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Posts Tagged ‘Black History Month’

poem is on right-side of lighthouse

 

The Slave Auction

by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

 

The sale began—young girls were there,

Defenseless in their wretchedness,

Whose stifled sobs of deep despair

Revealed their anguish and distress.

 

And mothers stood, with streaming eyes,

And saw their dearest children sold;

Unheeded rose their bitter cries,

While tyrants bartered them for gold.

 

And woman, with her love and truth—

For these in sable forms may dwell—

Gazed on the husband of her youth,

With anguish none may paint or tell.

 

And men, whose sole crime was their hue,

The impress of their Maker’s hand,

And frail and shrinking children too,

Were gathered in that mournful band.

 

Ye who have laid your loved to rest,

And wept above their lifeless clay,

Know not the anguish of that breast,

Whose loved are rudely torn away.

 

Ye may not know how desolate

Are bosoms rudely forced to part,

And how a dull and heavy weight

Will press the life-drops from the heart.

 

 

The third time I read this poem I started to think about all the things mothers do to keep their children safe—and wonder how far they’d go to keep them from danger. The latter brought to mind Toni Morrison’s Beloved; the former, at the extreme opposite end, present-day baby equipment. Such things as video monitors, special mattresses that keep baby’s air cool, edge protectors, bath spout covers, and knee pads for crawlers are marketed to new mothers in the name of safety. Offer “peace of mind” and you can sell a lot more product.

 

Over the years “peace of mind” dies a slow death, perhaps with the first toddler accident and surely by the teen years. Control over another life is a pipe dream, an illusion—and one that the mothers in “Slave Auction” never have a single second to enjoy.

 

Harper invites us to imagine the complete and utter powerlessness of people on the slave block, particularly of mothers. Defenseless, unheeded, bitter, frail, shrinking, mournful, desolate. The adjectives heap misery on misery. The mothers’ wretchedness is of the worst magnitude, Harper says, worse even than the physical death of a child—

 

Ye who have laid your loved to rest,

   And wept above their lifeless clay,

Know not the anguish of that breast,

   Whose loved are rudely torn away.

 

It’s almost disorienting to read about the moral chaos of a slave auction in such formal language, those neat four-line stanzas with their reliable rhyme scheme providing order to a profoundly disordered world. A wordless scream of rage and agony seems more fitting, and Harper seems to acknowledge that, as she describes the women looking over at their soon-to-be-sold husbands—

 

With anguish none may paint or tell.

 

Even more jarring to me is that Harper felt it necessary to explicitly say that enslaved Black people were capable of the same feelings as white people—

 

And woman, with her love and truth—

   For these in sable forms may dwell—

 

*

 

Frances Harper (1825-1911) was a poet, novelist, journalist, activist, and speaker. Her life is nothing short of amazing.

 

Born in Baltimore to free Black parents, Harper was orphaned at three and raised by an aunt and uncle. Her uncle was a minister who had established a school. There she was educated until she was 13. She took work as a seamstress and nursemaid to a Quaker family who owned a bookstore where she was able to take advantage of her access to books. She began writing and published first book of poetry at age twenty-one.

 

She left Maryland to become the first woman to teach at Union Seminary in Ohio (later Wilberforce University), where she taught sewing. A year or two later she took a job in Pennsylvania. She lived with the family of William Still, considered the founder of the Underground Railroad.

 

Moved by the fate of a free Black man captured and sold into slavery who subsequently died (courtesy of the Maryland Fugitive Slave Act), she decided to devote her life to the abolition cause. She worked on the Underground Railroad alongside Harriet Tubman and got gigs as a travelling anti-slavery speaker, drawing large crowds.

.

Meanwhile Harper was constantly publishing. One of her short stories was the first short story published by any American woman of any race. Her first three novels were serialized, her poetry was extremely popular, and she worked as a journalist.

 

She published over eleven books.

 

In her mid-thirties she married a widow with three children. Together they had a daughter, and Harper stopped travelling as a speaker to raise her. When her husband died four years after they married, she supported the family with her lectures. What this woman couldn’t do!

 

Harper was active in the temperance movement, and fought for universal education and suffrage. She cofounded the National Association of Colored Women with Harriet Tubman. She died at age 86.

 

There’s so much more to say about this woman. Her tombstone should be etched Always Ahead of Her Time—

 

  • Almost a hundred years before Rosa Parks made headlines, Harper refused to sit in the “colored” section of the trolley car and got in trouble with the conductor.

 

  • She was intersectional in her outreach before the term was coined. She fought against slavery and for women’s suffrage and temperance and Black suffrage and anti-lynching legislation. All her activism was connected.

 

  • She had a line on the Karens before Karens were Karens: in fighting to include the right of Black men to vote in the cause of women’s suffrage, she told an assembly at the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention, “ I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.”

 

  • She called out white privilege before woke culture did: “I envy neither the heart nor the head of any legislator who has been born to an inheritance of privileges, “ she said, “who has behind him ages of education, dominion, civilization, and Christianity, if he stands opposed to the passage of a national education bill, whose purpose is to secure education to the children of those who were born under the shadow of institutions which made it a crime to read.”

 

I could quote her endlessly. Here’s just a few more:

 

  • “I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The good would vote according to their convictions and principles; the bad, as dictated by prejudice or malice; and the indifferent will vote on the strongest side of the question, with the winning party.”

 

  • “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”

 

  • “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.”

 

  • Last stanza of her most famous poem “Bury Me in a Free Land”:

 

I ask no monument, proud and high,

To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;

All that my yearning spirit craves,

Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

 

To my knowledge Harper does not have a permanent monument. Despite her wishes, she needs one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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poem is by champagne display for a belated celebration

 

Thompson and Seaman Vows, African Union Church

(ca. 1847)

by Marilyn Nelson

 

Miss Charlotte Thompson, daughter of Ada

Thompson of Seneca and the late John,

and Timothy James Seaman, son

of the late Nancy Seaman, on Sunday.

Reverend Rush performed the ceremony.

The bride (twenty-four) was educated

by a literate friend, and by seeing

the African Theatre Company’s

productions of Macbeth and Richard III.

She teaches in Colored School #3.

Her father was a slave. Her mother, freed

by a clause in her late mistress’s will,

sews and sells exquisite lace lingerie.

The bridegroom (twenty-six) cannot read or write,

but ciphers and is a skilled carpenter.

His mother was slaved to an early death.

She told him he was descended from kings.

 

 

I make it a rule not to read other people’s interpretations of a poem before I post my own thoughts, but it’s happened by accident and I can’t pretend I don’t know what I know.

 

I was checking to see if “Thompson and Seaman Vows” was “found poetry, “ that is, an actual historical record of a wedding announcement that poet Marilyn Nelson came across and elevated with line breaks so that the words could come alive in a new way.

 

Spoiler alert:  it isn’t.

 

On the Poetry Foundation website is a young reader’s fan letter about the poem and Nelson’s generous answer. She explains the history of the poem, the historical milieu, her intentions. I can’t add much to it, so I’ll re-print her comments here.

 

Let me just say that Nelson’s poem makes all those Sunday New York Times wedding announcements look like puffed-up poseurs. In “Thompson and Seaman Vows,” the typical announcement elements—occupations, parentage, age, wedding details— are moving rather than envy-inspiring.

 

*

 

Dear Paloma,

 

[Do you know the song by Caetano Veloso called “Paloma”? It’s very beautiful. You can hear Caetano singing it on Youtube. Harry Belafonte recorded it in the Fifties; it’s always been one of my favorite melodies, though I don’t know or understand the lyrics.]

 

But, to the point: I’m very glad you like my poem so much that you wrote to me about it. I’m glad that you see that the poem is telling a story. I’m sorry I didn’t give a little introduction to the poem before I read it on the video. The poem is taken from my book of poems called My Seneca Village. Seneca Village was a small community of free black people in Manhattan, which was started in 1825 and thrived until it was destroyed as part of the creation of Central Park, in 1857. My book tells the stories of people I imagined living there.

 

“Thompson and Seaman Vows, African Union Church” is an imaginary wedding announcement in an imaginary newspaper. In writing it, I imitated real wedding announcements that appear nowadays every Sunday in The New York Times. The real, contemporary wedding announcements always begin with the names of the couple, the date of the wedding and the name of the person who officiated the ceremony. Then there is a paragraph about the bride: where she was educated, and where she works. Then a paragraph about her mother and father and their professional histories. Then the groom, his education and his work, and then information about this mother and father. If you read a lot of them, you see they follow a formula.

 

In the case of the couple in my poem, they are free, living in Seneca Village, New York, but the wedding takes place in 1847, a time when most of the black people in America where enslaved. In 1847 there were not many opportunities for black Americans to go to school. People who learned to read taught other people to read. That’s why the bride in the poem has been “educated by her literate friend.” In a couple of other poems in the book we learn that she loves Shakespeare, the great writer she knows (books were expensive; she wouldn’t have been able to own a collection of Shakespeare’s works, and libraries were usually available only to white people) only from seeing two of his plays performed by the African Theatre Company, in all-black productions (blacks would probably not be able to go to a white theater). But the fact that she can read and that she knows a little bit about the greatest poet of the English language makes her educated enough to teach in the Seneca Village school.

 

As for the groom, he is not exactly educated, but he can do math computations (i.e., measure a board and know where to cut it to fit a space in the building of a house) and he is a good carpenter (in other words, he has skills that translate into earning a good living). Although his mother was “slaved to an early death,” she did not forget that she and her people were stolen from a land that had its own greatness, and she passed on that knowledge and pride to her son, by telling him that he was descended from—as you put so well—“a noble family in Africa.”

 

Thanks for noticing the line breaks!

 

The topic came because I was trying to write poems that presented a panorama of village life, so I wanted to include a wedding. I found the names in the U.S. Census records of Seneca Village, but I invented the characters, the love story, and the wedding. There was a church with that name in Seneca Village. I’m so glad you loved my poem!

 

Best Wishes,

 

Marilyn Nelson

 

*

 

Here’s a bio of Nelson from a previous post:

 

Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1946. Her father was in the Air Force, one of the last of the Tuskegee airmen, and her mother was a teacher. The family moved often from military base to military base.

 

She started writing poetry at a young age. She graduated from University of California-Davis, got her Masters from University of Pennsylvania, and her PhD from University of Minnesota.

 

“Moonlily” is from a memoir-in-sonnets called How I Discovered Poetry, named in 2014 as one of NPR’s best books of the year. She’s published seven volumes of poetry for adults, eleven for young adults and four for children. She is also known for her translations of Danish poetry.  She’s won many awards, among them the Ruth Lilly prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the Frost Medal.

 

She was professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut. In 2003 following her retirement from teaching, she founded Soul Mountain Retreat near her home in rural Connecticut. She has two children.

 

 

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For no particular reason, a poem for Black History Month in the produce section of a grocery store. Wonder who found it.

 

poem is under the onions

 

American History

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

can you?

 

 

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 you?

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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February is Black History Month, and I have six poems queued up to celebrate it. Each poem shines a light on parts of U.S. history not emphasized in my own history education, which unfortunately was of the Social Studies ilk. (Social Studies, boring and artificial, caused  huge gaps in my knowledge of world history and geography.) The racial blind spots in my childhood textbooks leave me with some catching up to do. So here we are, learning new things every day.

 

Today’s poem is “Moonlily” by Marilyn Nelson. She recounts her schooling experience on a California Air Force base in the 50’s as the only black girl in a classroom of white children.

 

poem is on top of slide on this school playground

 

Moonlily

(Mather AFB, California, 1956)

by Marilyn Nelson

 

When we play horses at recess, my name

is Moonlily and I’m a yearling mare.

We gallop circles around the playground,

whinnying, neighing, and shaking our manes.

We scrape the ground with scuffed saddle oxfords,

thunder around the little kids on swings

and seesaws, and around the boys’ ball games.

We’re sorrel, chestnut, buckskin, pinto, gray,

a herd in pastel dresses and white socks.

We’re self-named, untamed, untouched, unridden.

Our plains know no fences. We can smell spring.

The bell produces metamorphosis.

Still hot and flushed, we file back to our desks,

one bay in a room of palominos.

 

 

 

I had to do a little research to understand this poem. Horse research. You may well be shocked at how little I know of horses, but in case you’re as ignorant of equine terminology as I am, here’s a guide:

 

A yearling is a one- or two-year old horse. Think of yearlings as tweens, not yet in puberty but close. Yearling mare just means the young horse is female.

 

Sorrel, chestnut, buckskin, pinto, gray are different horse colors. Most are brown-ish (sorrel, chesnut, gray), one is spotted brown and white (pinto), and only one (buckskin) is a light color.

 

A bay is a brown horse. A palomino is pale golden horse with a white tail and mane, the horse of royalty, parades, and the Mr. Ed show. Palomino only refers to color, not to a particular breed.

 

Now let’s talk about horse girls. The speaker in this poem (it is autobiographical, so let’s call her Nelson) is clearly a horse girl. You don’t have to ride horses to be a horse girl—as long as you’re a socially clueless pre-teen obsessed with horses, you qualify. (Warning: the horse girl world is a rabbit hole of memes and videos I spent way too much time in. Two of the best and weirdest:  link here to watch a girl jump like a horse, and here to watch a grown-up horse girl galloping along.)

 

“Horse girl energy” means being blissfully unaware about what other people think of you or what you wear or what you’re interested in. That’s a wonderful place for any child to be, girls in particular, Black girls especially. In the yearling stage of girlhood, girls are at the peak of feeling unselfconscious of their bodies, running wild and free in their play, and in the language of the poem, self-named, untamed, untouched, unridden.

 

There’s so much joy in this sonnet, so much motion and color. At play most of the girls are brown horses; they run together in a herd, dressed the same in their pastel dresses and saddle shoes. Outside the only divisions that matter are between big kids and little kids, between boys and girls. And then comes the recess-is-over bell. For Nelson, filing back into the classroom means more than the end of fun. It’s the end of belonging. The sudden, acute isolation this little girl feels stabs my heart—

 

Still hot and flushed, we file back to our desks,

one bay in a room of palominos.

 

*

 

If anyone is looking for a worthy organization to donate to this month, Detroit Horse Power is an equestrian center that works with urban youth. Here’s their mission statement:

Detroit Horse Power uniquely addresses two persistent problems facing the Motor City: the shortage of opportunities for metro Detroit’s vulnerable populations (especially children) and the abundance of vacant land. Through riding and caring for horses in a safe and enriching space, program participants learn valuable skills that set them up for future success.

 

Link here for more information.

 

*

 

Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1946. Her father was in the Air Force, one of the last of the Tuskegee airmen, and her mother was a teacher. The family moved often from military base to military base.

 

She started writing poetry at a young age. She graduated from University of California-Davis, got her Masters from University of Pennsylvania, and her PhD from University of Minnesota.

 

“Moonlily” is from a memoir-in-sonnets called How I Discovered Poetry, named in 2014 as one of NPR’s best books of the year. She’s published seven volumes of poetry for adults, eleven for young adults and four for children. She is also known for her translations of Danish poetry.  She’s won many awards, among them the Ruth Lilly prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the Frost Medal.

 

She was professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut. In 2003 following her retirement from teaching, she founded Soul Mountain Retreat near her home in rural Connecticut. She has two children.

 

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