49 pages 1 hour read

Sadeqa Johnson

Yellow Wife

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson (2021) is the story of Pheby Delores Brown, a woman fighting to survive slavery in 19th-century Virginia. Born on a plantation in Virginia, Pheby is the daughter of an enslaved seamstress and healer and a white plantation owner. Yellow Wife traces Pheby’s journey from the plantation to Devil’s Half Acre, where she is purchased by a jailer responsible for the sale and transport of humans in the American South. Pheby does everything she can to protect and rescue her loved ones, and she carefully records the names and stories of those whom she cannot save. Her experience is one of internal conflict: Every day Pheby makes choices that damage herself and her sense of self-worth so that she can maintain dignity for her children.

Johnson is a former public relations manager who worked with well-known authors before pursuing her own career in writing. She is the winner of the National Book Club Award, Phillis Wheatley Book Award, and the USA Best Book Award for Best Fiction.

This guide utilizes the 2021 printing by Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Content Warning: This book discusses slavery and its effects, and it also contains graphic accounts of physical and sexual violence.

Plot Summary

Pheby Delores Brown is the daughter of an enslaved woman named Ruth and a plantation owner, Jacob Bell. Pheby is born with the knowledge that slavery is wrong and that she deserves a better life than that which she has been given. Ruth repeatedly reminds Pheby that no one can own her mind and makes every effort to find freedom for her daughter. Bell promises Ruth that when Pheby turns 18, he will send her to the North to be free and educated.

However, when Ruth and Bell take a trip, Pheby is left behind to care for the jealous and cruel Delphina Bell. Pheby learns that Delphina has been forcing sex with an enslaved worker named Essex, the man Pheby loves. Delphina becomes pregnant with Essex’s child, and Pheby realizes that Essex has no option other than escape. She helps to find passage for him to the North. When Essex asks her to come with him, Pheby holds to Bell’s promise that he will assist her when she turns 18.

A carriage accident leaves Ruth and Jacob Bell in dire physical condition. While Bell is cared for by a neighbor, Ruth is transferred back to Bell Plantation with no concern for her health. Delphina refuses to send for a doctor to care for Ruth. Pheby is forced to continue to help Delphina through labor with the knowledge that Essex is on the run and that her mother is dying. When Delphina sees the dark skin of her child, she drowns the infant. At her mother’s funeral, Pheby is arrested for suspicion of helping Essex escape.

After days of marching with little food and water, Pheby is taken to Lapier’s jail, a holding cell for the selling and trading of enslaved peoples. Word that Jacob Bell has died strips Pheby of her last hope of rescue. Rubin Lapier, the owner of the jail, takes a liking to Pheby and keeps her for himself. After a few months, Pheby realizes that she is pregnant with Essex’s child. She learns that Rubin hopes to make her his mistress. At first, Rubin showers Pheby with gifts and treats her kindly, but Pheby is aware that she is still enslaved by Rubin and sees the evidence of his cruelty. She delivers four children by Rubin; their children have light skin and are brought up as white children.

Pheby is continuously conflicted while living with Rubin. She must act as though she loves him and live as his wife, even while feeling disgusted by him and the life he has forced her into. Pheby entertains Rubin’s friends and guests, other enslavers, and prepares young women for sale into sex work. She secures a tutor for her four daughters while living in fear that her son will be sold to another enslaver and taken from her. Pheby is forced to share Rubin’s bed and tell him she loves him, all while knowing that she is not the only enslaved woman with whom he is having a sexual relationship.

Although she benefits from her status as his mistress, her position is precarious and dangerous. Pheby is forced to make impossible choices to protect herself and her children. When Essex is captured in the North and delivered to Lapier’s jail for punishment, Pheby liaisons with him privately and helps him to escape. She also secures passage for their son and two other enslaved workers from Lapier’s jail.

In the epilogue, letters between Pheby and her oldest daughter reveal that Essex and his son made it safely to the North while Pheby stayed behind and lived out her life with Rubin before his death. Johnson’s book explores three important themes: The Pervasive Trauma of Enslavement, The Dehumanization of Slavery, and The Complex Relationship Between Submission and Defiance.

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