Director Deb Clinton was motivated to find a play that would be a good vehicle…
Author Sadeqa Johnson’s new novel Yellow Wife is a story that found her.
“It wasn’t anything I was looking for,” says Johnson, who lives in Midlothian with her family.
The calling, so to speak, happened in 2016 when she and her family, along with out-of-town friends, walked along the Richmond Slave Trail and came to the lot for the Devil’s Half Acre (Lumpkin’s Jail), a jailhouse used in the 19th century where enslaved Black people were crammed together, tortured, and later sold at auction.
Johnson’s children read the marker that briefly mentioned Robert Lumpkin, a cruel slave trader whose eventual wife, Mary Lumpkin, was an enslaved woman.
“We read they had five kids together, and that contradiction stood out for me,” Johnson says.
For some time thereafter, questions swirled in Johnson’s head. What was it like for Mary? How did she survive? How did she raise those children? What was it like for them?
“That curiosity led me down a rabbit hole to find out more about them [the jail owner and the enslaved woman],” she says.
Johnson sensed a special energy as she walked along the slave trail that she believed emanated from the souls of enslaved people who wanted their stories told. “The energy I was feeling was like they were waiting for me to come write about this,” she says.
Her first books were all contemporary women’s fiction and this book would be historical fiction, a new genre for her. “I didn’t know that historical fiction was my thing,” she says. “But I loved the whole journey of writing Yellow Wife.”
Johnson began visiting plantations and researching and reading about the time period and the enslaved. “I made my two daughters [twelve and fifteen] my research assistants,” she says, adding she also has a 17-year-old son.
She began writing her book about six months after starting her research. Even though it’s based in history, the book is fictional. “I stay as close to the truth as possible,” says Johnson. “I paint a picture with the history. I give voice to Mary [in the form of the character Pheby Delores Brown] and the women who needed a voice. The fictional characters take over, and I follow the direction they want to go in.”
The author was surprised by the number of enslaved women in history who were like Mary, she adds. “It’s important to get their story into the book as well.” In the book, the main character repeats the line, Beauty is a curse for a slave girl. In her duties at the jail, Pheby, who was repeatedly raped by the jailer who owned her, is charged with preparing young Black girls for sale into sexual slavery.
Writing fiction is like a portal to another time and place for Johnson. “Sometimes I am so in their head, body and spirit,” she says, adding that one of her kids came into the room when she was writing and “scared me because I was so into 1850. I jumped in my chair. I do get into the thick of things with my characters.”
When she can’t hear the voices of her characters, she worries. “It’s too quiet. I try to coax them to come back and speak,” she says.
A native Philadelphian, Johnson is a former public relations manager who worked with best-selling authors such as JK Rowling, Amy Tan, and Bishop TD Jakes before authoring her three books: Love in a Carry-On Bag, Second House From the Corner, and And Then There Was Me. She and her family moved to Midlothian in 2015 from New Jersey. “We stepped out on faith,” she says of the move.
A lifelong avid reader, Johnson would sneak extra books into school to read. She entered a writing contest in seventh grade and won. But, writing wasn’t her only interest. “When I was younger, I wanted to be an actress. I was a theater major in college,” she says. “In college, I wrote plays and poetry. I started fooling around with a novel in my twenties.”
Johnson, who was constantly around writers and books when she was working in publishing, penned her debut novel, Love in a Carry-On Bag, a Phillis Wheatley award-winner, while working. “I lived in New Jersey and I would get to work early and type everything up on the computer to hand edit on the train during my commute home,” she says.
She got the idea for the book from her own life. “I based it on what I knew but with twists and turns,” she says.
She did the same with her second book, Second House From the Corner. The woman in the book has three small children and so did Johnson at the time. “I remember when I would feel overwhelmed from them. It was therapeutic to give that to my character. I could work it out through her,” she says.
Work and Motherhood
Now that her latest book has been released, Johnson is changing her schedule to meet the demands of interviews. “This morning, I had to cook dinner because I have three interviews and a virtual book tour tonight. Last night I couldn’t cook. My husband had to order out,” she says.
Her older children are pretty self-sufficient, she says. “My seventh grader is in virtual school, and it has made her grow up. It’s given her a little more space, and she has risen to the occasion.”
Johnson, who has always been home alone when she wrote, is adapting to the closer quarters and increased family-together time of pandemic life. “We have gotten into a good groove,” she says.
Well-crafted and engaging, fans of historical fiction will relish every page of Yellow Wife. As a snapshot from our nation’s brutal history, the book is a painful but necessary look at the human cost of slavery. At the same time, as a Richmonder, it’s unsettling to read area street names and shopping districts that are still in existence today and to know this horrific story unfolded in our city, not to mention the fact that countless stories just like it happened all over the South. You will also appreciate the author’s note and acknowledgements at the end of the book. For more about the Richmond history Johnson’s Yellow Wife is based on, read this article in the Washington Post about Mary Lumpkin. The enslaved Black woman who bore witness to the torture of Robert Lumpkin’s prisoners in the Richmond jail during the 1800s is the historical figure on whom the novel’s main character is based.
Sign up for the Between the Lines Book Club at VMHC, featuring Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson.