Universities and Slavery | 3 of 5 | Poetry Reading || Radcliffe Institute



I hope everyone had a good lunch and we are ready to continue with our program I'd like to invite Vincent Brown to the podium and he will introduce our wonderful poet for the day Vincent Brown is a professor of african-american studies and of history at Harvard University he's also the director of the history design studio at Harvard and he writes and teaches on the African Diaspora Vincent [Applause] Thank You Evelyn for that and thanks to to president Faust and to Dean Cohen and everyone at Radcliffe who helped make this possible this very timely and I think important symposium thanks to for inviting me to introduce the brilliant poet Natasha Trethewey this afternoon we've been gathered to consider how we live with the past so we can better envision our future we cannot undo what has been done so you must remember it all putting our recollections together in ways that allow us to live our values and to enact them for a common benefit now I'm not a poet and nor am I particularly poetic but as a historian I'm humbled by the way Natasha Trethewey engages so deeply with history and I'm intrigued by the differences in the ways poets and historians work with the past historians tend to follow chronological genre rules we like timelines then move our stories and arguments along direct pathways we hold on to the arrow of time pulled along its fateful trajectory toward what we hope is the truth who owned slaves what work did they do how much profit did they yield for their exploiters how did legacies of privilege and loss accumulate between then and now now professor truth would probably be too polite to say it but in some ways the chronological vectors employed by historians run parallel to the typological classifications of racial thinking we mark clear distinctions where there are only overlaps intersections and blurs a thing happened in this place on this day in this year and we can tell you how it changed into that thing on another day years later but of course this isn't generally the way people experience the past anymore than it is the way they experience belonging and connection instead most people look backward leap forward or inter fugue states where we can be every win at once I am a slave I suffer those lacerations I endure the humiliations I continue to service a debt for credit I never received this kind of experience isn't easily represented within chronology temporal life makes a more aesthetic and poetic claim to the truth so rather than showing how to write history poets teach us how to live with history and in this Natasha Trethewey is a marvelous guide she leads us into history as participants drawing us close to the past its aspirations predicaments and struggles alongside her perhaps we can see that better future her work certainly shows it to me so please join me in welcoming the former 19th poet laureate of the United States of America and former Radcliffe Fellow Emory University's Robert W Woodruff was a professor of English and creative writing and soon to be professor at Northwestern University because she said she likes the cold Natasha Trethewey thank you good afternoon I am honored and delighted to be at this wonderful conference I'm going to read a poem very much about historical memory and historical erasure what gets told recorded passed down who does the telling and recording and what's left out of our national memory about slavery the Civil War and the aftermath in which we are now living this is the imagined Journal of a former slave who is enlisted in the Union Army the first regiments of the Louisiana native guards were mustered into service in September October and November of 1862 and the second and third made up of men who had been slaves only a few months before enlisting during the war the fort at Ship Island Mississippi called Fort Massachusetts right across from my hometown Gulfport Mississippi they served as guards to Confederate soldiers military convicts and prisoners of war one of the men on the island an officer francis Dumas the son of a white Creole father and a mulatto mother who had inherited slaves when his father died and although Louisiana law prohibited him from Mannie meeting those slaves after the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation he freed his slaves and encouraged those men of age to join the native guards the poem begins with an epigraph from Frederick Douglass that reads if this war is to be forgotten I ask in the name of all things sacred what shall men remember native guard November 1862 truth be told I do not want to forget anything of my former life the landscapes song of bondage dirge in the rivers throat where it churns into the Gulf wind in trees choked with vines I thought to carry with me to freedom though I had been freed remembrance not constant recollection yes I was born a slave at harvest time in the parish of Ascension I've reached 33 with history of one younger inscribed upon my back I now use ink to keep record a closed book not the lore of memory flawed changeful that dulls the lash for the master sharpens it for the slave December 1862 for the slave having a master sharpens the bend into work the way the sergeant moves us now to perfect battalion drill dress parade still we're call supply units not infantry and so we dig trenches halt burdens for the army no less heavy than before I heard the colonel call it nigger work half rations make our work familiar still we take those things we need from the Confederates abandoned homes salt sugar even this journal near full with someone else's words overlapped now cross-hatched beneath mine on every page his story intersecting with my own January 1863 oh how history intersects my own birth upon a ship called the Northern Star and I'm delivered into a new life Fort Massachusetts a great irony both paths and destination of freedom I'd not dared to travel here now I walk ankle deep in sand fly bitten nearly smothered by heat and yet I can look out upon the Gulf and see the surf breaking tossing the ships the great gunboats bobbing on the water and are we not the same slaves in the hands of the master destiny night sky red with the promise of fortune dawn pink as new flesh healing unfettered January 1863 today dawn red is warning unfettered supplies stacked on the beach at our landing washed away in the storm that rose to fast caught us unprepared later as we worked I joined in the low singing someone raised to pace us and felt a bond in labor I had not known it was then a dark man removed his shirt revealed the scars cross-hatched like the lines in this journal on his back it was he who remarked at how the ropes cracked like whips on the sand made us take note of the wild dance of a tent loosed by wind we watched and learned like any shrewd master we know now to tie down what we will keep February 1863 we know it is our duty now to keep white men as prisoners rebel soldiers would be masters we're all bondsman here each to the other freedom has gotten them captivity for us a conscription we have chosen jailers to those who still would have us slaves they are cautious dreading the sight of us some neither read nor write are laid too low and have few words to send but those I give them still they are wary of a Negro writing taking down letters X binds them to the page a mute symbol like the cross on a grave I suspect they fear I'll listen put something else down in ink March 1863 I listened but down in ink what I know they labor to say between silences too big for words worried for beloved's my dearest how are you getting along what become of their small plots of land did you harvest enough food to put by they long for the comfort of former lives I see you as you were waving goodbye some send photographs the likeness in case the body can't return others dictate harsh facts of this war the hot air carries the stench of limbs rotten in the bone pit flies swarm a black cloud we hunger grow weak when men die we eat their share of hardtack April 1863 when men die we eat their share of hardtack trying not to recall their hollow sockets the worm stitch of their cheeks today we buried the last of our dead from Pascagoula and those who died retreating to our ship white sailors in blue firing upon us as if we were the enemy I thought the fighting over then watched a man fall beside me knees first as in prayer then another his arms outstretched as if borne upon the cross smoke that rose from each gun seemed a soul departing the colonel said an unfortunate incident said their name shall deck the page of history June 1863 some name shall deck the page of history as it is written on stone some will not yesterday word came of Colored Troops dead on the battlefield at Port Hudson how General Banks was heard to say I have no dead there and left them unclaimed last night I dreamt their eyes still open dim clouded as the eyes of fish washed ashore yet fixed staring back at me still more come today eager to enlist their bodies Haggard faces gaunt limbs bring news the mainland starved they suffer like our prisoners dying they plead for what we do not have to give death makes equals of us all a fair master August 1864 Dumas was a fair master to us all he taught me to read and write I was a man servant if not a man at my work I studied natural things all manner of plants birds I draw now in my book Wren Willett Egret loon tending the gardens I thought only to study life things thought never to know so much about the dead now I tend Ship Island graves mounds like dunes that shift and disappear I record names send home simple notes not much more than how and when an official duty I'm told it's best to spare most detail but I know there are things which must be accounted for 1865 these are things which must be accounted for slaughter under the white flag of surrender black massacre at Fort Pillow our new name the Corps d'Afrique words that take the native from our claim Moss backs and freedmen exiles in their own homeland the disease the maimed every lost limb and what remains phantom ache memory haunting an empty sleeve the hog eaten at Gettysburg unmarked in their graves all the dead letters unanswered untold stories of those that time will render mute beneath battlefields green again the dead molder a scaffolding of bone we tread upon forgetting truth be told [Applause] you [Applause]

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