Governor’s Mansion Hands
—Milledgeville, Georgia 18581
Hand, servant, same as bondsman, slave,
and necessarily a negro4 in this context,
but not all blacks were held in bondage
though bound by the constructed fetters
of race—that expedient economic tool
for making a class of women and men
kept in place based on the color writ
across their faces—a conservative notion
for keeping power in the hands of the few5.
It kept the threat held over the heads of all
negroes, including those free blacks,
who after the coming war would be
called the formerly free people of color
once we were all ostensibly free.
Hands, enslaved, handled clay
and molds in the making of bricks
to build this big house for the gathering
of those few men with their white faces
who hold power like the end of the rope.
Hand, what’s needed to wed, and a ring
or broom. Hand, a horse measure, handy
in horse-trading6. We also call the pointers
on the clock that go around marking time
in this occidental fashion, handy for business
1Milledgeville, my hometown, touts itself as the Antebellum Capital and it was that, but it was also, for the duration of the Civil War, the Confederate Capital of Georgia, and where Joseph Emerson Brown, the governor of Georgia from November 6, 1857 till June 17, 1865, lived with his family in the Governor’s Mansion. Governors brought enslaved folks, folks they held as property, from their plantations to work as the household staff at the Governor’s Mansion.
2 Hand as in handwriting, which is awful
in my case, so I type, but way back when,
actually, only 150 years ago—two long-lived
lives—by law few like me had a hand.
3 What’s needed is a note on the laws
that constructed race in the colonies
and young states, but that deserves
a library’s worth of writing.
4 Almost a decade after reading the typescript of a letter written by Elizabeth Grisham Brown, Gov. Joseph Emerson Brown’s wife, I finally got to read the original letter written in her hand; I got to touch it with my hand. I got to verify that she’d written what I’d read in the typescript. I’d thought about this letter she wrote home to her mother and sister at their plantation for near a decade because of its closing sentences: “Hoping you are all well, we will expect to hear from you shortly. Mr. Brown and the children join me in love to you all.” And caught between that and her signing “Yours most affectionately, E. Brown” she writes “The negroes send love to their friends.” Those words in that letter struck me when I first read them and have stuck with me since. There is so much there that speaks to the situation those Black folk were in then and the situation Black folk are in now. I intend for the title of my next book to be The Negroes Send Love to Their Friends.
5And this arrangement also served the rest
who would walk on the white side of the color
line, so they would readily step at the behest
of that narrative of race and their investment
in what is white and Black.
6 Prospective buyers would inspect
Negroes like horses or other livestock
and look in their mouths.
Copyright © 2020 by Sean Hill. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 9, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.