The noise in the room is what I would describe as unimaginable, if I had to pick a word. The wood was distractingly shiny and new under my feet, and I felt too dirty to be standing there. In front of me, a white sea topped with a surf of brown and gold. I could smell the expensive perfumes clouding the room, how expensive the silk gathered in lace gloves was. Behind fans, I could see painted smiles, but each glimmering eye was critical.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I catch glimmers of dark eyes and skin, crowded together. Behind me, I could hear the murmuring of low voices, slightly reassuring in this painfully pristine environment. Or they would be, anyway, if they drowned out the clinking of iron links. Woefully heavy, clanging through the wallpaper paneled walls and seeming to fill the air above our head. I was reminded of the warm metal around my own wrists, ankles, and neck, keeping me grounded down to the polished floor.
In the middle of the room is a round man, swollen like a summer tomato, and just as red. Talking and chatting joyfully, gesturing behind him with cotton-white gloves. I could feel my clothes sticking to my skin, rough texture running against my skin. My tongue felt too big in my mouth, my feet pressed too tightly to the floor. I rarely wished it, with the hot southern heat, but I wished I was outside. I could see it through the window. Trees waving in the afternoon sun, shining grass waving up from the ground.
I heard a gasp and my head turned almost involuntarily, but I wish I hadn’t. Next to me was a little girl, she was probably only nine or ten years old, being pulled from her mother. I could tell her mother was trying not to make any noise, but she was losing her grip as white fingers wormed their way around her daughter’s wrists. Slowly, she gave in to begging. Begging them not to take her daughter, please, she’s too young. I turned my eyes away, I couldn’t bear to watch anymore. I could hear the confusion in the little girl’s voice. I’m sure she didn’t understand, I didn’t when I was her age. I close my eyes.
A moment later, a switch bites my shoulder and my eyes open. Keep your eyes open. Stand up straight. Smile, turn, look like you’ll bring us in a penny. I knew the drill. For just a moment I let myself feel bad about the little girl, about the life she had looming ahead of her, before straightening my back and turning my eyes back to face the pale, jewel-adorned crowd before me.
“And this is the auction house! Constructed in 1939, it’s been standing for over seventy years!” The teacher’s voice droned on in the background, and I know even if I tried to pay attention I couldn’t. The sun was hot, I just wanted to go inside. I shifted, the bottom of my sneakers grinding uncomfortably on the pavement. My phone was heavy in my pocket, but I knew if I took it out the teacher would snatch it before I could even look. Some of my classmates were joking around at the back of the group, I wanted to join them.
Slowly, we made our way inside. Past the huge double doors, and finally into the sweet, sweet shade. I let out a breath of relief and tugged the back of my shirt away from my back. There’s no A.C in the old building, but even the shade is better than the boiling sun. The floor is scuffed, almost down to the natural tone of the wood Around the square room are pictures behind thick red velvet rope, and in the center of the room is a wax figurine of a fat man. “That over there, is where the auctioneer would stand. People would stand around the room in order to purchase slaves.” The teacher continues, but she has to know nobody's listening. We disperse to work through our worksheets. Black and white pictures of men and women in chains, and others in elegant, old timey dresses.
One of my classmates is standing in front of one such pictures, staring wide-eyed. For a moment, I wonder about her stares. Then I remember, her family has lived in the town for generations. She probably knew of some of these people, maybe even saw them in family pictures. I turn my eyes back. I knew this field trip was just because our teachers wanted to give us something to do, but I didn’t really understand why we were here. We could read all of this in a delightfully air-conditioned classroom.
“Class, come over here. We have a special guest today.” I look over. It’s a lady dressed in very modern clothes, a deep blue dress graced by the grey in her hair. We wander over, forming a loose semi-circle around her. “This is miss Alice Marie, she’s gonna talk to us for a few minutes.” She sends a few sweeping looks over the crowd, her eyes solemn and deep. Slowly, she unravels her story before us. About being raised on a plantation, being taken from her parents as a child, and sold over and over again. Her story was sad, our class was quiet.
When she started talking about the emancipation, she seemed more at ease. Her shoulders relaxed, she stood up straighter. She seemed more comfortable in the building, telling us about the day she was freed. “I never had a name from my mother,” her voice was deep like mahogany, smooth and sturdy. “But they always called her ‘Annie’, so I decided I’d keep that part of her. As for ‘Marie’,” Her eyes somber again, “I had a sister. We were separated a few years after I was born, and I didn’t hear from her again until a few years ago when someone reached out to tell me where she was buried.” Her words hung over our heads like clouds, dark and filling.
The amount of time we stood there, I couldn’t have counted the seconds if I tried. The weight of her words crushed the air out of the room, and the sunlight streaming through the windows seemed menacing. I could see the room, filled with people and tears as it was seventy years ago. And I understood why our teacher had brought us here. This was a place of history, but someone had lived it not so long ago. She was standing in front of us, even, that piece of unforgettable history.