A silence fell over the room and I
Looked into the faces of the two Founders
That expressed such a profound sorrow that bled
Into the space between us and in my head
I was overwhelmed by a sense of dread.
Then my eye fell on Spinoza who could read
My state and quickly responded to my need.
“History leaves in its wake a trail of error
And those who make it become icons who bear
Into the present the force to make us care
Unless stone cold monuments imprison them
In fantasies of the national origin
That regulate the past and make forbidden
The sight of painful truths and contradictions.
You must harvest the essence their lives expressed
And in that way you will put their memory to rest.”
He turned to look at Jefferson at his side.
“This one wrote his declaration to be a guide
To the revolution in which he took some pride.
He knew the phrase, ‘All men are created equal,’
Approached a thought that must be universal
And that his own words were just a rehearsal
Of meanings other men would have to complete.
In time the words themselves may become obsolete,
But the truth they bear no age can ever deplete.
The suffering you see in their faces derives
From the recognition of how many lives
Were sacrificed so that what they began survives
Into a future that will realize
Better than they could what equality is.
Think of Lincoln’s face in which is traced his
Pain when confronted with so many slain
For decisions from which he could not refrain
And the balance of forces he had to maintain
In order to expand what it means to be free.”
With that word Catherine stood and came over to me.
“Come,” she said, “there’s someone I want you to see.”
I followed her out the door and then to the shore
That appeared not too distant from where we were,
And as we approached the beach I saw a figure
All in black standing at the foot of the waves,
Which seemed to have fully conquered her gaze,
While the gray sky mirrored the sadness of her days.
As we came closer, she turned toward me her face
In which I saw beauty and amazing grace.
Then Catherine said, “This woman knew the embrace
Of the man who made the demand for equality,
While she always remained his property.
For so long she had no voice in your history,
But as William wrote, nothing is lost in time—
All we do, say, or desire informs the sublime
Wonder from which beams of light shoot forth that shine
Through the ages and disclose the human form,
Long buried in darkness, only to be reborn
Through a process that requires us to perform
Our duty to those whose existences were erased
From the human family that had debased
Itself through mindless acts of laying waste
To its members as if to mutilate
Its own body, a strange form of self-hate.
None of this is ever a matter of fate
And redemption never comes to us too late.
Go to her, for she has something to say.”
I turned to the woman in black and felt the spray
Of the sea behind her that might have been tears,
For I felt the sorrow of two hundred years
Emanate from her face in which tenderness did appear.
Then she spoke, “My pain is not for myself alone,
But for generations of black folk who were owned
By men who refused to know what they had sown
Of hatred for their world but even worse
Of love that for us could only be a curse,
When the one you love is the one who would coerce
Your affection that your soul begs you to resist
While your heart longs for the comfort of kiss,
Which gives even to suffering the feeling of bliss.
That’s how I felt about Mister Jefferson.
He awoke in me the fire of tender passion
And made me love him without the satisfaction
Of seeing in his eye something reflected
Of my own essence, but instead dejected
He seemed, and the gift of my heart he rejected,
And the children of our union were neglected
When they looked to their father for recognition,
While he obeyed a social prohibition
And looked away until the day he died,
Which enabled them at last to have the pride
Of freedom, though still enchained by the need to hide
The truth about their inadmissible birthright,
Which they could do because their skins were light—
Oh, how could such evil not turn my days into nights?
And that would have been all there was for me,
But in death I was redeemed by the force of history,
For consciousness survives death through memory
And imagination that can resurrect
In other minds what my world kept in check—
That even slaves have the power to reflect,
That with our condition we were never content,
That our understanding went beyond resentment,
That freedom was our holy covenant
With God and the better angels Lincoln could see—
That one day would come the end of slavery,
Which begins the war on all human misery.
Now come with me and we will cross this sea
For there are souls we both need to witness,
Who will contribute to your mental fitness.”
With her finger she pointed toward a skiff
Without oar or sail as if we could just drift
Across the chasm, an idea I had to resist
By turning to see if Catherine could explain.
She said, “All this is the work of your own brain,
And it will define the physics of this domain.
Trust your vision.” To which I then replied,
“Can I go forward without those two at my side?
With Blake and Spinoza I would still abide.”
She answered, “There’s something in you that inspires
Her appearance and the goal of your quest requires
You to follow this sign of your true desire.”
The dark lady then took me by the hand
And led me to the boat which we pushed off the sand,
Then climbed in for the return to our own land,
And without effort we left behind the strand
As if the skiff followed our mental command
Through some means beyond my power to understand.
Almost instantly a dense fog consumed us
And I could hardly feel the skiff’s own thrust
Though I knew I simply had to place my trust
In forces that seemed to be working through me
And through this woman whose desire to be free
Awakened in me admiration of her esprit
That never lost hope or fell into despair.
Then she spoke, “Don’t think that I am unaware
Of generations of white folks who still don’t care
About the things we all have in common,
Though in death I have also met with someone
You know and who through her example won
You to a lifelong struggle for justice.
In the heaven in your head she remains restless
And over her children she keeps a jealous
Eye to protect you all from losing sight
Of what she taught you to see in the darkest night—
That no one should be excluded from the light.”