Monday, October 29, 2007

Lucille Clifton: slaveship

For the past two weeks, I've been teaching the kids in our Sunday School children's choir the traditional slave song Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel? After some silliness and playing around with what the song might mean (one boy pointed out that the postage must have been pretty expensive for such a heavy delivery!) the kids really started to get into it.

The simple lines of the chorus (Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel/Then why not every man?) are so gripping. You can imagine both a hopeful singer (if God delivered Daniel, he'll certainly deliver me!) and a singer who may be losing that hope (why hasn't God delivered *me*?) The verses lean toward hope, but I can't help but focus on that hint of doubt. I think about the origins of this song, of cotton, the whip, deprivation, the hot sun. How could you sing the song and *not* wonder, even for a minute...if God exists, why is there all this suffering in the world?
Talking about the song reminded me of this stunning poem by Lucille Clifton (it can be found in the anthology Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep). Jesus, Angel, and Grace of God were names of ships that delivered slaves from Africa to the Americas. The picture above is a diagram of how the slaves were loaded into the ships...literally, as Lucille Clifton writes, "like spoons."
by Lucille Clifton

loaded like spoons
into the belly of Jesus
where we lay for weeks for months
in the sweat and stink of our own
why do you not protect us
chained to the heart of the Angel
where the prayers we never tell
are hot and red as our bloody ankles
can these be men
who vomit us out from ships
called Jesus Angel Grace of God
onto a heathen country
ever again
can this tongue speak
can this bone walk
Grace of God
can this sin live

The Poetry Foundation website has more poetry by Lucille Clifton, information about her life, and a very interesting interview. Here are a couple of her quotes that really stood out to me (the bold text is my own, for emphasis). The first, in particular, speaks to why I believe it is so important to remember things like slaveships and to write poetry and sing songs and teach our children about them. Regular people like you and me dreamed up and built and sailed these things. That's important to remember:
"I believe that people, if we face up to our responsibility and the possibility of evil in us, we then will understand that we have to be vigilant about the good. But if we all think that it all happens to somebody else, somewhere else, over there, then we don’t have to take responsibility for what we do."

"Of course, I would be nuts if I didn’t see the negativity and despair in the world, if I didn’t sometimes feel it myself. I am always hopeful because that’s the kind of personality I have. But it does not mean that I do not see what there is to be seen and do not feel what any other human being would feel."

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