Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE SLAVE TRADE: VIEW FROM THE MIDDLE PASSAGE, by CLARENCE MAJOR



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THE SLAVE TRADE: VIEW FROM THE MIDDLE PASSAGE, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: I am mfu, not a bit romantic, a water spirit
Subject(s): Slavery; Serfs


I

I am Mfu, not a bit romantic, a water spirit,
a voice from deep in the Atlantic:
Mfu jumped ship, made his escape, to find relief from his grief on the way,
long ago, to Brazil or Georgia or Carolina -- he doesn't know which; but this is
real, not a sentimental
landscape
where he sleeps free in the deep waves,
free to speak his music:
Mfu looks generously in all directions
for understanding of the white men
who came to the shores
of his nation.

Mfu looks for a festive reason,
something
that might have slipped.

Mfu looks back at his Africa,
and there at Europe,
and over there at the Americas,
where many of his kin were shipped
and perished, though many survived.
But how?
In a struggle of social muck. Escape?
No such luck then or now.

And Mfu hears all around him a whirlwind
of praise, explanation, insinuation,
doubt, expression of clout --
"It was a good time to be white,
British, and Christian" (H.A.C. Cairns).
And remembering the greed of the greedy white
men of Europe, greed for --
ivory, gold, land, fur, skin, chocolate, cocoa,
tobacco, palm oil, coffee, coconuts, sugar, silk,
Africans, mulatto sex, "exotic" battles,
and "divinely ordained slavery."

And it was, indeed, with reverie,
heaven on earth for white men.

But Mfu is even more puzzled by the action
of his own village:
Mfu, a strong young man, sold in half-light,
sold in the cover of night and muzzled
(not a mistake, not a blunder);
sold without ceremony or one tap
of the drum,
sold in the wake of plunder --
for a brush not a sum of money
but a mere shaving brush,
sold without consent of air fish water
bird or antelope,
sold and tied with a rope and chain
(linked to another young man
from Mozambique's coast,
who'd run like a streak
but ended anyway in a slave boat
without a leak or life preservers);
sold to that filthy Captain Snelgrave,
sold by his own chief, Chief Aidoo.
Sold for a damned shaving brush.
(And Chief Aidoo, who'd already lived
sixty winters,
never had even one strand of facial hair.)
Sold for a shaving brush.
Why not something useful?
Even a kola nut? A dozen kola nuts?
Six dozen kola nuts?
Sold for a stupid shaving brush.
And why didn't the villagers object?
(After all, he'd not been sold from jail,
like Kofi and Ayi and Kojo and Kwesi
and that girl-man Efua.)
And now Mfu's messenger, Seabreeze, speaks:
"Chief Aidoo merely wanted your
young wife but
before he could get his hands on her,
she, in grief, took her own life --
threw herself in the sea."

Here in Mfu's watery bed of seaweed
he still feels the dead weight of Livingstone's cargo
on his head, as he crosses --
one in a long line of strong black
porters --
the river into East Africa;

in his seafloor bed of ocean weeds
he still hears white men gathered in camp
praising themselves in lamplight,
sure of their mission --
"Go ye therefore, and teach all
nations,
baptizing them. . ." (Matthew 28:19).

Mfu, raised from seed a good boy -- to do all
he could --
never went raving mad at his father,
never shied from work, one
to never mope:
therefore when father said hold
the shaving mirror
for the white man, he held the shaving
mirror
for the white man, teaching himself
to read
the inscription: Kaloderma Shaving Soap.

But now Mfu, like a tree, is totally without
judgment
or ambition, suspended between
going and coming
in no need of even nutrition --
gray, eternal --
and therefore able to see, hear, and know
how to shape memory into a thing of wholeness
and to give this memory
not "the Negro revenged" voice
of abolitionist Wm. Cowper --
bless him --
but to see, say, what went into the making
of what, in those days, they called
Negrophobia.

II

To understand the contour,
Mfu must tour deep into Europe first,
explore
its sense of Mother Nature: Mother Nature
in Europe is a giant pink pig
with a black baby at one tit
(this is good Europe: charitable, kind,
compassionate Europe)
and a white baby at the other. A sucking
sound,
plenty to go around.

And in the background,
without thought of remission, a band
of white slave-catchers
force Africans into submission
(this is bad Europe: evil,
mercenary Europe)
in order to chain them,
hand to hand and leg to leg
and ship them into slavery
in the new land.

Both Europes baffle Mfu.
Could it be solely about greed and profit?
But he must try to understand it,
first, the good Europe.
He pictures this:
In a longhouse somewhere
on the coast
of West Africa about fifty
Africans,
in simple white cotton robes
are gathered in a dim light,
each awaiting his or her turn
to be dunked head-down
into a big wooden bucket
of water.
Two rosy pink Christian white men,
in slightly more elaborate white robes,
in attendance -- a link, surely, to heaven.
They do the dunking.
These are the good white men
who wear Josiah Wedgwood's
medallion
of a pious-looking African face
with the inscription:
"Am I not a man and a brother?" (1787).

But what is really happening?
One culture is modifying another,
and in the process (perhaps unwittingly)
modifying itself, in the name of its god;
as a Liverpool slaver, with its wretched cargo,
slides easily by
headed for the West Indies
or a port at Carolina,
with bodies packed in the pit.

The good white monk on his knees in prayer,
not interested in the gold of Afric
or the Bugaboo or whether or not
a European looks more
like an orangutan
than does, say, an Ethiopian.
(And besides, the orangutan is not an African animal.)
So, don't tell him stories
of this man-of-the-forest
kidnapping black babies,
thinking they his own kin.
Don't waste your time.
Don't tell him a good savage is one
who will climb
happily up a tree for you
and fetch you a piece of fruit like a good monkey.

Don't tell him your heathen jokes.
Don't laugh at Casper, at the birth of Christ.
Don't make fun of the Hottentots.
Don't try to convince him that Africans have
no souls. Souls are not proven. Period.
The white monk, sin or not,
has a secret vision of the Queen of Sheba,
as a healing spirit for the downtrodden
blacks,
and though this secular dream is out of rhyme
with his devotion, much of his time is
spent
on his vision of the Sable Venus,
herself a Creole Hottentot,
surrounded by chubby pink cherubs;
he prays to black Saint Martin
and to black Saint Maurice,
in armor, patron saint
of the Crusade
against the Slavs,
the monk prays to the black Madonna,
who certainly must know something he doesn't
know,
prays to all the white saints too
(and you can name them)
and to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

The white monk prays that these lean Children
of Ham
will be washed clean
by the spirit and say of the Lord --
made as white
as the light of day;
made to sparkle the way the little Dutch children
wanted to make
their African playmate shine from
and take to Snow-White Soap.

Anyway, at the very least,
black souls could be made pure
as snow.
No more niggling over that issue.
Pure as snow, far from the mistletoe,
that thing too terrible to touch.
And then when a French soldier
brings home
an African wife the village
grief and fear
will surely fall to the ground like a leaf.

Mfu listens to the prayer
and is puzzled by the contradiction
implicit in its quest. It conceals a tyranny
surely
not innate,
one Mfu would like to believe is not meant,
or mean-spirited.
The implication, though, is unfortunate.
But Mfu remembers many such occasions
when such good men prayed and took
action too
in the name of goodness-over-sin
that led to no good for anybody:
That out-of-breath five-year war
in Suriname (1792).

They took and hung the leader
on a hook by one of his ribs
leaving him without a tear
on the seashore to die
a slow death.
The white monk, by the way, prays
that the white Venus and the black
eunuch,
seen together like white on rice,
will remain cool, nice, and chaste.
The eunuch, after all, he knows
is not Peter Noire. And even Peter Noire
can be made to leap
out of a box
like those that French children play with:
where a black Martinican maid,
complete with apron and headrag,
springs up with a jolly smile,
ready to dust.
Or Black Peter could serve as Bamboulinette,
where we use his mouth as an ashtray.

Mfu is not sad,
but he now wonders
how necessary is it to give examples
of the deeds of bad white men
when there were so many jolly good sinless
deeds
of the exceptional men of pink skin.
We have so many who fought for the dignity
of all human beings. (But then,
is there not something in all men
that must be resisted --
especially by themselves?)
And Mfu also wonders at the noble, dignified
presence
of black intellectuals and military leaders
among the good Europeans:
There is Jean-Baptiste Belley, sad, ironic,
sardonic,
aging, elegant, in the French Army,
a captain during the French Revolution,
fighting, no doubt, for justice for all,
with strong memories
of having been born a Senegalese slave
at remote Goree (1747). Surely
this man
lived with irony as if it were a cancerous
sore
in his throat.

III

Ah ha! Mfu can now see the Americas from here.

There is a group of Maroons being ambushed
by white overseers with guns
in moonlight in the bushes,
being yanked and gathered together
on the Dromilly Estate, Trelawny.

Haitian soldiers, crushing Napoleon,
placing ropes around the necks
of French soldiers and pulling them up
by way of pulleys to hang them
dangling from stakes,
to hang in the sun till they die.
And Hansel to Gretel:
"I'm afraid to go
to Africa because cannibals may
eat me
as they do one another."
Little Red Riding Hood to her
grandmother:
"Dig, what makes your mouth so big?"

And Ignatius Sandro, there,
with that wonderful, whimsical
gaze of his.
No tears.

A crying Barbados mulatto girl on her knees
before a planter.
His head thrown back, face drinking the sky,
and with eyes closed, lace open,
his expression is both one of deep pleasure
and great agony.

A jamaican Creole noblelady sits on a porch
while a black slave fans her.

Because of one slip,
a Sambo, white as his tormentors,
strapped over a barrel,
is being beaten with a bullwhip,
and his entire backside is beet-red
with blood.

A giant snake, sixty yards long,
drops from a massive, ancient tree
onto the back of a black horseman,
right or wrong, you see,
and wraps itself around both,
squeezing
till the horse and the man,
taking all they can stand,
stop moving, then swallows first
the man then the horse.

Mfu can also see farther north -- Georgia and
Carolina:
Black men women and children bent
working -- out of breath --
the cotton the corn the cane,
from can't-see to can't-see,
from birth till death,
with no stake in their labor.

Never will forget the day,
Never will forget the day,
Jesus washed my sins away.

Who is that pink-faced general, dying?
lying on the ground dying out there,
as the Battle of Bunker Hill rages on?
Another general, one who will perhaps
become president, fights his way
free of a cluster of redcoats,
without feeling the slightest thrill
while, on horseback
in the background,
his slaves watch for him to botch it.

Pharaoh's army sunk in the sea,
Pharaoh's army sunk in the sea,
Sho am glad it ain't me.

And a Negro soldier (strong as a Wagogo
warrior and
brave as KaMpande,
King of the Zulu)
aims his rifle at a redcoat
while a major points
the frailest pink finger
ever in danger of being shot off
in a revolutionary war.

Two white horses side by side,
Two white horses side by side,
Them the horses I'm gon ride.

A newspaper item: "And good white men
have come to believe that perhaps the sin
is not in keeping the niggers in chains but in releasing
them." ("Catch a nigger by the toe...?"
"Let my people go!")

A cartoon (1789):
A black man dressed like an English gentleman
is bludgeoning a poor, suffering white man over
the head with an ignorant-stick. And in the
background: Similar configurations dot the
diminishing landscape. Message: Let them go
and they will enslave you. Rationale: Abolition
is folly.

This here is the white woman, France,
(this time without the fabled black
eunuch)
with her arms outstretched to the slaves
on knees before her,
with arms lifted toward her
thigh,
while Frossard watches with the light
of an approving smile in his eye.

Jefferson strokes his chin,
thinking about freeing his slaves.
Here they come around the bend.
But he says oh well, maybe not.
Rise Sally rise. Wipe your weeping eyes.
Washington, on his deathbed, frees his slaves.
Thanks a lot.

On my way to heaven,
Yes, Lord, on my way to heaven,
On my way to heaven, anyway.

Mfu remembers an Ashanti Juju girl
(who gave him a coin)
saying, "We must believe that the good
in human beings will prevail."
And on front of the coin:
Nemesis, antique goddess
with raised left arm.
Right hand holds olive branch.
Obverse:
Face of a young African man,
sensitive and intelligent.
And the inscription:
"Me miserum."
This relic, the best, the girl said, was given to her
by a never-mean Danish traveler from
the West Indies,
where he'd seen, without reverie,
the abolition of slavery
in 1792.

Sister Mary wore three
links of chain,
Sister Mary wore three
links of chain,
Glory, glory to His name...

IV

Mfu says this is to strain against the insanity
that welcomes us at the other end:
Where one does not believe there is hope,
and one strains too to keep the gentle face
of, say, Carl Bernhard Wadstrom,
white man,
bent over Peter Panah, black man,
teaching him to read.
And wish the configuration
said something more
than it does.

Mfu remembers Equiano.
Equiano (1789) said: "We are almost a
nation of dancers, musicians, and poets."
And although we're more,
much much more,
let's have a revival --
Why not celebrate?
If nothing else,
it can't hurt to celebrate survival.


Used with the permission of Copper Canyon Press, P.O. Box 271, Port Townsend, WA
98368-0271, www.cc.press.org




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