April 7, 2016
Academy of American Poets
Dear Marilyn Nelson,
“As I lifted the kettle from the hob, I heard the sound of drums from far away.”
That is the start of your poem “Continental Army”, my favorite poem you wrote. This week in my Language Arts class we read eight poems, one from each American Poetry Chancellor. The poem we read by you was “Continental Army” and I was very intrigued by it.
Dec. 6, 1865, the day the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. The day Slavery ended, well, not really. My uncle tells me stories about my relatives who served as slaves in the south. He tells me how brutal it was for them, and he tells me stories that were told to him by his dad, that have been passed along the family. It would have been hard, being black, living in that time and not knowing whether you would ever be free? That is why when I read this poem I always wonder what inspired you to write it? Was there something that you were told?
My dad and Mom are both African American. It doesn’t really feel different but my dad and aunt like to make jokes about how I am always the only black child and awhile I kind of realize it. I remember last year when all the police attacks were happening my parents sitting down and talking to my brother about what he needs to do to be safe around a police officer. That to me was kind of surprising but then I realized that it was important for my brother to hear that. When I read the last line of your poem it really made me think of how different things were back when your poem was based. On my soccer team dark- skinned people aren't treated differently, but back in 1776 if you saw a black man or women with a group of white men or women who would be very rare.
As I read your poem it made me wonder many things. When you were writing, was there a certain message you were trying to get across? Or were you just informing people of what you thought and knew of 1776? I leave you with that and hopefully, you can get back to me.
I’m so pleased you like my poem and have so many good questions and observations about it. Before I talk about my poem, let me first say that, as a person who grew up being almost “always the only black child,” I think you should tell your dad and your aunt that I say they should to try to understand that your experience isn’t always easy, and maybe they could stop making jokes about it. There are many ways to be black in this predominantly white nation. We aren’t all given the same path, and no path is easy.
Okay: the poem: It’s part of a sequence of poems about the first 200 years of the history of the church I belong to here in Connecticut, the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. It has become an extremely progressive church (you can check it out at www.fccol.org), but in the earliest days of the church, everyone in the community who had money owned slaves. The first minister, a widower, raised his four children “with the help of Arabella, his slave.” So I’m just telling the true history of this one particular church, though of course there are wider implications.
You said back in 1776 it would be unusual to see a black man or women with a group of white men or women. Well, yes and no. If you DID see a group like that, I think you’d probably assume the black man or woman was the property of one of the whites in the group. But there WERE free blacks in New England.
If you’ve seen the movie about the Amistad, you’ll see free black Abolitionists who helped out with that legal case.
My poem is based on the fact that General George Washington and the army under his command spent one night in Old Lyme at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. I wanted to tell that story, but to tell it from the point of view of a woman enslaved in this prosperous New England village. I’m thinking that the slaves in town, mostly isolated from each other by being enslaved in private homes, probably didn’t know much about the revolution: they wouldn’t have been able to sit down and read a newspaper, and I doubt their owners discussed politics with them. I felt it was important to make clear that there were African American soldiers – most famously, Crispus Attucks –fighting on the Patriot side in that war: that’s why Zacheus sees “some brothers among the soldiers.” I also wanted to make the drummer have a “dark face,” both because there were black drummer-boys in the Revolution, and because I wanted to show that the first sign of the approaching army was the sound of drums, and to suggest that the drummer is ”leading the army,” in a way, but from the rear. And I suppose it might be that drums suggest some survival of African culture, in spite of everything…
Have a great summer!