The Militance of a Photograph in the Passbook of a Bantu under Detention

By Michael S. Harper b. 1938

Peace is the active presence of Justice.

The wrinkles on the brown face   
of the carrying case
conform to the buttocks,
on which the streaks of water   
from a five-gallon can
dribble on the tailfront
of the borrowed shirt
he would wear if he could
drain the pus from his swaddling   
bandages, striations of skin
tunneling into the photograph.

This is no simple mug shot
of a runaway boy in a training   
film, Soweto's pummeled wire,   
though the turrets of light   
glisten in smoke, the soft   
coal hooding his platform   
entrance, dull and quiet.

His father's miner's shoes   
stand in puddles of polish,   
the black soot baked
into images of brittle torso,   
an inferno of bullets laid   
out in a letter bomb,
the frontispiece of one sergeant-
major blackening his mustache.

On the drive to Evaton
a blank pass away from Sharpeville   
where the freehold morgans
were bought by a black bishop
from Ontario, Canada, on a trek
northward from the Cape in 1908,
I speak to myself as the woman
riding in the backseat talks
of this day, her husband's
death, twenty-three years ago,
run over by an Afrikaner in the wrong   
passing lane; the passbook on the shoulder   
of the road leading to Evaton
is not the one I have in my hand,
and the photograph is not of my great-
grandfather, who set sail for Philadelphia   
in the war year of 1916.
He did not want a reception, his letters   
embarking on a platform at Queenstown   
where his eloquence struck two Zulu warriors   
pledged to die in the homelands
because they could not spin their own gold.

These threaded heads weigh down the ears   
in design of the warrior, Shaka,
indifferent to the ruthless offerings
over the dead bodies of his wives,
childless in the campaigns with the British,   
who sit on the ships of the Indian Ocean   
each kraal shuddering near the borders;

her lips turn in profile
to the dust rising over a road   
where his house once stood;   
one could think of the women   
carrying firewood as an etching   
in remembrance to the silence,   
commencing at Sharpeville,
but this is Evaton, where he would come
from across the galleyship of spears   
turning in his robes to a bookmark;
it is a good book, the picture of words   
in the gloss of a photograph,
the burned image of the man who wears   
this image on the tongue of a child,   
who might hold my hand
as we walk in late afternoon
into the predestined sun.

The press of wrinkles on the blanketed   
voice of the man who took the train   
from Johannesburg
is flattened in Cape Town,   
and the history of this book   
is on a trestle where Gandhi   
worshipped in Natal,
and the Zulu lullaby
I cannot sing in Bantu
is this song in the body   
of a passbook
and the book passes
into a shirt
and the back that wears it.

Michael S. Harper, “The Militance of a Photograph in the Passbook of a Bantu Under Detention” from Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems. Copyright © 2000 by Michael S. Harper. Reprinted with the permission of University of Illinois Press,

Source: Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2000)

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Poet Michael S. Harper b. 1938

Subjects Race & Ethnicity, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Michael S. Harper


Acclaimed poet and teacher Michael S. Harper was born in 1938, in Brooklyn, New York. Known his innovative use of jazz rhythms, cultural allusion, historical referent and personal narrative, Harper is “a deeply complex poet whose mission is to unite the fractured, inhumane technologies of our time with the abiding deep well of Negro folk traditions,” said John Callahan in the New Republic. Harper does this, noted Poetry reviewer . . .

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SUBJECT Race & Ethnicity, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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