Touring the Penn Center, St. Helena’s, SC

I am wading through the dark morass of history,
Beaufort at dusk fills with humid air from the swamps
and the mangrove of stagnant sea water’s calm
rice ponds, and the muttering old spirits,
the sharp lament of crickets and the trees close in
on us. The ground gives, stretches of white
sand, fresh earth that will not hold bodies.
Everything shifts here and the apocalypse of bodies
given up on holy nights is a common ritual.
I am teaching them about the bloody rituals
of human chattel, shattering all myths, all excuses—
the doctrine that it was ignorance, sheer prehistoric
stupidity that allowed such brute disregard
for the black soul. I am aware of how callous
these students grow to ward off the piss fear
of having no recourse but to weep or shed blood—
truth is the smashing of old comforts. I am telling
Carlos, Jerry, Uniqua to look into the past
of these South lands to find the squalid
histories of their blood; and why must I
offer them such heavy truths, these black
boys and girls who seem desperate for a language
of survival? Oh, that it was not anger, this lesson
of memory I now teach, but how can we touch
such gummy memory without ire? We must all learn
why we tear to hear a blue lament, a flat-toned
spiritual or see the stiff dangling image of a man,
a backdrop for a picnic? This room with its bland
track lighting—this modern orderly space—
grows dense with earth and trees, the stench
of death. In the photo gallery, the faces stare back
at us: country, African, crude images of ourselves—
the students point and laugh as if afraid to admit
the truth staring back shyly in black and white.
Before anger comes the shame or something mocking
like inexplicable laughter. I offer them love—
what I think is the narrative of survival,
then we listen to Mos Def as we drive through
the swamp, the blackening Atlantic at our backs.


Source: BOMB Magazine — Four Poems by Kwame Dawes