Slave Sale: New Orleans

By Charles Reznikoff 1894–1976 Charles Reznikoff
To begin with, the slaves had to wash themselves well,
and the men who had beards had to shave them off;
the men were then given a new suit each,
cheap but clean, and a hat, shirt, and shoes;
and the women were each given a frock of calico
and a handkerchief to tie about their heads.
They were then led by the man selling them into a large room;
the men placed on one side, the women at the other;
the tallest at the head of each row
and then the next in size
and so on to the shortest.

Many called to look at the slaves for sale
and the seller kept talking about their qualities;
made them hold up their heads and walk about briskly;
and those who might buy had them open their mouths
to look at their teeth,
and felt their arms and bodies,
just as they might a horse for sale;
and asked each what they could do.
Sometimes a man or woman would be taken to a small house
    in the yard,
to be stripped and looked at carefully:
if they had the scars of whips on their backs
that would show they had been troublesome.

During the day a number of sales were made;
and a planter from Baton Rouge bought Eliza’s little son.
Before that the boy had to jump and run across the floor
to show his activity.
But all the time the trade was going on,   
his mother was crying and wringing her hands
and kept begging the man who was thinking of buying the boy
not to buy him unless he bought her, too,
and her little daughter:
and Eliza kept saying that if he did she would be “the most
    faithful slave that ever lived.”
But the man from Baton Rouge said he could not afford to
    buy her,
and then she began to cry aloud in her grief.

The man selling the slaves turned on her, his whip lifted,
and told her to stop her noise:
if she would not stop her “sniveling”
he would take her into the yard
and give her a hundred lashes.
She tried to wipe away her tears
but could not
and said she wanted to be with her children
and kept begging the man selling the slaves and the man from   
    Baton Rouge—
who by that time had bought her son—
not to separate the three of them, mother, son, and daughter;
and over and over again kept saying how faithful and obedient
    she would be
and how hard she would work day and night.

But the man from Baton Rouge
said again he could not buy mother and son, let alone the three,
and that only the boy must go with him.
Then Eliza ran to her son, hugged him and kissed him
again and again
and her tears kept falling on his face.
The man selling the slaves kept cursing her
and called her a blubbering, howling wench
and ordered her back to her place in line
and to behave herself
or he would give her something really to cry about.

NOTES: From Twelve Years a Slave (1853) by Solomon Northrup (A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, edited by Herbert Aptheker).

From The Poems of Charles Reznikoff by Charles Reznikoff, edited by Seamus Cooney. Reprinted by permission of Black Sparrow Books, an imprint of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc. Copyright 2005 by Charles Reznikoff.

Source: Poems 1918-1975: The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff (Black Sparrow Press, 1977)

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Poet Charles Reznikoff 1894–1976

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

SCHOOL / PERIOD Objectivist

Subjects History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Race & Ethnicity

 Charles  Reznikoff


Emerson remarked that the best writers often have the shortest biographies. The genius “draws up the ladder after him,” and the world, which had consigned him to obscurity during his lifetime, “sees the works and asks in vain for a history.”
Whatever judgment may ultimately be passed upon him, not much more than his works is ever likely to be known of Charles Reznikoff. He left no fervent disciples. The record he wished to . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Race & Ethnicity

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

SCHOOL / PERIOD Objectivist

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