Harbinger

Image: Wreck of the Slave Ship Clotilda (Public domain)

 New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.
    ― attributed to Lao Tzu “The Old Master,” legendary Chinese philosopher,     Warring States Period

    There comes an end to all things; the most capacious measure is filled at last;     and this brief condescension to evil finally destroyed the balance of my soul.
    —Robert Lewis Stevenson, from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

I found out about it, the Clotilda,
the last known slaver to reach America
July,1860—the same month a year earlier
John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry declaring
his war against slavery—the two-mast schooner
slipped into Mobile bay in the dark, the human
cargo taken away to slave owners in south
Alabama, the slave ship set afire, smoldering,
sinking, hiding in swampy waters for some 160
years. What of the 110, last here enslaved?
They survived the Middle Passage from West Africa,
endured the calamity of servitude to settle,
just 32 remaining resolute emancipated souls,
at what came to be called Africatown
three miles from downtown, raising cattle,
farming the land, building churches, tending
shops, teaching their children in the local
public school, until the freeway came and
the laundry hung to dry was covered in ash
from nearby factory pollution, and the
cardboard box plant closed down, most
leaving, but a remnant left. The Clotilda
affirms the past. Now that infamous vessel
raises prospects for a future of tourists
taking pictures near the shipwreck site,
visits to a museum soon to open, walking
tours. Cudjoe Lewis died in 1935, the last
known survivor of the last known slave
ship to enter the United States; there, in a
tranquil landscaped place next to the church,
a memorial, a bronze bust of Lewis,
and a plaque reading in part “…made
possible through the efforts of The
Union Baptist Church and the
generosity of donors spanning
race and creed.”

About the Poem

The month of February is Black History Month. The story here told speaks for itself and reflects that to which the month is dedicated, honoring the triumphs and struggles of African Americans; as a society overall, we must accept both the despair for a sad history including the most recent past while clinging to a small piece of hope arcing ( à la MLK) toward that elusive, more perfect union. For further reading: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Chapter 10 – Jekyll’s Full Statement

About the Author

Howard Richard Debs is a recipient of the 2015 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards. His essays, fiction, and poetry appear internationally in numerous publications. His photography is featured in select publications, including in Rattle online as “Ekphrastic Challenge” artist and guest editor. His book Gallery: A Collection of Pictures and Words (Scarlet Leaf Publishing), is the recipient of a 2017 Best Book Award and 2018 Book Excellence Award. His latest work Political (Cyberwit) is the 2021 American Writing Awards winner in poetry. He is co-editor of New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust, forthcoming from Vallentine Mitchell of London, publisher of the first English language edition of the diary of Anne Frank. He is listed in the Poets & Writers Directory.

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