Monday, October 28, 2013

Captivity Narratives

As I'm working away at various projects on the computer, I often listen to NPR programs that I've missed.  This past week-end, I listened to several shows' discussion of the new movie, Twelve Years a Slave.  At first I thought, this movie will be too difficult to watch on the big screen.  This Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast has made me reconsider, and the podcast makes me think that maybe I'll go see it earlier rather than later.

One thing that stands out at me in all these discussions is the total lack of discussion of modern slavery.  Many of us think that slavery is something safely in our distant past.  But many scholars would tell us that it's never been easier to own a slave than it is today, and that in terms of percentages, we have a much wider slave problem today than we ever had in human history.

But happily, it's also never been easier to rescue people, at least in most first world countries. We have laws against slavery and human trafficking. Law enforcement will likely intervene when notified about the problem.

In my week-end listening, I was struck by how many NPR commenters talked as if we wouldn't find our modern selves living the nightmare that Solomon Northrup endures in the movie. Yet that's always been a fear of mine, to find myself kidnapped and unable to escape a horrific captivity. Am I just strange that way?

I've spent my life reading captivity narratives of one kind or another.  Perhaps that accounts for one of my deepest fears.  I remember reading all sorts of World War II narratives even as young as elementary school, and many of them revolved around people being hidden from Nazis or people not lucky enough to be hidden and having to endure concentration camps.  I read stories about white settlers captured by Native Americans.  I read about slaves in America.

And then there was the cultural drama that was Roots.  I remember tuning in each night--me and the rest of the nation.  I was in the sixth grade, ripe to be affected by that kind of movie.  I'm old enough now that I can appreciate how that miniseries was groundbreaking, while being old enough to think about the ways that it fell short.  I'd like to see it again.  It's been decades since I saw it.  I wonder how I'd view it now.

It wasn't until eleven years ago, when I read a play that one of my Charleston writer friends created, that I understood the real horror of the captivity of the slave.  I hadn't really stopped to consider that captured Africans wouldn't understand the language.  They wouldn't know for sure where they were.  The food often made them sick, as did the hard life.  As a younger reader, I'd always wondered why people didn't try harder to escape.  After reading my friend's play, I realized that they wouldn't know where to go if they could get away.  And of course, as a younger reader, I didn't understand the bonds of love that could keep a person in place.  I didn't fully understand the bonds of fear.

My friend's play inspired some of the details in the poem that I'll post below.  Longtime readers of this blog will see similarities to other poems I've written.  It's no surprise to me that images that come out of slavery haunt my poems. They haunt our country, so why shouldn't they haunt our creative work?
I do worry that perhaps I trivialize some of the material by using it as a metaphor to explore a mental state.  A white writer using details from slavery times will always face that worry.
This poem first appeared in South Carolina Review, and I included it in my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Running from the Plantation of Despair

I dwell in the plantation of despair,
held in the chains of mistakes and doubts,
whipped by all the demons who keep vigil
over this boggy rice farm of depression.
I’m an ocean away from my home, my happy
self, in a land where I can’t speak the language,
digest the food, or interpret the constellations.

I inhale the dust
of a million dashed dreams. I sink into a songless
sleep and wake to a day drained of color.
Gradually I forget my real name, my mother’s face,
the syllables of my own language. I can no longer
trace the steps that brought me here or plot
escape. No revolutionary, me.

And then she appears at half a crack of dawn, dark
as the night, with my running shoes in her hand.
“Girl, we got to set you free.”

She doesn’t listen to my fears, my creaking
knees, the slow heaving of my lungs.
I follow her light, my North
Star, setting me free. We run to liberty,
avoiding the dangerous dogs, the slaveholders,
naysayers who would sell us back
to the plantation of despair.

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