Dear Marilyn Nelson,
When I chose to write about your poem “Thompson and Seaman Vows, African Union Church,” a few untimely series of fortunate and unfortunate events occurred in my life beforehand. Recently in my history class we have started a new unit: The Civil Rights Movement. As a young African American female it is a bit of a sensitive subject, but such a critical and important moment in our nation’s history. Although your poem and the Civil Rights Movement are from two very different points in history, they kind of made a connection for me. Your poem reminds me of that because, this is a story of two slaves getting married during a time where our people weren’t freed yet. Although we were “free” in the 60s we weren’t. Even though the poem was short and sweet… there was still so much history and information behind this one particular event. I appreciate that so much because I am an aspiring writer and I want to learn how to tell stories without it turning into a never ending novel. Most recently my mother bought me three books. And these three books are The Help, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Confessions of Nat Turner. When my mom bought these books she didn’t realize that they were all books mostly about slaves. I know the maids in The Help weren’t technically slaves but they were. All very racially conscious pieces of literature. As I am writing this letter to you I also read over the poem again; and I realize that when I do that, I find something else that I hadn’t noticed before. The women (Miss Charlotte Thompson) was the educated partner. Considering the time period you chose to write about, that is very rare. The slave women being educated? Almost unheard of. But the groom (Timothy James Seamen) was not book smart. The only thing he knew how to do was manual labor. But I also realized that you put the bride’s name first in the title and then the groom’s followed. I may be thinking too much into that particular detail, but it made me raise an eyebrow. Literally.
After reading your poem once more, I also realized that there was much more background information on the bride than the groom. How she’s a teacher and was taught by “a literate friend” and how she “sews and sells exquisite lace lingerie.” From the way she sounds, it seems to me… that she is not a slave. Not if she has time to go see Macbeth and Richard III. Why was that though? How come it seems that the black woman was finally given a break? But the man was uneducated? One thing that I find very very very interesting is the last sentence, “She told him he was descended from kings.” I was a little hurt that, that was the end of the poem. I wanted to know more. I wanted a background check on Mr. Timothy James Seaman. But why did you just end it there? Was it to have the readers come up with their own ending? Was it to show that you and I really are descendants from kings and queens? Or was it just to play with my feelings?
Thanks for your letter. I can imagine the impact of studying the Movement and at the same time reading those three books! The old double-whammy! It’s interesting to note that the books your mother gave you are all by [so-called] “white” authors [I say so-called, because that term is so freighted with inaccuracy and history]. You might find it interesting to compare their “take” on the racial situation with the “take” in books by African American (or African) authors. Have you read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart? W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk? Octavia Butler’s Kindred? Langston Hughes's The Best of Simple? Make yourself a reading list, and start prowling around in used bookstores. It’s fun. Maybe you can find some first editions of books by contemporary writers. Check out Tayari Jones. Have you read any Y/A novels? I assume you know of Jacqueline Woodson and Kwame Alexander. How about Jason Reynolds? Kekla Magoon? Ask for their books in your library. Last year I met Nnedi Okorafor, a science fiction writer from Nigeria. Did you know there’s a whole movement of contemporary novelists called Afro-Futurists? Is that cool, or what?
Okay: on to you questions. I’m sorry I didn’t think of adding an introductory note to the poem on the Dear Poet website. Here is what I should have said; what a reader needs to know: The poem is taken from my book of poems called My Seneca Village. Seneca Village was a small community of free black people in Manhattan, which was started in 1835 and thrived until it was destroyed as part of the creation of Central Park, in 1857. My book tells the stories of people I imagined living there.
So, you see, the people are not slaves. But, as the poem makes clear, their parents were. I just googled “literacy rates by gender among U.S. slaves,” and although there’s lots of interesting information available, I don’t have time to find out the answer to you comment about slave women being educated. But I believe it was probably more common for enslaved women to be educated than men. Might be interesting to research that. In any case, the restriction on women being taught vs. men being taught was probably more common in the [so-called] “white” world than it was among African Americans, who, I imagine, grabbed every opportunity to learn something. Your question reminds me of a time, many years ago, when my family was on a long trip in the car, and my mother said something about “…when I was in school…” and my sister, who was in first or second grade, said, “YOU went to school?!? My teacher said girls couldn’t go to school in the olden days!” My parents were still laughing about that years later.
The reason I put the bride’s name in the title was because the poem is an imaginary wedding announcement in an imaginary newspaper. In writing it, I imitated the format of real wedding announcements that appear nowadays every Sunday in The New York Times.
I guess you’re right that there’s more background information on the bride. But not much more! Right: the bride is educated and a teacher; her father died in and because of slavery. But the next sentence is about her mother, who was set free by her former mistress’s last will and testament, and who has a successful business making fine lingerie and selling it, clearly to “white” ladies wealthy enough to afford such finery. I stole the lingerie idea from a fine play by the African American playwright Lynn Nottage. A real-world parallel might be to Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who was a seamstress and became Mary Todd Lincoln’s confidante.
Since the residents of Seneca Village were free, not slaves, I’m imagining that someone who really cared to could go down into the city to see a Shakespeare play. I read somewhere that there were horse-drawn trolleys in New York, but I don’t know if they would have gone all the way up to Seneca Village, which may have been a couple of miles—I don’t know—from the densely populated city itself. Maybe they’d have to walk down to the last trolley stop. Maybe they had a horse they could take to the theatre. Maybe a buggy. I don’t know all that much about New York City travel during the mid-19th century. The poem uses some actual facts, but it is a work of my imagination.
Frankly, I love the last line. It just came to me, like a little “ding!” in my mind. Yes, his mother—and who knows how many generations of her family before her—was a captive, stolen from her motherland and held in bondage in a country where the very color of her skin identified her as not equal, not free—and yet she held pride in the knowledge that she was descended from nobility. Maybe not “kings,” maybe “chiefs,” maybe just a leader of a village. But, for generations of enslavement, still a source of pride. And she passed that pride on to her son. I don’t know why you’d need to know more than that Tim Seaman was an African American man who has inherited the valuable gift of pride.
You know what I mean?