Afaa Weaver  

for Major Jackson

In a fountain at the harbor, children
wash themselves in water spraying
in the heat. They count themselves dark
and light. The aircraft carrier sits
in the moist nothing of salt water, tons
of tons weighing in the soft splash.
We count our wishes, to be free,
to be at ease, to be in abundance.
Above us spirits whirl in a thunderhead.

On steps across from the slave mart,
I peel an orange for the slow rip of its flesh
in my thumb, the sweet dotting on my nose
with its juice. I suck the threads of it,
gaze at the wooden doors now closed,
at the empty space inside with iron hooks.
I can see the white folks heads checking
available cash in front of naked Africans
chained, bereaved, and listening to
a cruelty yet to be born. I can smell
the congregation of odors, humans fresh
from slave ships or working in fields, and
humans fresh from beds of fine linen,
sleeping with fingers in Bibles and prayers.

This is not a petty thing because we have
a rental car with an air conditioner, a tape
player, and various cushions. We have come
far to do this, to gaze out from the banks
of this plantation river to the rice fields,
to walk in Charleston. I keep the heat
from threatening my life, and I wonder
if I could have survived slavery to be old,
if being old is all there is to live to be.
I walk around the slave quarters and hear
African languages speaking in magnolias.
I hear the day's work being discussed
along with parents scolding children for
being children, as horror sifts above.
I hear wailing for children who are lost.

The avenues of ancient oaks are pillars
through to the past, the past of what is present.
We drive through the overhanging moss,
as wealth lingers beyond Sherman's burning.
It lingers in the eyes of black gardeners
who snip and shear carefully, lifting their eyes
to search for who cares that Africa is here.
I take these things as signs that miracles
always manifest in our ancestry when we
feel the need to touch the lights in the fire.
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    Excerpted from Multitudes: Poems by Afaa Weaver. Copyright © 2000 by Afaa Weaver. Excerpted by permission of Sarabande Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Photo credit © Jeff Hurwitz