In this time of turmoil at immigration points at the southern U.S. border, I've been thinking about a poem I wrote during a different time of immigration crisis, at the turn of the century, during the George W. Bush administration. There was talk of prosecution of those who helped immigrants in the desert. I couldn't imagine what the charges would be, and no one was prosecuted during that time.
I was teaching the Survey of American Literature class at the University of Miami, and the history of slavery and the people who tried to help runaway slaves was in my head. One day I wrote a poem, "Modern Abolitionist."
Those times have turned into these times, and man did go on trial for helping people lost in the desert. I was heartened that he wasn't sent to jail. I am still despairing that the federal government would even bring charges.
The other day I thought about this poem and wondered how it would speak to this current day. I think it holds up well, and so I'll post it here. It was first published in the South Carolina Review and was part of my larger chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.
Two hundred years ago, we would have stitched
cloth, hung our quilts on the line to give guidance.
We would have sung songs, whispered directions,
left lamps burning in strategic windows.
Then, as now, we would have helped with the herding north.
Now we hang flags of blue plastic
above water stations in the desert. We patrol
these tanks to make sure they never run dry.
Dryness means quick death for those who make the daily
dashes towards freedom. We position
these water stations in national parks
under telephone poles that stretch high above, a sure sign
even during dehydration induced hallucinations. The flags whip
in the wind, a dry rustle above the rattlesnakes.
I keep extra food and water in the truck. When I see
parched refugees, dusty and sunburned, I offer
these meager rations. I’m not above
giving folks a ride. There’s no Fugitive
Slave Act to make me cower in fear.
Some mornings I find a few of them in the fields
or huddled against the garage, the barn.
Unlike my neighbors, I don’t threaten
them with my gun or call the law.
I’ve learned enough broken
Spanish to invite them to breakfast.
Eggs and toast translate to any language.
I wish I could fully claim my Abolitionist
heritage, instead of just dancing on the edge of lawlessness.
But I am no Harriet Tubman to safely lead
people out of slavery, no John Brown
to plot uprisings and raid munitions bunkers.
Alas, I don’t have the eloquence of Frederick Douglass.
All I can offer is a glass of water, a bite
of food, substandard shelter, and a ride north.