From 1839 to '41 they called me a murderer, called me a pirate, called us property,each of the 52 of us held by the American Courts because Ruiz and Montez
lied about where we were from, when their ship, the Amistad,
which we had seized between the Havana slave market and the plantation
where they were taking us - was stopped by the coast guard off of Long Island,
which is where Ruiz had sailed it, instead of taking us back to Sierra Leone where we
were born, where they'd enslaved us, where we had told them to return us.
The Americans arrested us, but Ruiz and Montez demanded us back as their slaves,
insisted they be allowed to return to Cuba, where they said we were all born,
except the coast guard claimed us as salvage; so the case went to court,
but then Spain wanted us; wanted Ruiz and Montez because slave trading
was against their laws; so President Van Buren though we should all be sent to Spain,
because of a 1795 treaty, only the Anti-Slavery Society of America said
we should be set free because slavery had been abolished in Connecticut
where we had landed and because it had been illegal to import slaves
into America since 1807. They weren't all Mende like me, but most were,
and they had risen with me when we took the ship, so some Americans thought
we should be tried for murder. We, who were all born in Africa, wanted to go home.
The anti-slavery society hired a lawyer to prove that since none of us
could speak Spanish, then none of could have been born in Cuba,
they proved Ruiz and Montez were lying, except no one knew what language
we did speak until a lawyer named Baldwin went down to the docks; shouted words
in our language until a man named James Covey answered him:
Covey had been to Sierra Leone, he spoke Mende, so Covey talked with us,
told the courts I was a landowner who grew rice near the Boom Kittam River.
After that, Mr. Baldwin and the anti-slavery society fought three trials for us,
in the last one, John Quincy Adams, the former president, joined our defence.
While all that happened, we were not free, but our friends got us teachers,
Reverend William Raymond and his wife, Eliza, who taught us English:
how to speak it, and how to write it. They taught us from the Bible, taught us
Christianity. We were animists. Each time a trial came we got better at saying who we
were and where we were from and why we should be allowed to go home.
In the end, the Supreme Court said it was sad that we had killed the crew,
but also said we had a right to free ourselves from those who had taken us,
so the judges set us free. Some Americans were angry and wanted to kill us,
but we were protected.
Mr. Lewis Tappan, of the Anti-Slavery Society, raised money
to send us home, then got us three more teachers like the Raymonds, and
put us on a ship for Sierra Leone. Reverend James Steel, “Mr. Steel, sir”,
we had to call him, was in charge of creating a Christian mission once we got
back to Sierra Leone; a couple from Barbados, Henry and Tamar Wilson,
and the Raymonds who had a baby girl, Jane, all came with us when we sailed for
Freetown. Once we got there though, we left “Mr. Steel, sir”
and the missionaries: we were free people in our own country,
but he hated us for leaving.
I hope to never see “Mr. Steel, Sir” again, though he has gone upriver to buy land.
The Wilsons are afraid to leave Freetown and won't go to my country because
there is slave war in our land and they now know from the English that the mission
can't protect them from being stolen by the Temne, the enemies of my people.
Mrs. Raymond lost Jane, their baby, as soon as we arrived but she and Reverend William
say they will go upriver when “Mr. Steele, sir” comes back: they think words
can save them, as words saved us in America, but the Temne care nothing for words
but the orders they give those they enslave, things will not go well for their mission.
Freetown they call it, Sodom is more like it: every form of depravity and debauchery
of which humans partake, is partaken of here in daylight and in darkness:
every appetite, every carnal impulse, every crime against decency flourishes,
and does so, because of the most debased creed of them all: the slave trade,
forbidden under British law, the trade in human souls permeates West Africa.
Here on the coast, the English hold the worst at bay,
but it is the daily bread of life upriver, from whence I have just come,
having secured land for our mission from Chief Tucker, a man so thick with the thieves
of human trafficking that I felt defiled shaking his hand to seal the deal for the mission.
As soon as I returned to the coast, I discovered the rot had set in among us:
Tamar Wilson had already seen the truth of her own situation, having once been
a slave in Barbados, she knows that upriver she will be just one more black woman
for the slavers to gather up, and the thought of that, has undone her: I pity her,
the dread of the fate she escaped through Emancipation by the British,
has lain in wait for her these nine years since, and now she has made herself
unfit to serve as wife or missionary, and being unfit,
can no longer be compelled or encouraged to go upriver.
And Henry is no better, for he too knows what awaits him upriver, and worse,
for a man in love with his wife as much as he is, he knows what he has lost:
Because Freetown, for Henry Wilson, is a prison of grief and fear:
I hope I have convinced him that Tamar has abandoned him,
and that she is as lost to him as she now is to the mission;
as the mission itself is lost to all of us, as I suspect I was lost to the mission
through that handshake.
The Sengbe Pieh and the Mende have vanished, they have played us for fools,
took all the gifts we gave them;striped them from their backs as they did their shirts
the moment my prayer of thanksgiving for our safe arrival ended and they raced to shore
and groveled in their re-embracing the soil of Africa;
the half naked display of their tribal tattoos was a repudiation of civilization and sanity
since their enemies among the Tameni knew them for Mende immediately,
they were marked for re-enslavement before we were five minutes on the continent.
It is my intention to return to America with Henry Wilson,
to let Lewis Tappan and Reverend Pennington and the Anti-Slavery Society
know that this mission was doomed from the start, underfunded
and ill-equipped to face the dangers and madness of trying to teach
reading and writing or even Christianity in the heart of such incessant evil.
I cannot however, move the Raymonds to abandon their convictions,
even with Eliza grieving the daughter she lost, she still insists on
finding the Mende girls who vanished soon after our arrival,
she likewise feels compelled to stand by William and their believe in the sign
he was given from God in the Queen's Bush settlement:
together they burn like white fire and are bound to one another
in ways I could only hope to one day know in marriage or faith, and yet,
they are fragile and inconsequential to the dark powers at work upriver,
powers that will quench their holy ardour and devour their naivete.
I can't return with them, can't tell William let alone Eliza
that the three Mende girls, even if found, will be gathered up by the old women
of the tribe, forced to undergo the ritual cutting of their sexual parts,
and even then, the Tameni could still sweep the village for slaves
and every one of the Mende the Raymonds spent the last two years teaching
could end up back on ship headed for Cuba...
If nothing else good comes of me, or the rest of my life, let me at least return
to fight against the resettlement of escaped American slaves anywhere in West Africa.
It would be better they died in poverty in the wilds of Upper Canada
where the Raymonds first worked together then be led back to this place of horror,
where not even the strongest is strong enough to defend
the next strongest among them, let alone defend the weak.
Sengbe Pieh is the exemplar of that,
strong enough to lead the slave rising uprising on the Amistad,
strong enough to lead his people through the American court system,
strong enough to learn our language and our religion, but it took no more
than the first Tameni to glance at his naked torso, to see his Mende tattoos,
for Sengbe to shrink, and so they will they all wither,
one way or another, they will all vanish, as I myself will diminish
because I fled this cup of poison placed before me.
above the harbour into Freetown, though to say I speak with her,
says there was talking, when in truth she says nothing this morning:
looks at me when I call her name, then turns back to the sea,
the whole of my time standing in the grasses
breezing under the sun of Sierra Leone.
Her dress is torn, snagged, not ripped, and the fine stitch on the collar, fraying.
And if this be the shop in Connecticut, I am sewing the repairs but it is not
and she stands in the stirring of her soiled print saying nothing
but the look of her saying all her life's despair since coming here.
Not that she meets my eyes, or that I force my gaze into hers, she is far off and away
with her look, losing herself in the crossing home or in the mid space between
knowing and not knowing. Following her gaze, I lose myself there as well, lose myself
in the silence of not knowing what to say, thinking of Barbados and she but a girl
verging first womanhood all the rolling, quiet waves of yesterday,
and I, a boy on the edge of manhood, noticing first the beauty of her face and then
the eyes of her stolen childhood.
I am remembering today the slave girl she is back then
and myself born to the island, son of a white man, my mother kidnapped
as a child, a half son of the plantation, but that is all the home of then,
unlike the here of today, the here, where my wife loses herself
looking for the America we chose the year of our freedom:
only she can't find home in an ocean across which we have lost everything.
She knows I am here; knows the way I am seeing her, remembering her,
knows I am seeing the lipstick and the lustful bruise of a man's hand on her neck,
she knows I can see the woman beneath the clothes who is my wife and giver
of her flesh, and like me, she knows neither of us understands how she
came to this, how I came today to say I am leaving her to Freetown, leaving
with Reverend Steel, broken by her and this place,
Sierra Leone, with its humidity and langour, with the heat burning carnal
into the senses, the why of how she is here today,
tasting the salt of the Ocean's caress, while sweat trickles the skin
of her breasts like a lover's kiss, or like thrusts inside thighs
only I knew.
She is alive with it all, but all we were is no more within her,
no more a sacred joy rumbling dry thunder over jungle, there is now
only the lurid madness and the urgency of standing here on the bluff of Freetown
taking leave of her memory as I am taking leave of her,
while the mid-distance stretches time across eight months now inside this moment:
inside which we live our happiness, live our marriage and separation and then it is over,
and I am leaving, telling her I am going, hoping she will rouse herself from her stupour
and follow me - follow her memory out of this place, because I plead with her,
'come home Tamar', but leave, knowing she will not follow nor walk with me.
I feel her with my back, remaining, every step ripping my shame through my back for
going, for taking all her memories, for leaving her, having been leaving since I boarded
this ship, since the anchor is cast, since I look to the place
where I still see her following a man into Freetown, where I leave her
as empty as I am now full of our memories.
Our vows tatter and vanish in the sailing wind.
Henry does not know me anymore, though he knew me at first glance
the day we met in Barbados, newly arrived on the slave ship,
a terrified, lonely girl and he a child of the owner, born half-chained,
Henry could see my fear of dying in chains like my sister on the crossing.
He was desperate for life and learned whatever anyone would teach him.
Teaching him taught me to teach, he was my first pupil,
I taught him stories of my freedom in Africa; while he taught me
the ways and means of surviving the plantation.
When Emancipation came to the British colonies and we were freed,
we married and left for Connecticut, became slaves for Christ instead,
took the Living Word into ourselves and found a different kind of freedom
in service to those in need.
Henry took up the tailoring trade but I kept teaching,
taught free-born children how to read and write their way
through the chains of ignorance, how to escape the world
of their untutored minds and see meanings in the shadows cast
in hateful words from the mouths of neighbours.
But then the Amistad captives were given over to court custody;
the Raymonds were brought in to teach them enough language
to defend themselves when the trial came, so Reverend Pennington
took Henry and I to meet the Mende;
that's how we came to work for the American Anti-Slavery Society,
how we came to help Sengbe and the Mende once the courts said they were free.
I was going home too, I thought, though not to the place of my birth: but at least,
I was returning to Africa, but that too was a lie, for Africa taught me the truth
of my blood just as it taught Henry he would never escape the divide in his own veins.
Henry had was just enough memory of his own childhood to know
that what Reverend “Mister Steel, sir” was trying to do would fail
once we got to Africa: the Mende wouldn't stand for being half free,
we both knew they would leave us as soon as they landed.
That's why we parted with the Raymonds, or, more truthfully, that's why Henry parted
with William and Eliza: for me, the divide between the others and I wasn't as great as
that between my husband and I, because Henry had some African blood but had no
desire to ever be African, while I was born African, and so
had to find a way to become myself again, which put Henry and I at odds.
When Reverend Steel come back from buying land for the upriver mission,
he told us of the slave wars there, so I learned then my skin was still the wrong colour:
if I went up there, I'd be enslaved again and no one could stop it, and thus our marriage
broke: I can't leave Africa now that I am home and Henry cannot stay.
I have lost the ability to speak to him, even standing as he still is
knowing he loves me, and that I will always love him,
but though I can't go upriver, I can never go back to America, so
even though I am no longer welcome among what passes for polite society
here in Freetown, I'll stay anyway.
Henry needs to emancipate himself from me.
He knows I was a girl raised in the wanton circumstances of his father;
knows I became a woman who made a slave of her husband and trained him
to her needs. I don't like what I did to Henry, I played on the guilt
in the gulf in his blood: I don't like what I'm doing to him now:
he's a kind man, but I broke him to free him.
I have let an African merchant keep me, a coastal tribesman:
part of the remnant that once controlled this bay before the inland tribes
destroyed most of his people: he's a British subject now, though he's not a Christian
or a Muslim or even an anamist, I don't know what he is, beyond being a good lover;
though he has a wife and children and I have met them, most tribes are polygamous,
so he has kept that much of their beliefs.
But I won't be a wife again, he pays me to teach his children,
so while Steel calls me a prostitute, I'm just a teacher with a polygamous lover.
William and Eliza Raymond don't understand why I have done
what I have done: but of the five of us, they alone are true slaves to God, they alone
will be going upriver, and for what my prayers are now worth, my prayers
go with them, and with the Mende girls, and with Henry, who I know is still watching
the vanishing shore below the white sail I can almost no longer see.
not even access to a voice that others outside of me can hear:
I am holed up inside myself, and beyond these last thoughts,
yellow fever ravages my body and mind and will soon overrun
this last stand of my awareness:
the remainder of my life
revolves around you my God, and how I came to be in this agony,
so far from home, so far from Eliza, so near the graves of our children.
To be fair to you Lord, I brought this upon myself: I asked to be of service,
asked a God of sacrifice to use me to good purpose, especially that day
with Thomas Vipond in the Queen's Bush settlement, Eliza and I
already being used in the midst of our poverty to teach and serve the former slaves
who had become our neighbours there a little more than a year before.
I brought this upon myself the day after Lewis Tappan sent the letter asking us
to return to the States and take up the cause of the Amistad Mende
being held in court custody. I went to Vipond in the cabin he used
for his home and services. And while we prayed for a sign from you,
his dog became uneasy so Thomas let it out then returned to pray with me for a way
to raise funds so Eliza and I could leave the settlement. But then his dog
began to growl and bark, so Thomas opened the door and a wolf burst into his shanty,
which I finally managed to club senseless with a broken chair leg and then kill it.
I should have known how deadly that answered prayer was when I realized
that the bounty on the wolf's hide would allow us to fund our trip out of the settlement
as far as St. Catharines where our friends finances our way to Connecticut, allowing us
to answer your call, the call that eventually brought Eliza and dear Jane, our
later, doomed first child to Africa with the Mende. But you know all this Lord, I ramble
to stay ahead of my delirium I suppose.
She and I were two years married, eloped from her step mothers in Brantford,
made lean and of one body and flesh in the hardships of the Queen's Bush,
but none of that prepared us for what was ahead, after we befriended the beleaguered
Africans and taught them English to defend themselves before the courts.
The shape of the troubles ahead were there for those who had eyes to see, Lord,
but we had eyes only for the task at hand. It was only when we got the Mende
back to Sierra Leone, when we encountered the debauchery of Freetown and caught
our first glimpses of the degradation of humanity of the upriver slave trade,
that I thought again of the wolf, and pondered anew the meaning of its fate,
within the glimpses of the horrors we discovered upriver.
The death of Jane as soon as we arrived broke us, Eliza most of all,
and then when the Mende vanished within days of arriving, desperate
to get upriver to their loved ones without being recaptured
by Temne slavers who prowl Freetown like chain gangs, all five of us
in the Anti-Slavery Society's mission suddenly found ourselves facing
a threat more dangerous than any wolf let loose in a shanty,
because it was a moral threat, extending from human choice and it met us everywhere,
and none of the gentility of British Freetown could conceal it for long.
Even the Methodists looked on our plan with dread.
And then Steel came back from finding us land and left with Henry Wilson,
leaving Tamar to her fate, and leaving only Eliza and I and the three girls
from the Amistad to go upriver not even knowing where Sengbe and the others were.
We were broken in your name before leaving Freetown Lord,
so that all that comes or does not come of the mission after I am gone,
will be yours to claim, for no human, least of all me, can now lay claim
to the survival of Kaw Mende. I am the last of mission, even Miss …
I can't recall her name now Lord, even she, who came back with Eliza and I
from America on our fundraising tour, even she died after Eliza lost
our second child, after Eliza lost her hope, lost her sanity among the rats...
how Eliza hated those rats... how many did I kill that one day,
one hundred and sixty four, poor Eliza, so great in spirit, so broken in hope after
the second baby died and the rats came and Sengbe Pieh returned to demand
we allow him to take the young women to his tribe so the female elders
could perform their ritual cliterectomies,
it broke her hope so I sent her home to my parents to save her mind...
How long have I been here without help, Lord, running the school,
protecting the girls, providing medical supplies, how long have I been dying,
how much longer can I retain this last remnant of my own mind?
Kaw Mende is yours, yellow fever will soon break down this barrier,
and my life and my works will be jettisoned in the black vomit.
Someone is caring for me. One of the girls I suppose.
They at least have been safe here.
We have done that much good, we also
bought several of the Amistad captives back from the slavers.
We did that much, several times, over and over and over we bought them back.
You answered my prayer with a wolf.
And this time... it is I that am being bludgeoned to death by disease.
Have mercy on Eliza, Lord,
grant her your peace,
grant her... grace...
They don't want me remembering, and they mean well, but if don't remember, I'll forget,
and if I forget, I will lose myself, as I lost the children, as I lost William, as we lost
some of those we had saved, as I lost my faith, my hope and some of my sanity;
so I remember because I don't want to forget who I am, who they were were,
what we set out to do, what we did, what we failed to do.
I remember lest I become - as Sengbe once said - a dog without a home,
lest I become a stray; lose my way, lose sight of all that is still true and holy and
untouched by the darkness into which we were drawn, as wide-eyed and innocent as
children who thought we knew what darkness was, but had never lived without lamps.
Sengbe... 'Cinque' of whom I once knew nothing, of whom I learned too much,
much that was good, much that was not, much that I never understood, much
that I will never let myself forget. He was our friend and our enemy, he was God sent
and Satan serving, he was humanity looking at itself in the mirror of slavery,
he was a simple man in a situation so complex it broke us all.
If I don't remember, I will lose myself to my hatred of Sengbe,
and I cannot do that to William's memory, to William's love for me.
They want me to remember his love, but not his loss,
they who have never lived without lamps.
They who are afraid of madness as if they might catch it
as William caught yellow fever and perished in its black vomit
when I wasn't there and couldn't tend him or die alongside him.
Sierre Leone…Africa itself... it had always been with me, it was there
when I was born in Nova Scotia, there among the abolitionists and blacks
of my childhood who spoke of Granville and Freetown as if they were mythical realms,
places of hope against hope, places where the great wrong could be made right,
no matter how wrong the wrong was or continued to go wrong, it could be driven off
with light, it would be as simple as darkness vanishing into light in a place where no
light had been shone for centuries.
Nova Scotia, how dear and safe and clear and bright it seems to me now, although,
even its shadows hide crimes and wrongs against Africans, but Nova Scotia
pales against the limitless glooms of West African slavery, against the succubus
feeding on the skull of that continent, feeding on women and children and men,
generation after generation after generation, century after century, an endless stream
of degradation, chains within chains, horrors passed down through families of slavers
and the enslaved, legacies of debauchery and transactions of despair.
Perhaps I should have listened to my step-mother, listened when Sally warned me off
William... Instead I eloped with him, married in St. Catherines and took up teaching
former slaves in the Queen's Bush Settlement where we had nothing but one another,
one another and the divine cause of giving from the bounty of education and faith
with which we had been blessed.
Those bleak winters were radiant with shared hardship,
what a joy to serve those who had only known forced service and suffering at the hands
of whites, what an honour to undo the burdens placed on them by others of our race,
by helping them carry the burdens of their fear and ignorance, helping them plant new
hopes, raise new generations.
And then the call came to help the slaves captured on the Amistad.
So we went to the States, and for the next two years we helped the captives
during the trial over who owned them...
They want me to forget: Sally would want me to remember. She remembered
everything. Memory was sacred to her, raised as she was among her father's people
on the Grand River, she listened to her Mohawk blood, and to the blood
of her white grandfather, Sir William Johnson. She knew her place in time.
I never forgot she wasn't my mother, but then she never asked me to...
she only warned me of falling in love with William...
I can almost remember my mother, Mary, Mary Best Ruggles. and what I remember
is losing her. I was four. My father worshiped her, not like his god, but for the evidence
of God she was in his life, and when she was gone, I was the evidence of what he'd lost,
and what remained.
Nova Scotia was... like living among her memories,
everywhere we went in Kings County was touched with her presence,
and her absence, for I was young when she died: and yet, for me, the colony was her,
she was in the woods and by the stream, she was in the flowers; she protected me
from within the clouds, made my world sacred, and when she was gone, she
went into the land itself, and though I missed her, I found her everywhere.
My father felt her loss everywhere, except in me.
And so we left, and for me, she was left, except... she's still there.
I need to go home, I need to go back to Nova Scotia, I don't belong here,
I'll die in Massachusetts if I stay, I'll die with William's family.
Except I know he wouldn't want me to die on them.
His brother Charles brings me tea, and listens,
he's not even a man yet, and yet he lets me talk, he listens...
how very kind he is.
The Raymonds all have such deep kindness in them,
but they have always lived in a world with lamps,
they don't want to know of the black vomit and how yellow fever kills,
they don't want to know of the rats and how they came by the thousands to the mission,
they don't want to know the horrors of life upriver, the old women who
convinced Sengbe to lead the young women out; they don't want to know how the
Amistad Mende were recaptured by slavers, and how we had to buy them back, again
and again and again, they don't want to know how I endured after Jane, no more than a
baby - their granddaughter died when we first arrived, and then their next heir too.
They only know I broke;
they want to remember William as a servant of God's
but they don't want to know how dark the place was in which he served,
and though they hate slavery, and accept that he died fighting against it
only to be struck down by an act of God:
they love their son, and cherish him still, but only Charles listens to my despair,
only Charles hears, and Ari by letter because he lives among the Indians and
black loyalists near Lake Simcoe and has since he was 18, but even Ari only knows
what we knew in the Queen's Bush: because Ari has lived without food, without pay,
so Ari understands, but even he never lived without light, even if he sometimes
couldn't afford the fuel to feed his lamps and lives too close to the edge
of want as we did in our service, but Charles listens because he loved William,
he listens to my despair because of his love for his brother;
because of his love for me.
How grotesque that Amistad should mean friendship in Spanish,
our friendship with the slaves of Amistad was the cross on which were broken,
a ship that was named friendship in a demonic jest, a ship on which slaves found
their freedom through murder, then made their defense in the courts of the world
because John Quincy Adams argued that they, like all humanity, had a claim to
the friendship of the free in the cause of liberty.
And so they were freed, and we sailed
with them back to Sierre Leone and Freetown with Henry and Tamar Wilson and
James Steel, only Tamar never left Freetown, none of which I can tell the Raymonds,
not even to Charles... I can only speak to Charles of the Boom Kittam River up which
we went into horror upon horror in the name of friendship.
There is always blood to be paid for blood, starting with our daughter,
and then our second child, who was born and died within days at the mission.
William vomited up his blood no longer red but black as death when I wasn't there.
And for what? Who gave us the cup we drank in that hell, who poured it,
what good did any of it do... in the end ?
I want to die in Nova Scotia, not here,
the Raymonds don't need my death to add to their sufferings.
I want to go home, find my mother,
pick her scent out from among the wildflowers of the Annapolis Valley,
A scent of her I learned from an untouched dresser drawer
left by my father, the scent of her all that remained.
I want to go home and smell the clean, salt water decay of the Bay of Fundy.
The apple orchards will be in bloom and I can pick a bouquet...
This is not the way she would want me to die.
It is a long road I have been on all these years,
a long time since I've come to Kaw Mende,
long since all those who helped us after the Amistad
have gone home or died, like William Raymond, who
died the way only whites die in west Africa, from the fever
we don't get, for it is in born in our blood when we are born,
and dies in our blood as we grow.
Raymond did not like the man
I came to be when I came home after America, though he knew how long
I would suffer from being home, for my home was no longer home, my home
was a village of ghosts, a place of the dead and the stolen, there was no wife
no child no parent, no friend left. All that was left was my tribe.
The old women told me to bring them the girls from the mission,
Eliza stopped me: she was hard as iron, as soft as a mothers' tears,
she moved like a panther, wild, and as deadly as holy beauty:
she stood me down, stood down the old ones and their old ways,
she thought I was a bad man for doing what the old women wanted,
my people thought I was a bad man for not doing what the old women asked,
so I had no home after that, I had no God and lived in fear of the Tamne obeah-men,
I moved up and down the river like a boat, I took wives, I took my pleasure,
I spread my seed in the womb of the river knowing it would be carried off.
I sold my enemies into slavery, thought that would be revenge
for what they'd done to me, I fucked the wife of one, but felt shame
as she was carried into captivity. I killed another man's child in front of him,
did unto others as had been done to me, so I was not even at home in my own skin,
I was never the Christian the Americans wanted me to be, not the Muslim
the old women wanted, not the man I was before I had been enslaved.
William Raymond could see inside of me, saw the man I had become,
saw the victim I had been, saw how I had become my own enemy,
but then he died, and the titi girls grew up and they knew a man
I had forgotten, they said to me “come home, Sengbe, come to Kaw Mende.”
They tell me to loose my vex, tell me that “William and Eliza would want
me to sabi that no matter how old, or how long it took,
I would remember when I was a bobo and my mama and papa
was still my living world, they tell me the Raymond's said
that I would remember mercy, would remember my wakka with God,
that I would be their brother again like I had been
when I freed them from their chains in the hold of the Amistad;
I would be the man they knew me as then, the hero man,
that was the man the Raymonds said I would remember myself to be.
I let them young woman sing their new song for me, unlock the water of my heart,
I let them set me free, and I came again to Kaw Mende, now grown old,
once again their padi, not ever again going up and down the river
like a boat got no place to land, in fear of the poisons of the Tamne obeah men.
I am terrible sometimes, got no hope for mercy, got no right for kindness,
got nothing but forgiveness to ask of them I sent long gone into slavery.
So I do the work of mercy, I help the new missionaries in the school,
I sit in the sun and remember that once upon a time John Quincy Adams
set me free by the power of his words, by the telling of story
in the right place at the right time with the right words,
words I was taught to write, words I was taught to speak,
words that carry so much beauty sometimes
I start to believe I might one day be forgiven.
I don't expect much, but maybe I've enslaved myself
to the drudgery of Kaw Mende
to make amends,
but if there is misery in that, it is my misery,
my penance, my way of living in peace
with the spirits of my people,
both Mende, and Temne,
for my enemy is no longer my enemy,
and my hatred is no longer my hatred.
My place in history needed a better ending,
and for now, this will be the best I can do.
Let them say I died making amends
in the name of my lost wife and children,
in the name of those I enslaved,
the child I killed in front of his father,
the man's wife I raped and then sold,
for I was once a rice farmer,
and worked the long days of my youth
before they were stolen from me;
I understand how a man reaps what he sows,
so let me die here sowing good.
Let me die here
with titi girls now grown women who remember the hero I was,
long ago, let me die with the friends I have.