, with their spirit, all for the sake of their children.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Wonderful answer. Really, really insightful. Tell us a little bit—and you were getting to some of this in that first answer about the strengths of Black women. And you talk about the strength of Black women throughout the book, and I want you to kind of elaborate on that a bit. But I also want you to talk about the contrast between the two white women in the book. That’s Missus Delphina and Pheby’s aunt. This is the sister of her father, the slave master.
SADEQA JOHNSON: The thing that I felt as I was writing the story—I really felt the energy of the ancestors coming through me. I felt that this was a story that needed to be told. I discovered it on the Richmond Slave Trail in Richmond, which is along the James River. And I was there with my family and friends, and we were reading the different markers when we came upon the marker that talked about the Lumpkin’s Jail. So the story Yellow Wife is inspired by Mary Lumpkin, who was the wife of the owner of the jail, and they had these five children.
And I couldn’t stop imagining what it was like for her as a Black woman being in this situation, on a half acre of land, where fellow enslaved people were being tortured and separated from their families. And she, to a degree, was privy to it in a way where she kind of had a hand in it. Because she was married to the owner of the jail, and she also had to make sacrifices for her own children. And so what drew me to the story was like what was that like for her. What kind of resilience did she need to endure this life every day? That is what I was giving to Pheby as a character. I was giving her that resilience. She’s smart. She’s brave. She has to outwit him on a daily basis. She has to come up with plans for herself and for her children.
And for me, I felt like the spirit of the ancestors were telling me that we come from strong people. That this story about Pheby Delores Brown—this is an American story. This is what our country was built on. And it was important for me to raise these voices up. I thought that it was my duty, I feel that it was my duty—it is my duty—to give a voice to the voices that did not have a voice. And that is what I hope has sprung up with the character Pheby Delores Brown.
BEVERLY ADAMS: It comes through very nicely. I think about, again, with this idea of family. What does it mean to be family or to have family in these enslaved times? That family was not what we think of now as the nuclear family, but look at how it’s expanded. You may be related to the slave master. You may be related to the slave mistress. And I think about the names that we call our ancestors, and I was just thinking very closely about the names that we call our grandparents. And I’m going to ask you what you call your grandparents, and I’ll tell you what I call mine, and I want our audience people to think about that as well.
So with my maternal grandparents, I called my grandmother Ma and my maternal grandfather Daddy. For my paternal grandmother, I called her Mother Reet. Her name was Margaret, but she wanted to be called Mother Reet. I asked my mother about that. Why was I calling her Mother Reet? And my mother said because that’s what she wanted to be called. And my paternal grandfather I called Daddy Bill.
So I think about all of these names, and I want to ask you what you called your grandparents. You know, whether it was Big Mama or something relative to that.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Yeah. Mine is not as exciting as yours. I called my paternal grandmother Mom Mom, and my paternal grandfather Pop Pop. So they were Mom Mom and Pop Pop. We’re going over to Mom Mom and Pop Pop’s house. And on my mother’s side, I called my mother’s mother Grandma and my mother’s father Grandpa Gene. So it was pretty simple.
BEVERLY ADAMS: And it’s interesting, I guess, to me, when I am meeting to-be grandparents, I will ask them what do you want your grandchildren to call you. And sometimes that takes them back a little bit because they’ll think, well, of course grandma and grandpa. But you hear all kinds of variations of that. And it’s something that all the grandchildren will call their grandparents, and I think that that’s just really interesting how we keep, as you were saying, this talk of the ancestors going strong.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Yeah. I think family on the plantation, to your earlier point, was really the people who you were in their daily lives. So when we see Pheby on the plantation in Charles City, the master of the plantation was her father. And so naturally his sister who never had children, who didn’t marry, she took Pheby on as a pet because she did feel that kinship towards her brother’s only child. And so she wanted to give her the best.
I think that Pheby’s relationship with like Aunt Hope and Lovey and Parrot and those who worked up at the house—they were like family for her. Even though they weren’t blood family, those were her everyday people who she came in contact with, and they would do anything for each other. And I think once she gets to the jail, she forms a new family with July and with Abby at the house.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Tell our audience how mean Missus Delphina was. She was mean. She was a mean lady.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Missus Delphina was a very interesting character for me. I really had to figure out how to make her three dimensional because as a writer I can’t just make her the mean villain. I have to know all sides of her. So I read a lot of history books about what it was like for white women on the plantations. And what I found was that they were lonely. Their husbands were always traveling, selling goods, or sailing, or whatever his profession would be, so they were often left in charge of the plantation along with the overseer. So they were lonely. They were jealous because their husbands were all fathering children with women in the fields. And as any woman would feel, that’s a form of jealousy.
It was funny to me in one of the scenes with Delphina and Pheby when Delphina looks into the mirror and she says, “This plantation has robbed me of my beauty.” She was like a woman who wanted to be beautiful and desired at the same time, but—you know, slavery is bad for those who are enslaved, but it’s also bad for the people who are in charge, and I think you saw that through Missus Delphina’s character.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Oh that was good. That was a good, good thought. Thanks. Now I want to kind of switch a little bit and talk about the theme of color. And it’s just so interesting how you have used this theme throughout the book. In the title of your book, it’s called the Yellow Wife. Tell us why you chose that as the title.
SADEQA JOHNSON: When I was doing my research, I came across a portion of Robert Lumpkin’s will. And so he is the owner of the Lumpkin’s Jail. He was married to Mary Lumpkin, who the story is inspired by. And when I came across his will—this portion of his will—he said specifically, “I leave my fortune and my real estate to my yellow wife.” And he was referring to Mary Lumpkin. And then he left some other things to his black concubine, which in Yellow Wife that would’ve been Sissy. So when I read that I thought, huh, he referred to Mary Lumpkin as his yellow wife. And I just thought it just worked for the title of the story.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Mmm-hmm. Well, talk some more about color. Talk about a little bit of how Black people and white people think about color. And one of the reasons I ask this is since in the news it has been Meghan Markle and Prince Harry have talked about how that family talked to them—and they won’t tell us who actually said this—but the whispered question was what color will your children be. So talk to us a little bit about this color issue.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Well colorism, unfortunately, has colored our history since the beginning. Usually what would happen was that the children who were fathered by the master and his enslaved women, they would normally work up at the house. And those who were darker skinned, they would work in the field. And that was the way they were separated on the plantation. And so it appeared that those with lighter skin, that lived closer to the master, they were favored, and those with darker skin were not.
And you see that a bit in Yellow Wife with Pheby being the daughter of the master of the plantation. And at the opening of the story, she’s his only child. And so you see that she is being favored. And as she moves through the story and she gets to the jail, you see when the jailor—she catches the jailor’s eye—one of the reasons is because of her fair skin. And what I found in my research was that men like the jailor in my story and like the other jailors that you’ll meet as you get to certain scenes in the book—they were looked at as the pariahs of society. So while everyone has slaves, it was still thought of as a dirty business. So men who dealt in slaves—they were not part of society. And so no well-respected white man would marry his daughters off to the jailors. So what they did is they formed this sort of community of their own, where they all married mulatto women, and they had children with them, and those were the children that they tried to pass off into society as white people.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Again, as you say, this colorism continues to some degree even at present time. Talk a little bit about Missus Delphina’s child, who I guess as you explained, was a little tan. And if you want to explain that a little bit more and the fate of that child.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Is that a spoiler, Beverly?
BEVERLY ADAMS: That might be a spoiler. So maybe we’ll save that and tease the listeners for that. Because that’s a great part. It’s one of those sections of the book where you read it and you think, “Did I really read this correctly?” And you flip back a few pages, and you read it again, and you think, [gasp]. So I hope that’s a good teaser for all of you all out there. Because it’s really—it was unexpected but as Sadeqa writes so well, it just fit into what was going to happen. So good, good, good.
Let me ask you about this whole genre that you’re writing in.
SADEQA JOHNSON: I will say this. I will say that—
BEVERLY ADAMS: Go ahead.
SADEQA JOHNSON: What I was going to say was that there are certain scenes in the book that I didn’t plan. So the way I usually write a book is I have a synopsis and I have somewhat of an outline, but it’s almost kind of like this coloring page where I have the outline of it, but I don’t have the colors in the middle. So some of these scenes, particularly the one that you were alluding to—those are things that just naturally happen in the story. And when it does, I have to just kind of step back and realize that the energy was coming through me and that that was meant to happen.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Good, good, good. And maybe that fits into my next point about historical fiction. I didn’t read historical fiction until I got with the African American Authors Book Club. I read novels and whatnot. But historical fiction is really interesting. And talk a little bit about how you form these stories. Like what do you think is okay to include? What do you elaborate on a little bit, or what do you kind of take away? So if you can respond to that.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Yeah, so this is my first time writing a historical fiction novel. My first three novels were contemporary fiction. I was very happy writing contemporary fiction. It was a little bit more in what I thought was my lane until I discovered the story of Yellow Wife. And it just sort of bit me and kind of begged to be written, and so I had to say yes to it. But one of the first things that I had to do when I started this book was do a lot of research. So I started with going to visit different plantations. I visited the Shirley Plantation in Charles City, Virginia, which is kind of that first one that I saw. The plantation was very close to the James River, and I thought this is a really good idea of what I want to happen for Pheby’s story.
I went to Booker T. Washington’s plantation, which was amazing. So the bell that happens in the beginning of the story, when she says there’s a ringing and there’s a call for each bell—I actually saw that particular bell on Booker T. Washington’s plantation, and I just couldn’t stop staring at it. When I got home that day, right away it found its way into the story. So I have to go out and kind of feel it, taste it, touch it.
I spent a lot of time at the Library of Virginia, reading old periodicals that took place in the 1800s. And Google, when I needed to google something quickly, like how do you dress a woman in the 1800s. When it was Pheby’s turn to dress Missus Delphina for the first time, what did that look like? So I would Google articles on that.
For me, the world building was very different in writing historical fiction. In contemporary fiction, you know, my novel Second House from the Corner. She lived in New Jersey. It was very simple. It was very easy. But this was different. I actually had to research in a way. I needed to know what the furniture was like and what the curtains were like. I have pictures up on my wall by my desk where I would put pictures of the jail. If you do have a copy of Yellow Wife or you plan to get a copy, when you open it you see this picture here, which is the end pages of the book. And this is actually the picture of the Lumpkin’s Jail and what it looked like in Richmond. And so this was also part of my research, to have pictures and things of that nature up. I was completely immersed in this story.
One of the other things that I found quite helpful was reading slave narratives, reading stories written in the voice by slaves, such as Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacob. And I read Booker T. Washington’s autobiography and Fifty Years a Slave by Charles Ball. Those stories really helped get me into the mindset of what enslaved people were thinking and what they were enduring. So that all helped with the research of the story.
BEVERLY ADAMS: And you do it in such a masterful way. Your writing style is such that the reader is there. The reader is looking around the room to see these things, and they are feeling and smelling the smells that you talk about within your book. And sometimes, I’ll tell you Sadeqa, it was so strong I had to put the book down. Because I could feel the emotion coming up in me and the tears welling up in my eyes. And I just think what a masterful writer that can do that to the reader. So it was just very well done.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Thank you. When I was reading about the Lumpkin’s Jail, everything that I read talked about the smell. They said that you could smell it—as soon as you turned into the alley, you could smell it. And it smelled so bad particularly because one of the things that happened in the slave pen—not only did they cram in as many bodies as possible, but when the enslaved people died, there was no ceremony. They literally had a section in the courtyard where they would let the bodies pile up and pile up and pile up. And then when they got to a certain point, then they would shove the bodies in the ground at that point. And so all of this adds to the smells. And the pen, there was no place for them to go to the bathroom and that sort of thing. So
it really added to the odor of jail and that whole area in downtown Richmond at the time.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Yes, yes. Such a good job of that. Let me talk to you a little bit about this question of judgment. I had to think about this issue because I was pretty judgmental of Pheby initially. She was not my favorite right away. But I had to understand a lot of why she was doing what she did, and I think you brought that out through the course of the book. So talk to us a little bit about judgment. Like we judge the different characters. We judge the jailor. And what is he called? He’s called the Devil. So talk to us about how we either refrain from making these judgments or that we are drawn to making these judgments, or how did you do that in writing the book?
SADEQA JOHNSON: I think it was one of the things that just kind of happened naturally. I would say, with the jailor specifically, he was definitely one of the most difficult characters for me to write because he was a man with two faces. On the one side, he was this mean, evil, vindictive man, almost like Missus Delphina. Not as strongly, but I needed to be able to see both sides of her to get her down on the page. But for him, I needed to create both sides and actually get both sides down on the page. And so I saw him as this mean, evil, vindictive, horrible man, but he also has tender moments. He’s toeing this line with Pheby where you almost for a second feel their relationship, and then you know that it’s wrong, and you kind of make yourself step back. And so toeing that line of tenderness versus villain for him was really difficult. And I have to say it took a few drafts for me to actually get that down and get that in place for him.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Yeah, and you’re right. There are times when he sees tender towards his daughters. And then other times, the harshness and coarseness with which he treats the slaves. So it’s really—you walk that line very nicely, but it was sometimes difficult to deal with. But I really liked how you did that. Great, great, great.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Thank you.
BEVERLY ADAMS: One of the things that I really liked that you did here at the end of the book was create that tension of the possibility of escape and what that meant for Pheby and Essex and whatnot. And I know I don’t want to do any spoilers again, but talk about—you really built the tension well. I didn’t know which way things were going to go, and that was very nicely done.
SADEQA JOHNSON: That’s good. Tension is one of the things that makes a story go. So it is one of those things that I have to work at. I didn’t really know how the story was going to end, which made it very exciting for me as well. As I was writing those last few chapters, I literally was on the edge of my seat. Because I thought it was going to end a different way, particularly because Essex Henry’s character was patterned after a real-life man named Anthony Burns. And Anthony Burns was a slave who was born in Virginia. He escaped to Massachusetts, and under the Fugitive Slave Act he was brought back to Virginia. And so the way his story actually ends was the way I thought I was going to go with the story. But as I was writing it, it didn’t necessarily fit. And I think that goes to your earlier question about how much history do you get into the story and then how much of it is fiction.
I like to stay as close to history as possible because I think it’s so fascinating. But when it doesn’t fit or there’s no information, that’s when the fiction kind of fills the spaces, and that’s where the fiction takes over. So while the book is wholly fiction, there are a lot of very true moments that actually happened that find its way into the story. But for the end, it definitely was just a matter of me putting one page in front of the other and following the story with it as far as I could go. And when it happened, I thought, oh, okay, this is the end of the book. Yeah, I’m there.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Yes, and nicely done. Again, at the end of the book you bring this colorism again as far as passing. And I guess I hadn’t expected it to be that way, but boy did it add a nice twist to the end. And talk about passing a bit because we know that there were times when Pheby passed. Remember she was with her aunt, and no one corrected the shopkeeper when they said something about your nice niece. So talk about passing a bit.
SADEQA JOHNSON: I think that passing was a way of life during that time period. It was definitely a way to assimilate in a direction where you were going to be able to have a little bit more. And I think even going back to when Pheby was on the plantation dreaming about going to Massachusetts, I don’t know if Pheby knew in her mind that that is what her parents had planned for her, but that’s in fact what they were planning. There were no black schools in Massachusetts. She was going to go as a white woman to get her education. And so when she has to make very similar choices for her children, it is a natural thing because it was the way of moving in a direction where you could be educated, where you could have money, where you could have real estate, and that sort of thing, and it was a natural thing that happened during that time. And while she may not have been completely aware of it, it was part of her makeup, you know?
BEVERLY ADAMS: Mmm-hmm. And I just thought about that. It’s this whole Massachusetts connection. It just, again, makes sense. So, good. Good, good, good. I want to talk to you also about home—this notion of home and where is home. I know that you’re living in Richmond now, but that’s not your birthplace. So talk to us a little bit about how you got to Richmond and your connections with Virginia.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Okay, so I grew up in Philadelphia, and my paternal grandmother was actually—her family was from Virginia. So they were from where the Blue Ridge Mountains are. And we visited Lynchburg and places like that a little bit growing up for family reunions. But I never thought that I was going to live in Virginia. In fact, I went to college in New York City. I wanted to be an actress, so I was a theater major in college for a few years, and then I switched to communications because I thought I probably need to get a job. New York City is pretty expensive. And if I’m going to stay here, I’m going to need to pay my bills. So I switched to communications and got my first job in publishing.
Well, I got married. My husband and I moved to New Jersey. We lived in New Jersey for seventeen years, had all of our children. And we have three children. And I remember we were in the process of feeling like we needed to move. And I remember standing in my kitchen, and I heard this voice that said you should move. And I took it like move, move. Like out of New Jersey. And so right away my husband and I just started talking. He just happened to be in Virginia. His paternal father’s family is from Nelson County, Virginia, and so he was there for a funeral. And he was passing through. He was on Route 60, and so he was passing through Midlothian and going to Richmond. And at the moment that I was feeling like we should move, move, he said, “I just passed this cute little town.” And we’re talking back and forth.
Next thing you know, two weeks later we’re here looking for houses. I mean, it’s not anything I can explain. It was not a job; it was a feeling. It was a feeling that pushed us. And three months later, we had bought a house and moved our children in. And six months later, I was on the slave trail in Richmond, and I discovered the story of Yellow Wife. And so when I say it was a feeling that my ancestors called me here, it definitely was some sort of—because there’s no other way that I can explain it. And if I had not come, I would not have discovered this story, and we would not have Yellow Wife.
BEVERLY ADAMS: So what do the old folks say? There are no accidents. There are things that are supposed to happen and to be. And it’s so good that you’re here. One of the things that I always tease about, though, in Virginia is that unless you’re born in Virginia, Virginians don’t really claim you. So you can be born in Virginia and move someplace else, but they still will say that you’re a Virginian. Unlike New York City, where if you live there for a couple of weeks, you’re a New Yorker, which is really interesting. But I like the idea that you’re talking about that calling—that there was this calling, as you said before, from the ancestors that were drawing you here. And this is your first historical fiction.
SADEQA JOHNSON: And it’s not something that I had thought that I would ever do. I loved historical fiction. When I was a kid, I read Jubilee by Margaret Walker and Family by J. California Cooper and Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez and The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, but never thought that that was anything I was going to do. I just enjoyed those books.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Good, good. The way that you talk about it is so inspiring to future writers or maybe kind of fledgling writers. Talk a little bit more about that. Or young writers who may be wanting to stick their toe into this area of writing or historical fiction or contemporary.
SADEQA JOHNSON: I think if you want to write, you’ve just got to sit down and do it. I had a writing teacher who told me ten minutes before bed—if you spend ten minutes before bed, before you know it, it’s thirty minutes before bed. And then it’s forty-five minutes. And in a few weeks, it’s two hours, and you have fifty pages in front of you that you can mold and shape and grow. So the first thing is really just getting a bit disciplined about your writing. Be intentional.
I have to be so intentional about my writing, Beverly, because my children are home. They’re at virtual school. And there are so many distractions now throughout my day. Where before I used to be home—it was just me and my computer. And now there’s a whole bunch going on. So I have to clock in and clock out. So I decide how many hours I’m going to write at the beginning of the day, and I have to write the time down that I start and stop to make sure I reach my goal for the day. So in order to get something going, you have to be intentional.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Good advice in all aspects of life. Really good advice. What I’m going to ask you next is for you to answer the question that you wish you were asked. So I know that you’ve done a number of interviews and just really interesting one. What’s a question that you wish you had been asked or that you want to answer today for us.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Wow, that’s a tricky one. I don’t know. I don’t have a question that I can think of off the top of my head. You know what’s a good question that I have not been asked on this particular book tour but I was on my previous one was that if I could go to dinner with three people, dead or alive, who would it be? And I would pick Mary Lumpkin because I would definitely want to spend some real time with her and get to know her. And I think I would bring my two grandmothers because they both passed on. And so I would bring them with me to lunch, and we would all sit down, and we would chat.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Nice. What an interesting response to that. Usually it’s something like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, but I really like that thought. Because, again, you only know some of the things about Lumpkin, and what would you like to get her perspective to really tell you the lowdown and dirty about what was going on that she was even afraid to think at that time.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Yes, yes.
BEVERLY ADAMS: I’m trying to see if there are any questions in our chat that people are asking. They’re just giving you praise. There are some people here who said they grew up in Philly as well and now live in Richmond, so they’ll find you. They’ll find you as time goes on. And Charlottesville is only an hour or hour and a half from Richmond, so maybe you’ll come here in the flesh and talk about some of the experiences that you might have with some of the ancestors here as well.
SADEQA JOHNSON: I would love to.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Oh, tell us again the names of your previous books and the one that you’re working on—or the one that you’re finishing up. The newest one.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Okay, sure. So my first three novels—my first book is called Love in a Carry On Bag. And it’s a long-distance love story. She lives in New York; he lives in D.C. They really want to be together. There’s all these things pulling them apart. My second novel is called Second House from the Corner, and it’s about a woman who gets married with secrets and what happens when they start to come out of her closet. My third novel, And Then There Was Me, is about a woman in an unhappy marriage, and she has an eating disorder and all the things that she has to overcome to get to the other side.
Oh, and the novel that I’m working on now. So I can’t give too much away—and it’s so funny because I used to be the author who would just tell everything. And then I started meeting people who were like, “Oh, I can’t talk about my story.” So now I feel like I have to say, “Oh, I can’t talk about it.” But I will say that I am writing another historical fiction. And it takes place in the 1940s and the 1950s. I’m writing about Philadelphia, which is where I grew up. One character is in North Philadelphia, and another character—she is going to be based out of Washington D.C. So the forties and the fifties. Not quite the 1800s, but I’m still dealing with segregation and colorism and motherhood and sexuality and what it means to be a woman. What it is to have to overcome things and what it looks like when you get to the other side.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Interesting, interesting. We can’t wait. Now here’s a question. It says, “What would Sadeqa hope that visitors to the slave trail would learn or experience? How is it different for her now, having researched the book?”
SADEQA JOHNSON: It’s funny because when I went on the slave trail—I’ve been three times now. So the first time I went is when I discovered the story, and I wasn’t expecting anything to happen at all, and it happened. When I went back the second time, I didn’t feel anything. It was almost like the first time didn’t happen. And then when I went back the third time, it was like the energy was there again. I don’t know how to explain that.
But what I hope people will get—I just walked the Richmond Slave Trail with a wonderful hiking group in Richmond called Black Girls Hike RVA, and there were about seventy-five women. And we all went, and we walked the slave trail, and we stopped in different places, and I talked about my research and things that I had discovered that first time out, which was an amazing experience.
What I hope people would feel is the energy first of what this country was built on. Get a sense that this is America’s history. This is the foundation of our country, and it’s all of our history. It’s not just Black history. And so walk the slave trail and read the markers and feel what people have gone through prior to us being here. Because we stand on their shoulders. If it wasn’t for the enslaved people, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be here to tell this story. And so I think it’s important to make that connection.
BEVERLY ADAMS: That is such a good point. I was thinking about how slavery was told to me in my elementary school. And it was always kind of made to be less intense. It was kind of, well, these were just workers, and they were treated fine, and they were laughing on every Saturday and Sunday night because we have records of that. And you get this confused kind of image. Slavery is slavery. And as you said, these uncomfortable truths have to be talked about so that we can deal with them.
SADEQA JOHNSON: And it’s funny that you bring that up. When I was visiting some of the plantations, that was also the story that was being told. To the extent where I had to actually write letters to a few plantations and say, “Hey, you left the story out of the enslaved people. I think that you need to tell it the way it happened.” And that was one of the things that was really important to me about writing Yellow Wife. I recognize that some of the scenes are a little bit difficult to read. But for me as the writer, I felt if they could endure these—because a lot of those scenes actually happened. If they could endure it, I as a writer could write it. And we as readers can absolutely read it because it happened. And that was important for me as a writer.
BEVERLY ADAMS: That’s wonderful. Wonderful. Let’s see. It’s about time that we wrap up, so if there is anything that—I’m looking in the chat. If there’s anything that comes to mind that you’d like to say—it’s one of those situations where we’ll have to kind of save this chat and have to respond to it later. Really good things are here. They’re singing your praises and how wonderful they feel.
SADEQA JOHNSON: Well, thank you. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you doing this today with me, Beverly. And I just want to say to our viewers please go out and grab a copy of Yellow Wife. Tell your friends. Tell your family members. Tell your book club members. I am also speaking to book clubs. So if you go to my website at sadeqajohnson.net, there’s a whole section for book clubs. You can send me a message and invite me to your club. I would love to come and speak with you. But please just help me spread the word and get the word out on the book.
BEVERLY ADAMS: Good, thank you. And let me just read my script. I should make sure that I’ve covered everything. Again, thank you, Sadeqa. You were amazing. And thanks to everyone who viewed this discussion this evening. Again, please consider buying Yellow Wife. It is worth the time spent on this. And if you can remember her voice and the way that she presented it when she read it herself, you’ll really enjoy it.
We want you to remember our local independent booksellers, and there will be links provided in the chat for you to follow that up. So again, remember this is the interesting year of the Festival of the Book. Today is not the last day. There are still more book events coming up, and that will be for the next days. So thanks again, everyone. We appreciate it so much. Sadeqa, we’ll be in touch. Take care. Bye-bye.