Black History Month Reflections from Fr. Brown: A Lucille Clifton poem

By Rev. Timothy Brown, S.J.
Painting by Andrew Wyeth that shows an African-American man leaning on a fencepost while holding a shovel and gazing into the distance

“Post and Rail” by Andrew Wyeth

Lucille Clifton, three-time poet laureate of Maryland, reflected on her visit to Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina in 1989. She was the only person of color on the tour. She was surprised that on the tour no one ever once mentioned slaves.

She writes: “Well, Walnut Grove Plantation has the family burying ground, and on the sides of the roped-off path leading to that burying ground there are crosses and rocks and other things sitting on edge that to me clearly make the graves of slaves. So I asked, ‘Why don’t you mention slaves?’ The first answer was, ‘Maybe the guide didn’t want to embarrass you.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m not a slave. I don’t know why he would think I’d be embarrassed.’

Then I asked again, and the answer was, ‘Maybe they didn’t have any.’ Well, they had 2,000 acres in South Carolina in the early part of the 19th Century. Be serious!

When I suggested that the guide check the inventory—because slaves were considered property and were often inventories—they discovered that the plantation had an inventory of 10 slaves, but they might have had more because women weren’t counted. Now, well, I had to find out about that! I mean, some things say, hey, like, ‘No!’ Then when I learned that the women were not considered valuable enough to inventory, I definitely wanted to write about that.”

 

At the Cemetery

Walnut Grove Plantation, South Carolina, 1989

among the rocks

at walnut grove

your silence drumming

in my bones,

tell me your names.

nobody mentioned slaves

and yet the curious tools

shine with your fingerprints.

nobody mentioned slaves

but somebody did this work

who had no guide, no stone,

who moulders under rock.

tell me your names,

tell me your bashful names

and i will testify.

the inventory lists ten slaves

but only men were recognized.

among the rocks

at walnut grove

some of these honored dead

were dark

some of these dark

were slaves

some of these slaves

were women

some of them did

this honored work.

tell me your names

foremothers, brothers,

tell me your dishonored names.

here lies

here lies

here lies

here lies

hear

— Lucille Clifton

Rev. Timothy Brown, S.J., assistant to the president for mission integration, is offering a series of reflections during Black History Month. Read the first post here.

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