10.03.2016

Bury Me in a Free Land

I have been reading to Asher at bedtime from an anthology of African-American poetry.  We are about halfway through but I'm not sure I'm going to top one of the very first poems in the book, "Bury Me in a Free Land," by Frances Harper (who also wrote "Minnie's Sacrifice," which I read to Asher last year):

Make me a grave where'er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth's humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.

I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.

I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother's shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I'd shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother's arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

I am very unread in American poetry, let alone African-American poetry, so this book has been a revelation for me.  There is something about the platform of poetry that enables the deep, painful, and yet expectant emotion of the early African-American experience.

I have not seen or experienced what Frances Harper did, nor would I have the talent to express it so beautifully or sorrowfully.  Yet I too wrestle with the same inner conflict, of loving and hoping for so great a nation even as its soil is stained with the blood of injustice and violence. 
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