Unsung heroes speak through the arts
Heroes Day always gets me thinking about our past and present and how interlinked they are. There are present-day heroes, but somehow I keep going back to our ancestors and thinking that many of them were unsung heroes, and as a poet, I believe in telling their stories and giving them a chance to be seen, heard, and remembered.
Thankfully, we know the story of Paul Bogle, Sam Sharpe, George William Gordon, and Nanny, five of our National Heroes who lived during slavery days. There are others, however, whose stories we do not know.
Some poems in my second anthology, Kingston Buttercup, focus on these unsung heroes, as I see them.
In On Reading Thistlewood's Diary for example, I speak of the slaves, Susanna, Phibba, and Lincoln who plantation overseer and owner Thomas Thistlewood documented in his diary, which, due to the editorial work of Jamaica-born anthropologist Douglas Hall, was published under the title In Miserable Slavery.
Excerpts of Sections II and IV of my four-sectioned poem, On Reading Thistlewood's Diary, are below.
Susanna, dat's ma name.
Don't confuse it wid de open-air African savannah.
If yu look me up In Miserable Slavery
You'll si mi listed under children,
Wid Congo in bracket, page 29.
Ah was part o' de pickney gang in 1751
When him firs' tek mi
in de curing house.
Ah wet him bed him tek mi in.
Each time ah wet de bed,
but him neva stop.
An' yu, who fin' him diary an' call me favourite,
Tell de worl' how dem whip mi an Mazerine
for refusing backra an' him fren;
Tell di worl' how T'istlewood
an' slavery ruin mi.
Descending Red Hills in the morning
I think: this is not so different
from what Thistlewood saw -
the same green from the trees;
the air blanketed with lingering sleep;
caterpillars of smoke crawling up the sky.
Walking the streets, Jamaica, 2015,
I encounter Lincoln - downtrodden, but fighting -
on every crossing;
I see Phibbah
in women who find freedom in men;
Susannah in the Ananda Alerts
of missing boys and girls;
I see the surviving chattels of the Egypt plantation
in the black-or-white-suited mourners
of the recently gunned-down area youth,
And I wonder
Who in Thistlewood's diary would I have been?
Recently, I read The Brotherhood Of Spurs, a collection of short stories by Lasana M. Sekou from St Maarten.
The first short story, "A Salting", tells the story of a well-off African heiress who, through ill fortune, finds herself in chains on a slave ship on the way to the Western world when what should have been her first journey to a neighbouring village is intercepted by the evil ones trading in fellow humans.
Below is an excerpt
Leaving the drowsiness of her fright, the child's consciousness struggled to meet wakefulness with a breathless smile of disbelief. Sleep tossed her from its nightmare-riddled bosom. She would, she thought, be caught safely in Nana's golden stool of a lap and cushioned in her ample garden of breasts.
She willed her arms to be tossed around the elder. The child wanted the wakefulness that relieved the nightmares of being kidnapped by evil spirits, those secret nightmares that assailed her sleep when mother was the wife to accompany father to audience with the king.
Her arms would not move. Her feet refused her. Her eyes opened but refused light and were being picked into as with the thorns that drew blood from the feet of playing children.
Her ears prickled back at the pain of her eyes. She heard wailing and calling and moans and groans and the choking of tears and phlegm of coughing, and repeating of words and songs so much like names and prayers yet so much like madness and the cursing of evil spirits.
The furrowing of her senses in the darkness scowled at the tightening of tender flesh on the left side of her face. It was there, now an oasis of stitching pain, where her head had arrowed her face to slap the river's edge. The prickling twitch of pain began to offer her a backward trough of memory.
Her heart pumped with a strange tightness, burning her insides as air escaped with scalding speed to be replaced by pockets of nothing or something foul and pasted. The smell was upon her now, was her. It was like the stench of piss and shit. No, no, it was more like the fly-beset carcass encountered as she played with friends near the city's food gardens tended by her mother and the other women.
And now there was blood. Blood, dried and raw and a ghost of fumes of flesh cut open for slaughter. A pus of fear pressed like a dull, sawing pain down, up, aside, around, and into her, boiling inward. Her budding of breasts felt like they were bitten away to bar the flow of milk and blood ... and then reared the taste of old, uncooked meat, anchored in her mouth, wedged and plaqued between her teeth: "NANAMANDISAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!"
Her breath railed out heaves of choking and no tears and: "NANAAAMANDISAAAAAAAAAAA!"
Through the blink of silence, parted by her fear, a tortured voice struggled to raise and rattle and drag a clattering of iron in a tired lift of iron and wood: "Little ... little sister in my ... charge ... I will find ... you ... to the end ..."
As all good writing should, the story and the unnamed girl stayed with me. I thought about how she could have been one of my ancestors and how she could have even been Susanna about whom Thomas Thistlewood speaks in his diary and in whose voice section II of my poem above should be spoken.
This possibility of sameness and the actuality of nearness showed me how sometimes, works of art can speak to and with each other. Sekou lives in St Maarten and I am in Jamaica, and our shared history, past and heritage carried forward in our genes, propels us to write and give back our ancestors their voices, tell their stories.
For Heroes Day and onward, I encourage us to remember the fight and the lives of our ancestors as we strive to live and work together so that their struggles, endurance, and triumph would not have been in vain.
Happy and thoughtful Heroes Day.
• Ann-Margaret Lim is a poet with two published books, 'The Festival of Wild Orchid', which received Bocas Prize Special Mention in 2012, and 'Kingston Buttercup', shortlisted at Bocas Prize Poetry 2017. Both books have been published by Peepal Tree Press (Leeds, UK) and are available at Bookophilia.