waiting on the mayflower

By Evie Shockley Evie Shockley

“what, to the american slave, is your 4th of july?”
—frederick douglass

i.  august 1619
 
arrived in a boat, named
and unnamed, twenty, pirated
 
away from a portuguese
slaver, traded for victuals.
 
drowned in this land of fresh,
volatile clearings and folk
 
with skin like melted
cowrie shells. soon shedding
 
servitude. soon reaping
talents sown on african soil.
 
after indenture, christians,
colonists. not english, but
 
not yet not-white. antoney
and isabella, whose marriage
 
stretched the short shadows
of america’s early afternoon
 
into the dusky reaches of evening,
whose conjugal coitus spent
 
first the choice coin of africa
on rough virginian citizenship,
 
baptized their son, william,
into the church of england.
 
 
ii.  december 1638
 
fear must have shuddered
into boston on the backs
 
of true believersmen and
women of an unadorned god
 
deep in the heavy black fabric
of their coats and dresses like
 
a stench. black a mark of
pride they wore as if branded,
 
never dreaming they could
take it off. envy anticipated
 
their advent. glittered at them,
settling in, from the knife
 
blades of the massachusetts.
seeped like low-pitched
 
humming from the fur
lining the natives’ warm
 
blankets. but desire docked
in 1638. in from the harbor
 
flocked a people whose eyes
sparked like stars, even near
 
death. whose hair promised
a mixture of cotton and river
 
water and vines, a texture
the fingers ached for. who
 
wholly inhabited a skin the
midnight color of grace
 
that clarified the hue of the
pilgrims’ woolen weeds. fear
 
and envy claimed pride of place,
put desire’s cargo to good use.
 
 
iii.  march 1770
 
that night, crispus attucks
dreamed. how he’d attacked
 
his would-be master and fled
in wild-eyed search of self-
 
determination. discarded
virginia on the run and ran
 
out of breath in salt-scented
boston. found there, if not
 
freedom, fearlessness. a belief
in himself that rocked things
 
with the uncontrolled power
of the muscular atlantic, power
 
to cradle, to capsize. awoke
angry again at the planter
 
who’d taken him for a mule
or a machine. had shouldered
 
a chip the size of concord
by the time the redcoat dared
 
to dare him. died wishing he’d
amassed such revolutionary
 
ire in virginia. died dreaming
great britain was the enemy.
 
 
iv.  july 4th: last
      but not least
 
17-, 18-, 19-76 and still
this celebration’s shamed
 
with gunpowder and words
that lie like martyrs in cold
 
blood. africa’s descendents,
planting here year after year
 
the seeds of labor, sweating
bullets in this nation’s warts,
 
have harvested the rope,
the rape, the ghetto, the cell,
 
the fire, the flood, and the
blame for you-name-it. so
 
today black folks barbeque
ribs and smother the echoes
 
of billie’s strange song in
sauces. drink gin. gladly
 
holiday to heckle speeches
on tv. pretend to parade.
 
turn out in droves for distant
detonations, chaos, controlled
 
as always, but directed
away from us tonight. stare
 
into the mirror of the sky
at our growing reflection,
 
boggled by how america
gawks at the passing pinpoints
 
of flame, but overlooks the vast,
ebony palm giving them shape.

Evie Shockley, “waiting on the mayflower” from a half-red sea, published by Carolina Wren Press. Copyright © 2006 by Evie Shockley. Reprinted by permission of Evie Shockley.

Source: a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Evie Shockley

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Subjects Activities, Travels & Journeys, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity

Poetic Terms Couplet, Free Verse

 Evie  Shockley

Biography

Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, poet Evie Shockley earned a BA at Northwestern University, a JD at the University of Michigan, and a PhD in English literature at Duke University. The author of several collections of poetry, including a half-red sea (2006) and the new black (2011), Shockley is also the author of the critical volume Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Activities, Travels & Journeys, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Poetic Terms Couplet, Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.