37th Mississippi

This poem had its genesis in Summer 2015, in the aftermath of the murders in the church in South Carolina and the subsequent national discussion about the Confederate battle flag.  During this same time, I read  James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, followed soon after by The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. DuBois. While I have not been one to sing the praises of the Confederate cause, and I was well-aware that the cause was defense and extension of slavery, I had always treated my ancestors’ slaveholding and service in the Confederate army as a cold, dry historical fact.  I had never really thought about any sort of connection to me other than historical.  It was a legacy I could easily put aside.  Reading Jacobs’ and DuBois’ books, though, in the context of the ongoing discussion about White privilege, and our inability to fully confront and attempt to repair the ravages that slavery, Jim Crow, racism, and prejudice have wrought within our society, drove home the fact that this legacy affects all of us, and we all have some responsibility to confront and change.  This is my initial volley.

Follow-up: This past October, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Twice. If my eyes and mind were opened by my reading last summer, Coates made me realize that little has really changed. As Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

37th MISSISSIPPI
1.

These are the places that are remembered:
Corinth, Iuka, Vicksburg—
places where the battle flag flew.
These are the places I must remember:
the plantations and farms of Mississippi,
where my people enslaved,
degraded and denied,
where my people forsook humanity
in the name of cotton and supremacy.

2.

Where are the monuments
to the Middle Passage dead?
Where are the monuments
to those who died enslaved?
Where are the monuments
to those who were lynched?
Where are the monuments
to those whose bodies
were flayed by slavemasters’ whips?
Whose bodies and lives
were scarred and maimed and raped?
Where are the monuments
to those whose freedom we denied,
whose dignity we stole?

3.

1860: Peter Loper was one of the richest men
in Jasper County, Mississippi.
His blood is my blood.

Peter Loper’s wealth came from cotton
and the exploitation of men and women.
They bore his privilege on their backs,
created his wealth with their hands.
His blood is my blood.

Benjamin Loper went to war
to protect his father’s wealth
and his family’s legacy,
to protect a homeland built
on white supremacy.
His blood is my blood.

Peter Loper: I say his name,
and Benjamin’s too,
because I do not know the names
of the men and women
whose bodies they owned:
mind, muscles, blood,
mere commodities,
like the cotton they raised.

I will not look away.
This is the legacy for which
I stand and say:
I am sorry.
I am sorry.
I am sorry.

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