by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
For several years now, Right Wing think tanks and other revisionists have striven to convince us that “Black Slavery Wasn’t as Bad as You’ve Been Taught.” Since the people putting this theory out there are white, and have no personal experience of being slaves, it’s difficult to understand how they could have acquired this knowledge.
My husband was recently watching a documentary that was supposed to be about General Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’ during the Civil War, but spent much more time on the filmmaker revisiting his old girlfriends. One of his ex-sweethearts put forth the idea that “If people want to be slaves, the government should let them.” I was called into the room so I could see this remarkable footage for myself. Suddenly this documentary about the past became very much connected to our present.
One of the things which makes a story or a poem memorable is the “telling detail,” an unexpected connection between events or ideas or unlikely people, or a single object that becomes the symbol of what’s really under the surface of the poem. Pay close attention to the details in this week’s poems – there’s a lot going on.
Camille T. Dungy (1972 – ) is an American poet of African American heritage, and a creative writing professor. She has written these interconnecting poems as if they were letters from Joseph Freeman, who was a free man, but is now a slave in Virginia, to his wife Melinda, living with their son in Philadelphia. Much is left unexplained, but there were a number of cases in our dark past of free black people stolen from Northern states and sold into slavery, as Solomon Northup so vividly wrote in Twelve Years a Slave.
From the Unwritten Letters of Joseph Freeman
Melinda, I’ve been preparing to write.
That peculiar girl named Molly,
who has a bit of liberty in the house,
has said she’ll find some paper.
I have practiced mixing charred wood with water
and have managed to shave a twig
so one end nearly resembles a nib,
but tonight Lila got caught up
under the good Doctor’s whip
for such a little offense. I am frightened.
Doctor Jackson brought in a new troop of slaves today.
A boy of thirteen among them had the welted cheek
that speaks of a driver’s dissatisfaction.
Lila put a poultice on to ease the swelling,
but Jackson wants the boy to understand his place
and thinks a scar will help. Lila’s back
and neck and arms have thirty new wounds
to replace the one she thought to heal.
Melinda, how is Jacob? Ever yours,
. . .
Do you ever start at night believing
I might be dead? I leave my body
sometimes, Melinda. Is that all dying is?
Remember how I’d scold you
when the stew was thin, believing
I needed a thick stock to forge muscle
for all the work I had ahead?
Your stew would make me big again, Melinda.
Sometimes we have to trap, skin and roast
possum, rabbit, snake and squirrel.
Except for that, I have swallowed naught
but salt pork and coarse meal in all my days
away from you. But I work just fine.
Ever your beloved husband,
. . .
What a herd of slaves Jackson brought in last month.
No sooner had their strength returned
after the long march to the farm from Lynchburg
but they began to plot another run.
We didn’t know they’d planned to leave
until they were already gone a day.
All manner of neighborhood men
came around to tip Jackson’s whiskey
and help him on the hunt, though
all they brought back for their trouble
were two bodies. One dead,
one fighting off living. That boy
I told you about, Ben with the slashed cheek?
At the stony fork of the river
Doc Jackson found his body, cut up,
twisted as if it had fought long
under water, a dead hand pointing
in the direction his netted sister and the “damned
lost lot of niggers” had run. I guess
he was too obstinate even for the water
to hold down easily. Jackson used Ben
like a scarecrow, his shirt hooked on a pole,
his body meant to warn us from the road.
Lila’s still not certain that the girl will live.
Until tomorrow, I am ever your Joe.
. . .
William is the name Smythe matched
to my description when he shipped me
from his Wilmington slave pen
to the Richmond consigner Jackson
bought me from. So I am William,
though it took more than one whipping
for me to remember it. There is a woman
keeps the kitchen here prefers we call her Auntie.
She’s been called so many names
she “most forgets” which one means her.
I trust Jacob is getting on in school
just fine. I was, at his age, learning
to carry myself with the pride of a Freeman.
It’s been many years since I’ve been able
to answer to any person calling me
that name. And Jacob? Can he remember
his father? Please hug him for me,
Melinda. I am ever your husband,
. . .
How many live on our alley in Philadelphia?
There, this room might accommodate
a bed and two chairs, but here we are three men,
two women, some potions, and a girl. We sleep
in turns. Marlo often walks the woods at night,
his eye out on the traps for all of us. ‘Dolphus steals sleep
in the smithing shop and steals everything else
before dawn. Just last week, we bore the tread
of a muzzled goat and two hens he brought in
from a neighbor’s farm. Our field sweat adds stench
to the store of bones, feathers, brews, and herbs
Lila claims can cure the women on this place.
Sadie, who Lila never tried to stop herself from bearing,
sleeps with her body wedged behind the door.
Molly swings it in her side each night when she turns up
to sleep after Miss Amy’s laudanum takes and again
when she races the conch call to the house in the morning.
Even Lena, who had a well-built cabin of her own
when she lived on the place, pushed four babies off her tit
to make room for the Doctor and for Miss Amy’s boy.
I wonder, Melinda, are your wages enough,
since I went away, to satisfy the rent? Yours in tribulation,
. . .
The Doctor’s had his eye on Molly
since he caught her listening
while the tutor drilled his son on Greek.
She says the boy translates slowly.
On a war now, his spoiled tongue
has spent two days flogging
some warrior’s impenetrable shield.
Molly showed me yesterday
what a heart looks like. Traced it
in the dirt that is my bed, my stool,
my desk, my cabin floor. I miss you, Melinda.
I miss feeling the little skip your heart took sometimes,
though I know the pinch that came along with the stutter
pained you. Molly is a smart girl,
though brutal in her zeal. She’s quicker
than a butcher to find cause to wield a knife.
I am certain the Doctor will lapse in his vigilance
soon enough. Then I will chance to capture
on the page one of these letters. May God be good
and grant so large a prayer. Yours,
. . .
We are like to lose another hand
unless ‘Dolphus can recover
from the flogging he took
over a missing pair of cufflinks.
The girl who was brought home
with Ben’s body was quickly well enough
to work, and she had less skin on her bones
than Doctor Jackson left on ‘Dolphus.
Perhaps there is some little hope
for Lila’s husband. Molly is afraid
to sneak me any of the Doctor’s paper.
Molly, who can be as bad as ‘Dolphus
about purloining pretty, useful things.
I doubted she was earnest in her fear,
but now I see what she, born here,
must have always known. A man
whose livelihood depends on stealing
the toil of other people’s bodies
must keep a keen eye on his own
most dear and precious things.
In over 150 years since the Civil War, violence against people simply because of the color of their skin cycles from the level of terrorism to “isolated incidents,” but is always with us.
We were Two Rooms of One Timber,
But I Left that Place Alone
Sara, widow, 31
Henry pulled our heartwood along the rutted street
that town stood beside, built two rooms
and called them home. My Henry did that.
There. And I lived all those days inside his love.
But there is a kind of hunger that feeds
on flesh. Only, let it be yearning, heaving,
rising flesh. Only, let it be flesh living
and loving. Alive. Let it be life.
There is a kind of hunger that feeds on life.
They carved into him with banquet knives,
made stew of his skin and stirred it
with his own bones. My Henry served: the meat
and the pot to cook it in. And there was no charge
against the men who made that meal.
Dungy leaves us to wonder about her connection to Lynda Hull, who was a poet with two published poetry collections before she was killed at age 40 in an automobile accident. Hull’s husband published a third volume of her poetry posthumously, and later edited a collected works.
Maybe you sold it to buy junk. Though I like to think not.
And I don’t want to think you used the money for food
or rent or anything obligatory, practical.
A pair of boots, perhaps. Thigh high burgundy boots
with gold laces. Something crucial as lilies.
Mostly, I want to believe you held onto the book,
that your fingers brailed those pages’ inky veins
even in your final weeks. I want to believe
words can be that important in the end.
Who can help the heart, which is grand and full
of gestures? I had been on my way out.
He was rearranging his bookshelves
when, in an approximation of tenderness,
he handed me, like the last of the sweet potatoes
at Thanksgiving, like a thing he wanted
but was willing to share, the rediscovered book—
he’d bought it years ago in a used bookstore
in Chicago. Levine’s poems, with your signature inside.
That whole year I spent loving him, something splendid
as lemons, sour and bright and leading my tongue
toward new language, was on the shelf. These
weren’t your own poems, autographed, a stranger’s
souvenir—we’d spent vain months leafing through
New York stacks for your out-of-print collections—but you’d cared
about this book, or cared enough to claim it, your name
looped across the title page as if to say, Please.
This is mine, This book is mine. Though you sold it.
Or someone else did when you died.
We make habits out of words. I grew accustomed
to his, the way they spooned me into sleep
so many times. Now I am sleepless and alone
another night. What would you give for one more night
alone? No booze. No drugs. Just that hunger
and those words. He gave me The Names of the Lost.
Need comes down hard on a body. What else
was sold? What else—do you know?—did we lose
Some days, my arthritis makes using a keyboard difficult, so this poem has a little extra meaning for me, even though arthritis isn’t what it’s really about.
as per notes from December 1843
I’ve never thought about it. That if you’re a slave and you changed owners, the new owner might just change your name. You really did own nothing.
As soon as the slave ship got you to market, your birth name was the first thing they stripped away – You got called by a ‘Christian’ name as soon as they bought you, instead of the ‘barbaric’ name your family had given you – and any master could change it again.
I once worked in a three-person department at a large company where the owner-CEO called all three of us ‘Judy’ – the name of my boss, as if we were interchangeable parts – it was really awkward and confusing – gave me just the tiniest inkling of what losing your name was like.