Keys to unlock slavery's chains

Times Staff Writer

Decades before Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass published their famous works, an anonymous village poet in Cambridge, England, wrote a gravestone inscription for the orphaned 4-year-old daughter of a former slave. The girl, Anna Maria Vassa, was buried in St. Andrew's churchyard; the children of villagers left "choice flowers" on her grave. She was the daughter of an African man "torn from his native field, ah foul disgrace," the poet lamented in July 1797.

The inscription is included in "Amazing Grace," a new anthology of poems about slavery edited by James G. Basker, an English professor at Barnard College, Columbia University. The 784-page book is the first comprehensive anthology of its kind, covering roughly the time of the Enlightenment, between 1660 and 1810, a period in which the slave trade peaked and the antislavery movement began.

"Amazing Grace" (Yale University Press) includes pro- and antislavery poems, interracial love poems and a translated Greek ode. There are unknown poets and famous ones such as Alexander Pope, Robert Burns and Phillis Wheatley. Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has called the book "a major contribution to the scholarship of slavery."

"People are eager for material that deals with this subject historically, and they often seem to think there isn't any," said Basker, 50. "They assume there was nobody writing or thinking or talking about slavery in literature and philosophy or anything before about 1820, when the abolitionist magazines started going on in America."

Basker is leading workshops on the anthology's poems at high schools and middle schools around the country.

Among the poets in "Amazing Grace" are slaves, slave owners and slave traders; also represented are a milkmaid, a 17th century indentured servant in Virginia and two teenage sisters. Harriet Falconar, 14, and her 17-year-old sister, Maria Falconar, each wrote antislavery poems that were published in London in 1788. " ... Heav'n, indignant, views the impious deed / That bids the injur'd sons of Afric bleed; / Soon shall the voice of angry Justice call, / And bid the pointed sword of vengeance fall ... ," Harriet Falconar wrote.

In a 10-year project, Basker hunted down more than 400 poems and passages, perusing gravestone registries, church pamphlets, operas and other sources. A majority of the poems have not been in print since their original publication.

He wrote a short introductory essay for each piece, explaining, in some instances, the details that eluded him. "I struggled desperately to find biographical facts, any shards that I could, but many of [the poets], I couldn't find anything about," said Basker, who recently spoke about the anthology at a Pasadena high school.

History reclaimed

In the case of the gravestone inscription, he does not know if the Cambridge poet was black or white. But he cites the village children's floral tributes to the orphan as "a touching instance of interracial kindness" in an unexpected place and time.

The last poem in the anthology was published 51 years before the start of the American Civil War and long before works such as Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1852) and Douglass' autobiography, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave" (1845), were published.

The book's publication coincides with a heightened interest in period narratives about slavery that recently have made headlines. In 2001, Gates bought at an auction an unpublished, handwritten manuscript, "The Bondwoman's Narrative," by Hannah Crafts, the only known novel written by a female slave in America. The manuscript, written in the mid-1800s, was published last spring by Warner Books and edited by Gates. Also last year, Gates wrote the foreword to a new edition of a slave's story, "The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown" (Oxford University Press), that originally was published in 1849.

Basker said he wanted the anthology to address misconceptions that slavery was simply an American issue of the 1800s and that there were few literary representations on the topic anywhere until the mid-19th century.

"Amazing Grace" is meant to be as comprehensive as possible, folding in "insufferable" poems next to profound ones, Irish poets next to Scottish, in an effort to track the way slavery emerged in the collective consciousness of the English-speaking world.

"One thing I'm saying," Basker said, "is that when [William] Wordsworth and [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge wrote about the things that they thought were most important in the world, they wrote a lot about racial issues, and they're two of the greatest poets in our language. So I'm not saying this is a matter of including stuff that was viewed as merely token or political or nonliterary. I'm including stuff that somehow got forgotten."

Popular interest in literature related to slavery has been building in the post-Civil Rights era, Basker surmised, "which is symbolic of the acceptance and inclusion that's going on. That's what I mean about making this literature and this subject matter part of our collective memory, not just part of one group's. I don't believe in this subdivision of American or Anglophone culture into 'The black people get to have the black stuff.' What does that mean, the WASPs get to have Shakespeare?"

"It's part of our whole experience," said Basker, who is white. "Plus, our experience of slavery is, by definition, a mixed-race experience, so it has to, for all of us, be part of our history."

Basker came up with the idea for the anthology in the late '80s when "I began asking myself -- I'm sure a lot of teachers were -- what does the literature I've been teaching all these years have to say to students who care about issues of diversity and racial history?"

With the help of research assistants, he began searching for and compiling literature about slavery. He decided to focus on poems, or "any poetic language," for practical reasons -- such material is shorter than novels or other prose -- and for literary reasons.

"Poetry," Basker writes, "of all forms of language, best enables us to approximate or intimate the unspeakable."

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