In the past few weeks, I’ve read a few books for this reading project; at this rate, I will easily read the 32 books I’m aiming for (representing the percentage of people in one American state, who voted in November 2020 on a bill which maintained the legal option to enslave Americans under specific circumstances).
Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over (2019) was born of an emotion “so unsettling in its demands for acknowledgement” that she was utterly compelled to write.
She discovered the names of her protagonists (Moses and Kitch) while studying routes enslaved people travelled during the antebellum era and slave ship manifests.
There are only two other roles in the play, Mister and Ossifer, intended to be played by the same actor.
The brief descriptions of Characters, Setting and Time reveal how the characters and scenes are pleated, places and centuries folding inward as in this instance:
“TIME a ghetto street, a lamppost, night
but also a plantation
but also Egypt, a city built by slaves”
In just over a hundred pages, we are drawn into these intimate and honest scenes. Even though reading a play is different from attending a dramatization, Nwandu’s arc is clear and powerful.
Earlier this year, I wrote about another slim volume in my stacks: Afua Cooper and Wilfried Raussert’s Black Matters (2020). Here’s another excerpt, from “Uncles”, which fits thematically and also emphasizes the importance of voice and inheritance:
“Uncles cut cane of Louisiana plantations
wore knee-high, steel-toe boots
to keep their feet and legs safe
from poisonous snakes
that slithered through the fields
Uncles labouring under hot sun
man did tink seh slavery done…”
Elizabeth Alexander’s poems landed on many readers’ bookshelves thanks to “Praise Song for the Day”, which she read at Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential inauguration. It includes this homage to ancestors:
Her series Amistad, from her 2005 collection American Sublime is a fitting read for this project. “Translator” is in that series, with “the captives, the low black schooner like / so many ships, an infinity of ships filled / with Africans, men, women, children”.
“Emancipation” is from the same collection:
“Nineteenth century corncob cosmogram
set on the dirt floor, beneath the slant roof,
left intact the afternoon
that someone came and told those slaves.”
In Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color (2007), “We” considers the risks that young ladies and little misses face in the legacy of slavery: “Though the state has said no to slavery, / we know how it happens with colored girls / and white men, their red-devil eyes and tentacles.”
Elizabeth Alexander’s Crave Radiance (2010) includes poems from six collections: an excellent beginning. (There are also many videos easily found online, if you missed her inaugural reading. Later this month I’ll have more to say about her memoir.)
I bought Michael Fraser’s To Greet Yourself Arriving (2016) because I love the cover, the way that the eyes are everywhere but removed from their faces (artwork by Kalkidan Assefa) and because I’ve enjoyed other books published by Tightrope (like this one and this one).
The introduction by George Elliott Clarke is titled for the book’s theme: “Let Us Now Praise Famous Folks (well, um, sort of)….” In sections titled The Winter’s Life, The Train I Ride On, Las caras lindas de mi gente negra, Carnival Long Ago, Say It Loud, and Future Noon, these poems are short verses about hockey players, musicians, writers, civil servants and other professionals whose names we should know (but maybe don’t).
Poems about Grant Fuhr (the first Black NHL player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame), Ismael Rivera (a Puerto Rican singer and composer), Gil Scott-Heron (author, poet and musician behind “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”), Lincoln Alexander (the first Black MP in the House of Commons, later the first Black Lieutenant Governor serving Ontario), and John Ware (who had been enslaved but eventually brought cattle into Alberta and spawned the ranching industry).
In Dr. Anderson Abbott:
“My signed freedom papers / have taken up lodging / under maple floorboards.”
In Marie-Joseph Angelique:
“The flames are incomplete. / Imagine this place without a name, / like my parched familial branch / scorched over years of salt sea.”
“Tell me we are more than dust. Tell me we are / free as air.”
“…when they dreamed of cotton / their screams shucked the night air / of its clothes / and their hearts raced / alongside the cold curdling voices / running barefoot into morning.”
In “Paul Robeson”:
“At first they didn’t know / the voice was blooming mahogany, / non-ethereal sound, born from the hulls / of looting ships and skin-filled galleons.”
“I placed flags and kicks in / the collective mind slavery erected.”
Marie-Joseph Angelique has only a single poem here; she is the focus of Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal (2006).
Afua Cooper’s We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History (1994) is more academic in tone but the extensive work on figures like Mary Ann Shadd and Mary Bibb creates a strong enough narrative to engage a curious reader.
One of the contributors to this volume is Sylvia Hamilton, whose volume of poems And I Alone Escaped to Tell You (2014) includes excerpts from reward postings for enslaved men and women who have fled their captivity (Freedom Runners) and wealthy men’s papers designating the distribution of their “property”, including people, who are passed to the next generations, like silverware and china.
And another Canadian poet compelled by history is Olive Senior, whose 2007 collection, Shell, she describes as “sprouting from the sugar cane fields on islands drenched in blood, the former British West Indies”. She began writing them many years earlier, but finished them to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade.
Later this year, I’ll share another eight. If you’d like to recommend a book on this subject (or more than one—thanks to those who have already shared some recommendations), please do.