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Slavery — Then and Now

By John S. O'Connor

Let’s say you don’t take the North Pole worskshop to be a metaphor for the sweat-shop oppression of slighted people everywhere. Fine, have it your way.

Just before the holidays my students and I were reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and considering examples of modern-day slavery.
Here’s a link to a radio broadcast on the topic from NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5510902.
(Just in time for gift giving, I know. Let the party begin!)

I am always struck by the brilliance of Douglass’ writing, but nowhere more so than in his breath-taking paragraph about his grandmother. After quoting from “the slave poet,” Whittier, Douglass outdoes the former with a paragraph of extra-ordinary beauty and pathos regarding his grandmother’s expulsion from the “safety” of the plantation:

The hearth is desolate. The children, the unconscious children, who once sang and danced in her presence, are gone. She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water. Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl. All is gloom. The grave is at the door. And now, when weighed down by the pains and aches of old age, when the head inclines to the feet, when the beginning and ending of human existence meet, and helpless infancy and painful old age combine together — at this time, this most needful time, the time of exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise towards a declining parent — my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of 12 children, is left all alone, in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. She stands – she sits – she staggers – she falls – she groans – she dies – and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

We also examined Robert Pinsky’s poem “Shirt” and then I asked students to discover the orgins of something they were wearing. Here are a couple of examples;

Spirited Shirt by MollyH.

Soft, full of school-spirit, a kelly green shirt
Bought in the bookstore
For a student assembly
On a busy day in May

Worn on Spirit Days
Or before a big game
Or on a random rainy morning
When no other outfit comes to mind

The tag, rather inconspicuously
Reads “made in Colombia”.
Sí, a country on the colorful maps
Of my Spanish textbook

But whose hands handled and crafted my spirited shirt?

496,900 pesos per month
$250 American Dollars
50% of that goes to her food
She sows on the machine

she lives in fear of joining a union
37 Colombian unionists were murdered in 2007
she doesn’t want to be next
she has no choice

The U.S.-Colombia Trade agreement mandates
“acceptable conditions of work with respect
to minimum wages, hours of work,
and occupational safety and health.”

But to her
It’s just ink on a paper
On a congressman’s desk
Insignificant
As the kelly green fabric
I wore on Spirit Day

Size Large Soft Lavender by Maeli G

Size Large soft lavender,
Folded neatly atop a pile of
Polyester and cotton blend,
Blended, muted colors translated into
Muted screams
As the mother awakes
To find her child,
Slumbering in soft lavender sheets
From which she will not,
Cannot, rise.
She was three years old:
Three for one third
Of the slumbering babies.
One third never to light
Five candles
Without being hungry.

The sleeves, their ridges
Choking the wrist —
They’re the style and the time.
Choking the wrists
Of the orphaned boy who turned
To the maras,
The gangs and the guns,
And was caught in the raid.
There were twelve years wasted
In a cold prison cell
For his little pouch of marijuana,
His wealth,
His only chance.
His only family.
Through the stone walls, he heard
The maras make their war
On the obedient,
Suspected in darker, warmer nights
Than those in hell.
He’s sitting on a cot
In hell’s spare room, now, with
A wish for brotherhood,
Wasting twelve years
For the raid and the pouch
And the sleeve.

The ribs around the neck,
Around her neck,
Where the border police held her for a time
After they pulled her from her sanctuary,
The back of a white van.
She had hidden there,
Under the blankets,
Bathed in a polyester blend of
Soft lavender.
She had dreamed of thirty thousand
Failures before her.
A population exporting
Los Angeles crime culture and
Bringing it home,
To that orphaned boy’s only family
And the guns and the fists
And the only money to be found
Anywhere.
Where a silence comes
Only when babies cease to cry,
When the fog falls
Over dark allies where
The police wait for orphans to make mistakes.
To make seven hundred
And twenty-one mistakes,
One for each arrest.
Twenty kilograms, two kilograms,
Three tons, seven tons,
Four million pills,
And the man with the tan face
And the black mustache
Begs for legalization.
The mother of the babe
In the lavender sheets
Works away at her station,
Pricked fingers but no sleep
For lonely beauties,
Hungry bellies,
Churning out yards of lavender.
Lying in the dust.

I was cold, and I picked up
A sweatshirt at the Walgreens
On the corner.
It cost me ten dollars
For size Large soft lavender.

Comments (2)

  • On January 3, 2010 at 4:44 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

    Thanks for this reminder. I’m doing laundry today, getting ready for my kids to go back to school tomorrow, and noticing all the labels.

    My favorite long-sleeved t-shirt, a pretty Vera Bradley number, was made in Vietnam.

  • On January 4, 2010 at 10:38 am Erica Mena wrote:

    A great subject to cover. Reminds me of Martín Espada’s “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper“.


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, January 2nd, 2010 by John S. O'Connor.