For no particular reason, a poem for Black History Month in the produce section of a grocery store. Wonder who found it.
by Michael S. Harper
Those four black girls blown up
in that Alabama church
remind me of five hundred
middle passage blacks,
in a net, under water
in Charleston harbor
so redcoats wouldn’t find them.
Can’t find what you can’t see
Sometimes this blog seems like an embarrassing record of all the things I don’t know (I never knew about—I’d never heard of—). My knowledge gaps become most obvious during Black History Month.
For example, I didn’t know much about the bombing of the 16thStreet Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Four girls killed, terrible, terrible was the beginning and end of my familiarity with that seminal event in civil rights history. Michael S. Harper’s “American History” sent me back on line to fill in the story, and it’s an awful one. Four girls ages 11-14 were getting ready for Sunday school in the bathroom of the church basement, one just re-tying the sash on her friend’s dress, when fifteen sticks of dynamite set right underneath them went off. The physical damage to the young girls is horrible to read, but the delayed justice for the murderers is infuriating. Not until 1977 was the ringleader jailed, and not until 2000 and 2002 were the co-conspirators prosecuted. J. Edgar Hoover himself shut down the investigation in 1968. After he died, records were un-sealed and the case re-opened.
The other incident mentioned in this poem, the hiding (and presumably murder) of enslaved men underwater in a Charleston harbor was completely unknown to me. And still is. I’m unable to link this to an actual event, so if you know something about it, please fill me in.
There are, unfortunately, many similar accounts of Black people thrown overboard to drown, so Harper’s conjuring of the event may just be an imaginative reference to Middle Passage murders like the ones aboard the Zong, a British-owned slave ship (low on water, the captain ordered 132 Blacks thrown overboard in order to collect insurance money); and the ones aboard the Leusden, a Dutch ship (in a life-threatening storm, the white crew took to the lifeboats and locked 664 Blacks below deck to die); and those aboard the Portuguese ship Tecora, where a third of the 500 Blacks in the slave hold were thrown overboard, chained together and tethered with iron balls. Supplies were running low, you see.
I knew nothing of these. Never learned about them in school, and I never found my way to educate myself. I don’t even know what I don’t know. Only recently did I learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, an event so hidden from historical attention that the number of Black Tulsans slaughtered is unknown but guessed to be about 300. And just today, in late February of 2021, I learned of the Draft Riots of 1863. At least a hundred Black citizens of New York City were hunted down by white mobs and lynched. A baby thrown out the window. A son slaughtered in front of his mother. The number of murders is probably closer to 175 and could be double or triple that, unknown and unquantifiable because, as in the poem, Black bodies are concealed. Below the surface. In basements. Under water. In mass graves. Unaccounted for in more ways than one.
Can’t find what you can’t see
Can’t find evidence of injustice if someone’s gotten rid of it, buried it, burned it, or de-humanized the victims.
It’s important to note that in 1970, when Harper wrote this poem, the four Birmingham bombers were still walking around free, their punishment a $100 fine. No wonder the title is bitterly ironic. How much of “American History” is hidden history?
Michael S. Harper (1938-2016) was born in Brooklyn, the oldest of three children. His father worked as a supervisor for the post office, and his mother was a medical secretary. The family had a lot of jazz and blues records, which later influenced Harper’s style.
When he was 13, the family moved to L.A. He was a pre-med student at L.A. City College but transferred to what is now California State University and got his B.A. and M.A. in English while working at the post office. He earned an MFA at Iowa Writers Workshop in 1963.
Poet Gwendolyn Brooks, impressed by his entry to a contest she was judging, helped launch his career in poetry. He taught at several universities in California and Oregon before settling in at Brown University where he chaired the MFA program.
Harper published over a dozen books of poetry. He was the poet laureate of Rhode Island, and won many awards, among them a Guggenheim fellowship and an NEA grant.
He married and had five children, two of whom died at birth. He later divorced. He died at age 78.