Excerpts for I Lay My Stitches Down : Poems of American Slavery


I Lay My Stitches Down

Poems of American Slavery
By Cynthia Grady

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Copyright © 2012 Cynthia Grady
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-5386-8


Chapter One

Log Cabin

The finds of archaeologists beneath dilapidated cabins down the hill: some chicken bones, the skins and skulls of coons and squirrels — hard remains of suppers stalked by moonlight, faith, starvation. Caches, too, of divination: sea shells, broken beads, and bundled roots suggest how slaves survived a knotted life of cornmeal, cruelty, death. The dig won't yield the stolen, lost, withheld: shoes, safety, drums, dignity, daughters, sons.

Archaeologists excavating the areas where enslaved Africans and African Americans lived have discovered artifacts that resemble ritual objects similar to those used in West African religious practices. These artifacts have been found buried in symbolic arrangements and clustered near doorways and chimneys — thresholds for people and spirits.

Cotton Boll

I need the music of my forebears from Afrik, but take the mending to my lap and work beside the Missus' chair. A spell of quiet sewing, restful breath — it soothe my soul, dangling by a thread that been spun like cotton fiber grown and pinched on this hell place. Before I know, I'm rocking with the rhythm of the stitching, humming low the melody of "Gilead." A balm for hunger, sorrow, heartache, yes, he is.

A healing ointment found in Gilead on the eastern shore of the Jordan River was so curative that it was equal in worth to salt, a precious commodity in ancient times. In the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah warns that not even this balm's healing qualities are enough to rescue sinners from God's judgment. Interestingly, the traditional spiritual "There Is a Balm in Gilead" refers to Jesus of the New Testament, who would heal all, regardless of their sins.

Underground Railroad

Like a hyena on the hunt, you know, he opportunistic, unspecialized. The bounty hunter prowl the riverbank. He use the wind to his advantage and he listen; he watch intently. A slave to greed, the hunter aine no match for this old pilgrim in the woods. He don't quite hear the owl that call my name to take me to the water where the current runs less swift. I wait — then thread my way to freedomland.

Helping slaves escape to freedom through the network of people called the Underground Railroad was highly secretive, dangerous work that involved deception of all kinds — especially since slave owners often hired bounty hunters to track down runaway slaves. Using bird calls was one way for slaves to communicate with one another without being detected.

A pilgrim is a person of religious devotion who embarks on a spiritual journey. For some slaves, the quest for freedom was a spiritual journey as well as a physical one.

"Take Me to the Water" is the name of a spiritual referring to baptism by immersion in a river or lake. Here, the phrase also signifies crossing the Ohio River into safety.

Traditional Fish

Come August, Young Master and me runs through the cool of the hick'ry nut grove to find our friend canoeing downstream, smooth as a needle through silk. We wade in, a-whistling, beach his boat. Fish the old river with hand spears — sharpened bone tied to wooden shaft — not a pole and line. Aim low on account of the trick the light play in shallow waters. We thank Creation, church-like, for the catch, and pray we three be best friends forever.

When enslaved children were still too young to work the fields, they spent their days playing after the morning chores of slopping hogs or milking cows, sweeping or gardening. They often played with children in the master's family. Before American Indians were "removed" to reservations by the U.S. government, they often lived near plantation communities in varying degrees of friendship and cooperation with slaves and slaveholders.

Broken Dishes

She always needling me. "Add some more salt." Or, "Girl, why cain't you move faster than that?" Her voice so shrill, it make your skin goose up. I move fast, all right. A heap of gold-rimmed plates brighter than the halo on the head of Baby Jesus in one hand, platter with green beans and collards in the other, I done trip over the piano bench. Lord, those flyin' plates look like angels, but I 'spect tomorrow be the fields for me.

Working as a domestic slave had some advantages over field work. Often, though not always, house slaves lived within the master's household rather than in the slave cabins, so living conditions were better. But being under the constant watchful eye of the master's family came with its own set of problems. If the master and his wife were not particularly attached to their house slaves, they would threaten the slaves with being sent to work in the fields if their work or attitude was found unsatisfactory.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from I Lay My Stitches Down by Cynthia Grady Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Grady. Excerpted by permission of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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