Wednesday, April 24, 2013

One messed-up poem



The Horace Chronicles, #5

September 22

Dear Maya,

For the past couple days we’d been learning about slavery. Mr. Smith had us read about stuff like the Triangular Trade. He explained how slavery was different in North America than it was in South America (apparently North American slaves had it a little better because the weather was better and they got more food – if they managed to survive the trip over). He explained that things in the English colonies got worse for slaves around 1700 than they’d been in 1600 because the slave owners were getting nervous about poorer white people and thought they might keep them from getting too mad by making them feel at least they weren’t black. That whole Bacon's Rebellion thing which I mentioned in my paper. I found this stuff interesting. But I think Carl was getting bored, and some other kids were too. Yesterday I saw more kids staring out the window than I’d ever seen in this class. Almost as bad as English, where we were trudging through The Tempest. I think the idea was to have the English and History doing similar stuff, but it just wasn't working. Ms. Guzman went so slow. I also hated reading the play online, but I wasn't going to pay $5 for it, and I definitely wasn't going to ask my dad.

So I was a little surprised when Mr. Smith called up some poetry on the Smart Board. “OK, kids,” he said, putting down a mug of steaming coffee. “Today I have something for us to read. As you can see, it’s a poem by Phillis Wheatley—’’

“—her name is spelled wrong,” Hannah said. “My great aunt’s name is Phyllis. Shouldn’t this one have a Y in it?”

“She was named after the slave ship that brought her to America.”

“Well it’s still spelled wrong.”

“People were less fussy about spelling in those days,” Mr. Smith said. He picked up his coffee again. Reminds me of a hundred years later, when Andrew Jackson, who some people thought was illiterate, said he couldn’t respect a man who knew only one way to spell a word.” Mr. Smith sipped his coffee. I think he expected people to laugh, but no one did.

He put the mug back down. “Anyway, Wheatley was a slave—’’

“—Can I go to the bathroom?”

“Yes, Deana. As I was saying—“

“—Can I go too?”

“When Deana gets back. Wheatley was a slave—“

“Wait: a poet who was a slave?” This from Danny Kaiser.

I thought Mr. Smith would be mad to be interrupted again. Instead, he smiled. “You got a problem with that, Danny?”

“No. I mean, it’s just . . . it’s just a little weird. I thought slaves did like hard labor.”

“You thought right. As we’ll see, if we can ever get to the poem, that this Phillis Wheatley, no 'y,' was a pretty unusual woman. She was born in West Africa some time around 1730, and came to Boston. She wrote this poem around 1750 when she was about 20 years old. But let’s put aside the details for a moment. What you see here is the whole poem. Who wants to read it?”

Liz Ling’s hand shot up. “All right, Liz,” Mr. Smith said, “go at it.”  I shot a look at Jasmin Randall, who is black. I wondered what she was going to make of this. Her face was blank, looking at the board. Lisa read:

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

"Their colour is a diabolic die."

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

“That is one messed-up poem,” Danny said.

“How’s that, Danny?”

“She’s saying she’s glad to be a slave!

“Where does she say that?” asked Mr. Smith, reaching for his mug again. He didn’t look at Danny when he asked, which I think made the question seem less in-your-face

“She’s saying it was mercy that brought her here! It’s like she’s been brainwashed or something.

Mr. Smith put the mug down. Deana came in. Michaela went out. “We all agree then? The poet is a messed up, brainwashed slave?”

Silence. I kinda thought Danny was right, even as I suspected he was somehow wrong. Jasmin's face was blank. 

“Maybe she’s been brainwashed by Jesus.” It was Hannah. She always seemed to be the one to break the silence, as much out of impatience as anything else.

“What do you mean?” Mr. Smith asked in that even way of his. “How does Jesus figure into it?”

“Well, she says ‘there’s a God and a Saviour too,’ doesn’t she?”

“Yes she does. You think she’s wrong, Hannah?”

“How do I know?”

“Well, how does anybody? She apparently believes that Jesus Christ is her Saviour. Do you?”

“Well, if you’re into that kind of thing, I guess. It depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“Whether you believe in God or whatever.”

“What I’m asking is whether you do.”

“You’re asking me?”

“Yes, Hannah. I’m asking you.”

Hannah seemed confused and annoyed. “I don’t know,” she said. It’s clear she wanted Mr. Smith to stop. I wondered if he would. But then Danny came to her rescue.

“I don’t,” he said. “I’m Jewish. But I don’t really believe in God, either.”

“Well that makes sense, then.”

“What do you mean?” It was Carl. I guess he had decided to follow the conversation. He seemed a little suspicious of what Mr. Smith was saying about Danny.

“If you don’t believe in God or Jesus, then hearing someone say she became a slave was a blessing wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. Of course, one of the things she’s saying here is that she was once just like Danny. She didn’t believe, either. But now that she does, she’s experienced a ‘redemption’ she neither sought nor knew. What does ‘redemption’ mean?”

“Like in bottles?” It was Deana. I wondered if that was a serious answer, and whether she was thinking of the bottle-cap thing Mr. Smith did on the first day of school, which seemed like a long time ago already.

“Kind of," he said. "What happens when you redeem a bottle at the supermarket?”

“You get a nickel back,” she said. 

“Right. You get paid back. You think the narrator of this poem is being paid back?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“With a nickel?”

“No,” Carl said, taking over for Deana. “With heaven.”

“So she believes and she goes to heaven. Belief is a good investment.”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Hmmm,” Mr. Smith said, stealing a sip of coffee. “What would the Puritans say about that?”

Liz raised her hand. Mr. Smith nodded.

“They’d say she’s wrong. You’re not supposed to try and get to heaven by believing.”

“Is that what she’s doing, Liz?”

Lisa paused. You could see her thinking. “I guess not. It sort of happened to her. She said she wasn’t looking for it. It just happened.”

“Right. The grace was irresistibly conferred on her, just like the Puritans said it should be. Actually, they said it had to be that way: faith is a gift you receive, not something you just go ahead and take, or decide to go after, for that matter. After all, you can’t make yourself love somebody. It’s something that happens to you. Who knows: maybe faith will be irresistibly conferred on Danny someday.”

“Yeah, right.” But Danny was talking to himself. Mr. Smith had turned his back and was walking back to the Smart Board. He stood next to the poem. “Let me ask you something else,” he said. “Who is this poem addressing? Who is she trying to reach?”

Silence. Mr. Smith offered an answer: “Other slaves?”

“No,” Carl said. “They can’t read.”

“Right. So who, then?”

More silence. I decided to say something. “Well, she says ‘Remember, Christians.’”

“Right. Read that line again, Theo.”

“Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain/May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.”

“What is she saying?”

“She’s saying that Christians should remember that black people can get to heaven too.”

“But are black people Christians?”


“Really? Even though they’re ‘diabolic,’ which is to say from the devil?”


Sure, Theo? Is it really that obvious?”

“To me it is.” Was Jasmin looking at me? I was afraid to check.

“How nice for you.” (That felt like a slap, Maya.) “But what about the people she’s talking to?”

“I guess not.”

“No, it wasn’t obvious. But here’s one other complication. She says Negroes are just like Cain. Who was Cain?”

“I learned about him in Hebrew school,” Danny jumped in. He’s the guy who killed Abel.

“Right. And God condemned him to exile. Just like slaves are in exile in America. Because Cain was a sinner. Like we’re all sinners. Black people and white people alike.” Mr. Smith scanned the room. Then he looked up at the clock.

“One last thing. The poet describes her race as ‘sable.’ Anybody know what ‘sable’ means?”

“My grandfather drives one,” Deana said. “A Mercury Sable. He keeps it very clean.”

“What color is it?” Mr. Smith asks.


 “Damn.” Mr. Smith smiled. “ ‘Sable actually means black. It’s a kind of animal with black fur. The fur trade, as you may remember from last week, was a big business in the colonies. So ‘sable’ is a byword for quality, almost a brand like Apple. So she’s describing her fellow people as valuable, which of course they were from an economic standpoint in the slave trade. Do you think that’s what she means?”

Again, no answer. But I think we all understood the answer was no.

“Maybe Danny is right: she really was brainwashed. But whether or not she was, I hope you can also see she was pretty sharp. I hope you agree that there’s a lot going on here, more than we can really get at. Tonight’s homework is on the web page. See you tomorrow.”

It was a good class, Maya. But the thing I kept thinking about was something Mr. Smith said in passing: “You can’t make yourself love somebody. It’s something that happens to you.” Is that all there is to say? Is it really that simple? Not to get carried away, but that seems like another form of slavery. Maybe I should rebel. But I just don’t want to.