A rock-strewn field lies barren,
separated, this winter, by a wire fence—
from the plantation: from the
houses, from leafless trees.
The cold, not too cold.
North of center (the Big House) a barn—
housing animals, storing crops they raised
on the Tuscumbia plantation
where black captives
dwell in shadows.
No rising smoke
curls from any chimney.
And in Georgia a neat row of slave cabins,
not merely strewn about, as elsewhere.
Yet more than buildings—faces:
they answer any denial.
Studying her pipe,
seated on a pillow in a ladder-back chair,
a dark sweater on its back,
Aunt Lucy, a former slave—
the oldest one from the Hermitage.
William, standing in his doorway,
peering into five or six log houses
built on a square off to the southwest.
William Henry Towns, a former slave.
She sweeps the dirt floor white,
after the toils of day,
with brooms of sage,
eking life out of no life intended—
Millie Evans, a former slave.
In Colbert County, Alabama,
in one of those cabins “fitten for nobody.”
Mary Ella Grandberry, a former slave.
Down in the quarters,
with nearly invisible acts,
they lived a testified determination,
striving to negate
those penalties of captivity.
Mary: seated beside her bed,
looking harshly beyond,
her eyes clear, holding
a wooden pole in her hand,
men’s shoes protruding
beneath a raveled blanket,
she has a face to match those shoes—
Mary Reynolds, a former slave.
Perhaps she is thinking of what she has.
Black people picking cotton.
An overseer on horseback. Circa 1895.
The photo swages my mind.
How quickly we forget.
Faces tell that story,
tell it as no cotton plant:
no lifeless stick, sporting white puffs.
Apron torn, holding
what appears to be the handle of a tool,
here is the face of one who picked,
picked for her master,
picked the cotton in Alabama,
Laura Clark, a former slave—
drawing her face into a frown.
Never heard of a cowboy-slave!
Never till now. Bow-legs convince.
Sam Jones Washington, a former slave.
Better ride a horse well: “them cattle
stamp you to death.” Years later,
Sam’s face displays a near-smile,
recalling narrow escape.
In front of her cabin,
siding made from vertical boards,
Lucindy stands behind her spinning wheel,
her eyes—her face, serious.
Lucindy Jurdon, a former slave.
Her spinning wheel,
and her mother’s spinning wheel
Ben sits looking off,
Ben Horry, a former slave,
the delicate curve of his pipe in his lips,
sleeves rolled, he wears a vest
and a hat. Not all that different—
could be anyone’s neighbor,
resting on his porch.
Two women hulling rice,
faces darkened and lost in shadow:
one with a broad hat,
the other’s head twirled in a turban,
their long dresses hot beneath the sun.
Pointed stick-like tools in their hands:
they must have a name,
(they the women and they the tools),
beating, thrashing the rice,
doing the master’s task before they sleep,
strength and precision in their arms.
White hair—her face, even older,
her back did not break
in those fields
though she thought it might,
Sara, who “never knew
what it was to rest.”
Her back did not break as she
chopped and hoed.
Sara Gudger, a former slave—
whose back did not break in those fields.
Growing up on a rice plantation
there in Georgia, Hagar saw it all,
beginning to end.
Hagar Brown, a former slave.
She saw the rice production,
the driver’s whip as it lowered,
and the blood as it ran.
Looking off into the distance,
hands folded in her lap,
the ruffle on her dress blowing
in the wind.
Fannie held the pine torch,
her mother spinning,
quilting into the long night by its glow.
Fannie Moore, a former slave—
her mother spent her days in the fields.
In the one-room log cabin, that woman
toiled far beyond evening,
her child holding on to the light.
Another child tasted batter cakes,
there on that Georgia plantation—
cooked, by her mother in an iron skillet with
a thick lid, in the kitchen,
in the yard.
Minnie Davis, a former slave.
John feels the master’s anger close in,
night and day, day and night.
no escape for the cook—
His workplace, his home.
John White, a former slave.
John lived in his kitchen-quarter
on a plantation in Texas.
“The dog,” said Richard, “was superior to us.
They would take him in the house.”
Trained as a blacksmith,
later a carpenter and a stone mason.
Played the fiddle, too!
Richard Toler, a former slave.
And now he stands,
in a neat jacket, just a bit too small.
Richard looks straight ahead.
Carey’s father got the lumber,
from “old massa,”
to build a box to hold clothes.
Carey Davenport, a former slave—
who lived in Texas, recalling
his father making pieces of looms and
spinning wheels—this “valuable man.”
The man glances over his shoulder.
Diverting his eyes, he returns to his work,
skilled fingers make a fishing net strong.
Working there in the tanning yard,
on the water,
over there by the cemetery—
Henry, a boy of twelve,
helped the shoemaker.
Henry Williams, a former slave.
His hands wrinkled at ninety,
facial muscles taut, Henry sits
on the porch of a log cabin
recalling the slave festivals of youth,
all the things Daddy Patty made
from hides and skins,
dances in a ring as the crops came in,
food and praise and songs all night
at the shout.
In slavery, the man learned his trade,
brought it with him—
into the twentieth century.
They say Katie Brown was a fine storyteller,
spinning her yarn of the magic sword.
it could dole out the consequences
when improper commands were given. (Folks
had to know the password.)
Katie told of the drums and rattling gourds,
and the beating of tin plates, of slaves moving
in circular ecstasy,
as though they were “going to heaven,”
What a kindly old face Katie has!
crumpled paper in one hand,
she pets a dog with the other.
Katie Brown, a former slave.
They got the glory in the slave quarters,
with a powerful force of the Spirit.
Uncle Billy preached,
slaves clapped their hands.
“In them days,” Mose recalled, “there were
some powerful figurations of the Spirit.”
Mose Hursey, a former slave.
Mose stands alert,
his round brown cheeks, illuminated, framed
in utter contrast
by his white beard and the shock of whitest hair.
The banjo player mocked his master
under the cloak of humor, seated
on a keg on a decomposing porch,
composing that percussive criticism on the fly—
(and the master never even knew it).
The happy slave, eyes on the banjo!
that saw beyond the plantation
to the far bank
of the River Jordan.
Eda said her mother-in-law
sent for the neighbors,
danced all night long—
Eda Harper, a former slave.
A frame building, falling down,
there on the old plantation,
fallen boards, missing shingles, door askew—
and the rains falling in.
but not a fitting end, nor an end, unfit.
It is, in fact, no end at all,
for there is the unfinished story—
in every face.
All references from The Cultural Landscape of the
Plantation, A Library of Congress exhibition including
photographs, drawings and testimonies from ex-slaves,
based on John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House:
The Architecture of Plantation Slavery,
Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1993.