#BlaPoWriMo: I want to learn to read

I want to learn to read.
Mas’sa say it do no good–
slaves reading–won’t make
me happy. What I gotta be
happy for? Look at Jimmy-boy,
come down from Maryland, him
can read, been mopin’ ’round
here all day, can’t do nothin’.

Him spoiled, that’s him problem,
like all them other house niggas,
never felt the sun burn him back
raw, never had the white man kick
him to him knees when him stop
to catch him breath, never bent
over the cotton, weight of the
day’s pickings slung over him
shoulder, so long him can’t stand
straight when the work done.

I hear Mas’sa say him gon sell
Jimmy-boy to the rice plantation
down south–that’ll whip him into
shape. Me, I stay quiet, meet my weight,
draw letters in the dirt, brush ’em
away fore overseer catch wind.

—Nortina


Written for Black Poetry Writing Month (BlaPoWriMo). This year, we’re taking a journey through the different eras of black poetry and history. This week’s era is: slavery.

Cotton is king – A plantation scene, Georgia. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/8a4595ba-f0f4-4335-e040-e00a18066dc9

 

#BlaPoWriMo: No, No, No (poem)

No, no, no.
Ain’t breakin’ my back today, Lawd.
No, no, no
Dey whip my boy in de head, Lawd.
No, no, no.
Him run to de woods halfway, Lawd.
No, no, no.
Found him pa in a shallow grave, Lawd.
No, no, no.
Mista gotta rep fir breakin’ slaves, Lawd.
No, no, no.
Drag my boy behind de hay, Lawd.
No, no, no.
Can’t hear no screams, I say, Lawd.
No, no, no.
Let him pain be brief, I pray, Lawd.
No, no, no.
I’ll keep pickin’ til I’m dead, Lawd.
No, no, no.
Keep pickin’ til we dead.

—Nortina


Written for BlaPoWriMo prompt: write a work song for the field slaves.

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Song for the Field Slaves

Cotton Song

Come, brother, come. Lets lift it;
come now, hewit! roll away!
Shackles fall upon the Judgment Day
But lets not wait for it.

God’s body’s got a soul,
Bodies like to roll the soul,
Cant blame God if we dont roll,
Come, brother, roll, roll!

Cotton bales are the fleecy way,
Weary sinner’s bare feet trod,
Softly, softly to the throne of God,
“We aint agwine t wait until th Judgment Day!

Nassur; nassur,
Hump.
Eoho, eoho, roll away!
We aint agwine to wait until th Judgment Day!”

God’s body’s got a soul,
Bodies like to roll the soul,
Cant blame God if we dont roll,
Come, brother, roll, roll!

—Jean Toomer, from Cane (1923)

 

During American slavery, the economy of the Southern states depended heavily on the production of cotton, and subsequently on the black slaves who harvested it in the fields. Field work was the hardest of slave labor. Slaves worked from dawn to dusk clearing land and planting, tending and picking the cotton. They were supervised by slave drivers and overseers who were notoriously cruel, frequently whipping the slaves if they didn’t work hard enough. Slaves were expected to pick a certain amount of cotton, which would be weighed at the end of the day. If the weight was under the requirement, they were punished; they were either denied a meal, beaten, or worse.

Laborers in the fields picking cotton - Jefferson County, Florida. 189-. Black & white photoprint, 8 x 10 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
Laborers in the fields picking cotton – Jefferson County, Florida. 189-. Black & white photoprint, 8 x 10 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Jean Toomer’s “Cotton Song,” similar to the Negro spirituals, can be described as a work chant sung by field slaves as they labor in the back-breaking work of picking cotton. Though not content with the inhumane work forced upon them, they continue on in their suffering, knowing that the freedom they long for will come on Judgment Day.

Songs like this were usually misinterpreted by slave owners, who believed their slaves were happy in their work—why else would they sing? However, these were songs sung by people suffering for God, not earthly masters. How ironic is it that slave owners used Christianity to justify slavery, and the slaves, in turn, used the same principles to anticipate their freedom.

A specific Bible verse comes to mind when reading this poem:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is not favoritism. (Colossians 3:23-25)

For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a work song for the field slaves. Show how they can still be optimistic after being beaten down by the burning sun and slash across the back with the overseer’s whip, harvesting a crop that would line the white man’s pockets.

—Nortina