Monday, March 10, 2014

Notes on Yusef Komunyakaa's "The African Burial Ground"

Image from the African Burial Ground

Yusef Komunyakaa's poem about the African Burial Ground extends the terrain of poems concentrating on slavery. Many of the more well-known poems about slavery and struggles for liberation focus on prominent historical figures such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman or on famous incidents such as the Amistad Revolt.

Entitled "The African Burial Ground," Komunyakaa's poem, which appears in the March issue of Poetry, sketches the journey of enslaved people who "came as Congo, Guinea, & Angola" to work "fields of barley & flax, /livestock, stone & slab, brick & mortar, / to make wooden barrels." Komunyakaa mentions how enslaved people came to New Amsterdam, which was the name of the 17th-century Dutch settlement established at the southern tip of what is now known as Manhattan.

The reference to 17th-century events involving African-descended peoples is part of what makes Komunyakaa's poem unique. Poems about slavery often focus on what I refer to as "late slavery," which means a decade or so leading up to Emancipation and the Civil War. In addition, poems about people who were enslaved tend to address issues taking place in the South.  "The African Burial Ground," however, links readers to New York's slave past.

Komunyakaa's interest in the burial ground serves the useful purpose of connecting this historic poem to the contemporary era, as the African Burial Ground is now a notable national monument. (As part of a trip to New York City, I've taken dozens of students to the site, and we've learned more each time we've visited). Komunyakaa notes that "footsteps of lower Manhattan /  strutted overhead, back & forth / between old denials & new arrivals."  Here, the poem references city-dwellers on the go, unknowingly walking over the graves of Africans.

The closing lines are particularly moving, as he writes "The click of heels / the tap of a drum awaking the dead." The burial grounds were discovered, or more accurately rediscovered in 1991 as a federal agency began to pursue plans to construct an office tower and adjoining four-story pavilion. A year after the first  human bones from the site were discovered, "the last of some 420 skeletons had been removed."

As Spencer P.M. Harrington notes, "African-American outrage over the handling of the excavation stemmed from a perception that the black community had no control over the fate of its heritage--that decisions about the burial ground were being made by white bureaucrats with little insight into African-American history and spiritual sensitivities." 

Komunyakaa's poem expands the range of poetic treatments of enslavement and liberation, and at the same time, he contributes to the ongoing saga of the actual burial ground and the awaking of the enslaved dead.

Poetry about slavery & struggles for liberation

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