Lucille Clifton

Black History Month Day 7.

Black American history could not be told without understanding Middle Passage Slave Trade. I wanted to introduce the poem “Slaveships” by Lucille Clifton (1936-2010). Since this poem is not in public domain, here is a much older poem on the same topic.

The Slave Ships
By John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892)

“ALL ready?” cried the captain;
“Ay, ay!” the seamen said;
“Heave up the worthless lubbers, –
The dying and the dead.”
Up from the slave-ship’s prison
Fierce, bearded heads were thrust
“Now let the sharks look to it, –
Toss up the dead ones first!”
Corpse after corpse came up, –
Death had been busy there;
Where every blow is mercy,
Why should the spoiler spare?
Corpse after corpse they cast
Sullenly from the ship,
Yet bloody with the traces
Of fetter-link and whip.
Gloomily stood the captain,
With his arms upon his breast,
With his cold brow sternly knotted,
And his iron lip compressed.
“Are all the dead dogs over?”
Growled through that matted lip;
“The blind ones are no better,
Let’s lighten the good ship.”
Hark! from the ship’s dark bosom,
The very sounds of hell!
The ringing clank of iron,
The maniac’s short, sharp yell!
The hoarse, low curse, throat-stified;
The starving infant’s moan,
The horror of a breaking heart
Poured through a mother’s groan.
Up from that loathsome prison
The stricken blind ones came:
Below, had all been darkness,
Above, was still the same.
Yet the holy breath of heaven
Was sweetly breathing there,
And the heated brow of fever
Cooled in the soft sea air.
“Overboard with them, shipmates!”
Cutlass and dirk were plied;
Fettered and blind, one after one,
Plunged down the vessel’s side.
The sabre smote above,.
Beneath, the lean shark lay,
Waiting with wide and bloody jaw
His quick and human prey.
God of the earth! what cries
Rang upward unto thee?
Voices of agony and blood,
From ship-deck and from sea.
The last dull plunge was heard,
The last wave caught its stain,
And the unsated shark looked up
For human hearts in vain.
Champion of those who groan beneath
Oppression’s iron hand:
In view of penury, hate, and death,
I see thee fearless stand.
Still bearing up thy lofty brow,
In the steadfast strength of truth,
In manhood sealing well the vow
And promise of thy youth.
Go on, for thou hast chosen well;
On in the strength of God!
Long as one human heart shall swell
Beneath the tyrant’s rod.
Speak in a slumbering nation’s ear,
As thou hast ever spoken,
Until the dead in sin shall hear,
The fetter’s link be broken!
I love thee with a brother’s love,
I feel my pulses thrill,
To mark thy Spirit soar above
The cloud of human ill.
My heart hath leaped to answer thine,
And echo back thy words,
As leaps the warrior’s at the shine
And flash of kindred swords!
They tell me thou art rash and vain,
A searcher after fame;
That thou art striving but to gain
A long-enduring name;
That thou hast nerved the Afric’s hand
And steeled the Afric’s heart,
To shake aloft his vengeful brand,
And rend his chain apart.
Have I not known thee well, and read
Thy mighty purpose long?
And watched the trials which have made
Thy human spirit strong?
And shall the slanderer’s demon breath
Avail with one like me,
To dim the sunshine of my faith
And earnest trust in thee?
Go on, the dagger’s point may glare
Amid thy pathway’s gloom;
The fate which sternly threatens there
Is glorious martyrdom!
Then onward with a martyr’s zeal;
And wait thy sure reward
When man to man no more shall kneel,
And God alone be Lord.
Ho! thou who seekest late and long
A License from the Holy Book
For brutal lust and fiendish wrong,
Man of the Pulpit, look!
Lift up those cold and atheist eyes,
This ripe fruit of thy teaching see;
And tell us how to heaven will rise
The incense of this sacrifice —
This blossom of the gallows tree!
Search out for slavery’s hour of need
Some fitting text of sacred writ;
Give heaven the credit of deed
Which shames the nether pit.
Kneel, smooth blasphemer, unto Him
Whose truth is on thy lips a lie;
Ask that His bright winged cherubim
May bend around that scaffold grim
To guard and bless and sanctify.
O champion of the people’s cause!
Suspend thy loud and vain rebuke
Of foreign wrong and Old World’s laws,
Man of the Senate, look!
Was this the promise of the free,
The great hope of our early time,
That slavery’s poison vine should be
Upborne by Freedom’s prayer-nursed tree
O’erclustered with such fruits of crime?
Send out the summons East and West,
And South and North, let all be there
Where he who pitied the oppressed
Swings out in sun and air.
Let not a Democratic hand
The grisly hangman’s task refuse;
There let each loyal patriot stand,
Awaiting slavery’s command,
To twist the rope and draw the noose!


This poem is in public domain.

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