Squeeze my finger one last time,
your stubby digits enclosed around
my knuckles. You look just like
your father before they disfigured
his face with iron muzzle, bit
down his tongue on rusted metal.
I will always remember the way your
eyes slowly open, adjusting to the
morning sun, how you upchuck just
a little on my breast from nursing
too hurriedly. Let that hunger for your mother never go away—
Even when you can no longer hear my
voice, when my touch is cool, faint
from the distance, when they beat
you ’til your back blisters open and
your muslin shirt irritates the
wounds my hands cannot heal.
Your cries will echo forever, and
one day when this system crumbles
on its head, and our chains are
broken free, I’ll follow them North,
like the brightest stars in the sky,
’til my embrace calms you once more.
Heard you that shriek? It rose So wildly on the air,
It seem’d as if a burden’d heart Was breaking in despair.
Saw you those hands so sadly clasped— The bowed and feeble head—
The shuddering of that fragile form— That look of grief and dread?
Saw you the sad, imploring eye? Its every glance was pain,
As if a storm of agony Were sweeping through the brain.
She is a mother pale with fear, Her boy clings to her side,
And in her kyrtle vainly tries His trembling form to hide.
He is not hers, although she bore For him a mother’s pains;
He is not hers, although her blood Is coursing through his veins!
He is not hers, for cruel hands May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love That binds her breaking heart.
His love has been a joyous light That o’er her pathway smiled,
A fountain gushing ever new, Amid life’s desert wild.
His lightest word has been a tone Of music round her heart,
Their lives a streamlet blent in one— Oh, Father! must they part?
They tear him from her circling arms, Her last and fond embrace.
Oh! never more may her sad eyes Gaze on his mournful face.
No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks Disturb the listening air:
She is a mother, and her heart Is breaking in despair.
—Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, from Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854)
Frances E.W. Harper’s poem, “The Slave Mother” illustrates one of the cruelest realities of slavery: the tearing apart of the black family. Slaves were considered the property of their white slave owners. Slaves could be sold, bought, traded; owners could do whatever they pleased to their slaves with little to no consequence.
The slave status of a child followed that of the child’s mother, so if the mother was a slave, so too was the child. This was done to ensure that black children born to white men remained in bondage. Slave mothers were even forbidden to reveal who the fathers of their children were because very often the father was the slave master—of course, the child’s fair skin would’ve easily given it away. In this system, there was no such thing as family. Marriage or blood relation meant nothing if the slave master saw a profit.
For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem for the slave mother and her child. How does she cope with the realization that the child she birthed is not hers? What are her final words to him before he’s torn from her arms? Will he remember her voice, her face, her lips on his cheek?
Here’s a poem written by the “inaugural protest poet,” Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who used rhetoric, allusions, allegories, metaphors, and irony, in her poetry to examine racial and gender divisions in America.
Bible Defense of Slavery
Take sackcloth of the darkest dye,
And shroud the pulpits round!
Servants of Him that cannot lie,
Sit mourning on the ground.
Let holy horror blanch each cheek,
Pale every brow with fears;
And rocks and stones, if ye could speak,
Ye well might melt to tears!
Let sorrow breathe in every tone,
In every strain ye raise;
Insult not God’s majestic throne
With th’ mockery of praise.
A ‘reverend’ man, whose light should be
The guide of age and youth,
Brings to the shrine of Slavery
The sacrifice of truth!
For the direst wrong by man imposed,
Since Sodom’s fearful cry,
The word of life has been unclos’d,
To give your God the lie.
Oh! When ye pray for heathen lands,
And plead for their dark shores,
Remember Slavery’s cruel hands
Make heathens at your doors!